When you hear the word “massage,” what comes to mind? One of the most popular images is of a thin, white woman relaxing on a table. “Massage therapy is so often put on a pedestal in a privileged way,” says J Sheffield, a body worker, massage therapist, and sex educator based in Washington, D.C. In popular imagination, “It’s for white, straight cis women to relax.”
Of course, this is incorrect: people around the world have practiced forms of healing touch for millennia. But in the contemporary United States, people who are marginalized in some way — queer and trans folks, people of color, people with disabilities and fat people — experience discrimination that can make it difficult to access massage. Professional massage might be financially inaccessible; practitioners might cause racist or transphobic harm; and even well-meaning friends can ignore our boundaries when giving a casual shoulder rub.
What’s more, in a patriarchal society — especially one wherein Christian nationalists are systematically depriving trans people and women of bodily autonomy — many of us are taught to see pleasure as shameful. We aren’t given permission to explore touch that feels good. When our consent is violated, we begin to associate touch with danger.
As a massage therapist and sexuality educator, J pushes back against these harmful messages. They reclaim massage as a form of self- and community care by centering queer and trans people, offering sliding scale rates especially to folks of color, and facilitating workshops on sensual massage. “Touch can be part of pleasure. Touch can also be in our control,” says J.
Whether you’re rubbing a friend’s back or sharing an erotic couples massage with an intimate partner, healing touch begins with active consent and communication.