The scene: a warehouse adjacent to a church in Jonesboro, about 18 miles south of Atlanta. COVID-19 is raging, and a bouncer with a forehead thermometer checks people’s temperatures at the door. But the pandemic precautions are primarily for show. This is a bacchanalia, and the hundred or so women inside the warehouse are mostly unmasked, downing cocktails at their tables. The occasion is a birthday celebration for a male stripper known as “12 Play.” On stage, a naked stripper drips molten wax onto his penis as a group of women screams and cheers. “Somebody rub it in!” the announcer barks. “You better get your money’s worth.”
In the loft above, Ray, a handsome, Black, muscled 45-year-old former stripper turned licensed massage therapist is standing next to a blue vinyl table, a white cloth mask covering his face and a red Lysol spray bottle at the ready to sanitize the table in between customers. As two women stroke the enormous organ on the stage below, Ray oils and kneads the back of a woman who is lying facedown on the table, twerking. Ray begins gyrating as well, and the woman’s friend holds her cellphone aloft, recording this rather untraditional massage.
Throughout the party, Ray’s $25 massages skirt the line between therapeutic and erotic. He’ll caress a woman’s glistening calves, then bend and flex them, moving them rhythmically in circles. Observing this semipublic spectacle, I wonder whether Ray offers more overtly sexual services behind closed doors. After the party, I reach out to Ray, who confirms that my suspicions are correct. In additional to standard massages, he provides his female clientele with hand jobs, oral sex and vaginal sex, all for a standard rate of $1 a minute (but he’s flexible, he says).
Ray, whose real name is not used here so that he can talk openly about the illegal aspects of his business, doesn’t advertise his sexual services. “Being a therapist and being licensed, if you do stuff like that you get in real trouble,” he says. His Instagram profile merely mentions that he performs 30-to-120-minute massages, including hot stone and deep tissue. But a quick scan of his posts gives an idea of his other offerings. In one post, a woman in a bustier and tight shorts speaks directly to the camera, offering her review: “It was perfect. You got all the right spots.” In another video, saxophone music plays, water can be heard dripping in the background, and as a woman lies nude on the table, facedown, Ray kneads his hands into her oiled buttocks, his right hand migrating to the front of her body. She moans deeply and the video cuts off.
Happy-ending massages, which can involve anything from a hand job to penetrative sex, are common at neon-lit strip-mall massage parlors around the country. Because such services are illegal almost everywhere in the United States, it is nearly impossible to know just how common they are. But RubMaps, a website where customers review happy-ending massage parlors, lists more than 28,000 locations across the country. The industry largely exists because of demand from male customers, but a small and growing number of women are now seeking out happy-ending massages, and some massage therapists are beginning to accommodate them.
It’s possible that happy endings for women are happening in many massage parlors in the United States. (I was offered one myself in Flushing, Queens, a few years ago), but they are so rarely discussed that it’s hard to know. In researching this piece, I talked to several women in different parts of the country who’ve paid for happy-ending massages.
One Atlanta-based sex worker has a rotation of three male masseurs who come to her condo, where she has her own massage table. She believes that all women should get this kind of massage, because it’s a way for them to focus on their own pleasure — an opportunity women don’t always get in a patriarchal society.
Another woman was shocked when a strip-mall masseur in suburban Houston seemed to insinuate a happy ending was on the table; yet months later she found herself constantly thinking about it and went back to the same masseur. This time, she didn’t decline and had an amazing orgasm.
In Canada, England and Australia, where sex worker laws are more lax, there are perfectly legal somatic sex educators and sexological bodyworkers whose work straddles the line between sex work, therapy and massage. According to the Institute of Somatic Sexology, which provides certification for sexological bodyworkers, the practice involves “active receiving, anal touch, internal and external genital mapping, breathwork, scar tissue remediation, and Orgasmic Yoga coaching.” Much of it involves bringing clients to orgasm. One client told me that her sexological bodywork was like sex education. “There was an awareness of sensitivity in my genitals … that somehow got woken up in the work that I did with him,” she said. Another client, Kate, who booked a bodywork session after a bad breakup, said, “I was feeling like no one will ever love me again and I’m undesirable. … It felt very healing to get that massage.”
