Just how pervasive is the culture of 'happy endings' and extra sexual services in Australia's suburban Thai massage parlours? What protections are offered to the workers when they are not working in legally registered brothels - and what dangers are posed to them?
Listen to SBS Thai's full radio feature (in English) below:
Over the years, SBS Thai has heard several anecdotes from women and gay men in the community who earn a substantial income from offering happy endings and massages with 'extras' in Australia.
One example was of a young female student from Thailand who earned enough money from offering "dodgy" massages (as she puts it) in Sydney to pay off her family’s debt back home of about $80,000 in just 18 months.
Online community websites and adult forums exist where customers leave comments and write reviews of disguised massage parlours offering sexual services all over Australia, in particular Melbourne and Sydney.
Websites and forums specifically for Thai expats in Australia reveal a number of massage businesses posting straightforward job advertisements seeking women who can do both massage, and provide extra services.
Some such ads in Thai stated,"Urgently looking for several female masseuses who can do 'hand job;'" "Looking masseuses for 'Body to Body' (nude) massage. No sex, unless lady agrees."
Another reads, "Our shop offers extra (hand job) but it’s not a requirement. If you don’t want to offer extras, you can ask a friend who does to fill in for you."
While the industry appears to be thriving underground, it is difficult to find people who will speak openly about it.
Many in the industry fear that if they speak out, their life and work will become more complicated as a result of more police and council checks at their massage businesses.
Many of them break their visa conditions regarding rights to work and stay in Australia. Many of them fear being stigmatised from working in the sex industry.
Massage is an integral part of traditional Thai medicine which, not unlike Chinese medicine, is deeply rooted in the history and psyche of the country, dating back hundreds of years to the Sukhothai era (around 1300 AD) and beyond.
Much like Thai cuisine in the restaurant and hospitality industry, massage is an in-demand cultural product which, for new migrants who may struggle to join the job market by other means, does not necessarily require any special qualifications or English language skills.
It is not surprising then that many migrant workers and small business owners choose to sell massages.
Add in the lure of fast, easy money that comes with offering bonus sexual services and many such masseuses soon find themselves becoming sex workers.
One such worker is Joy*, a Thai masseuse in her thirties who has worked at several massage parlours in Sydney for about a year.
In Australia on a student visa studying English and accounting, Joy says that when she was still new to the massage industry in Australia, she used to provide legitimate massages only.
But the opportunity for big, fast money soon tempted her to change her mind.
"The first time I offered a hand job, I was quite scared and panicked because I had never done it before," Joy tells SBS.
"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.'"
When performing a standard massage, Joy usually receives half of the total fee paid by clients from the business owner.
Clients pay this at reception desks before entering massage rooms or massage cubicles.
"For example, for $70 per hour," says Joy. "The owner will get $40 and I get $30."
When it comes to extras though, Joy reaps the benefit of cash-in-hand payment, which she keeps for herself.
"For the extras, I will negotiate for the tips from the clients inside the massage rooms, depending on which services I will offer," she says.
The most common extra services Joy provides include ‘hand relief,’ or masturbation and nude massage, where the masseuse does not necessarily provide sexual services, but performs a normal massage naked.
Services range up from this to oral and penetrative sex.
The fees for these services range from $20-$150, of which Joy keeps the full amount.
With the combined money from normal massage hours, plus tips for extra services on top of that, Joy earns a weekly average of around $1,500 - $1,700 cash, for five days work.
While the owners of these disguised massage parlours do not receive a cut of the cash payment for extras, Joy points out that they benefit from busy bookings brought in by massage workers who offer sexual services.
Dr Helen Pringle, Senior Lecturer of the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, says there are many massage parlours that border on being brothels.
"Often the employers will hire people to do massage but say 'If you want a bit of extra money, you can do a happy ending," says Dr Pringle.
"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 between brothels."
The trouble with the lack of distinction, explains Dr Pringle, is that many workers may be unclear on what they’re signing up for and feel unduly pressured.
"A lot of workers in that grey area feel pressured to provide extra services in that way - the employer doesn't like to have upset customer," she says.
"It's not even coercion so much as an expectation that if that request is made, that request will be fulfilled," says Dr. Pringle.
Watch the full TV story from SBS Viceland's The Feed below:
Ann, a massage business owner from Melbourne, whose name has also been changed, explains that there are three types of disguised massage shops in Australia.
"The first type is 'out-in-the-open' massage shops, whose owners tell their clients about available sexual services and advertise new staff," she says.
"The second type is 'one-eye-closed' massage shops, whose owners pretend these sexual services are not available, yet allow their staff to offer them.
