Happy Endings – Inside suburban Thai massage parlours

Happy Endings – Inside suburban Thai massage parlours


A lot of the massage parlours are small, family-run businesses, they’re basically mum and pop businesses. You can walk away every week as an illegal operator with tens of thousands of dollars that you don’t need to declare. We get reports to us of physical and sexual assaults, sexually transmitted infections. There’s a lot of vulnerable people that work in the massage industry. “Joy” is in her 30s. For the past year, she’s been working in massage parlours offering so-called ‘happy endings’. She’s agreed to talk to us if we hide her identity. Joy came from Thailand on a student visa, with the intention of doing real massage. But some customers wanted more. Joy makes about $1,700 a week, cash. And she’s not operating in some seedy back alley joint. She works in shops that also offer legitimate massage, the kind of place you’d go to if you had a sore neck. In all states, except for South Australia, it’s not illegal to sell sex. But brothels are usually subject to some oversight or regulation. In New South Wales, local councils regulate them under planning laws. In Victoria and elsewhere, there are licensing systems enforced by police. Here’s the first of the dodgy ones. We’ve had problems with this place. The council have issued brothel closure orders on this one. The owner wasn’t happy, and denied there was any sex going on in the place. In 2014, The Feed reported on a group called Brothel Busters. Founder, Chris Seage, was working with local councils and legal brothels in New South Wales. He was, and still is today, calling for stricter controls on sexy massage parlours. The illegal ones are havens for tax and welfare fraudsters peddlers of unsafe sex practices, illegal immigrants and sex slaves. Sex worker advocates say Seage’s claims are grossly inaccurate, and argue against tougher regulation. It’s not the sort of situation that people think where there’s some like manipulative horrible pimp sort of guy at the top running these places. It’s usually a very friendly, family-orientated affair. Family affair or not, it’s a lucrative trade. Massage shop owners need little more than an apartment or shopfront, and a mobile phone number. This place in a Sydney high-rise welcomed 59 customers in an 11 hour shift. That’s tens of thousands of tax-free dollars per week. From a business point of view, it’s easy to see why legal brothel owners are up in arms. It’s a compulsory requirement in every legal Victorian establishment that condoms must be used. Milan Stamenkovic has run this licensed brothel in Melbourne for 21 years. He spends time and money complying with Victoria’s strict prostitution control laws. We have councils inspections for occupational health and safety. We have the health department coming in and making sure that we adhere to the rules. They come in and check the service provider’s health certificates to make sure they’re all up to date, etc. Milan insists he’s not worried about competition. He says massage parlours are offering punters unsafe sex. Clients that come in that have been at illegal establishments will quite often say “But I was able to get this service there, why can’t I get it here?” And it is something that is obviously against the law for us to provide. But it’s also a very serious health issue for the community. A quick scan through online forums where punters review massage parlours suggests that “bareback” or unprotected sex, is being offered. Joy says owners usually side with clients when there’s a problem. And she knows of at least one worker who’s suffered quite serious abuse. In Victoria, the massage parlour industry is thriving, despite police investigations and raids. Prosecuting owners is not easy. It’s quite a pop-up industry in that one place could open up overnight and then shut down a couple of days later and then pop up somewhere else, so that makes it a little more difficult for us to police. Sergeant Richard Farrelly says massage parlour workers can be vulnerable. A lot of them come from South East Asian countries and don’t have the understanding the laws of Australia and they get exploited by some of the owners and managers of the massage shops. We get reports to us of physical and sexual assaults. We also see human trafficking indicators within the massage industry itself. Trying to ensure safety in the massage parlour sex industry is complicated. Joy says the fact that the parlours are providing sex illegally discourages her and others from talking to police. But police say workers have nothing to fear in coming forward to report abuse. We certainly don’t want a person going into a massage shop routinely, assaulting a staff member because the person’s afraid to report it to police. While the massage parlours thrive underground, it’s left to outreach workers to try and assist if problems arise. Maggie Ma is a Chinese-speaking outreach worker with the Sydney Sexual Health Centre. This is where Joy comes for confidential check-ups and advice. Maggie says getting access to workers relies on having a good relationship with the parlour owner… and not asking sensitive questions. Joy plans to keep working until her visa runs out.