'I went undercover in my city's seedy massage parlour industry. What I unearthed was disturbing.'

This story discusses sexual assault and human trafficking, and contains content that readers may find distressing.

"Someone is spying on us."

I sank back against my old black leather couch and stared at the words on my laptop screen, holding my breath as a fresh wave of anxiety arose. 

Sh*t, I cursed. They found me.

If I was honest though, it wasn't really a surprise. I'd known for a while that this day would eventually come. After all, I'd been spying on these men – both online and in real life – for over a year; investigating the ways that these self-confessed 'punters' preyed on vulnerable women, exploiting them for their own sexual gratification without an ounce of shame. 

Many times I'd stayed up late, or spent my lunch breaks discreetly scrolling through the most horrendous of web forums, all while compiling mountains of evidence for police. Evidence that exposed a horrendous, seedy underbelly within my city, one where these men gloated about sexually exploiting young Asian women, and talked, complained – or even laughed – at their bruises, or the fact that these girls "didn't look like they wanted to be there."

Inside our tiny home, I stood up and began to pace around the kitchen, reading their commentary about who they thought I was. 

"Why is every single angry feminist ugly?" quipped one. 

"Sexual frustration and jealousy of younger, better looking women."


"Feminist shrews…not one intellectual among them."

I stopped pacing, a small, amused puff of air escaping my lips. Not an intellectual? I had to laugh at that; because what these men didn't know, was that I had infiltrated their community, creating a fake alias that was crafted from all of the cliche, sexist, misogynistic things that they'd said. For over a year I'd been engaging with them, often parroting back their own language in order to find out from these very men where Asian women were being exploited…and in some cases, sex-trafficked. 

Yes. Sex trafficked. And not in dank, secret, hidden away basements. These women were being exploited in plain sight, in both high-class and low-socioeconomic suburbs.

That place? 

Brisbane's seedy massage parlour industry.


It was 2015 and I was a 30-year-old woman trying to take on a mountain that, to be honest, should never have been mine to summit alone. For five years, I'd been researching, advocating and working to help end human trafficking, and during that period, I'd even spent time with undercover rescue agents on the ground in South East Asia, as well as victim-survivors – some of whom, were just 13 years old. I shuddered when I heard that they'd already been "out of the industry" for several years.

In the past few months, however, I'd turned my attention closer to home. Specifically, major cities in Australia. For so many years I'd thought of sexual exploitation and trafficking as something that only happened in dark alleyways or poor countries. Like a visual representation of Liam Neeson in the hit movie, Taken. But as I dug deeper, I realised that human trafficking existed across every nation, city, and culture. 


Particularly, massage parlours.

And so, I decided to start investigating. To see if these every day venues that most of us walk right past, were hiding a bigger secret. 

Watch: the trailer for Trafficked With Mariana van Zeller. Post continues below.

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The first parlour I ever investigated was an old white Queenslander just down the road from my home. I can't tell you how many times I drove past it before noticing the red flags, but one afternoon – while stopped at a red light – it caught my attention. Instantly, my eyes were drawn to a burst of colour coming from the right-hand side of the road. A red pulsing light that flickered on and off as it screamed to me – to everyone – that the business was open. It was a cheap, gaudy sign; the type often used in late-night fast-food franchises. 


Which would have been fine if that's what I was staring at, and not a 'massage' business that just happened to have covered every window with thick sheets of newspaper so that nobody could see in or out.

The light changed and I moved on, but when I arrived home, I couldn't stop thinking about it so I opened up Google, and searched the name of the massage shop. Within seconds, my search history was filled with the most disgusting comments I had ever read, and I very quickly realised that my intuition was right.

It was an illegal brothel. 

Moments later, I stumbled across a special kind of hell – an 'adult' forum designed specifically for men who liked to prey on vulnerable Asian women who either couldn't speak English, or were easily bullied into giving "special services." As I later wrote in my book, The Stories We Carry, it was "a place where men discussed women as casually as objects or Pokémon cards to be collected and then discarded, [and] as I started reading the comments from clients, I thought I was going to vomit."

Oh, I feel soooo bad for them – not. They know the line of work they're in. I don't give two sh*ts about them – they're money-hungry whores who are too lazy and greedy to get a real job.

Having kids can really fuck up a woman's body. My stomach is turning just thinking about [her stomach].

She said she came to Australia to look for work and pursue a good relationship. She sounded so immature – talking about "finding herself". I tapped her a few times (let's just say she was average) and then made up an excuse and left early.


The casual misogyny was so repulsive I could barely stomach reading it. Even worse, though, was the way that they traded the names of the young women without any care for their safety. This meant that an abuser could trawl the forum and discover, with very little effort, exactly how much a certain girl cost, what her vulnerabilities were, and how easy it was to manipulate, coerce, or exploit her into doing certain things.

It was this moment in time where I realised something profound. If I wanted to find out what was truly happening inside these venues, I would need to go deeper and infiltrate their actual community. 

Spending my days investigating sexual exploitation, and trawling through horrific websites filled with misogyny and admissions of sexual abuse wasn't the way I pictured my life; but once I became aware of what was happening across my city (and many others across Australia), I couldn't look away. 

By day, I was an office worker, typing out documents and answering phones, but during the night – and on weekends – I was making lists of parlours that looked suspicious, and spending my own money booking massages in order to meet the women inside and look for red flags.

One night, a friend and I sat parked across the road from a venue that had been exposed in the past for sexual exploitation, and watched to see if any of the young women left the premises. By 10pm, there had been no movement. 