"The final type is 'hidden' massage shops, whose owners declare that there are no sexual services available yet individual staff might offer them secretly," says Ann.
The legality of sex work in Australia and how it is regulated, varies from state to state.
In Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, for example, most aspects of sex work are criminalised.
In New South Wales, it is completely decriminalised and it is local councils' responsibility to license brothels and investigate breaches or unlicensed premises.
In Victoria, those investigations are responsibility of the police.
Senior Sergeant Richard Farrelly, of Victoria Police’s Sex Industry Coordination Unit (SICU) tells SBS that there are many disguised massage businesses in Melbourne and Victoria.
"The majority of illegal brothels that we see are in the form of massage shops," he says.
"A lot of those are in your suburban shopping strips, [places] like that.
"We receive information from a lot of different sources like councils, members of the public, legitimate brothel owners, other massage shop owners and other law agencies, like the AFP and Border Force, who provide us with information about massage shops that they think provide sexual services."
In New South Wales, it is not difficult to find suspicious massage shops that might be operating as unauthorised brothels.
According to New South Wales’ Parliamentary Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels in 2015, Marrickville Council indicates that from 2010-2015, there were 57 complaints filed against 14 massage parlours allegedly offering sexual services.
Holroyd City Council also claimed during the inquiry that it could reasonably argue that massage businesses providing sexual services are far more prevalent than authorised brothels.
One of the reasons that many illegal brothels masquerade as massage businesses, is that they’re relatively easy to open.
"There are a very few barriers to entry," says Senior Sergeant Farrelly of Victoria Police’s SICU.
"It will depend on the council if a permit is required and whether a qualification of staff is required.
"That makes it very difficult for us to police."
Farrelly says, "The nature of the industry is a 'pop up' industry."
He explains that a massage business "can open one day and close down the next."
"Someone hoping to get into the business doesn’t particularly need a qualification to open a massage shop,” he says.
Mr Cameron Cox, CEO of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, (SWOP) is a community based peer-education organisation that provides sexual health education and support to people working in the sex industry in New South Wales.
He claims that some councils hold hostile and restrictive views towards premises offering sexual services, even when they are legitimate businesses.
"They do things like they restrict massage parlours and sex services premises to an industrial area," Mr Cox tells SBS. "Which is not an appropriate place to put such a business."
"It works against the health and safety of the workers there and it is very detrimental to the business as well.
"It's like a newsagent being in an industrial area - do you think many people will walk past the newsagent and buy newspapers?
"Other councils restrict sex services premises by anti-clustering law.
"They will say one sex services premises can't be within for example two kilometres of another sex services premises.
"So those council restrictions basically force people to try to bypass them all the time."
Joy tells SBS that no business she has worked at has required or encouraged her to get STI checks.
At the disguised massage business she works for, she has never met any outreach representatives from SWOP or Scarlet Alliance; the two main organisations in NSW that provide peer-to-peer sexual health education and support to sex workers.
Joy says that through a friend in the industry, she learnt that free and confidential STI checks are available from Sydney Sexual Health Centre at Sydney Hospital.
"It’s up to me to get checked," says Joy. "So I get checked every six months."
Although it is mandatory for management to provide condoms in any authorised sex services premises, Joy says that is not the case at the disguised massage parlours she works for.
"I have to bring them myself," she says.
According to Mr Cameron Cox of SWOP, many massage parlours where unauthorised sexual services are available try to avoid providing condoms for their workers.
"Condoms are used by councils as evidence that sex work is going on in the premises," he explains.
"So if full-service sex is going on, the [business] might be very reluctant to have condoms on the premises, which is not good for the health and safety of the workers at all."
Another constant fear that workers have is an encounter with a violent client.
"I have [a] fear that clients might hurt me," says Joy. "But so far I have never met anyone like that yet."
Joy tells SBS that she is not a victim of human trafficking or sexual slavery, and doesn't know of any others who might be.
"I never heard of it," she says. "All of my friends who do this type of job are willing to do it at their own free will because they can earn a lot more money than other typical jobs."
Mr Cameron Cox of SWOP affirms what Joy says, "We never come across at SWOP that sex slavery is actually going on in any massage parlours."
He concedes that there are other issues, "But there are a whole range of things we do see."
"We do see some exploitation and some labour issues, but that’s a completely different things from sex slavery."
Dr Helen Pringle of UNSW also has a different view on the definition of ‘trafficking’.
"They [workers] define trafficking in a very narrow way, as being kidnapped, or being chained to bed, or being held virtually hostage," she says.
