SBS exposes hidden sex work culture of Australia’s Thai massage parlours

Wednesday 4 October, 2017

Media Release

Full SBS Radio online story here and tonight on The Feed, 7.30pm on SBS VICELAND

The reputation of ‘happy endings’ services in massage parlours has often raised questions and findings reveal that parlours offering sexual services are not difficult to find in Australia, given the promise of an ‘easy and quick’ income.

Mark Cummins, SBS Content Manager of Audio and Language Content, said: “SBS Thai Radio has received many concerned reports from the Thai community in Australia regarding this issue. The community’s trust in SBS has helped to shed light on an industry where new migrants who’ve learned traditional massage skills fall into sex work tempted by the promise of higher income.”

Joy* a Thai masseuse in her 30’s is living in Australia on a student visa, reveals that when she first started working in Australia, she would provide only legitimate massages, which usually pay half the total client fee, around $40 per hour.

However, the temptation of increased earnings changed her mind - with ‘extra’ services ranging between $20-$150, being negotiated directly with the masseuse and paid for in cash, an average weekly income can grow to $1,500-$1,700 cash for five days work.

She said: “The first time I offered a ‘hand job’, I was scared and panicked because I had never done it before. I asked myself ‘why do I have to do this?’ But at the same time, I told myself, ‘it’s ok, for money, for money.”

Ann*, a massage parlour owner from Melbourne, who says she is trying to run a legitimate business, explains the three types of disguised massage shops in Australia: ‘Out in the open’ advertise openly about recruiting staff and talk to their clients about available sexual services; ‘One eye close’ pretend these sexual services are not available yet allow their staff to offer them; and ‘Hidden’ massage parlours declare there are no sexual services, yet individual staff might offer them secretly.   

While the owners of disguised massage parlours do not earn any cash payments for ‘extras’, Joy adds that they benefit from increased bookings brought in by masseurs who offer sexual services.
In all Australian states, except from South Australia, it’s not illegal to sell sex. Brothels are subject to regulation but massage parlours offering ‘hidden’ operate outside of this.

Dr Helen Pringle, Senior Lecturer of the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, says that many massage parlours are bordering on being brothels and that the lack of distinction, results in many workers being unclear about what they are signing up for.

“A lot of workers in that grey area feel pressured to provide extra services in that way – the employer doesn’t like to have an upset customer…it’s not even coercion so much as an expectation that if that request is made, that request will be fulfilled,” she said. 

Many in the industry fear that speaking out will lead to complications as a result of more police and regulation checks and while many break their visa conditions regarding rights to work and stay in Australia, others fear being stigmatised from working in the sex industry.

Victoria Police’s Sex Industry Coordination Unit (SICU) Senior Sergeant, Richard Farrelly, told SBS Radio that there are many disguised massage businesses in Australia but that they are difficult to police.

He said: “There are very few barriers to entry…it will depend on the council if a permit is required and whether a qualification of staff is required…The nature of the industry is a ‘pop up’ industry, [which] can open one day and close down the next.”

CEO of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), Cameron Cox claims that some councils hold hostile and restrictive views towards premises offering sexual services, even when they are legitimate businesses.

When asked if she is a victim of sexual slavery, Joy tells SBS Thai Radio that she and other workers agree to offer ‘extras’ at their own free will due to the ability to earn a high income. However, she also reveals that no business has required or encouraged her to get STI checks and that not all supply condoms, although this is a mandatory requirement for management.

Cameron Cox affirms Joy’s denial of sex slavery but concedes that there are other issues, adding that many massage parlours, where unauthorised sexual services are available, try to avoid providing condoms to their workers.

“Condoms are used by councils as evidence that sex work is going on in the premises. So if full-service sex is going on in the premises…[they] might be very reluctant to have condoms on the premises, which is not good for the health and safety of the workers at all.”

Although massage workers are hesitant to ask for help, Senior Sergeant, Richard Farrelly says that massage workers can be vulnerable, with investigations revealing that there are some places providing unsafe sexual practices.

He urges workers who fear for their personal safety to contact the police, despite their immigration and visa concerns, stating that: “We are more concerned about the person’s welfare and catching the offender than we are about contacting immigration.”

Even though Joy’s life in Australia is lucrative, she admits that it’s risky, but hopes that the income will mean a better future for her and her family when she returns to Thailand.

Happy Endings premieres on The Feed tonight at 7.30pm on SBS VICELAND (free-to-air channel 32).

The full story is available online at the SBS Radio Thai website.

*Names have been modified to maintain confidentiality.