But in the United States, at least for now, a woman interested in this kind of service is only likely to come across it by chance or in thinly veiled promotions for an illicit business like Ray’s.
As a young adult, Ray had no aspirations of providing orgasms for cash. His journey into the world of happy endings for women began in New Orleans in the 1990s, where he was living with his girlfriend, raising their twins. He was working as a parking attendant, making fairly good money, until the company he worked for lost their contract with the hotel. Suddenly he was out of work, with two small children to support, and needed to find a new job.
Ray was wandering down Bourbon Street, dodging the drunken revelers and checking out storefronts, when he saw a sign that read “Male Dancers.” He had no formal dance training, but that didn’t stop him from entering the club and asking, “You hiring?”
“Yeah. Let me see you with your shirt off,” the woman said.
The 5-foot-4, 138-pound father removed his T-shirt, showing off a torso toned from regular workouts.
“You’ll work,” she said.
And that was that. His girlfriend “was kind of on the fence” about his new job, Ray says, but he jumped in anyway.
There was no stripper school. Ray had to learn on his own. “The dance part I picked up from watching other dancers,” he says. But he quickly realized that, while in good shape, he was shorter and less muscled than many of the other performers, so he needed something else to help him stand out. Fortunately, he met a promoter named Maurice.
“Maurice used to be a dancer, but then he got shot,” Ray explains. Now in a wheelchair, Maurice had switched to promoting strip shows, and was calling himself “Mo’Better.” Mo’Better, who was a few years older than Ray, became somewhat of a mentor. He taught Ray to think of stripping as showmanship that went way beyond merely taking off your clothes, advising him to show off his personality, and to wear costumes similar to those in professional wrestling.
Another mentor was “Big Calvin,” a 6-foot-4 stripper who couldn’t dance but found other ways to make money. “He’d walk around and just talk to people and say, ‘I can tie my dick in a knot,’” Ray recalls. Then when a customer would ask to see it, he’d charge them $50. Following Big Calvin’s lead, Ray strove to be more of an entertainer, chatting up customers, sometimes falsely claiming he could tie his own dick in a knot. Then, when they’d ask to see it, he’d change the subject. Because the customers were usually drunk, fairly wealthy, and on Bourbon Street, they didn’t mind. They just wanted “to do something they ain’t never done before and experience something that they can’t tell their spouse about,” he says.
But Ray found an area where he did excel: table dances and private dances. The table dances occurred out in the open. He’d hoist a black box onto a woman’s table to provide her with a better view of his body and gyrate away. The private dances took place in the champagne room, a separate, darkened area with booths. “It was kind of secluded, but if a manager walked by you could still see in,” he says. Private dances didn’t involve sex — managers didn’t allow it and clubs were frequently raided by police — although some of the women made it clear that they wanted it. Sometimes the stripping would lead to more: He’d be invited to hotel rooms by customers and have sex with them — but he wouldn’t charge.
By the time he was in his late 20s, Ray had put on 40 pounds of muscle and was dancing in multiple clubs on Bourbon Street. His sole focus was earning a living. “The object of working at [this] type of club is to make money,” he says. There were plenty of distractions — “80 to 90 percent of my co-workers were on some type of drug,” he says. “They were making money [to support] their habit.” But Ray didn’t do drugs and says he was responsible with his money. Still, after many years of wild nights, he and his girlfriend broke up. He says it wasn’t because of his stripper lifestyle. “We just had different types of paths that we were going on. I went back to college and did one semester of business classes, and I aced that.”
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. The city was decimated. Ray doesn’t think his house was destroyed but says, “I never went back to find out.” He viewed the hurricane as a sign it was time to leave New Orleans and, like so many others, start a new life elsewhere.
In September 2005, he arrived in Atlanta with his then-girlfriend; they got married a month later, and he set out on a new business path: “I started massage school that Wednesday after we got married.” About 90 percent of his fellow students were female, and the training was focused on therapeutic massage. “Massage school did not want to put anything in our minds about sex,” he says. “They wanted to push medical, medical, medical.” Yet that’s not where all the jobs are. Ray says many of his fellow students went on to become happy-ending masseuses.
Ray’s first job out of massage school was at a bland national chain that is kind of like the Panera Bread of the massage world: It’s got brand recognition and provides adequate service, but few people are excited about their offerings. Although the chain doesn’t sell sexual services, some of Ray’s clients insinuated that that was what they wanted. “But they didn’t come out and ask,” he adds. The moans he overheard from the other rooms indicated that some therapists acquiesced.
One day a woman wearing a black skirt and white shirt, with her hair in locks, waltzed into Ray’s massage studio. “She was built like Serena Williams,” he says. She disrobed, keeping her underwear on. The attraction between the two of them was palpable during her two-hour massage. “She came back the very next day.” And then she’d come by once a week. She began opening up to him, telling him about her life.
“Can you come to my hotel room?” she asked.
He said yes, and that’s when they finally had sex.
“It was kind of infused in the massage. It wasn’t like, ‘Give me $3,000 and we can have sex,’” he says. “But she still paid me, and she paid me pretty well.” She gave him around $150 each time; a big difference from the $39 per hour the chain charged for an hour-long massage. She also gave him gifts, including a massage table and a laptop.
Although he was making more money from these sexual encounters, he continued to work in the legitimate massage industry, and also took on a new gig at a mall, hawking chair massages to passing shoppers. (Ray’s marriage had ended by this point.)
One day, a lesbian couple came in for a massage. As he kneaded the shoulders of one of the women, she told him she wanted the massage because of back injuries she’d sustained on the job as a police officer. Her girlfriend was surprised that she was letting him touch her at all: She usually shied away from having strangers put their hands on her body. But she took a liking to Ray; they exchanged contact info and she invited him to the house she shared with her girlfriend. This was all completely out of character, the girlfriend said.
One day, Ray got a text from her that they were having a party, and she wanted to hire him as the on-site masseuse. On the day of the party, he arrived at 5 p.m., set up his table, and waited for hours until finally, at around 10 p.m., a guest wanted a massage. For the next five hours, until 3 a.m., he massaged nearly every woman at the party. Then, a few hours later, at around 6 a.m., he got a text from the woman who’d hired him. It read: “Whatcha do to those women? Are you trying to break up their relationships? They’re goin’ crazy!” Then the conversation suddenly shifted. She said she wanted to come over to Ray’s house. He told her to do it. Once she was there, she was direct. “I want to have sex with you,” she told him. But he hesitated.
“I was very flattered because she was a lesbian — but then I was not turned on because she was a lesbian.” He adds that he wasn’t particularly attracted to her. “So I gave her a little oral. And then it didn’t take her long to come.”
That was when Ray realized he might have a new business plan.
He decided to start his own business in an office space near the airport. He outfitted the room with dim lighting, candles and a ceramic water sculpture. From the beginning, he planned for it to be a mix of regular therapeutic massages and happy endings, which, of course, are illegal. Georgia even has a special law just for happy-ending massages. “Masturbation for hire” is a misdemeanor in the state, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Ray says he has his ways of learning what his clients want. He gives people a choice between a draped massage (with a sheet covering the customer) and undraped (no sheet). If a person requests an undraped massage and wants to be completely naked, he suspects they probably want at least a hand job. Regardless of whether the woman is draped or undraped, he begins with a regular therapeutic massage. “I still have to be kind of careful and let them take the lead,” he says. “So if I stretch their legs wide and over their head, then I kind of ease up — but if they’ve still got their legs wide open … ”
Ray believes that these sexual services should be legal, which would allow him to avoid the guessing game and have clear discussions with women before offering his services. “I think as adults, you should be able to legally say, ‘I want to go get this type of massage,’” he says.
