active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

On the other hand: from hysteria to relaxation massage

On my walk home from my office each night, I pass a large illuminated sign fixed across the second story of an apartment block offering ‘relaxation’ therapy. As you can see from the image, Google Map has no problem showing it, though they blur the sign for the voice training studio next door.


On its website, the business advertises for young women (“20–30 years old”) to join its therapists, but their only qualifications for employment seem to be “a bright smiling face and a warm personality” — things you’d expect of a hostess, one of those women that Japanese businessmen pay money to talk to while they drink.

The website lists ten therapists on call, each with a dimly lit photo of a girl in casual clothing with her face turned away from the camera. Their descriptions run along these lines: “Young, cute woman with fair complexion and calm personality. Very beautiful smile. Comfortable to be with. Be entranced by my moist bare-skin massage. Please try me!”

In general, ‘relaxation’ is one of those willful euphemisms Japan uses to pretend to itself that it’s not breaking the law against prostitution. (Similar methods are used to circumvent the prohibition on gambling.)

This is the country that had to rename its ‘Turkish baths’ when a visiting Turkish dignitary got more than he bargained for. Imagine this: Japan held a public competition to find a replacement euphemism! The winner ‘soapland’ has that disingenuous cuteness you’d expect of a country that sells Hello Kitty vibrators. Sorry, I mean relaxation massagers.

‘Soapland’ might enable married men to pretend to themselves that they’re not visiting a whore after a night on the town, but when they arrive home smelling fresher than when they set out, their wives are certainly not fooled.

Japan has a curious relationship with prostitution, one both refreshingly practical and absurdly obfuscated. While courtesans in samurai drama are romanticized and all but venerated, the reality was — and remains — squalid.

The duplicity is exemplified by the comfort stations Tokyo set up to service the sudden influx of American GIs during the American occupation in 1945. The practical reason was to try to limit rape. The absurdity? Large numbers of young Japanese girls were recruited to staff these premises with the sweetly naive and heartbreakingly patriotic belief that they’d be doing no more than holding hands with those brave conquering foreigners.

On the first day, these girls were made to satisfy as many as 60 men each, which over an eight hour shift means a sex act every eight minutes. At the end of that first day, many of them committed suicide.

You may have little sympathy, given what Japan did to the women in the countries it occupied, most notoriously Korea. But having shoved its boys in kamikaze planes in the name of Shinto, it was obviously time to give its girls a share of the country’s humiliation.

Largely, unless you’re religious, you grew out of euphemisms regarding death by the time you became an adult. But our society never grows out of its euphemisms for sex. In her excellent 1999 study The Technology Of Orgasm, Rachel Maines documents the ways in which women’s ‘hysteria’ (from the same root as ‘hysterectomy’) was treated throughout history, and how even today you’re likely to find vibrators masquerading as massagers in the starchier women’s magazines.

Japanese television advertises these massagers day and night. I’ve even see them on Cartoon Network. Young female models are shown applying the least suggestive attachments to their shoulder blades.

For full body romance, try a massage chair. OSIM Malaysia’s latest chair, currently being promoted via heavy rotation on CNN Asia, is the curiously named uLove. “International artiste” Fan Bingbing, a beautiful, alluring and badly overdubbed model, coos all over the uLove while computerized imagery demonstrate how the chair’s special rollers massage her perfect buttocks. “I sleep better every night,” she declares. She gazes knowingly at the chair. “You are my one and only love.”

Meanwhile, massage itself often comes with a little added value. My wife, like most Japanese women, loves to take a massage once or twice a week. A few years back, she used to tell me regularly how the masseur tried to give her more than she was expecting.

It would take a couple of strong hints to get him to move his hands away, suggesting that the women who visit these parlors go with a tacit understanding that this might be on the menu, and that it is provided as a service (in Japanese, this word means a free extra) unless indicated otherwise.

Strangely, she hasn’t told me those stories recently. Umm.

As Maines shows, the therapeutic female hand-job is far from a recent development. A doctors’ compendium from 1653 advises the following for hysteria: “Ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside. …In this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm. This kind of stimulation with the finger is recommended…most especially for widows, those who live chaste lives, and female religious [sic].” For everyone else, the husband is expected to do his marital duty.

It’s a curious double standard. While hysteria was a medical disorder that could be alleviated by a visit to the doctor, masturbation was a morally shameful act that caused health problems.

The difficulty seems to be that most men, including most physicians, had no experience of the female orgasm and many believed that vaginal sex or ejaculation were pleasure enough for women. The muscle convulsions and discharge that signaled the ‘paroxysm’ could therefore be misidentified as something else.

Of course, not all doctors were idiots. But they probably wouldn’t talk about what was going on. The women also knew this was a means to an end. Providing the service was lucrative and — even though you may rightly protest at how sexist the diagnosis of hysteria was — many women would take frequent trips to their doctor’s couch to get relief from their ‘symptoms.’

Between trips, women were encouraged to use home remedies such as swings, hammocks and rocking chairs, go horseback riding, take long train journeys, or visit spas for ‘hydrotherapy’ (carefully directed water jets). The height of hysteria was, as you’d expect, the Victorian era, when more than just tight corsets were giving fainting fits to the weaker sex.

The curious thing, as the quote above shows, is that the job was generally passed off to a subordinate. Male physicians found women’s bodies disagreeable, even repugnant. The speculum was invented purposefully so that doctors didn’t have to touch those nasty bits with their bare fingers.

Today, of course, you’d have young male practitioners offering to do genital massage for free. To the doctors of the time, it was a chore. It might take an hour of vigorous manipulation to get the desired response. If you were to expand your clientele, you needed a quicker method.

Enter the electromechanical vibrator, which was invented by a British physician almost immediately after the first electric power station came online in 1882. By the 20th Century the device had become a home appliance, which Maines notes was advertised in magazines such as Needlecraft as an aid to health and relaxation.

“All the pleasures of youth…will throb within you” as one 1916 ad promised. The devices were even targeted at men to give their loved ones as gifts to make them bright eyed and bushy-tailed.

The rise of the home massager and a greater awareness of women’s sexuality took the device out of the doctor’s surgery. The phenomenon of hysteria soon faded away, and by the 1960s the device was known for what it was — except, of course, where you might want to sell it to bored mothers on Cartoon Network, or obtain it under your husband’s radar.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how the computer age liberated women. Here’s another example in which technology made life better for women, helped facilitate a less androcentric medical system, and made treatment less of a burden for those poor physicians who were spending far too much of their time fingering virgins and nuns.

Cheer Up Sleepy Gene-S

Robert Maas’s terrifying sex comedy Cheer Up Sleepy Gene is available to buy at Amazon.


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