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Doing massage: body work through a narrative lens

Carrie Purcell

Edinburgh Working Papers in Sociology

No. 35
February 2009

Copyright: Carrie Purcell, 2009

ISBN: 1-900522-53-5
Edinburgh Working Papers in Sociology are published by the Sociology subject area, School of
Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
They include:
i. preliminary results of research in progress
ii. contributions to conceptual or theoretical debate within sociology
iii. contributions to public debate about social issues.
A full list of working papers and an order form can be found at the back of this paper.

Massage as an activity and as a form of body work has multiple associations, including with health,
relaxation, sex, beauty and pampering. Thus, what massage is, is open to interpretation. The massage
workers in this study talked about and defined massage in multiple ways, situating themselves in
relation to these ideas via their stories. This paper focuses on two of the themes which emerged,
namely touch and (in)appropriateness. The research used an approach influenced by narrative,
and while the focus of this paper comes largely from a thematic analysis of the interview data, other
factors such as structure and context are crucial. The paper concludes with reflection on the
methodological position of narrative inquiry, flagging the advantages this approach offered the

Keywords: body work, CAM, massage, narrative, touch.

Introduction: Body work and CAM

As a type of work, massage is situated in the field of Complementary and Alternative Medicines
(CAM), which saw increasing growth in the closing decades of the twentieth century and has
continued in popularity into the new millennium. As an umbrella term, CAM incorporates many
diverse practices, which are often irreconcilable in their multiple approaches to bodies, health and
wellbeing. In spite of being persistently grouped together in both social scientific and popular
discourse, it is therefore more appropriate and in fact crucial to approach such practices individually
if they are to be examined in any depth. Hence this paper focuses specifically on one area of CAM
practice: massage. Massage is in turn a label which can be applied to numerous different types of
work involving the body, the most familiar in the UK being Swedish (therapeutic) massage, which
involves a routine of stroking and rubbing the body. While the majority of people in the UK may be
familiar with the idea of massage, and may even use some aspects of it in day-to-day life, lay
understandings of massage as a paid interaction are likely to vary depending on context and
experience. This form of body work has many popular shared associations, including with health,
relaxation, beauty, pampering and sex, the latter in the sense of both paid sex work and intimate
contact between partners. In the interviews with male massage workers under discussion here, they
described their own views of massage and the understandings of others as nuanced and varied. A
range of descriptive terms such as clinical, esoteric, eclectic and airy fairy arose in the stories
these men told about what they do and how others see them. The varying interpretations of massage
will be further explicated with reference to four interviews conducted in the spring of 2007. The
significance of touch and (in)appropriateness became apparent in the analysis of these interviews.

While there has been a certain amount of social scientific interest in CAM in recent years (Cant and
Calnan 1991; Saks 1992, 2002; Sharma 1992; Cant and Sharma 1998, amongst others), the majority
of this has tended to focus on the big five disciplines of osteopathy, chiropractic, medical

herbalism, homeopathy and acupuncture. These five, as grouped together in a House of Lords Select
Committee on Science and Technology report (2000), are the most organised in professional terms
and have the greatest scientific evidence base. They also hold the greatest general acceptance and
legitimacy in the eyes of both the public and the medical profession, perhaps with the exception of
homeopathy, which is subject to the greatest amount of ongoing scrutiny despite (or perhaps due to)
its availability on the NHS since its inception in 1948. Massage, on the other hand, fell into a second
group in the Select Committee report, a group which was described as complementing
conventional biomedicine. Massage was deemed by this report to be in need of more extensive
professional organisation and regulation in order to increase acceptance, and to improve both the
position of massage vis--vis conventional science and the confidence of the general public. Much of
the social scientific literature on CAM has focused on such issues of professionalisation (Cant and
Sharma 1995; Saks 2000, 2002, Sharma 2005[1996]), as well as surveying the use of therapies and
their perception by the public (Ong and Banks 2003; Kelner and Wellman 1997, 2000). The sparse
literature specific to massage has taken a similar focus (Fournier 2002; Oerton and Phoenix 2001;
Oerton 2004a).

