Massage Therapist Vs. Masseuse/Masseur
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
If you happen to call your massage therapist a "masseuse" or "masseur", you may notice them flinch away from those terms, but why?
First, let's explore a brief history of massage. We know that massage (regardless if we're looking at Western or Eastern disciplines) is an ancient practice.
Eastern Bodywork History
In the East, Acupressure (finger pressure) laid the foundation for Acupuncture (the use of needles) to become the primary form of healing. Acupressure eventually came to be seen as suitable only for relaxation purposes or treatment for the impoverished because it did not include clinical knowledge or herbalism. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Anma and other Asian bodywork was rejected and Western approaches were adopted in Japan. Anma and Acupressure lost its credibility and became considered shady employment. Practitioners of the true Anma tradition sought to separate themselves from their less reputable counterparts. In 1919, Shiatsu arrived with Tamai Tempaku's book "Shiatsu Ho" to combine Anma practices with Western anatomy and physiology concepts. In 1955, the Japanese government officially sanctioned Shiatsu and in two years (1957) it was recognized as a separate discipline from Anma.
Western Bodywork History
In the West, bodywork practically mirrors Eastern history. Most records of massage come from Greek and Roman cultures. Greek Physician, Galen who practiced and wrote about massage eventually traveled to Rome and introduced techniques to the romans. The roman empire lasted for about 500 years, right up to the middle ages where most knowledge of ancient healing (including massage) was lost. However, Egyptian and Islamic civilizations kept ancient knowledge alive. By the renaissance, medicine was renovated and ancient texts resurfaced, leading to a renewed interest in manual healing techniques. Massage Therapists in the 1700s were called "rubbers" and employed rubbing and friction strokes to treat the body. Primarily women, rubbers were hired by surgeons to aid in rehabilitation, but some rubbers competed with physicians despite their lack of clinical education. This became one of the few occupations that provided women a way to earn a living outside of their home. By the mid to late 1800s, the Swedish movement swept across the U.S. The Swedish approach was scientific and holistic and addressed the person to include body, mind, and spirit. Practitioners of the Swedish movement, called "Medical Gymnasts" were graduates of a two-year education program- this was the establishment for later massage therapy education programs. By the 1880s, the titles "masseuse" and "masseur" became common to describe a person trained in manual soft tissue manipulation. Doctors regularly worked with and referred patients to masseuses/masseurs through the early 1900s up to the 1950s. By the 1960s, the terms "massage therapy" and "massage therapist" replaced "masseuses/masseurs" as the profession began to fall into disrepute and allude to prostitution.
Legitimizing The Profession: The Modern Era
Born from the time of the counterculture and likely a product of the women's rights movement, the term "massage therapist" helped lend legitimacy to the work and acted as a distinction from sex workers.
There is likely a good reason why it is common for the general public to still use the terms "masseuse" and "masseur". Because people from just a generation or two before us used those terms! When I considered massage as a profession, I thought I would be a masseur, because that's the common term I'd heard growing up to describe that work. It's engrained in our culture to use those words, but that doesn't mean those are the appropriate or accurate words.
The history of therapeutic massage and the sex work profession are unfortunately (and often tragically) intertwined, but its an inconvenient truth. At some point, the two became so closely related that the lines between them were blurred. Much was done by our massage ancestors to course correct; licensing standards, education programs, laws & rules, professional associations, etc. But language and cultural changes are more challenging, taking time and consistency. Americans tend to drag their feet or resist shifts in language- I myself am guilty of laziness in this respect.
When a client uses the terms "masseuse" or "masseur" around me, I don't bother to correct or educate them. Especially because I realize it is not an intentionally malicious mistake. It's not even fair to call it a "slip of the tongue" because there just isn't the widespread awareness of this issue outside the massage therapy community. I know I should do more to educate my clients on this topic. Not just for my benefit (massage therapist is a title I earned after all) but the benefit of the profession as a whole.
So is "masseur" or "masseuse" a slur? I think so. They are antiquated terms that insinuate or allege something that will either insult or damage a massage therapist's reputation. When those terms are used it conjures the association with prostitution. It ignores and disparages the hard work those who came before put in to revive our reputation.
But the good news is there are numerous alternatives these days:
Master Massage Therapist (if legal requirements are met)
Massage Therapy Instructor (if legal requirements are met)
And the best part is all these options provide gender neutral alternatives (after all the gender of your therapist has little to no consequence to the massage you'll receive).
Peace And Healing,
Kirby Clark, MMT