Around 95 percent of his clients are women, most of them repeat customers who found him through Instagram ads or word of mouth. He doesn’t provide sex to men, but he does allow his male clients to masturbate if they want to. About 40 percent of the women he sees ask for sexual services, everything from a hand job to cunnilingus to intercourse.
“I think as many female clients want [happy endings] as male clients do,” he says. He sees himself as a “helper,” who provides women with relief from pressure and pain, followed by the “ultimate” type of release. He says women sometimes cry after their orgasms in his studio.
There was the 50-something white woman who came to his studio, and, like all his other customers, removed her clothes and stretched onto the table facefirst. He kneaded her back, her feet, her calves, her thighs. He brought her to what he called “her melting point.” Then he stopped, said the massage was over, and washed his hands. “You can continue the massage for a dollar a minute,” he told her. Visibly horny, she said yes. He began massaging her again. This time she was on her back. He asked if he could touch her genitals. She said yes.
She liked it so much that she came back for another massage a few weeks later. As he rubbed her, she purred, “I want you inside me.” She regaled him with a story about sleeping with a famous Black intellectual. The story backfired. You’re talking about this other guy, and you think that turns me on? Ray thought to himself. It was a hand job only for her.
Another memorable client was a long-legged backup dancer for a major pop star. She dialed Ray and said, “Come on over, I need a massage.” Ray packed up his oils and drove to her apartment in the ritzy Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead, for an outcall (where the masseur goes to the client). He entered the apartment and it was nearly empty. His eyes scanned for a place where he could do the massage.
“You ain’t got to worry about the table, you know, just come on in,” she said.
She grabbed a towel, placed it on the floor of the living room, took off her clothes, and laid facedown on the floor. He grabbed his massage oil bottle and drizzled oil on her back, moving from top to bottom, kneading her shoulders, her glutes, her thighs. He asked her to flip over; he oiled and rubbed her breasts, arms and legs, before going down on her.
Perhaps the most surprising clients are the married lesbians who come to him in secret to “get things that they can’t get from another woman,” he says. Some are afraid to tell their wives they are bisexual, Ray says, but he thinks they tell him because he “creates a safe energy for them.” He adds: “Some of them want something to happen, but they just don’t know how to [act on] it, or [they] may attempt not to act on it because of their personal situation.”
While some massage parlors in Atlanta have struggled since the pandemic and the series of horrific shootings at multiple parlors in March 2021, Ray’s business has thrived this past year. Some of his clients feel more comfortable going to him as opposed to a spa with multiple employees and multiple vectors for COVID-19. Others find his services more essential than ever. He estimates that his bookings have tripled this past year. “People need an outlet to let the stress out,” he says. “People are cooped up with their mates, and not everybody gets along well.”
Although Ray is now comfortable financially, he’s still growing his business. He recently started offering a “Friday After Dark Massage” between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., an experience complete with candlelight, beverages and heated aromatherapy oil. Those kinds of hours don’t leave much room for a personal life.
“I’m not dating anybody,” he says. “I’m not going out to a club. If I can make $300 to $500 working three to four hours on a Friday night, why not?”
Ultimately, he just thinks he’s found what he’s good at. “I’m a pleaser, and [helping people] just kind of comes naturally. I’ve had clients before who have said, ‘Wow, you found my spot.’ And they’ve been with such-and-such person for however many years and they never found it.”
When clients tell him that, Ray feels like he’s found his calling. “I get gratitude and satisfaction knowing that I’m good at something,” he says, before clarifying that “good” is perhaps an understatement.
When it comes to happy-ending massages, he says, “I’m one of the best who ever did it.”