The reason disguised 'rub and tug' massage parlours are so hard to shut down in Australia.

Warning: this post contains explicit content and is NSFW.

For Joy*, it started with a ‘hand job’.

She was working as a masseuse and knew the price for ‘extra’ services could be negotiated to anywhere between $20 and $150 cash. Before that, she was earning only half the total client fee, around $40 per hour.

If the first hand job turned into another hand job and maybe even something more, her weekly income could be upwards of $1,500. As a Thai woman in her 30s living in Australia on a tourist visa, the cash was appealing.

“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,” Joy told SBS Radio’s Thai program, which will air tonight on Viceland’s The Feed.

“The first time I was scared and panicked because I had never done it before,” Joy, whose name has been changed, continued.

Aside from perhaps a shudder and an eye roll as we walk past a gaudy parlour sign promising stress release and a ‘happy ending’, we don’t think about what’s going on inside of these outlets.

We don’t consider the young women trying to start a life in Australia being lured into sex work because, first of all, it’s ‘accepted’ – we’re all too busy looking away – and, second of all, it pays.

“SBS Thai Radio has received many concerned reports from the Thai community in Australia regarding this issue,” the program begins.

“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.”

Migrants are falling into unauthorised sex work. Image via Getty.

Selling sex isn't illigal in most Australian states and territories, but brothels and private sex workers are subject to regulation.

There's also the 'protection' that comes with openly operating as a sex worker. The conditions of each 'interaction' are decided upon before the client arrives. And brothels will supply condoms and often require workers to undergo regular STI testing.


A young immigrant in the backroom of a "rub and tug" massage parlour is not afforded the same transparency and protection.

"A lot of workers in that grey area feel pressured to provide extra services – the employer doesn’t like to have an upset customer," senior lecturer of the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales Dr Helen Pringle told SBS.

"It’s not even coercion so much as an expectation that if that request is made, that request will be fulfilled."

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It's a shadow industry where discretion is key and nothing is overt:

The women are 'masseurs', their services are mysterious. The parlours themselves can pop up and shut down, making it difficult for the police or council to interfere. And those women who are being used, and potentially at risk, are fearful to speak out, scared of breaching their visa conditions.

"She offered to have full sex and the client secretly took off the condom. She cried and didn’t know what to do. The client didn’t care about her at all," Joy told SBS, referring to a friend of hers in the same industry.

Samantha X: "I learnt boundaries when I became a sex worker". Post continues below.

There are three types of disguised massage parlours in Australia, according to Ann* a parlour owner who spoke to SBS.

There are 'Out in the open' businesses that talk to clients openly about the sexual services on offer; there are the 'One eye closed' parlours, which pretend the services are not available but allow staff to offer them; and finally the 'Hidden' massage parlours that will claim there are no sexual services on offer, yet individual staff can provide them secretly.

All three types are unauthorised places of sex work. All three types are at risk of being raided by police and shut down.

This means any evidence of sex work - like condoms - are rarely permitted.

"Condoms are used by councils as evidence that sex work is going on in the premises," CEO of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), Cameron Cox told SBS.

"So if full-service sex is going on, [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."

It's this, more than anything, concerning Australian police.

"We get reports to us of physical and sexual assaults, sexually transmitted infections. Our main concern is that there are a lot vulnerable people that work in the massage industry," Senior Sergeant, Richard Farrelly told SBS.

He is urging workers who are at risk to contact police, and not fear for their visa status: "We are more concerned about the person’s welfare and catching the offender than we are about contacting immigration."