Chances are you've heard the story: an unmarked door leads to a dimly-lit massage parlor where women with strong hands and tolerant smiles await a train of libidinous male patrons. The "happy ending" tale is all too common, a mixture of truth and urban legend that captivates male imaginations even in an age of casual sex and unlimited Internet porn.
"It's always a certain type of place," said Brian, a 41-year-old screenwriter who admits to visiting the odd "men's spa" or two (though never, of course, for that). "You go for a reason, and you know what you're getting when you walk in the door."
The rest of spa culture, meanwhile, is dominated by women. There are more than 14,000 spas in the U.S. bringing in around $10 billion in annual revenue, and their predominantly female clientele average more than 100 million visits per year. With all that time spent around low lighting, soft music, and heavy rubbing, it can be tough not to think of sex. But until recently, the female version of "happy endings" has remained doggedly taboo.
Luckily, any "rules" restricting female sexuality are dying as fast as Sex and the City repeats can slay them, and it was only a matter of time before women embraced the notion that "quick releases" aren't just for men. And with competition among spas getting ever more intense, customers are starting to demand more than just Enya and free herbal tea with their Shiatsu, according to massage therapists. "It's such a well-known thing for guys, and women are finally getting more comfortable asking for it," said Anna, a self-described "massage healer" who has worked at several upscale spas and performed happy endings on female customers. (Names have been changed to protect the less-than-innocent.) "Women are finally getting comfortable with the idea that it's ok to feel erotic in what's already a really erotic setting."
The bottom line: We like massages and we like orgasms, so why shouldn't the two sometimes, er, come hand in hand?
The answer is that they can and do, though the logistics can get complicated. "With men, there's no subtle approach when it comes to a happy ending," said Tyler, a 6'4" hunk of tattooed muscle who has worked as a masseur at several New York City spas. "Some will ask outright, plus they have this appendage that's obvious, and gives you a clear idea of where they want to go. But with women, it's so subtle. There's really no way to know [if they want sexual contact], even if there's moaning and heavy breathing."
For many women (myself included) the idea of point blank asking a hot masseur to "finish me off" sounds about as appealing as a full-body exfoliation with Brillo pads. And as Samantha learned in the now-notorious SATC Episode 33, making demands can result in humiliation. So if you're into it, how do you avoid embarrassment and still come out fully satisfied?
The key, according to veterans like Amy, a 32-year-old model/actress who has had happy ending massages in two different states, is clear but subtle communication: "It's all about giving the right signals." She first discovered erotic massage during an in-room rubdown at an upscale Miami hotel. "Initially [the masseur] kept it very clean, but I was really turned on, and I let him know it by moaning and saying how good it felt. He started slowly touching my thigh, then going higher, and it turned into a game of how far each of us would take it. One thing led to another and he ended up finishing me off, which was great."
Occasionally, a spa's reputation for sensual goings-on will precede it, as with New York City's famed 10th Street Russian Baths. An East Village fixture famous for its massive steam rooms and "women only" days, it once drew celebrities from John Belushi to Frank Sinatra and now attracts a cross section of New Yorkers from Russian sexagenarians to downtown fashionistas.
"At first you're on your stomach, so they're just massaging your back," said Trish, a 29-year-old marketing manager who frequents the Baths. "Then they turn you over, and [my masseur] started massaging my breasts. My nipples got erect, so that must have sent him a signal. He started rubbing me on the pressure points around my hips. I was wearing bikini bottoms, and he never actually touched my clitoris or vagina; it was just all around the area. I did [have an orgasm]; afterwards, people kept stopping me on the street to say, 'Oh my God, you're glowing.'"