In the course of SBS Thai Radio's recent investigations into the hidden sex work culture of the Thai massage industry in Australia, experts revealed that 'dodgy' massage shops are more common than you might think.
"The majority of illegal brothels that we see are in the form of massage shops," Senior Sergeant Richard Farrelly, of Victoria Police’s Sex Industry Coordination Unit (SICU) tells SBS Thai.
"A lot of those are in your suburban shopping strips, [places] like that."
Dr Helen Pringle, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales and a coordinator of the global research on prostitution says that there are many massage parlours that border on being brothels.
"There will be legitimate or ordinary massage that is offered,” she tells SBS Thai. "But there is also a possibility of 'happy ending.'"
"Often the employers will hire people to do massage but say 'if you want a bit of extra money, you can do ‘happy ending.'
"It's kind of not usually penetrative sex in the usual sense of prostitution.
"So this is kind of grey area that a lot of massage parlours operate, in between normal ordinary massage and brothels.
"A lot of workers in that grey area feel pressured to provide extra services in that way."
So how do you know if a massage shops is suspicious?
In the course of SBS Thai’s recent investigations, we spoke to several experts who gave tips on what red flags to look for. Some of these are listed below:
Signage doesn’t mean much
Joy* a Thai masseuse in her thirties who has worked at several massage parlours in Sydney for about a year says that flashing signs saying "open" and "massage" can’t always be taken as a sign that sexual services are available there.
According to Victoria Police, signs saying ‘no sexual services’ at massage shops cannot guarantee that the places offer only genuine massage.
"We often see when we go into massage shops is a sign that says ‘no sexual services’ and we see that quite a lot," says Senior Sergeant Richard Farrelly.
"But what we come up against time and time again is that a lot of the time they still have that sign, they still provide sexual services."
"Ask them what are their opening hours," suggests Tricia Hughes, CEO of Massage Myotherapy, which is the Association of Professional Therapists in Australia.
Shops open until very late hours at night, for example until 10-11pm or later, are often a red flag.
"Perhaps if their opening hours are quite unusual for a general health business to be opened, like 10am-10pm, that’s quite unusual."
"You wouldn’t see a physio or a GP operating in those hours."
Tricia Hughes, CEO of Massage Myotherapy says that it's worth being wary can be suss if you can't see inside, "particularly where the windows are completely covered in on the front of the shops."
Joy says its worth noting if you cannot see inside the shop from outside - especially when the inside of the shop is completely covered from view so that you can’t see the reception desk and people inside the shop.
How private is it?
Further to the above, Joy said that it’s very difficult to identify dodgy massage shops from their appearance alone. But the shops with less privacy in their massage areas, it’s more difficult to provide sexual services.
Think about massage shops where clients are massaged on chairs lined next to each other.
"For Thai massage shops, it depends on each business. From the outside appearance alone, it’s impossible to tell. For Chinese massage shops, I think those in shopping malls won’t offer sexual services. But most of the Chinese massage shops on the streets offer sexual services,” said Joy.
Some dodgy shops have back doors for clients to access without being noticed, offering very private massage rooms.
The shops mainly target male clients
The shops advertise about their staff using describing their age, appearance, race, and promoting new staff. Tricia Hughes, CEO of Massage Myotherapy says, "Where there is advertising that [promotes] different girls everyday, new fresh girls so come and enjoy your relaxation, people need to be very careful about what’s on offer."
What are their qualifications?
Tricia Hughes, CEO of Massage Myotherapy which is the Association of Professional Therapists in Australia, says "Some of the other things people should consider if they go in to the shops, is to ask the therapists where they have been trained."
"Ask some really genuine questions about their membership, are they part of a professional association and where they got their qualifications from.”
She says, "if they [clients] ask serious questions of the practitioners if they go into the clinics, if they check on our website on our directory, they are going to have more confidence in their therapists they are going to see."
Is it clothing-optional?
Ann* a massage business owner from Melbourne, explains that professional massage therapists let their clients keep their underwear on while being massaged. Professional massage therapists are aware that being naked can make both the client and the masseuse feel uneasy. So to make the clients be able to relax, asking them to keep the underwear on is better for everyone.
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons