The Male Therapist – Female Client Fallacy
The unavoidable male-female bodywork question: “So, you’re a male bodywork therapist who works (all day) with undressed women? Almost guaranteed, at least one person will ask me that question at social events. When the question rolls in it’s usually cloaked as a joke, or at least as something that is intended to come across as funny. In other cases, the question is asked as if to concerns a conspiracy, usually with the enquirer seeking direct eye contact as if an alchemistic truth is at stake. Oftentimes, the question is not really a question but a statement that is made to sound like one. Its one that’s often followed by – “What does your wife think of that?”
I am no longer sure how I feel about those questions. At first I too thought they were harmless. I felt that people who could not really connect with the idea of working with undressed clients – let alone the idea of touching them whilst being undressed. That might be an inherent and therefore acceptable thing to do for a medical specialist but eyebrows are raised almost unnoticeably when you say you aren’t one of them. Once I bumped more than once into the allusion that, perhaps, I had become a bodyworker so that I could work with nudity all day, I changed my mind about the topic’s harmlessness. The jokes stopped being funny.
The Ferrari’s beauty
A few years ago I witnessed something I consider wonderful. While waiting on the street for a coffee I admired a Ferrari that was parked next to me. I admit not to know much about cars but I believe I do recognize beautiful design when I see it. The owner – an elderly man – stood next to this splendid vehicle, waiting for what later turned out to be his partner.
Another elderly man appeared in my vision from the right. He sauntered over to also look at the vehicle, stopped at a few meters distance, cocked his head, and mumbled something I couldn’t quite catch. Then he made a beeline for the owner and asked if he could see the engine.
Obliging happily to the new man’s request, the two quickly engaged in an animated discussion. Although I could not catch all words said it became clear to me that the new man spoke with an Italian accent. About ten minutes later I learned that the Italian had actually worked at the Ferrari factory all his life and that he had come over to New Zealand to visit his son.
Now standing closer to the vehicle, and therefore the two men, I noticed that the Italian didn’t speak about the whole vehicle but about each individual part he laid his hands on. He didn’t grab anything; he touched gently, like his fingers made contact with fragile and precious things. To him, each part came with a story. It seemed that when he explained why certain parts had been designed in such-and-such way; how they had been manufactured, and why they had been fitted as they had. He even had a gentle growl at a part that apparently had not been replaced properly which, he advised the owner, had to be rectified immediately, and preferably by a properly trained Italian mechanic.
What caught me most was the love he had for Ferrari’s, and how that love poured from each and every word that came across his lips.
Why is this story relevant? Because the Italian man approached the Ferrari like great bodyworkers approach their clients. He would have recognized the vehicle by its form and shape but redirected his attention almost immediately to the aspects that gave it its unique personality and character.
“To him, the sum of the object’s components was less interesting to him than the individual components that made the sum. The vehicle’s iconic exterior was ‘merely’ the skin that held all that matter together.”
The way by which the Italian approached the Ferrari is comparable to how I approach my bodywork clients. Their outside can be beautiful, shining, and seemingly completely unblemished. Even when they look young, fit, and immaculately groomed their ‘underlying mechanics’ can still be out of kilter. What isn’t quite right becomes more important – and far more interesting – than what seems to be fine.
Nudity, touch, and the perceived sexiness of bodywork
In as much as it doesn’t make sense for a mechanic to look only at the Ferrari’s paintwork to figure out what may be wrong mechanically, it often isn’t all that useful for a bodyworker to keep clients dressed when assessing the best course of treatment for a muscular or myofascial discomfort. In as much as no mechanic can replace a carburetor paranormally, no bodyworker can help their clients without touching them.
Does that make bodyworker’s job ‘sexy’? It doesn’t. If anything, and aside from technical competency, a bodyworker’s most important role is to exercise impeccable and mature behaviors to develop professional, objective and trustworthy relationships with each client. That role is unforgiving, as it should be. Usually, therapists are not given a second chance to violate a client’s trust. And just as well.
Trust, comfort, and confidence
Although there are many things that a therapist shouldn’t do, there is no universal and stock-standard approach for developing an optimal working relationship with any client. To achieve such working relationships, the client must learn about the therapist’s boundaries, and the therapist must understand the size and nature of the client’s comfort zone.
Whereas some clients don’t flinch at undressing in the presence of a therapist, others are more cautious and hesitant. There is never a right or wrong. Every client has an irrefutable right to self protection and no client should ever have to use that fully. It is the therapist’s responsibility to create and maintain a space safe enough for each client to become and remain comfortable and confident.
The development of such unique working relationships requires more than the completion of a form with tick boxes, a few unstructured chats, or a ‘let’s just start and see how we go’ kind of approach. It requires a client’s courage to be emotionally and physically vulnerable – not just to the therapist but moreover to her or his self. It requires clients to endure varying degrees of psycho-emotional pains and discomforts, and to face the reemergence of old feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and fear.
The technical irrelevance of gender
Physically, bodywork treatments can trigger new forms of pain and discomfort that can last for two or three days after the treatment. Client’s that are hit hardest by post-treatment therapeutic pains feel mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted and even immobilized for hours before they can re-experience themselves again without their original discomforts.
“There is nothing sexy about that process. A client’s gender may influence the treatment’s format but becomes completely irrelevant beyond that. The care and respect a female’s body should receive is in no way different from what a male body needs…”
When it comes to touch, gender still remains irrelevant, except that I will never work on a female client’s breasts. A client’s genital region remains untouched, irrespective whether I treat a male or a female.
Professional Bodywork is Professional Work
Contrary to what some people seem to think, bodywork certainly isn’t a last-ditch and fallback ‘thing to do’ for anyone who is unable to make a career out of something else. For professional practitioners, bodywork isn’t a hobby or just an interest. In fact, it is not unlikely that it is just as hard to become a proficient bodyworker as it is for anyone to become a lawyer or accountant.
To become a competent but entry-level bodyworker, the aspiring therapist must study anatomy and physiology. That is not just to understand where each of the 600+ human muscles are but also to understand what they do, what their trajectories are, and how to link physical discomforts and pains to each.
There are many treatment techniques and methods, all of which must be learned. Once understood, the aspirant must know not just how to apply each but also when, where, and – equally important – where not. Pour the learning of counselling skills and some basic psychology over the top of that, and we see the emergence of a multi-year study curriculum, just to become an entry-level therapist.
Finally, as medical science progresses, and as we learn more about our spiritual, psycho-emotional, and physical beings, bodywork practices continue to develop and mutate into an ever-growing array of disciplines. There is only one way for bodywork therapists to stay on top of their game, and that is through ongoing and endless study. I still study four or five hours each week, which amounts easily to three full days each month.
Any person who would put in that amount of effort just to work with nude bodies, male or female, could perhaps best be described as insane. Any aspirant therapist who expects bodywork to be sexy will soon be woken up by reality. No matter how beautiful bodywork can be made to be, it is and will always be work.
And as for what my wife thinks of me working with undressed bodies, she knows better. She knows how much work is actually involved. That’s because she’s a bodyworker too…..