Fame isn’t really part of the equation in massage therapy. There are certainly practitioners who manage a measure of success, building lucrative clienteles of wealthy people. A handful wriggle their way into working on movie sets or traveling with professional sports teams, but—by and large—if your desire is to be known, explore other industries. Anonymity is the name of the game when your job calls for sensible footwear.

That said, our small segment of the work force does have one disquieting celebrity, and she goes by the name Doctor Dot.

Dot is what my grandmother might have called a character or a slut. She’s made a career of massaging, and sometimes dating, rock stars and her website boasts an impressive roster of recognizable customers. Her signature technique involves biting people’s backs with her teeth, and it’s unclear if she holds a license. Dot confides in the FAQ section that Sting and Lauryn Hill have the “best bodies.” I don’t recall a specific guideline as to publicly discussing the attractiveness of a client’s physique in massage school, but I’m pretty sure the underlying message was “don’t.”

Among the copious images displayed on the site is a picture of Dot in a sexy nurse’s get-up and a garter. This photo links to her sex advice column, an offshoot of the writings she contributed for years to Penthouse Forum. Doctor Dot is sending a lot of mixed messages, and I can’t help but fear she’s sending them on my behalf.

Less and less so now, but there was a time when my profession was confused with an entirely other line of work. An older one. Thankfully, alternative health care has grown mainstream, and society seems to understand the difference between the two. Excepting, of course, members of society who run for political office and prefer to take their massages in hotel rooms.

Much as I support my fellow therapists’ creative freedom, I support my own happiness more and I worry that one of her readers will put down their sticky periodical and think, “You know, come to think of it, my back has been bothering me lately” and then call and make an appointment with me.

Years ago I worked with a therapist named Linda who’d once endured just such a client. When they were alone in the treatment room, this man produced a crisp one hundred dollar bill from the pocket of his robe and set it on the counter by the sink. He winked at her, saying nothing. I suppose the wordlessness of his request created the space for a “misunderstanding” defense, but anyone offering a ninety percent tip at the onset of a massage is simply up to no good. She promptly returned his bribe, threw her shoulders back, and announced that the session would not take place. Linda would tell the story for years to come, proud of her no-nonsense response, aglow in her unmarred virtue. I admired her clarity on matters of right and wrong, but grew tired of complimenting Linda on her sterling ethics. I wish she would have kept the hundred dollars and not given him the massage. The odds that someone with his soiled motive would have approached management to get his money returned were negligible, at best. Then she could have bought herself something congratulatory instead of seeking out the endless approval of her co-workers by belaboring us with the story every other day. How many times can you pat someone on the back for the moral fortitude of not submitting to prostitution in exchange for an amount of cash inadequate to buy a decent pair of jeans?

I like to believe that were someone to be improper with me—and it’s never happened—I’d respond with certitude and bravado. But, in all likeliness, I’d squeal and run out of the room.

Having enjoyed the most protected upbringing this side of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I don’t have the constitution for perverts. My dad was an accomplished athlete in his youth and for years into adulthood subscribed to Sports Illustrated. With each new renewal, he would place a personal call to the distribution office to request that he not be sent the annual swimsuit issue. He was a husband and father, after all. Suffice it to say, I was spared the darker shades of male intentions. Even now, even living in the Western Hemisphere’s Gomorrah, I run with fairly nerdy crowds. Book readings don’t draw the uncontrollably virile, and I outweigh half the guys at my yoga studio. My most literal reference points on men behaving badly are the early albums of Ani DiFranco.

When it was announced in the third term of massage school that the Boundaries Seminar was coming up, the entire student body was a twitter. “Boundaries” was just a euphemism for sexual inappropriateness, and who doesn’t want to talk about that? It certainly sounded more interesting than learning about human pathologies or how muscles attach to the bone. Prior to that day, it felt downright taboo to so much as mention the possibility of someone getting the wrong idea in a session, and suddenly having an entire afternoon devoted to the lewd possibility felt titillating and clandestine. The workshop, it turned out, was not about a client looking for something “extra” from a massage. It was about an awkward little phenomenon that happens constantly to fifteen-year-old boys and sometimes to otherwise well meaning—and deeply humiliated—grown men.

The day’s affair was led by a couple of female instructors who, if memory serves, were business partners in a pre-natal massage practice and romantic partners in life. Romantic feels like a funny word to apply to women who looked, respectively, like a nun and high school soccer coach, but the heart wants what it wants. At the front of the room a massage table was set up and draped in sheets. Like so many earnest lesbians, one half of the pair was sturdy and substantial, the other half scrappy and small. The big one began the lecture as the little one climbed up on the table, laid on her back, and pulled the covers all the way up to the base of her weak chin.