On another evening, I witnessed a young woman running down a well-known road in South Brisbane – her tiny body dressed in what I could only describe as a 'go go' dancer outfit – as she fled the direction of a well known illegal brothel and vanished into a dark alley. Although I turned my car around and tried to check on her, she had already disappeared. 

Everywhere I went, I could see the red flags, and they were always the same. Newspaper covered windows. Gaudy flashing lights. 'Discreet' side access driveways with entry via the back door. Women who couldn't speak English, or failed to be able to explain to me the services that were clearly listed on their windows. (Hot stone massage. Nail art.) A young woman barely out of her teens, who exited a bedroom with her arms wrapped protectively around her stomach, eyes downcast, as her male customer exited via the laundry door.

Jas Rawlinson with survivors of exploitation. Image: Supplied.


And then there were all the moments that were so much worse. 

Like the evening I comforted a young Chinese woman as she sobbed in my arms; distressed because she'd just been verbally abused by a man before me. The shame that seemed to radiate from her, as she told me in broken English how she tried so hard, but no one had taught her how to massage. She was just shoved into a tiny shop all alone at night, and expected to deal with every man who came in.

When I offered to drive her home that evening so she didn't have to wait for a bus in the dark, she was overwhelmed with relief. 

My most vivid memory, however, is the night where I hid inside a tiny massage parlour room with a young Taiwanese woman who was being harassed by a dangerous drunk. *Chelsea and I had met in a previous parlour she'd been working in, and I'd become a friend and confidante who she could talk with about navigating harassment or exploitation.


On this particular night I was visiting Chelsea at her new massage venue, and I quickly discovered that this one wasn't any safer. In fact, it was much worse. In this shop, there were only two young women available for the evening shift – and no one to help if things went wrong. 

Which they were about to. 

From inside the tiny massage room we sat stone-still, as a drunken man slurred and shouted at us through the paper-thin dividing wall. 

"Hey! Who's that girl next door?"

Like a wrecking ball, his voice slammed into our skin, causing us to flinch.

"I want that girl."

Instantly, Chelsea froze, her eyes locking onto mine as she nervously tugged at the ends of her long black hair. For a few seconds we whispered nervously to each other, wondering if maybe he was talking to someone else. But as she began to speak to me, his voice instantly boomed through the small shop once more. 

"I heard her!" he yelled. "And God, she sounds so sexy." He paused, then continued on, his speech clearly slurred. "That's the girl. That's the one I want." 

In that moment, I was truly fearful. I'd seen and been exposed to some frightening things during my personal investigations, but nothing like this. I wondered what to do…whether I'd be able to help Chelsea if he came bursting through the flimsy door. 


That night I realised the true risk these women were under, working all alone in an organised crime business. 

While Chelsea and I were lucky to get away safely that night, it opened my eyes to the danger that so many of these young students and overseas travellers faced. How vulnerable they were to male violence, and how everyone – from the female 'Mamasans' to the men who came to 'punt' – was looking to exploit them. 

With all the evidence I compiled – from hundreds of web screenshots to the names of venues and people involved – you'd think that journalists and police would have been all over a story like this. Sadly, it wasn't the case. 

From the ABC investigative journalist who promised to protect the identity of any women who I could bring forward, but refused to protect mine, to the female detective who told me, point blank, "We don’t help the victims; we just deport them," to the members of local council who ignored all my emails, it was clear that no one seemed to care. 

Yes, some of the venues I reported were eventually raided and exposed for sex trafficking/ exploitation, but the issue remained that, in many cases, these venues would just close and reopen with a new name. It was like trying to play a game of Whack A Mole.

For many more months, I tried to do whatever I could to help vulnerable women in need. Whether it was a car ride home, delivering baskets full of chocolate goodies to working women who were on their feet all day (or night) while the rest of us relaxed over the Easter break, or helping Chelsea to understand her rights in a foreign country and putting her in touch with people who could support her, I committed to doing what I could. 


Over the years I've tried to talk about this issue to many journalists, with every single one ignoring – or in one case, burying – the story. In the end, I decided that the best way to raise awareness was to expose the full story myself; and in late 2022 that's exactly what I did, sharing my story of rising above abuse, to investigating human trafficking and becoming the founder of Brisbane's first domestic violence memorial, in my memoir, The Stories We Carry.

To this day, I still receive threatening/hateful messages from men every time I talk about human trafficking, and I'm sure this time will be no different. But to me, the most important thing is that I continue to use my platform to give a voice to those who have none. 

Looking back, I can give myself grace for what I achieved and what I couldn't. Because the truth is, it should never have been on me – a young woman with a history of sexual trauma at the hands of men – to take on organised crime networks. No one was paying me to do this; unlike the 'brothel busters' who are paid to conduct private investigations (while exploiting women in the process).

It's also critical that we – as Australians – continue to shed light on all forms of sexual exploitation; not just the types that are more often seen or talked about. In the 2022/23 financial year, the Australian Federal Police received 340 reports of trafficking/exploitation (including forced marriage), with sexual servitude rates more than doubling in a four-year period. 


Sexual exploitation is an epidemic, and it isn't a human rights issue that we, as survivors, can solve on our own.

It's time for our government to move mountains and ensure that every part of society – from local councils and police stations, to lawyers, courts and magistrates – face real legal and financial consequences for failing to respond to allegations or proof of sexual exploitation and male violence.

And until this happens, I won't stop making noise. 

Jas Rawlinson is an award-winning speaker, anti-domestic violence advocate, and best-selling author. Order her books here, or connect with Jas via Instagram or her website.

If you see the red flags of human trafficking or sexual exploitation in your neighbourhood, call 000, Policelink, or make an online report to the AFP

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Supplied/Louise Wright.