Massage is Not a Hobby

This week, Les Sweeney turns the keys of “Expect More” over to Bob Benson, ABMP Chairman.

Massage is Not a Hobby

ABMP has long embraced the idea that diverse massage therapy practice choices are equally honorable. Some therapists devote 30–40 hours a week to massage sessions. Others may serve only a couple clients each week, supplementing other chosen work activity. Most choose practices somewhere in between, often balancing massage therapy with “head” work in another profession.

Whether one chooses to perform two sessions a week or twenty, though, a true massage professional approaches each session with committed intent to assess that client’s condition and then to provide work that aims to enhance that client’s health and well being. The objective is to perform work that is therapeutic.

Massage sessions may meet additional needs. Clients often note pleasure and connection simply from receiving professional touch. They talk about the importance of an oasis of calm in the midst of their otherwise stressful lives. Therapists also derive benefits. Many describe appreciation derived from performing physical work as a contrast to more sedentary alternate jobs. Quite uniformly, massage therapists express satisfaction about helping clients feel healthier.

What is also consistent is the view that massage therapy is work—purposeful work performed by knowledgeable, educated individuals applying their learning and experience for the benefit of each client. However pleasurable the massage therapy experience may be, both for client and therapist, massage is neither recreation nor a casual hobby.

That is why I was frankly aghast to learn that the Utah Department of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) and the state’s Massage Therapy Board advanced a draft of a re-definition of massage that removed the word “therapeutic” as a purpose of massage therapy. In addition, the practice of massage therapy was re-defined as conducted for “recreational or other purposes.” Adding to the shock was learning that the AMTA-Utah chapter supported the changes.

It has been a long, slow climb to respectability for our profession. Despite regulation in most states, some unsavory providers of sexual services still try to trade under the massage banner. We have had to work carefully to educate the public about correct terminology, emphasizing the healthful benefits of massage provided by skilled professionals.

So what are Utah residents to think when massage services henceforth could be characterized as “recreational?” Now I’m all for recreation. I regularly work out at the gym, ski, and play golf. Every week my wife hikes and attends several yoga classes. But we don’t receive massage thinking that such a service is recreational. Worse, the “recreational massage” label is likely to produce elbow in the ribs type snickers, to set our profession back on the progress we have made.

And, yes, it’s just Utah, but the reality is that state legislators tend to be copycats. Each year, specialized legislative service companies track types of bills signed into law in one state and publicize that fact to legislators in the other 49 states. Most new state laws are not truly original, rather are borrowed from elsewhere.

One of my favorite television programs is Washington Week in Review. Several times a year, its host, Gwen Ifill, will describe some bizarre act taken by a politician and end her description by saying, “What was she/he thinking?” In that spirit, just what was the Utah AMTA chapter thinking? When approached by the DOPL, why didn’t they pick up the phone and ask the Government Relations Department in the AMTA national office for advice? Why didn’t they, as both a professional courtesy and a potential source of assistance, contact other professional associations like ABMP or the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, both of which organizations have staff members with broad national experience in state massage regulation? ABMP learned of the proposed changes far too late in the process to affect the outcome; it appears there was a concerted effort by DOPL to amend the current statute with as little fanfare as possible. However, the AMTA Utah chapter states on its website, “AMTA Utah Chapter has followed this all the way through the legislative session…we are well aware of the bill.”

I am far from alone in my dismay. I first learned about this development from an AMTA member who has been active for years on massage regulatory matters both in his own state and nationally. By the time I gained this knowledge, the bill was already through the legislature, the massage re-definition tucked into a single paragraph in the middle of a routine 26-page annual department clean-up bill addressing the statutes for multiple professions. ABMP wrote a letter to the Governor urging that this massage therapy language change be struck, but this is a bit like bringing up a pinch hitter in the ninth inning when your team already trails 13-2. The time to get the language right was when the Department first suggested the changes.

The kindest spin I can put on the AMTA-Utah chapter’s actions was that their decision makers were naïve. They listened to the Department describing a particular problem court case and did not engage their brains to think through broader implications of the Department’s initial thoughts about a possible solution.

Lately a number of folks in the massage community have taken to feeling celebratory about 43 states now regulating massage with a couple more actively considering doing so. They can almost taste the victory lap of massage regulation in all 50 states. What they miss is the understanding that legislation is not static. In most years, 10 to 15 states of the 43 with massage regulation make some tweak to the existing statutes. As this Utah incident underlines, vigilance—and respect for the value of networking with other massage organizations—is called for.

What is Happening?


Everywhere you turn today, people are getting fed up and speaking up (or doing more), whether they’re in the Wisconsin state capitol or the Middle East. Unrest has even reached the shores of our happy village of MassageLand.

There is a bill awaiting the governor’s signature in Utah that removes the word “therapeutic” from the description of massage in the state’s massage therapy law. Oh well­—that’s not an important word, is it? The edit traces back to the state’s need for more teeth to catch prostitutes. The Department of Professional Licensure, the Massage Therapy Board, and the Utah Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association all agreed to the proposal.

In Nevada, the board proposed changes to its regulations that would require facilities to designate a “managing therapist,” despite the fact that the massage board has no statutory authority to regulate massage establishments.

In New Hampshire, there is a proposal to abolish the state massage therapy licensing law, as part of a larger anti-regulation, cost-cutting effort.

I never have and never will be one who believes regulation is automatically good, or automatically bad. Each state and each circumstance deserve consideration. Perhaps massage therapy licensing in New Hampshire is useless; however, I have a hard time believing a thorough analysis has been conducted, if the approach is to clear-cut professional regulation across the board. And cutting out a critical element of Utah’s existing law in order to solve a problem older than massage (and Utah, for that matter) seems shortsighted and clumsy.

Now none of this stuff compares to the challenges facing the people of Libya, or Egypt, or Bahrain. But we should treat our professional standing with thought and care, and seek collaborative solutions.

Of the three states mentioned, there are different sources of the issue: professional regulators, legislators, and—to some extent—our own profession. ABMP’s job as an organization is to stay current and active in these environments; our Government Relations Director, Jean Robinson, does that and much more. But she can’t be in 50 places at once, and can’t do much to change the decisions made in a vacuum, like the one in Utah.

So keep your eyes and ears open, and if given the chance, please help us help you. And to those out there shaking our regulatory snow globe, please handle with care.

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