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.'"
Chemistry with your masseur is a key factor, and one that can't always be controlled. But if it's present, the possibilities are endless. "I was going through a divorce and feeling like hell," said Alexa, a 30-year-old attorney. "So I went to a high-end spa for a massage, and the only person available was a guy — I was nervous, I'd never had a man massage me before. He ended up being so hot. I was turned on the whole time, but nothing happened. Then I went back two weeks later. I was on my stomach while he massaged my back, and when I turned around, topless, we started making out. He said, 'I can't do this, it's unprofessional,' so we stopped. But when I went back a third time, we ended up having sex in the massage room. After that, we started dating."
Nonetheless, it's important to remember that the risks can be high for massage therapists. Every state (save Nevada and Rhode Island) considers prostitution illegal, and in some states it can lead to months of jail time. Also upping the ante is the gray area surrounding sexual assault, generally defined as nonconsensual touching of the genital area.
So how hard is it to find that perfect massage combination of chemistry, timing, setting, and mood? I hit the massage tables to find out. Stop No. 1 was Cornelia Day Spa on Fifth Avenue, known for its Chanel-clad clientele and handsome male staff. I booked a Swedish massage and showed up with high expectations. But after 60-minutes of awkwardness peppered with a few moans that provoked no response besides "Is the pressure OK?" I decided to call in reinforcements. So I dispatched a sexy and adventurous friend, Joanna, on a spa mini-marathon, with instructions to request a male massage therapist and, if possible, end each massage with a big finish.
Her first stop was Great Jones Spa, a relaxation Mecca for the downtown set. "It was definitely a 'my husband is a venture capitalist, I eat vegan and live in a loft' kind of crowd," said Joanna, who made sure to request "the best man you have" for her Swedish massage. The result was Andy, a pony-tailed Adonis with bicep tattoos and a winning smile. As he massaged her thighs, she flirted with comments like, "That feels sooo good" and "Feel free to keep going." At first, her advances brought no response, but after a while he treated her to a polite, non-judgmental lecture about how "going there" was against the rules, and he loved his job too much to put it at risk.
"I was feeling a little rejected," Joanna said. "But after it was over, he rushed out to the waiting room to introduce me to his girlfriend — apparently she was nearby — and asked if I wanted to 'hang out' with the two of them sometime. So I felt better — though I said no."
Next was the ultra-opulent Mandarin Oriental Spa, known for its lavish views and obsequious service. "I felt like I could throw a fit over the temperature of my Pellegrino, and it wouldn't be out of the ordinary," Joanna observed. This time, her method consisted of suggestive moaning and pulling the strategically placed towel away during the "inner thigh" portion of her deep tissue massage. Her masseur, immaculately groomed and very clearly gay, resisted her advances, saying simply, "I love my job here, and I'd do anything to keep it." Afterwards, he pulled her aside and said, "Honey, I think what you need is to visit the Vitality Pool."
"I couldn't figure out what he meant," she said. "Then I saw the Vitality Pool." Located in the ladies-only "Heat Experience Room," it consists of a tub filled with room-temperature water, a bench made of metal bars, and intense water jets that shoot up straight from the floor. "As soon as I sat down, I realized what he was getting at," said Joanna. "There's no point of having an open bench in a hot tub where jets shoot up between your legs other than to have an orgasm. It took me all of two minutes of sitting there [to climax], then the woman who went in after me looked like she took 30 seconds."
While the experience was refreshing ("I definitely left with a glow") we still had two spas down and no results. Then Joanna got a tip in the Mandarin's plush relaxation room. "I started chatting with this woman in her mid-thirties, who looked like she went to spas all the time," she said. "When I mentioned I was going to another spa tomorrow, she told me 'Oh, you have to go to Cornelia. You should ask for Tron [definitely not his real name]; he's fantastic.' Her voice did not sound like she was describing a massage."
The next day, Joanna arrived at Cornelia primed for victory. "The second I saw Tron, we had instant chemistry," she said. "He was definitely hot. I flirted with him all the way from the waiting room to the massage room, and we chatted about our lives. When we got inside, I talked about how I hated having underwear and towels constricting me during massages, and he said, 'I'm comfortable with you having them off.' About 15 minutes into the massage, I let my hand graze his thigh and I could see his erection. Finally, he turned me over, and it was on."
Kissing turned to heavy petting with a strong dose of grinding, until he was on top of her on the massage table. Joanna recalls the make-out session as being totally comfortable — at one point, they both started laughing — but after the first few minutes, she broke away, saying, "I'm sorry, this is so inappropriate." His response: "Sweetie, you are my reward for the two men who asked me for happy endings earlier today. I told them no — but for you, I won't tell if you won't." When she coyly asked if she was the first woman who'd expressed interest in more than a massage, he sidestepped with, "Well, you know how it is."
The impromptu liaison went on for the rest of the hour, and another 30 minutes beyond. "It was very romantic and totally mutual — it didn't feel like I was just being serviced," she recalls. "He asked after a while if I wanted to have sex, but neither of us had a condom," said Joanna. "I considered giving him a blow job, but then I was like, 'I'm paying for this!'"
Her advice after a successful venture? "You have to be open to having that kind of experience. And not exactly be subtle about what you want." When it comes to massage sex, the chances are high that you'll encounter fuzzy boundaries and ephemeral guidelines, and one woman's violation may be another's fantasy. But just as with a female presidential candidate, whether you think happy endings are the pinnacle of bliss or the apex of vileness, it's still nice to have the option.