A Touching Quest for Intimacy


Are spas a watered-down version of brothels for women, places where intimacy is bought?

The logical conclusion of equality between the sexes means women will be as rapacious in their need to consume and commodify sex as men. At least if the nihilistic French writer Michel Houellebecq is to be believed. His novel Platform envisages sex holidays where both men and women have sexual partners, recruited from the impoverished local population, included in their package holidays alongside all-you-can-eat buffets.


This imagined dystopia is becoming reality. In Britain, The Observer has reported that female sex tourism is growing in Third World countries, with holidays catering for British women whose husbands stopped touching them decades ago.

In Australia, there are watered-down versions of brothels for women, places where intimacy is bought, and we can’t get enough of them. They’re called day spas. There is no sex in day spas, just a lot of intimacy, and moves that wouldn’t be out of place in the bedroom. Overwhelmingly, spas are a woman’s domain, putting that old fashioned idea into play: men just want to f—, women just want to be touched.

In day spas, it’s a touch-a-rama – in a safe, feminised space with lyrical lute music, muted voices, and cups of herbal tea. The action happens in rooms varying from the comfortingly medicinal to the fabric-draped and scented-candle exotic.

Last year, I had an interesting job as day spa reviewer – a task which would sometimes involve visiting four or five luxury spas a week.

At each of these day spas, the shtick would be remarkably similar. Sip a cup of herbal tea from a thimble-sized cup in a neutrally coloured waiting room while filling out a questionnaire inquiring if you have AIDS or are pregnant. Being led by an attractive person into another room with flattering lighting and being told to disrobe. Lying prone on a table covered in an inadequately sized, towel while “soothing” music is piped through, and the service provider starts the procedure by massaging your feet with oils or doing a rubby, stroky thing on your scalp, and while you’re trying to stifle one of two responses – moaning with pleasure or seizing up in a kind of rigor mortis from the invasiveness of it all.

Yet we can’t get enough of a stranger’s touch. The number of day spas across Australia more than doubled – to 503 – between 2002 and 2006, according to research cited by Tourism Australia. According to the Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of people employed in the massage industry has tripled in the past 10 years. And online searches for day spas on the Yellow Pages website jumped 75 percent between 2001 and 2006.

In this competitive spa environment, new “products” are being introduced which lean towards the more invasive, not less. In my year reviewing, I was poked, prodded and stroked in places which had nothing to do with having a “facial.” At one luxury hotel, I submitted my vulnerable, unclothed self to a “musical massage”. The masseur put on music of his choice (a samba) and proceeded to free-style massage me like he was beating on bongo drums. This type of novelty massage has no discernible health benefit but is becoming hugely popular, according to the spa’s PR.

In the era of political correctness and sensitivity about sexual harassment at work, we have outsourced intimacy and commodified touch. It’s something you book an appointment for, set aside an afternoon for and give that horrid, cloying name: “me-time”.

That “me-time” is something that we must pay for – that gets ritualised and commercialised; it is intimacy at arm’s length. It varies from a visit to a brothel only by degrees: paying to be touched by a stranger, commodifying pleasure and when it’s all over, walking out of the ritualised space with little memory or second thought to the person who had been working on you for the last hour, the need for intimacy temporarily sated. It’s pretty sad when you think about it. We need to de-commodify touch before we get too used to pay for pleasure.

Maybe we just need to touch each other more, and stop handing over huge sums for a back rub. Stop giving your loved ones overpriced spa vouchers for birthdays or Christmas. Give them a hug instead. For an hour. Clothes optional.

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