Although not solely or primarily concerned with the issue of professionalisation, the preliminary
research presented here contributes to this body of work by offering perspectives on two primary
themes: touch and (in)appropriateness, including how notions of (in)appropriate behaviour create
or reinforce touching boundaries. These themes emerged from interviews which were carried out
from a methodological position of narrative inquiry, in order to allow participants to speak of areas
of interest and importance to them, and thus to allow new stories to be told. It also offers an
alternative perspective to the existing massage literature, which focuses on female workers, by
looking at some of the men who are very much in a minority in massage. It is difficult to be precise
about numbers since, as with most CAM disciplines, there is no over-arching body which registers

workers, and registration itself is not compulsory. However, in the interest of illustration, the
Scottish Massage Therapists Organisation, a relatively large registering body, lists 373 women and
only 77 men as practicing in Scotland1. There is also some suggestion in the practitioner-oriented
literature that female massage workers are preferred (Van Meter 2007; Moyer and Rounds 2008),
although whether or not this is the case is difficult to determine, and anyway this is not the aim of
this paper. What can be said with some certainty is that, not least due to its associations with other
forms of body work, care and emotions, massage is a highly feminised and female-dominated field
of work. For this reason, the position of men in this occupation is of particular sociological interest.
But before moving on to how and what these men do, it is first necessary to look further into
understandings of what massage is.

What is it you do?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines massage as the rubbing and kneading of muscles and joints
of the body with the hands, especially to relieve tension or pain, a definition which is interesting in
its own right, given its implication that massage is solely a physical act. A broader definition of
massage might consider the many other associations or effects of this type of touching, especially
given the more common emphasis now on emotional or spiritual considerations in massage work
(Vickers 1996). Either way, touch seems to represent a key factor in what massage workers do, and
how they do it. Practitioner texts emphasize the significant of touch: [m]assage is a relaxing and
nourishing experience in itself, not least because of the unspoken communication based on touch
(Lawless 1999:37). Thus, since touch may reasonably be perceived as central to what massage
workers do, it might therefore be expected to play a substantial part in their stories about their work.
Thus, after a brief introduction to body work, this paper will turn in greater detail to touch as it was
talked about by the men I interviewed; and then to the closely related notion of (in)appropriateness.

Available at http://www.scotmass.co.uk/ Directory/frames.htm (last accessed 20/11/08)

Working on the body

The term body work is used here following Twigg (2000a; 2000b), Wolkowitz (2006) and others,
in order to focus on work done to or on the bodies of others, and thus to move away from
Shillings (1997) conceptualisation of the term as indicating work on ones own body. Thus body
work is used in this paper to denote:

employment that takes the body as its immediate site of labour, involving intimate,
messy contact with the (frequently supine or naked) body, its orifices or products
through touch or close proximity (Wolkowitz 2006:147)

Approaching massage from the perspective of body work offers a number of advantages. Certain
significant characteristics of massage work in particular the necessity of co-presence and the
significant levels of touch and physical intimacy involved are underlined by such an approach.
Similarities can also be seen with the experience of workers in a wide range of occupations, such
as the typically low status or invisibility of body work; misconceptions in popular understandings
of some occupations; and similarities in strategies used by workers. Connections with other forms
of body work are evident when looking at the examples of domestic care and beauty work, in
terms of the levels of intimacy, skin-to-skin contact, boundary issues and professionalisation
strategies (Twigg 2000a; 2000b; Gimlin 1996; Black 2004; Sharma and Black 2001). Both
similarities and divergences among the types of body work identified in these instances are
instructive, for example in the context of professional organisation and legitimacy claims. Oerton
and Phoenix highlight certain parallels between massage and sex work:

the projects of both prostitute women and women massage practitioners speak of
commonalities; although not exclusively so, both groups of women work on mens
bodies and their clientele is typically heterosexual. And, significantly, both sex work
and bodywork also involve forms of touch primarily engaged in for monetary gain.
(Oerton and Phoenix 2001:389)

The role of touch in body work is again emphasised here; and the similarities in discursive devices
used underlines what is to some extent a shared characteristic, but also a conflation between these
two types of touching work, which has an impact on the day-to-day practice of those who do
massage. The discursive slippage between massage and sex work which pervades common sense
understandings at least in the UK context is acted out in the behaviour of some worked-on
people, and it has to be managed by workers, as will be illustrated below. However, the workers
discussed by Oerton and Phoenix are exclusively female, whereas the interviews drawn on in this
paper are all with men. The differing gender dynamic in my research brings issues of its own, for
example in relation to notions of hegemonic masculinity and normative heterosexuality, as
discussed below.

In the body work literature I found it interesting that many examples allow significant space for
issues related to touch, both in terms of how it is used and its impact on those touching or being
touched. Sharma and Blacks observation on the interplay between touch and emotions provides a
pertinent example of this:

If that intimacy [between worker and worked-on person] is welcome [] then

touch may unleash communication on other levels; the therapist may be require to
handle feelings that are not initially and obviously to do with bodies, as for example

when clients confide about their family or marital problems in the course of a
treatment. (Sharma and Black 2001:962, my emphasis)

Here the authors highlight the significant amounts of emotional labour (Hochschild 1983) which
body workers may be expected to perform, while also emphasising the inextricable link between
emotions and tactility and the immediate, pre-linguistic role of touch in communication. Hence,
touch begins to emerge as one of the most significant and interesting aspects of body work.

Touch is highly context-specific and open to interpretation in a variety of ways, including as healing,
threatening, caring and myriad more. It has piqued the interest of social scientists since at least the
first half of the twentieth century, in relation to body techniques (Mauss (1973[1934]), the civilising
process (Elias 1998[1939]), and as a basis for knowing about and being in the world (MerleauPonty 1962[1945]). The literature has expanded significantly in more recent times: considering just a
few examples among many, there have been examinations of literal and metaphorical meanings of
touch (Vasseleu 1998; Classen 2005; Paterson 2007); touch in relation to body image and illness
(Chapman 2000); touch in workplace interactions (Lee and Guerrero 2001); and the interplay
between politics and touch (Manning 2007). Touch is particularly well explored in the context of
biomedicine, especially in nursing studies. Here it has largely been approached as a mode of
communication, but a wide variety of types of touch has been recognized. For instance, Routasalo
identifies no less than twenty-seven forms, ranging from necessary and instrumental to
expressive and caring/social (Routasalo 1999), once again highlighting the extent to which
interpretations of touch are fluid and context-dependent. The substantial and diverse body of
literature which has sprung up around touch in nursing and palliative care over the last forty years
(McCorkle 1974; Sims 1988; Estabrooks and Morse 1992; Routasalo and Isola 1996) only serves to
underline this variety, while also showing potential parallels which can be drawn between types of

work involving body exposure or contact which transgresses day-to-day norms for people who are
not otherwise intimate (see Lawler 1991; Savage 1995).

Approaches in biomedicine have also been useful in exploring the role of touch in shaping or
signifying power relationships. The doctor-patient relationship has long been acknowledged as
overtly hierarchical and shot through with less-than-subtle power negotiations (Parsons 1951;
Freidson 1970). The proscriptions of biomedical discourse keep practices of touch under rigid
control within this relationship (Redleaf 1998); and such controls are particularly evident in the
context of physical examinations, where strategies are employed by workers to sustain boundaries
and desexualise patients (Giuffre and Williams 2000; Nadelson and Notman 2002). The parallels
between touch in massage and biomedicine are numerous and overall, situating massage among
other types of body work be it sex work, care work, or biomedical work has the additional
advantage of locating massage work in a broader field of academic study. Some of the links
discussed above will be returned to later in the discussion of the key themes which emerged from the
interviews I did with some men who do massage.

Getting a feel for massage

The circumstances that lead CAM practitioners into this field of work have previously been linked to
their own experience of CAM as clients (Sharma 1992), and the circumstances that lead me to
research massage are equally biographical. My way into the field was in part through personal
experience as the recipient of countless massages of various types, both in the UK and abroad, and
also in part through my employment in the CAM sector. By working in a clerical capacity in a CAM
clinic, I was in a position not only to gain an initial feel for my field of research, but also to access
potential participants. Thus two of the men I interviewed, Dan and Andy2, were colleagues, both of

Pseudonyms are used throughout.

whom I had also had massages from and who I interviewed in the rooms in which they usually do
massage. The remaining two were recruited via snowballing. Rob I had met on one previous
occasion, and I did not meet James until the interview itself. These two men were both interviewed
in their homes.

