Touch in holistic massage: ambiguities and boundaries

Purcell, Carrie (2013). Touch in holistic massage: ambiguities and boundaries. In: Wolkowitz, Carol; Lara Cohen, Rachel and Sanders, Teela eds. Body/Sex/Work: Intimate, embodied and sexualised labour. Bloomsbury, pp. 175–190.



Holistic Massage sits at the intersection of bodies, touch, sexualities and work. Unique issues accompany Holistic Massage and other practices which involve ‘body work’, not least because the intimate contact involved in such work may ‘violate’everyday touching norms (Twigg et al., 2011; Wolkowitz, 2006). This chapter argues that touch is strongly implicated in the devaluation of such work and in its interpretation as ‘sexual’. Powerful cultural narratives conflate massage work with sex and sex work; moreover, the organization of massage and sex work overlap, in that they take place in seclusion and one-on-one (Oerton, 2004; Twigg et al., 2011). Existing research on massage addresses the persistent links with sex work and the discursive tools used by practitioners to distinguish themselves from sex workers (Oerton, 2004; Oerton and Phoenix, 2001). There is also research on massage training (Wainwright, et al., 2010); the limited occupational structures (Marks, 2010); and attempts to codify ‘nebulous’ practices (Lea, 2009). In this chapter, ambiguities around this work are unpacked and problematic assumptions about the intertwining of touch and sex are addressed in a specific material context. This chapter draws out the central significance of touch to the conceptual slippage between massage and sex work, and argues that Holistic Massage is particularly open to misinterpretation because it employs intuitive, non-systematized touching. Practitioners thus have to construct boundaries on an ongoing basis. This chapter draws on interviews with ten women who do Holistic Massage in a paid capacity. A deliberately small sample allowed for …

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