The Parlour Game: a behind-the-scenes tour of Toronto’s thriving rub ’n’ tug industry

The Parlour Game: a behind-the-scenes tour of Toronto’s thriving rub ’n’ tug industry

Over the last decade, spas have proliferated across the GTA faster than Starbucks (Image: Daniel Neuhaus)

Ivy glows like a 1930s starlet. She’s 27, with high, round cheekbones, rosebud lips and luminescent skin. She has worked at three erotic massage parlours, or so-called rub ’n’ tugs, in the GTA, where female attendants offer men “sensual release,” code for a session ending in a hand job. She agreed to tell me her story on the condition that I not reveal her true identity. For her customers, Ivy puts on a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice and wears retro baby doll nighties and stilettos. She mimics her high-pitched greeting for me: “How are you? I can’t wait to get started.” Her act appeals to her clients—typically white professionals who came of age when women like Ivy appeared in every car and scotch ad. Walk-ins can choose from the half-dozen women on shift, though many men pre-book Ivy based on her photo on the spa’s website.

Inside one of the spa’s five private rooms, Ivy and her client get more intimate. The space is cozy in a utilitarian way, with a shower stall in the corner and a padded massage table in the centre. But for a few boom-chicka-wah-wah details—mirrors on the ceiling, candles, lights turned down loooow—it could be an ordinary massage clinic. The client disrobes, showers (a city bylaw requirement) and lies facedown on the massage table.

Ivy spreads oil on his back and engages in small talk. “You having a good weekend?” “Have you been here before?” Nothing too heavy or revealing—she learned years ago that guys don’t want to hear about her master’s degree or an argument she’s had with her sister. They like her to be attentive, sweet, a
little helpless.

As she moves her hands further down his back she pays careful attention to his body language. If he spreads his thighs, Ivy knows she can start reciting “the menu”—the unlisted special services. The $40 door fee, which goes to the spa owners, gets him a standard half-hour massage; anything extra goes to Ivy. For $40 more, he can have a “nude”: Ivy gets naked, then gives him a basic massage ending in “hand release” (that is, his climax). For $60, he can get a “nude reverse,” which means he can massage and fondle Ivy in return. Sometimes the client might request something off-menu: to be tied up and whipped with a wet towel, for example. Or he might ask about “extras”: oral sex or intercourse. Fetish stuff isn’t Ivy’s favourite, but she’ll do it. Extras are a firm no.

The premium service is a “body slide,” for $80, which is something like a full-contact horizontal lap dance that requires an enormous amount of dexterity and stamina. Ivy will slip out of her nightie while the client turns over onto his back (“the flip,” in industry parlance). Assisted by massage oil, she lays herself face to face with him, stimulating his penis with her calves or thighs, or swivels to face his feet, so she can use her hand or breasts. Refined over hundreds of sessions, Ivy’s vocabulary of techniques and positions provide the visuals and friction of sex without penetration. On Internet message boards, men who frequently use escorts and visit body-rubs will review spa girls and criticize clumsy body slides. A good review can bring in dozens of new clients. Ivy’s reviews praise her talent for moving fluidly through multiple positions, as well as her movie-star bone structure and style. She extends the buildup so that orgasm occurs in the last five minutes of the body slide, with the guy “finishing” between Ivy’s hands, breasts, legs or feet. After years of doing slides, Ivy can time an ejaculation down to the second.

When the deed is done, she might spend a few minutes with him, hugging or chatting idly while he winds down. Some men want to be left alone, so she makes her way to the shower. Unless he’s paid for one of the more expensive 60- or 90-minute sessions, she’ll have to wrap it up quickly; spas depend on the speedy turnover of customers (some even charge attendants for keeping a client overtime). On the wall, above a table of massage oils, there’s a clock. She’s been watching it the whole time, though discreetly. The client might tip Ivy (anywhere from $20 to $60 is the norm), which ups the chances she’ll remember him the next time he comes in. Clients love it when attendants recall their names and what they like; some spa workers even log details in journals. With $80 for the body slide plus tip, she could make $120 in a half-hour session, easy, and, if she works three eight-hour days, often about $2,000 a week.