While the interviews were initially expected to be approximately one to one and a half hours in
length, they in fact ranged in length from forty five minutes to two and a half hours. Both the
shortest and longest were perhaps attributable to participants familiarity (or lack thereof) with
narrating their experience, which will be discussed further below. Interviews were digitally recorded,
fully transcribed by myself and analysed for both structure and themes. The analysis will be
discussed more fully in later sections.

Body work through a narrative lens

The methodological stance taken to the interviews I carried out, with part of the analysis of them
presented here, is around one form of narrative inquiry (Riessman 2008), and it explores how the
participants talk about doing massage and how they present their accounts in their interviews.
Narrative is a much-contested term, with meanings which can vary from context to context and with
no universally accepted definition of how it may be applied. Hoever, there has been a growing
chorus of interdisciplinary academic use of the concept since the so-called narrative turn in social
science and humanities (see Josselson 1993, 1995, 1996, 1999; Lieblich 1997; Atkinson and
Delamont 2006; Stanley and Temple 2008). In one sense it is possible to talk about narrative
analysis, of ways of reading data which attend to their temporal organisation, plots, characters and
genres (see Mishler 1986; Frank 1995). It is also possible to talk narrowly of narratives as responses
to specific questions in an interview context, which are then closely read in a sociolinguistic analysis
(Labov 1982). Alternatively, narrative may be used more broadly to signify ways of knowing and

ordering social worlds (Bruner 1987), as a dynamic structure embedded in society (Sparkes and
Smith 2007), or as methods for investigating such structures (Gubrium and Holstein 1998; Sparkes

The perspective on narrative favoured in this paper differs from the above in that narrative is
approached as an overall form of inquiry (Clandinin and Connelly 2000; Sparkes and Smith 2007;
Riessman 1993, 2008). Here narrative becomes a methodology, in the sense of an overall orientation
towards research, drawing together:

the practice of storytelling (the narrative impulse a universal way of knowing and
communicating []); narrative data (the empirical materials, or objects for scrutiny);
and narrative analysis (the systematic study of narrative data) (Riessman 2008:6)

Thus aspects of thematic and structural narrative analysis are combined with a particular
epistemological position, to offer a more holistic approach. This is useful because it incorporates
both the phenomena being examined and the way in which it is understood within one broad
methodology. It attends to the role of the researcher in the co-construction of narrative data and
highlights their interpretive role, while at the same time maintaining an interpretation which is
close to the data itself. To best allow for the latter, narrative data is kept intact, meaning that
while it would of course be impractical to present entire transcripts in a short paper, quotes from
transcripts have not been tidied up in any way. This allows for the representation of the nuances
of participants speech, and the distinctive accounts they give of their experiences (see footnote 3
for transcribing conventions).

Maintaining a non-tidied but rigorously annotated transcript also allows for an effective structural
analysis of each interview to be conducted. In the case of my research, this meant looking at the

individual accounts overall, and the ways in which they were created between each man that I
interviewed and myself, in other words shift[ing] attention from the told to the telling
(Riessman 2008:77). While not examined for plot, genre and so forth, the unfolding of each
interview was considered, in order to gain a clearer understanding of the context in which things
were said. The length of turns taken were examined with regards to the overall shape of the
interview and to the emerging relationship between myself and the participants. One example of
this is in the highlighting by this analysis of a possible refusal to narrate which seemed to occur
in my interview with James (cf. McKevitt 2000). This could perhaps have been a result of James
not having previously had opportunity to rehears a coherent narrative, but which certainly
resulted in his being a markedly shorter interview than the rest. This was in stark contrast to the
long interview with Rob, who had experience not only in talking about his massage work but also
in various talking therapies, as both practitioner and client. The significance of contextual
information can thus be seen crucial (Holstein and Gubrium 2004) and, in the contribution it can
make to reflexivity, is highly valuable both in justifying knowledge claims made by the research
and in enhancing the trustworthiness of the research itself (Riessman 2008).

