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Government SA

Sex work decriminalisation in SA must include protection for massage therapists

Massage & Myotherapy Australia 4 mins read

Massage & Myotherapy Australia is calling on all South Australian elected members of parliament to ensure that any push to decriminalise sex work also protects the human rights and safety of legitimate massage therapists and the community.

Ann Davey, CEO Massage & Myotherapy Australia said, ‘Massage therapy is not sex work by any definition. Without additional reforms to protect legitimate massage therapists, and prevent massage being used as a camouflage for the human traffickers, and the sex trade, decriminalisation will fail the massage sector and the community.

‘We stress that we are not arguing against decriminalisation, moves to recognise and protect sex workers, or the morality of sex work but sex work disguised and advertised as massage is rife across the sector with devastating consequences for legitimate massage therapists,’ Mrs Davey said.

The evidence is unequivocal. Numerous studies indicate that confusion between sex work and  health-related massage contributes to:

  • a disguise that enables human traffickers to abuse Australia’s temporary visa programs
  • violence, exploitation and abuse of women, especially migrant women
  • high levels of sexual harassment of professional massage therapists in the work place
  • a lack of recognition of professional massage therapists in legislation
  • inequality of employment, income, career development
  • limited financial access to health-related massage services for women
  • a failure to support the qualifications, skills and contribution of women working as professional massage therapists.

As a female dominated sector with a ratio of 4:1 women to men, the massage sector is vulnerable to abuse.

‘To equate massage therapy with sex work stereotypes and sexualizes massage therapists as potential sex workers. Massage therapists deserve the same consideration and protections for their safety, legal and human rights as sex workers.

‘Reforms to effectively curb advertising and shop branding as massage, are required to stop reinforcing a community-wide presumption that any woman providing massage is a potential sex worker,’ Mrs Davey said.

Legitimate massage therapists are qualified and recognised under the Australian Qualifications Frame work and provide health related massage services. The conditions treated by qualified therapists include disease and injury, dysfunction and pain, and emotional issues as listed in Table 1 below:

Disease and injury

Dysfunction and pain


palliative conditions, i.e., cancer

postural & thoracic

neural tension

muscular tears & strains

sacroiliac, lumbar & hip

tension & stress

tendonitis & tendinopathy

neck & shoulder


surgery recovery

reduced range of motion



reduced fitness & strength


Table 1: Conditions for which massage therapy is applied

These are not a sex service by any definition.

Mrs Davey said that the evidence demonstrating that sex work disguised as massage has devastating effects is overwhelming. For example, respondents to a 2022 Pulse Survey, conducted by Massage & Myotherapy Australia which has over 8,600 members, indicated that some professional massage therapists experience sexual harassment from clients in their workplace daily.

  • 56% indicated they were subject to sexual harassment from clients
  • 74% of respondents indicated that they must regularly take steps to protect themselves and their staff from sexual harassment.
  • Nearly 80% indicated that they believe the services of professional massage therapists are devalued or undermined because of the confusion between professional and quasi-massage services which can offer anything from spa style massage experience to sexual services.

The 2020 Project Respect Annual Report, which reported on their work with women subject to trafficking, sexual exploitation, violence, and harm, found that there is a significant population of women on temporary visas in the sex industry, and for the most part, they were ineligible for government support. Around 50% of respondents also disclosed that themselves or their co-workers have experienced work-based violence such as sexual assault, physical/verbal abuse, or rough customers.

A 2018 study found that most Asian sex workers commenced sex work when they came to Australia.

The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2020 found that some women from Asia and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe and Africa, migrate to Australia to work legally or illegally in a number of sectors, including commercial sex.

After their arrival, traffickers compel some of these women to enter or remain in commercial sex in both legal and illegal brothels, as well as massage parlors and private apartments. Traffickers hold some foreign women—and sometimes girls—in captivity, subject them to physical and sexual violence and intimidation, manipulate them through illegal drugs, and force them to pay off unexpected or inflated debts. Traffickers attempt to evade authorities by allowing victims to carry their passports while in brothels and frequently move the victims to different locations to prevent them from establishing relationships with civil society or other victims. Some victims of sex trafficking and some women who migrate to Australia for arranged or forced marriages are exploited by their husbands or families in domestic servitude.

‘The experience of our members also indicates that even very visible signage stating that sexual services are not provided and scrutiny of clients does not eliminate the high level of risk or number of incidents of sexual harassment that occur.’

‘The evidence indicates that laws designed to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace and exploitation; as well as advertising laws that should deter sex workers from misrepresenting their services as massage, have little effect.

‘NSW, NT and Victoria have decriminalised sex work, yet a simple Google Search ‘Sexy Massage’ will present thousands of listings using massage as a front for sexual services,’ Mrs Davey said.

Mrs Davey said, ‘At this stage it is unclear how any new legislation to decriminalise sex work in SA will protect migrant women from exploitation or address the confusion between sex work promoted as massage and health-related massage therapy. Certainly, the massage sector has not been consulted.’

‘While the intent is that decriminalisation will make sex work safer, it remains to be seen if provisions are made in legislation and policy to make the workplace safer for massage therapists. To achieve this, decriminalisation of sex work in South Australia must include reforms to separate massage from sex work, and protect women who work as professional massage therapists,’ Mrs Davey said.


Media inquiry: Glenn Schaube 0439 320 151;

About us:

Massage & Myotherapy Australia (the Association) is the sector’s leader and driving force towards evidenced-based massage and myotherapy services.

Massage & Myotherapy Australia is a not-for-profit organisation formed in 2003. As the leading representative body for massage therapists, remedial massage therapists and myotherapists nationwide, we currently serve over 8,600 professionally-qualified member therapists. Members must:

·              hold a current qualification from a Registered Training Organisation (RTO)

·              hold current Senior/Level 2 First Aid Qualifications

·              hold current Malpractice, Public Liability Insurance (minimum $2,000,000)

·              complete a statutory declaration, indicating that they have not been charged with or convicted of an offence of harm to a person nor been subject to disciplinary proceedings with a Private Health Fund

·              undergo continuing professional education to a specified number of hours each year.


Contact details:

Glenn Schaube 0439 320 151;

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