The two were soon role-playing; one as the therapist, the other pretending to be a male client experiencing an unfortunate physiological reaction to human touch. To simulate getting the erection, the little lesbian—with her hand down near her crotch—made a ninety-degree angle at her wrist and lifted five fingers upward, creating a tent-like shape beneath the sheet.


The large lesbian walked us verbally through the appropriate clinical response.

“First,” she explained in a crisp instructional voice, “I will break contact”.

Both of her hands lifted methodically off the client’s body. “Now,” she continued, “We discuss.”

Kneeling down beside the head of the massage table, so as to be on eye level with the tiny woman experiencing the hardening member, she proceeded to say:

“Sir, I notice you have an erection and I want to check-in and make sure everything is okay. What you are experiencing is a natural physical occurrence. I need you to know that. Are we good to continue? Are we okay?”

“And that,” she told us, breaking the fourth wall and easing out of character, “is exactly how you handle the situation comfortably.”

I wanted to ask whom, prey tell, was made comfortable by that conversation? If it’s normal and human, if there’s no malice or agenda involved, can’t we just lower the lights, bunch up the sheets, and pray for a quickened passage of time? I felt uneasy just watching the exchange and embarrassed for everyone involved, namely myself. No, namely the little lesbian who’s left hand was still erect long after someone should have said, “and scene.”

Because there are many solutions to any given problem, I prefer to follow the lead of my best friend in the tenth grade. When her duet partner in drama class—a boy who harbored such a severe crush on her that it was physically painful to be watch—got spontaneous erections every time they performed their scene, she just kept her eyes at horizon level, let her spirit float out of her body, and pretended Everything Was Fine. She did what any sane, thinking person does in such a moment; she went into a profound state of denial. I do exactly the same. The alternative is to handle it in an adult manner, and that is simply not my nature.

This happens far less often than one might think, practically never—and I’m game for stretching every truth to its extremity, so if I could milk this into a better narrative without being a total liar, I would. The issue doesn’t arise enough to warrant an entire column or an official protocol. I’ve known a smattering of therapists who claim to indulge in some version of what we were taught in school. They’re the same people who subscribe to spa trade journals and always have tiger balm on their person. They attend healing seminars in their free time. In short, they take the day more seriously than it warrants. A sense of showmanship always permeates their renderings of the story:

“So I said to him, ’Dave, I need to be crystal clear about your intentions for this massage…”

It never feels informative, only laborious and pretentious.

Like the man who’s forever boasting, “Look, I’m the sorta guy who tells it like it is”.

Or the girl who segues everything into, “I don’t believe in labels. For me, sexuality has always been a fluid thing.”

I suspect a great host of humanity’s dysfunctions would instantly evaporate in the event that we all agreed to stop trying to stand out and be special. It never works. Every pitiful bid I’ve made at feeling special—barring none—has resulted; only in my being the kind of special one might say in a whisper at a dinner party or assign to a separate bus.

Many of these “professional development” topics came up that year. What to do when a client shares too much personal information? What if they try to engage the therapist in friendship? How do we approach someone experiencing transference and falling in love with us? (Not a problem I’ve encountered much at work—or outside of it, for that matter.)

In other words, what to do in the terrifying event that people behave like people?

To be fair, it was the school’s responsibility to provide us clinical solutions to every possible professional scuffle, but so much of it seemed as easily addressed by common sense. There was a time when people made it from the womb to the grave without needing to analyze everything, without thinking to hold mirrors up to their vaginas or engage in active-listening—an era when our bookshelves threatened to buckle beneath the extraordinary weight of escapes from life, not manuals to it. I long for the days when it would have been universally unthinkable, in any situation, to utter the words, “Sir, I notice you have an erection. Are we okay?”

Because isn’t the answer kind of obvious? No. No we are not okay. One of us is mortified beyond repair, and the other of us thought it would be cute to get a massage license instead of a graduate degree. It isn’t okay, it’s life; a stretch of time—however abundant or brief—marked by any number of mild accomplishments and gross embarrassments that are more kindly left uncommented upon.

Anonymity gets an unfair wrap, like it’s a personal failing. Maybe anonymity is the elegant state we achieve when we’re focused on doing instead of being. When our need to say something takes a backseat to someone else’s need not to hear it. When our benign shortcomings are allowed to pass unnamed and unnoticed. When an hour is a reasonable amount of time to just be quiet, and when the most merciful light we can cast upon our collectively flawed humanity shines no brighter than the forgiving glow of a candle.

The latest news on Doctor Dot is that she’s written a rollicking book about her professional misadventures. There was a time when I bandied around a similar notion, being that I like to write and all. Ultimately, though, I put the idea to rest because—unlike Dot—I wasn’t convinced that our corner of the world is especially interesting.