In addition to the above, a narrative inquiry methodology can produce valuable sociological
research since the very way in which participants configure the events that they recount is rooted in
assumptions reflecting their world-view, including what they assume to be shared understandings,
or a lack of such, between themselves and their audience. It can be argued that traditional thematic
analyses limit the possibilities for new stories to be told, and that attention to the narrative
resources drawn on by participants - what it is (or is not) possible to tell - offers insight into the
wider social world (Frank forthcoming; see also Plummer 1995).


For me, the most daunting issue when first encountering narrative inquiry (and perhaps any method
which utilises loosely structured or unstructured interviewing techniques) was that of control,
which within reason has to be relinquished by the researcher if the participant is to talk freely. This
was something I was new to, and the extent to which I handed over the direction of the interview
grew over time, and was markedly different in the last interview when compared with the first. On
the whole, allowing the participant to speak on their own terms as much as possible, and for them
to influence the shape of the interview and not just its context, allows for maximum flexibility at
the level of data creation. In this instance, it certainly allowed for the unfolding of stories within
and common themes across the interviews which would not have arisen in a more tightly
researcher-controlled context. Having reflected on the benefits of this approach I will now move
on to discuss the analysis of these interviews in greater depth.

Men dont touch each other, and they DONT go to another man for relaxation
For the people I interviewed, the fact that they were men was important in their massage, and
pervades their narratives of their embodied experience of this work. Equally, cultural norms shape
notions of acceptable and unacceptable touch, which in turn feed into the work these men do and
how it is perceived by themselves and others. Contemporary western notions of hegemonic
masculinity (Connell 1995) are seen to preclude men from physical intimacy, and in a culture of
normative heterosexual values touch between men is (homo)sexualised and thus stigmatised. Such
norms apply no less to occupations stereotyped as feminine, as noted by Twigg in the case of nursing
and carework:

men who work in caring occupations suffer from a series of cultural assumptions
that since this is womens work, men who do it must be effeminate and therefore gay


[...] They also suffer from the homophobia of male clients, or at least from male
anxieties about intimate tending by another man. (Twigg 2000b:130)

All of the men foregrounded gender at some point in what they said and one of them in particular
expressed an acute awareness of expectations related to masculinity and the impact of such norms on
the use of touch in contemporary UK society:

thats a cultural thing for us here in the UK and western society in general.. but
ESPECIALLY I think in Scotland.. yknow youve got this traditional sort of. em.
working class. heavy industry hard drinking society.. where men dont touch each
other never mind.. HUG one another, and they certainly dont hold hands.. and they
DONT go to another man for relaxation (Andy, lines 722-28) 3

Perceptions of an essentialised, stereotyped view of male sexuality as inherently threatening are

reflected in this and other examples from Andys interview. The perceptions and norms he talks
about are presented as creating a cultural catch-22, where people are reluctant to see a male
massage worker because there are not many available, and are therefore not the norm; but where an
insufficient client base prevents any more men from setting up a successful massage business.

James too foregrounded implications of the gender of the worker, stating that the widely-held
concept of massage being a female occupation was a misconception and one which had directly
affected his experience of massage work. In giving his account of being interviewed for a massage
job within a branch of an international hotel chain, James expressed his surprised that they were
much more interested in how did I feel about working in a FEMALE JOB I mean it was very

Transcription note: full stops each denote one second of a pause, and upper case lettering is used for emphasis.
Line numbers are given and [] is used to indicate where, due to constraints of space, parts of the transcript have
been omitted.


much this concentration that.. massage is female (James, lines 46-50). James later returned to the
topic of women in massage, adding: I mean you do get some female masseuses who are very good
and can give very firm massage. but theres an awful lot just dont have it (James, lines 398-399),
and then:

I find that an awful lot of the girls come through these training courses in the
colleges and theyre not trained.. not trained to that extent yknow theyve got. they
know the moves. but theyve not got the strength and a a lot of people comment on
this, yknow (James lines 415-418)

James views on massage as a female job and his comparison of male and female massage workers
may in part have been influenced by his perception of the aims of my research. However, all four
participants were aware of my interest in issues related to the gender of the worker, and none of the
others returned to this comparison persistently throughout their interviews. Existing literature on
men in other female dominated occupations identifies similar types of re-labelling (Williams 1993;
Henson and Krasas Rogers 2001; Simpson 2004), and hence, this aspect of James story may be read
as a discursive re-framing of massage work as something that men - with the implication of
inherently greater physical strength - are actually better suited to. It is also a key aspect of James
story, as told on this occasion.