Once the client is gone, Ivy collects the towels and hauls them out to a back room where the women do laundry, gossip and check their email. Then she waits for the next guy to walk in the front door.

Over the last decade, spas have proliferated across the GTA faster than Starbucks. Many are concentrated on Finch near Keele (referred to by insiders as Finch Alley), as well as in the downtown Chinatown and in the strip malls of East York and Scarborough. The strip mall locations are ideal for men on the way home to the suburbs after work (the busiest time for many spas is around 5:30), and for customers who don’t want to be spotted.

The Parlour Game
Many spas set up in strip malls along commuter corridors like Finch and Keele (Image: Daniel Neuhaus)

Approximately 2,500 attendants work in the city’s 448 registered massage parlours. Only 25 of those are officially allowed to operate as body-rubs. The body-rub licence, which costs $11,794, permits attendants to be naked while performing massage. The rest of the parlours are designated as holistic centres (licences cost only $243), where attendants are prohibited from performing their job in the buff, though many of them do. And there are hundreds more spas, advertised in the classifieds of the weekly papers and on Craigslist, that are unlicensed and operate illegally out of apartments, condos and storefronts all over
the city.

Issuing spa licences earns the city approximately $800,000 a year. In addition, bylaw officers collect fines, running up to $500 each, for infractions such as having alcohol on the premises. In 2011, the city laid 554 charges against owners and workers—the most common infraction is staying open after the mandated 9 p.m. close for holistic centres. Parlours that habitually allow hand jobs or other sexual contact on their premises are breaking federal bawdy house laws. But such crime is low on the Toronto Police Service’s priority list: unless attendants are believed to be exploited by their employers, the cops generally leave spas alone.

Muse Massage Spa is located in the nondescript Finch-Keele Plaza, surrounded by auto dealers, low-rise office buildings and several spa competitors. It’s run by two women who go by the names Emily and Riley Muse. They bought a holistic spa business from its previous operator for $140,000 in 2009, and they won a body-rub licence in 2011, despite city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti’s objections to another massage parlour setting up in his ward.

Unlike many spas, which keep a low profile, Muse is trying to build customer loyalty with a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. Emily and Riley sponsor events at the downtown swingers club Oasis Aqualounge and run a booth at the annual Everything to Do With Sex Show. On a good day, with seven girls on shift, the parlour caters to 50 customers. During my tour, the doorbell rang and Riley ushered in a good-looking athletic type in his early 20s. I spotted another customer in a trench coat ducking out of a private room and scurrying out the exit with a briefcase, checking a BlackBerry in his palm. Toward the end of my visit, two elderly men appeared. A typical midday crowd, Emily explained, is made up of York students, businessmen on lunch breaks and retirees.

Emily and Riley are proud of their business. “Our girls make good money,” Emily said. “I encourage them to be smart with it—I have brokers, accountants and real estate agents they can work with. Get in, save, and get out—that’s my motto.” She prefers to hire university students or recent grads—they’re responsible, without the hardened edge of lifelong pros. “I like the fresh faces,” she said. As if to provide evidence, a pretty young black woman arrived for her shift, dressed in slouchy campus wear and carrying a backpack. “I just had the craziest test,” she told Emily.

Muse, like every other spa in Finch Alley, draws customers with the promise of quick, commitment-free encounters. Emily trains her staff in the importance of empathy: the best spa workers, she says, imagine what their clients go through every day. These men have wives who ignore them, jobs that are killing them. A visit to a body-rub can make them happy again, if only for 30 minutes.

On the sex trade spectrum, rub ’n’ tug staff are somewhere between pole dancers and escorts. Most of them lead double lives, keeping their work a secret even from close friends. Ivy told her family she was a receptionist at a day spa. She’d planned to work in graphic design after graduating from university, but couldn’t find a job in her field. She worked as a stripper to help pay her way through school, and she heard that spas were an easy way to make a lot of money. She took her first job at a holistic centre in a Hamilton suburb in 2009, and her first client was a factory worker named Mike. He ordered a nude reverse: after massaging Mike for 15 minutes, she climbed on the table and let him touch her. To keep him from crossing the line, she’d prepared a few stock phrases—“Just keep everything on the outside and we can still be friends,” and “There’s a lot more to having fun than blow jobs!”—but Mike didn’t give her any trouble. “I was nervous,” Ivy recalls. “I wasn’t used to being an actress delivering a fantasy to someone who paid for it.” It would take months of work before she developed the confidence of the four other girls she worked with, women who knew how to make clients feel desired and pampered while still working a good hustle.

The Parlour Game
(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)

The thing that surprised Ivy most was the clientele’s strict physical standards. When her roots weren’t touched up or her manicure was chipped, they noticed. Most of the attendants were constantly dieting and working out. In the lounge, in between loads of laundry, they traded exercise tips and grumbled about clients who complained online that they weren’t as toned as in their pictures. “It’s constant upkeep,” Ivy says. “I have to have my false lashes on, everything shaved, perfect makeup, nails. It can be exhausting.” She tells me about days she’d arrive for a morning shift still high from a night of partying. She’d vomit, shower, and then start in on a session with a client.

When the Hamilton spa closed a year after she started, Ivy took a job at a holistic centre near Yonge and Bloor. In the secretive world of spas, working conditions vary wildly. Her new place was little better than a sweatshop; she was expected to work 72 hours a week, both in the massage rooms and at reception, and was charged $10 shift fees for the first three clients of each day, meaning she had to work longer just to break even. Several clients tried to force her to perform oral sex or attempted to penetrate her. Once, she cut a session short when the client threatened her. “The owner fined me $40 for terminating the session,” she explains. “I was told that if I did it again, the fine would be doubled.” In the laundry room between sessions, the other girls talked about being assaulted and raped by clients. None of the staff went to the cops because they were wary of getting busted or putting their bosses under scrutiny.

Ivy was desperate to get out, but anxious enough about money that she didn’t make the jump until another masseuse told her that a body-rub parlour with friendly and reasonable owners was hiring. There were no shift fees, women worked a maximum of 40 hours a week, and they could terminate sessions if they felt uncomfortable with a client, no questions asked. Ivy left her downtown spa without notice. She requested a criminal background check on herself and visited her doctor for an STD test—both bylaw requirements for body-rub attendants. Within days, she was a licensed body rubber, complete with laminated photo ID.

Working at the new body-rub was a relief after the nightmare of her previous job. The atmos­phere was relaxed and her weekly paycheque jumped. But Ivy was still determined to get a legitimate job. Between clients, she worked on her graphic design portfolio or on small freelance projects for advertising firms.

She also experienced a type of burnout that’s unique to spa girls. Men who frequent massage parlours aren’t just there for the body slide; they like the banter, the feeling of being catered to and appreciated, and workers invest as much emotional as physical energy into their sessions. Ivy had an average of five clients a day, and she dreaded each appointment. The massage was one thing, but having to repeat the little spiel—How are you? Let’s try to keep our hands here—was a drain.

Last August, Ivy quit. She had a regular web design gig from a freelance client, and a boyfriend who worked as a photographer and had a small income from arts grants and selling pictures. Money is tight, but she says her life feels more authentic now.

“As a designer, I’m still selling myself,” she told me, “but now it’s not an act, it’s about me. It doesn’t matter what I look like or if my pedicure is done.” When I asked her if there was anything she missed, she admitted that she sometimes feels homesick for the spa laundry room, where she could confide in her co-workers without fear of judgment. On the other hand, she said, the past is past. “Now, when someone asks me what I do for a living, I can look them in the eye.”