There is very little that I have in common with Jeffrey Epstein, who is well known for having been a child molester and sex offender. But I confess to sharing one thing with the late Mr. Epstein: I love massage. And the prominence of his squalid story in recent news reports has made me contemplate how often, among my hundreds of bodywork sessions, sex has reared its ugly head.
One time in the 1990s I was visiting Bangkok with my friend Mariateresa. We told our host, an American acquaintance of my fiancé – I’ll call him Andy – that we wanted to sample the famous Thai massage.
He knew just the place, and soon the three of us were marching down a darkened corridor. At its end, behind a full-length glass barrier, sat a dozen glum-looking young women with numbers hanging around their necks. Mariateresa and I turned around and marched back toward the entrance.
Andy ran after us and cried, “No, no, you’re misunderstanding. It’s really a normal massage parlor, I swear! The numbers are for you to pick your masseuse.”
Why should we pick our masseuse, we both asked, and on what basis?“That’s the way it’s done here in Thailand,” he replied.
We chose two particularly plain girls, who ushered us down another ill-lit hallway into a room mainly occupied by a giant bed graced with … boxes of tissues. We looked at each other and said something along thelines of, “What the hell, it can’t hurt to try.”
After the numbered women had finished prodding us and twisting us, yanking our arms out of their sockets, and slinging our legs around their necks (all under Andy’s restless and ever-hopeful gaze), we asked how often they gave massages to men and how often to women. They giggled. “Men only.”
Soon thereafter, back in Rome, storefronts boasting “Thai Massage” began springing up like so many toadstools. Given Italian men’s notorious predilection for exotic sex and Thailand’s notorious  eagerness to provide it, it’s no surprise that many of those outfits go after a clientele that’s less interested in exploring their meridians than in getting off.
Exhibit A: A “No Sex” logo on the home page of a serious Italian massage center.
That same home page goes on to elaborate, “If you’re looking for sex, don’t call, don’t write, and above all don’t show up.”
Sexual massage for Rome males wasn’t a Thai exclusive. When I was studying watsu (a kind of bodywork done in warm water) there was a “Beauty Center” near the Rome university hospital that happened to have a warm pool that was just barely deep enough and large enough for me to practice giving treatments in.
Since there was no other option within 20 miles, it was that or nothing. One of my clients was waiting her turn when she heard a young man approach the reception desk and whisper, “Can someone give me a special relaxing massage?” (The answer was yes.) A year later, the aptly named “Extasia” was shut down for good by the local vice squad; I hate to think what may have been floating around in that pool.
Another unpleasantly memorable massage involved two self-styled Ayurvedic practitioners in Khajurhao in northern India who laid me and my husband out on bare side-by-side wooden tables, covered in the oils and bodily secretions of all who had lain on it before. My Ayurvedic doctor couldn’t keep his equally grubby hands from roving – and my husband Alvin told me afterward that his did the same. Maybe in their own small way they were trying to carry on the erotic tradition embodied in the famed local temple carvings.
Another time, at a medical conference in Barcelona, I was receiving a quite decent massage in a booth inside the hotel’s fitness center, marred only by the distracting pants and grunts from people working out nearby. At a certain point, I noticed the guy’s hands had skimmed my breasts a couple of times and were starting to head elsewhere.
The offer was plain. I said a polite “No gracias,” and his touch reverted to its previous neutrality. Everyone was happy. Except maybe him, for missing out on a major-league tip, and the masseuse wife of a fellow conference attendee, who, when she heard my story over dinner, became furious because of the implied slur on her profession.
Women’s day at Turkish hammams usually culminates in a brief massage by a mountainous female clad only in a loincloth. In my experience, these events are humdrum, but friends have reported having the same experience in Edirne that I had in Barcelona. But no one ever owns up to having accepted the sexual offer.
I’ve had many massages in Rome, but almost none from Italian men — for a reason. In my early years in the city I met a fellow who presented himself as a potential resource for my patients.
But I first wanted to test him out, so I made an appointment. He had an elegant setup on Via Veneto, and his matter-of-fact request for full-body nudity wasn’t particularly unusual. The significance of his insistent focus on my abdomen and inner thighs was just beginning to sink in when he suddenly stopped and announced he’d decided to shoo away anyone waiting for his services.
I scrambled into my clothes and fled, noticing, as I hadn’t before, that the diploma on his wall featured the word “tantric.” What truly astonished me was not the attempt at seduction, but the chutzpah of thinking that masturbating a physician was the royal road to new referrals. That encounter marked the end of my experience with Italian male masseurs.
In addition to its emerging effects and the way it allows a person to feel transported, watsu is also among the most sensual of bodyworks. Learning to practice it includes learning to pay close, constant attention to avoiding any hint of sexual charge. I pride myself on being good at that.
When my mother was 82, and I was barely out of my training, I took her to “Extasia” for a session. After concentrating for an hour on keeping her nose out of the water, and hoping my hands hadn’t communicated my anxiety at daring to give a watsu to my own mother, I ended the session in the standard way: I brought her to the side of the pool, set her back against the wall and her feet on the floor, touched her third-eye and heart chakras, and gently slid my fingers off hers, so we reverted to being two people instead of one.
I then backed off a few feet, as one does, to wait for her to come back to the normal world. I was eager to hear her first reaction. Would she be ecstatic? Mildly appreciative? Maternally supportive? Maternally critical? When she opened her eyes she looked straight at me and said, “Well, I guess that’s probably an excellent means of lesbian seduction.”