"But [under] both the international trafficking protocols and also Australian law on trafficking, you don't have to be forced in order to fall into the category of trafficking."
"So the provision in Australia at the Commonwealth level talks about whether the employer is reckless, whether the employees will be exploited…
"So I would say that the key problem is exploitation rather than the movement across borders or that kind of movement in trafficking."
Senior Sergeant Farrelly urges any massage parlour workers who fear for their personal safety while working to contact police.
"They must really think about their personal safety, get themselves out of the situation and call 000," he says.
Joy explains why she is hesitant to ask for help, “I don’t think they [massage business owners] will help me."
"I probably won’t go to the police either because offering 'dodgy' massage at a massage shop is illegal.
"We are supposed to offer just normal massage."
Migrants working in these businesses in spite of not having the correct visa, have an additional fear of the authorities.
"It’s important that they trust the police," says Senior Sergeant Farrelly.
"A lot of massage staff think that because the police…will contact immigration because of their visa issues.
"But it's not the case at all.
"We are more concerned about the person's welfare and catching the offender than we are about contacting immigration."
Thai massage business insiders in Australia reveal their experiences of verbal and sexual harassment as a result of the client expectation to offer happy ending massages.
"One of our new staff ran out of a massage room in tears and was visibly shaken after a client had asked her for a sexual service," says massage business owner Ann*.
"We do not welcome these types of clients.
"We felt insulted and we were angry at being belittled and treated in such a way."
"It is hurtful for us who offer genuine massage."
Inappropriate behaviour from clients can range from continual requests for sexual services, to unnecessarily exposing themselves, and placing the masseuse’s hands on their genitals.
Nok* a receptionist at a massage shop in Sydney, says she evenexperienced issues with passersby while working there.
"They walked past the shop and they shouted 'Happy ending, Happy ending!'" she says.
"Sometimes, they even opened the door to shout that to us.
"It made me feel awful.
"It is hurtful for us who offer genuine massage."
A* a former massage shop receptionist, says one upsetting experience pushed her to quit working in the industry for good.
"This client asked for an extra service at the end of a massage course," she says.
“But the masseuse refused and walked out of the massage room, leaving the door widely open.”
A says, "The client then relieved himself - I heard him moaning."
"So I went there to tell him off but the situation got heated.
"After that he kept ringing the shop to threaten me, making me fear for my safety.
"So I quit the job."
"It is very difficult to find someone who is happy to do only genuine massage."
Given how much money a masseuse stands to earn from offering sexual services, it poses a problem for massage business owners seeking to recruit and retain staff for legitimate massage only.
Business owner Ann says, "When I recruit staff for my shop, they [job applicants] often ask me if my shop is 100 per cent clean or non-sexual services offered at all.
"I am asked all the time.
"It is very difficult to find someone who is happy to do only genuine massage."
Mr Cameron Cox of SWOP would like to see councils become less strict on happy ending massage parlours so that workers there can access more protections.
“We would like it to be a completely level playing field where these premises could get proper approvals and then the barriers to education and health for sex workers and their human rights would be eliminated," he says.
Dr Helen Pringle, of UNSW, would like to see Australia adopt the Nordic model of prostitution policy, where sex work itself is totally decriminalised and instead the buying of sex is a criminal offence: the law penalises the customer instead of the sex worker.
She accepts that it might take a long time for this policy to get approval.
For the short term, she suggests a special police unit to support sex workers.
"One of the things that would help is a support unit for women in prostitution," says Dr Pringle.
"There is a dedicated unit in Sweden which works so that women can bring their complaints or problems and questions to that dedicated support unit and it would have to be a unit that women would have confidence in."
Joy says that although her life as a masseuse in this lucrative yet risky industry is not always smooth, she hopes that a better future awaits her back home.
"I will do this massage job for another two years and save as much money as I can," Joy says.
"Then I will go back to Thailand and start a new life or starts a new business of my own, which will have nothing to do with 'dodgy' massage."
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Happy Endings is a special SBS cross-platform report produced as a collaboration between The Feed (Elise Potaka) and SBS Thai Radio (Parisuth Sodsai).
Producer, Radio and Online: Parisuth Sodsai (SBS Thai Radio)
Producer, TV: Elise Potaka (The Feed)
Assistant Producer, Radio and Online: Tanu Attjarusit (SBS Thai Radio)
Coordinating producer, Cross-platform: Florencia Melgar
Editors, Online: Genevieve Dwyer and Zoe Sainsbury
Assisting Producers, Radio (English): Nicola Canning, Ron Sutton and Ildiko Dauda