Getting your naked body rubbed down by a stranger during a deep-tissue massage can be somewhat erotic, whether you mean for it to be or not. Your massage therapist might accidentally rub your butt in a way that reminds you of a sexual experience that you've had, or you might get turned on by just being naked and under a sheet. It happens. Then there are those massages that are intentionally sexy and conclude with a "happy ending," or some sort of sexual transaction. So what if you go for one of those when you're in a relationship. Have you cheated? Mostly, it depends.
"Nothing counts as infidelity, and everything counts as infidelity if your partner and you are not on the same page with what counts as a betrayal," says Logan Levkoff, PhD, an AASECT-certified sex educator and relationship expert. You and your partner might have an understanding that having transactional experiences outside of your partnership works really well, Dr. Levkoff says. But every relationship is different, so it's difficult to frame what infidelity is and isn't unless you actually talk about it.
"Infidelity comes up in our lives like a landmine," says Michael Guichet, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy. "If we had the vocabulary or bravery to have these conversations about what cheating and infidelity is in our relationships, it would be easier." If you and your partner believe that any form of sexual gratification outside of your relationship isn't acceptable, then, sorry, that happy ending massage would be considered cheating. However, you might decide together that it's something you're both okay with. There's no right or wrong answer — unless you're skipping the conversation and sneaking around.
So start with the talk. Shannon Chavez, PsyD, a clinical sex therapist, recommends going into the conversation with integrity and openness. If you approach it feeling like you've done something wrong, your partner will pick up on it and feel concerned. "The goal isn’t to get them to agree that this is an acceptable behavior," she says. "The importance is to talk about it and address how to explore meeting these desires within the relationship."
Role play or fantasy play is a great place to gauge your partner's ideas about this kind of thing, Guichet says. Tell your partner that you'd love to explore a fantasy about sex work, and then simply ask what their thoughts are about sex work or happy ending massages in general, he suggests. "Trying to investigate a person's ideas is a safer way to have a conversation, because you can see how they respond," he says.
Or you might want to ask your partner if they've ever had an experience where a massage wound up being sexual, Dr. Levkoff says. They might say, "Yes, and it was great" or "No, I would never do that." Then, you could tell your partner that you've always been curious about what that's like, and are thinking about getting one, she suggests. "This helps you have bigger conversations about where your boundaries are in your relationship," she says.
It's important to point out that there's a big difference between deliberately seeking a massage that ends in sexual gratification, and accidentally experiencing one, Dr. Levkoff says. Some people might have an unexpected experience with a happy ending, and then not know how to tell their partner, so they decide to lie about it. "That sets up problems in the relationship about being authentic and open about your sexuality," Dr. Chavez says. "If you have to hide a part of your sexuality out of fear, shame, or embarrassment, then there are bigger problems in the relationship that need to be addressed."
The key to determining whether or not a massage is considered "betrayal" completely depends on your personal relationship structure. "The fact is, places exist for a reason, the same way pornography and erotica exists, because happy ending massages fill a need for a lot of people," Dr. Levkoff says. So, talk about it. And if all else fails, you could always just give your partner an erotic massage, and figure out an ending that makes you both happy.