The impact of gender on massage work is inextricably linked with cultural factors, and while there is
not space here to go into all the many socially and culturally-shaped notions of (in)appropriate touch
and bodily contact, it is interesting to note that all four of the men interviewed alluded to these
issues. Andy did so in relation to Middle Eastern customs of men holding hands. Rob did so in the
context of Watsu (water shiatsu) training schools in California, where students practice naked.
James did so in reference to massage in other European contexts. Dan referred to the composition of

his male client-base, which he talked about being influenced by religion and local culture of the city
in which he is based:

the majority of male clients I have are from out of town[laughs].. Swedish.. eh
Canadian.. American.. south of England.. I dont think Ive got any [male] [Scottish
city] clients.. [] primarily its out of.. not folk from [Scottish city] because [puts on
exaggerated version of that citys accent] were all very staid and protestant (Dan,
lines 449-53)

Dan presented levels of comfort with touch as strongly culturally-shaped here, and also in relation to
his own feelings about massage. When asked about his choice of massage practice (in his case
Shiatsu, which is usually practiced on a clothed person, unlike the therapeutic massage practiced by
the other participants, for which the worked-on person usually undresses), he remarked:

Im a typical [Scottish city] Scottish male in that em I still have issues regarding
working on somebody that I dont know on the skin with just towels protecting, I
dont know what it is.. my wifes a massage therapist and I have no problem
working on her but then shes my wife [laughs] so I dont know. I just have issues
about that (Dan lines 41-45)

Thus the ways in which massage and touch are done are, as far as the accounts presented in these
interviews go, cross-cut not only with gender and sexuality, but local and other cultural norms which
are typically adhered to. The case is similar in relation to closely linked theme of


Ideas about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour are closely tied to assumptions about male and
female sexuality, with females often stereotyped as vulnerable victims and males as powerful,
threatening, and more likely to act on their sexual urges. In these interviews, touch was presented
as something which could be deployed in either appropriate or inappropriate ways. For example,
Andy commented: I can understand a lot of women wouldnt feel comfortable JUST in case
someones em.. gonna touch them inappropriately (Andy, lines 318-19). In fact, Andy returned
repeatedly to the topic of touch, often for relatively long turns, and the following excerpt illustrates
the intertwining of touch and appropriate behaviour:

we dont as a society touch each other enough or if we do.. people are often
uncomfortable with it. em. so its something I tried to build into my children to be
comfortable with touch, em, again as long as its APPROPRIATE [] and I. every
time I see my friends I always make a point of shaking somebodys hand.. em. just
as a as a kinda physical thing [] breaking down some of the physical barriers
because theres far too many people live without touch and its. its a very VERY
important part of our lives (Andy, lines 106-12)

This presentation of appropriate or inappropriate forms of touch echoes the biomedical

perspectives on touch outlined earlier, as well as more general societal norms of un/acceptable
behaviour. The theme of (in)appropriateness ran in some form through all the accounts, so the
question which needs to be posed at this point is: what is meant by appropriateness and how do
they do it? One significant factor concerns towel technique (sometimes called draping), a skill
in which people who do massage are trained in order to manage the exposure of the worked-on
persons body. Here a comparison with the biomedical context may once again be fruitful, since
studies of the latter have shown draping being used in order to transform the patient from non-


sterile to sterile (Fox 1997) and therefore suitable to be worked on. The men I interviewed
emphasised the importance of maintaining appropriate bodily cover, as in the following from
Andy, where he describes his response to a woman he was working on who wished to have her
breasts uncovered:

I didnt get into a discussion I just said no. Ill re-cover you.. em. [] so thats
more professional so that there was no room for any misunderstanding or.. or
whatever. and I didnt it wasnt I didnt feel awkward about it. em. I didnt feel
embarrassed.. it was just a matter of fact. look just. yknow professional boundaries
and lets keep it there (Andy, lines 923-33)

