Thursday, June 17, 2010

Not Part of the Castle

Some people, it seems to me, crave touch much more than others, and they must go through life assessing over and over: what must I be, what must I do, and what must I give up, in order to be touched lovingly?

For many victims of abuse, touch has meant becoming someone's secret, entering a world of duplicity, of being – simultaneously – admitted into the secret world of someone's desires, and being cut off from the plain daylight world where things are as they appear. They become someone else's dirty little secret. They are simultaneously granted a special privilege, and reduced to someone else's intense but degrading gratification: they're the rag the abuser comes on, and hides under the bed.

For many others, touch comes only at two times: in response to injury, in a context of pain – doctors and dentists touch you – or in a love relationship, in the extraordinarily complicated context of sexual interaction. It often cannot be experienced outside of pain, or outside of sexual need and sexual performance – typically, for the touch-deprived, matters of intense but unmentionable anxiety.

In either case, massage is, in varying proportions, liberating, disturbing, and unsatisfying. Liberating because you find you can have touch without paying excessive costs in self-respect. Disturbing because it is still associated with shame or pain or sexual desire. Unsatisfying because it floats in a no man's land between categories. Does your massage therapist love you? Yes. No. If they do, why don't they hurt you or shame you or make love with you? If they don't, why are they touching you at all? What does it mean?

Well, the truth of the matter has nothing to do with the brisk, cheerful medical image massage organizations would like us to project. We get into the business because we have our own issues with touch. We have always known we're a little different. Our boundaries are more elastic than most people's. Bodies aren't icky to us. The idea of touching strangers is more pleasant than alarming. We have always had a heightened awareness of the tactile, the impulse to touch things to understand them. We have an inexhaustible curiosity about the body: it's an object of intense interest to us.

I've been struck by how many massage therapists are twilight dwellers, neither this nor that. We have – some people will be unhappy with me for saying this, but it's true – we have a lot in common with prostitutes: we live daily with physical realities that for most people are only phantoms, shadows of meaning, images of desire or shame. We are grounded in the real world. We know what people's bodies are really like, under those clothes. We know how they like to be touched. That makes us marginal in society: indispensable but not quite respectable. That's okay with us. We don't care much about all that.

To me, massage is an insurrection, a revolt against a touch culture that I believe is essentially a culture of abuse. A culture that says, oh, you can have touch all right – if you play by master's rules. If you agree to be ashamed of wanting it, and to cover up whatever master wants you to cover up. The reason I don't cross sexual boundaries in massage, why I am an absolutist about that, has nothing to do with being respectable or with catering to massage organizations' ambitions for professional status. Who cares about that? It's because I'm damned if I'll let my practice become one more turret in the abusive castle. You pay the printed price for this loving touch, and nothing more. There's no secret clause. There's no shame. You don't have to qualify, by being pretty or petite or docile. There's nothing you have to play along with.

And personally? What do I get from it? I get what I've always wanted: to get under the mask of society, to touch people in the way I've always wanted to but never been allowed to, to communicate with my skin instead of with clumsy, misleading, irrelevant talk. The sense of intimacy, of being loved and accepted, runs both ways, believe me. There's a reason why massage therapy consistently rates as one of the happiest, most fulfilling occupations. You'll never get rich doing massage. You'll never have prestige. But you'll get to touch people, which is what you wanted in the first place.

1 comment:

Cara Bereck Levy said...

Yes. Exactly so.