The allegation was explosive: "Mr. Stone," aka Al Gore, had allegedly asked a massage therapist to rub his inner thigh during an in-room massage at an upscale hotel in Portland, and then shoved her hand toward his nether regions, trying to initiate “unwanted sexual contact.”
Then came the news that Portland police had investigated the alleged 2006 incident, and deemed there was “insufficient evidence to support the allegations.”
But no one among half a dozen female massage therapists interviewed by The Daily Beast expressed surprise at the Gore story. The scenario of the unwanted sexual come-on is far from unusual. As one massage therapist put it: “You’d be surprised how many people mistake therapeutic massage for sexual affection.”
Talk to any female therapist and you’ll hear the stories—the guy who lets his arm dangle off the massage table and begins caressing the masseuse’s thigh; flat-out requests, just as the hour is winding down, for a little extra something.
“I would say that most women in the business have definitely come across someone [who] wanted a little more,” said Eileen, a former massage therapist in Los Angeles, who did not wish to give her last name. “It’s a weird situation. You’re working with someone who’s nude, and there can definitely be a sexual innuendo in the midst of all that.”
As for how that gets communicated, the “inner thigh” request is just one of the many forms of come-hither code. “Men come in and say, ‘I’ve got a groin pull,’ ‘I’m recovering from a hernia.’ Anything in the genitalia area, they’ll say they need it really carefully gone over,” Eileen said. “I had one friend that had somebody who said they wanted some polarity therapy, or energy work, in that area. I think it’s anything they can say that alludes to [sexual gratification] without actually saying the words.”
• Gallery: Which Party Has the Worst Sex Scandals? Talk to any female therapist and you’ll hear the stories—the guy who lets his arm dangle off the massage table and begins caressing the masseuse’s thigh; flat-out requests, just as the hour is winding down, for a little extra something; the cheesy come-on line that suggests where things are headed: “Are you married?”
And then there are the downright weird scenarios, such as when Leah Miller, a therapist in Los Angeles, was massaging a man, whose wife was in the same room, being massaged by another woman, and Miller noticed the wife, “Oohing and aahing and moving her pelvis around as I worked on her husband. She was getting off on watching me work on her husband. That was the grossest thing. I ended up quitting my job.”
While most advances are verbal, some men get physical. In the police report, the Portland massage therapist alleged that Gore “flipped me flat on my back and threw his whole body face down over top me, pinning me down and outweighing me by quite a bit.” (Gore's office has declined to comment on the allegations.)
Male therapists have their own tales, though to a far less extent, given that 85 percent of certified massage therapists are women. Even so, Ben Kalayjian, who practices at the Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek, California, said, he’s “gotten the innuendo, tossed in there. I’ll get calls from guys who are like, ‘Is this full body?’ One guy asked if 'happy endings' were available. I stop it right there.”
Such is the reality in an industry that, even in 2010, is regarded by many—including the government—as a type of prostitution. Despite years of lobbying efforts (not to mention research that show the physical and emotional benefits of deep-tissue sessions), massage businesses are still defined as “adult entertainment” in some parts of the country, a distinction that equates therapists with prostitutes.
Legitimate massage therapists are not helped by the multitudes of cheap parlors and shops that actually offer sexual favors and “exude a happy ending,” as Miller put it. “They’ve got the neon sign that says ‘full body massage’ and pictures of women with long fingernails giving a massage.”
In California, a law was passed last year that sought to “put the unsavory past behind us,” as Bill Brown, director of government and industry relations for the American Massage Association, told the Los Angeles Times. The law made it possible to grant state certification to massage therapists who complete 250 or more hours of training and who pass a test that includes questions about ethics as well as anatomy.
However, some say the law has done little to de-stigmatize the industry, or crack down on the prostitution rings that use massage parlors as fronts. “I think anybody that really wants to make a business knows they can get around anything,” said Eileen. “A lot of massage businesses are out-call businesses, which are very hard to police, because you don’t have a legal address. They’re businesses where you call them on their cell and they arrive at your place. It’s really unusual for someone to check for credentials.”
In terms of what the individual therapist can do to protect herself, Eileen said that while it is important to set limits, it is not always easy. “I have really good boundaries,” she said. “I’m not looking for any alliance with my client, and that makes a huge difference…I’ve never really had anybody make any move on me because I immediately remind them, that that’s not an option.”
It’s all about the “vibe” and the “intent,” said another therapist. “You can tell if they’re just exploring or if they are going to really do something. Most of the time it’s innocent and you just ignore it.”
Additional reporting by Gina Piccalo
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.