Maintaining appropriate cover has been related to the diffusion of what could otherwise be
interpreted as a sexual interaction (Giuffre and Williams 2000) and is explicitly related to notions
of professional values and behaviour. But here Andy focuses on what he did not feel in relation to
this breech of appropriate behaviour, and he returned to this topic later in the interview. This
suggests its significance as a story, as well as Andys keenness for me to understand the issue as he
sees it. Andy was the only one of the men I interviewed to discuss inappropriate behaviour when
the worked-on person was female, and the general assumption conveyed in the mens accounts was
that such incidents would be more likely to occur when the worker was female, and the worked-on
person male. Several references were made to the more precarious situation of women doing
massage work in hotels, where there is a perception that sexual services might more often be
expected. Rob, for example, recounted a story of a woman he knew being sexually assaulted by a
male client in a hotel spa, while Dan commented that Im sure women therapists must get that
[harassment] all the time, stories which reflect normative ideas about women as victims and men
as aggressors. When they did talk about inappropriate behaviour towards themselves from worked-


on men, this in turn reflected normative conceptions of male sexuality. In the following example,
James presents his reaction to an inappropriate suggestion in a male-male massage context:

he came here he booked a massage.. and I mean he then started suggesting that we
went further than the norm so and I said look if you want that then go somewhere
else. and he seemed quite surprised. yknow. and we more or less turfed him out
[laughs] (James, lines 92-95)

James here makes direct reference to adherence to a norm in the massage interaction, which for
him has a clear, and clearly heterosexual, boundary. His response to the transgression of the workedon man is recounted as particularly physical (turfing him out), as well as verbal, and suggests both
the normalisation of heterosexuality in massage given his emphatic reaction that homosexual
behaviour was unacceptable and the potential for embarrassment or even outright conflict when the
worker and worked-on persons expectations do not meet (cf. Goffman 1967). An interesting
comparison can be made with a similar situation talked about by Rob, who responded quite

there was only the once I had one person that when I went back [into the room] he
was still there in the same position and still waiting on something to happen and then
I told him [] I do have other clients today and if you havent moved from the room
I may have to take other action.. action to remove you from the room.. and eh I went
away and came back and he was still there. and I said ok youre obviously not
getting the message. I said its its a real shame because you have been worked on
and been given a thorough treatment today from my sort of view and I said so Im
now going to leave Im now going to phone. the police (Rob, lines 538- 548)


In the context of the interview, it was clear that the something this man was waiting for was sexual.
However, Robs response is presented as an attempt at reasoning and discussion, in comparison to
James briefer account of a more immediately physical response. These differences can be connected
to the two mens self-presentation (Goffman [1959]1990) and conceptions of their own identity:
throughout the interview Rob clearly situates himself within the gay community having
originally worked from a gay and lesbian centre and self-identifying as a gay man whereas James
presents himself as a married heterosexual. But more certainly, what can be taken from these
examples is that each can be read as representing that particular persons own conception of
appropriateness in relation to their work, their own and shared ideas of masculinity, and the wider
societal context. The divergence between the two responses to seemingly very similar situations
illustrates the fluidity and context-specific character of (in)appropriateness, which is defined and
done in a variety of ways in the different stories about massage presented here.

The analysis presented here contributes to the growing field of body work and highlights some
useful and interesting comparisons which can be made between different types of work which take
bodies as their focus. As demonstrated above, parallels can be drawn with care work in relation to
the issues presented for men in stereotypically female occupations, including the questions raised
about male workers motivations, an issue reflected on by some of my participants. Associated with
this are issues of social and occupational status, which in most forms of body work is low,
particularly those which involve the closest, most intimate contact. Additionally, an analysis which
looks at massage through the analytical lens of body work not only allows commonalities and
divergences to be identified, but also allows for the possibility of shared strategies among practices
as varied as beauty, sex, health and death work.


