Is there really a difference between a massage therapist and a masseuse or masseur?
In practicality, no. They both refer to someone who performs massage. But in reputation and image? Yes.
The term “masseuse” originated in France in the late 1800s. It just means a woman who performs massage; the male counterpart is “masseur”. If you were French, then masseuse or masseur would absolutely be the correct terms to use.
However, over here, the word masseuse has unfortunately gained an unsavory reputation. These days, it is often associated with massage parlors, “happy endings”, and those unlicensed, untrained professionals who use massage as a cover for their prostitution. Try as we might, the massage industry has such a difficult time getting away from those cultural assumptions. Not only does the association imply that we spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on education and licensure requirements just to become prostitutes, it puts many therapists in danger.
Consider for a moment, being a female massage therapist in her own private practice. You rent a room or two to see your clients, but you don’t have any bosses, coworkers, or employees. Just you. And a client comes in who’s heard about happy endings enough, that he thinks he might like to try to get one. After all, they talk about them in the movies and TV shows; Jennifer Love Hewitt even has a show where she “massages” her clients like that! He gets alone with his therapist, expecting that if he asks and offers money, she’ll probably give him what he’s looking for.
Now, most therapists have already been trained to deal with this in school. And, throughout the life of their career, most of them (even the men) will have fielded at least one of these requests. But imagine being the woman, locked in a room with a strange man who has just crossed that boundary. Most likely, when she says “I do not provide sexual services. I’m ending this session. You need to get up, get dressed, pay, and leave” he will do exactly as she says. But there is always the possibility that he may get angry. He may try to prevent her from leaving, he may try to stalk her later (after all, he knows exactly where she works every day, and that she works alone).
The chances are slim that anything particularly dangerous will happen, but they can. And that’s what makes the term masseuse so undesirable for massage therapists. It only continues to perpetuate myths about what we do as professionals. So most of us prefer terms like massage therapist, because what we perform is therapy. It’s beneficial for the health and well being of our clients.
Ultimately, while the terms mean the same thing, they have such vastly different connotations in the massage profession that it is worth educating everyone on the difference.