Happy Endings: The hidden sex work culture of the Thai massage industry in Australia.

An image of Joy at work

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.

One discussion on a web forum about massage parlours where customers compare notes.

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.”

A job advert on a Thai language forum for a Thai massage venue in a Sydney suburb promises ‘No Sex unless lady agree’

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.

Fast, easy money

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.'”

Sydney masseuse Joy, who asked that her identity remain concealed
Sydney masseuse Joy, who asked that her identity remain concealed

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:

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