Body work has been conceptualised as running in parallel with the more familiar notion of emotional
labour, whilst occupying its own analytical space. I would propose that future research on massage
work should integrate the two, so as to enable a more fully rounded sociological investigation of this
field. Bringing these two concepts together is appropriate, not least due to the holistic philosophical
understandings of the body which take bodies and emotions as inseparable and which underpin a
large proportion of massage practice, but also in reflecting and contributing to an academic climate
which increasingly sees the value in embodied, holistic approaches to sociology itself.

As discussed above, this research, part of which is presented here, was conducted using a form of
narrative inquiry, and several key advantages were offered by using this approach. Among these is
the recognition of the narrative impulse, that people know and understand their social worlds
through telling stories about them. Another is an awareness of the co-constructed character of
interview data, that rather than offering a window onto the true experience of these men what
narrative data represents is an interaction between two people in a specific (and specified) context.
The analysis presented here has been largely thematic, in that two key themes of touch and
(in)appropriateness which were found to be common across the interviews with these men have
been the main focus. However, these themes arose spontaneously from loosely-structured interviews,
and may not have been become so apparent in their importance to the men I interviewed, had they
not been afforded the space to talk relatively freely and to introduce issues of significance to them.
The import of these issues may also have been neglected had the investigation not gone beyond a
traditional thematic analysis to consider at what stage in the interview and for how long they were
talked about. This contextualisation, rather than a breaking apart of interviews for abstracted, bitesized snippets, is what I consider to be one of the main strengths of a narrative inquiry methodology.


One of the key points that my research highlights is that, for these men who do massage, the topics
of (in)appropriateness and touch are closely intertwined. In terms of understandings of both
themes, the narrative data presented here suggests that there are clear boundaries which must be
maintained around touch in order to present, in a context-specific sense, appropriate professional
standards and in a broader sense to create or maintain wider social norms of heterosexuality and
masculinity. The normalisation of heterosexuality and stereotypical male/female divisions of labour
are both maintained and challenged in massage work. Where a male massage worker may be judged
for doing womens work, this work is re-framed as something men are actually better at, drawing
on narrative resources of men as naturally physically stronger. Thus the gendering of certain
occupations is challenged, but in a way which perpetuates male superiority, and at the same time
characterising women as being more vulnerable and more likely subjects of abuse in this line of
work. Even where the hetero-normativity of massage work is to some extent challenged, as in prts of
Robs account, assumptions about male sexuality prevail, with inappropriate and thus threatening
behaviour coming only from men.

The most emphatic ways in which touch was categorised was as one or the other of the
appropriate/inappropriate dichotomy and, overall, whether in reference to touch, behaviour in a
massage interaction, or the fact that they do massage at all, (in)appropriateness is a significant theme
in what these men say and how they say it. The potential ambiguity and ambivalence of touch
creates a perceived necessity for it to be tightly controlled via norms of appropriate or inappropriate
behaviour. The ways in which these men emphasis what is or is not appropriate for them is telling of
their own social worlds, in which touching is only appropriate between certain people at certain
times in particular places.


In relation to both themes, one observation which has interested me is that despite, the subjectmatter, none of the four interviews discussed here involved any physical contact between myself and
the participants. In subsequent interviews with women who do massage, participants have on several
occasions chosen to demonstrate on me a point they have had difficulty expressing verbally. To put
this difference down to the gender of the participant could render it overly mono-causal, when
several more other factors relating to the interview dynamic could have been involved, and more
attention would be required to this issue to say something conclusive. However, it is a point which
drew my own attention and which I think would be worthy of further investigation in its relation to
notions of (in)appropriateness. This also ties closely to the problems, both mundane and
methodological, in communicating things to do with the touch and senses which are usually implicit
and unspoken. The most appropriate means by which touch may be investigated (see Oerton 2004b
for an exploration of this in the specific context of massage) forms a significant part of my ongoing
research project on massage work.

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Carrie Purcell
University of Edinburgh

Carrie Purcell is currently a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of
Edinburgh, UK. Her research interests lie in Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM) and
the focus of her PhD is massage as a form of body work. Using a narrative inquiry approach she is
examining issues of touch and intimacy involved in this form of bodily interaction. Address:
Sociology, University of Edinburgh, Room 6.13, Chrystal MacMillan Building, 15a George Square,
Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK [email c.a.purcell@sms.ed.ac.uk]

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