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Government VIC, Political

Sex work decriminalisation exacerbates grievous outcomes for massage therapists

Massage & Myotherapy Australia 4 mins read

With the second stage of sex work decriminalisation in Victoria set for 1 December 2023, Massage & Myotherapy Australia, is calling for protections for massage therapists against the grievous fallout of these reforms.

Mrs Davey, CEO Massage & Myotherapy Australia said, ‘If sex work is to be normalised in the community as real work, and sex workers’ rights are to be protected, decriminalisation must also ensure that the human rights, equality and safety of migrant women and professional massage therapists are equally protected. Currently they are not.'

Considerable evidence indicates that massage is used as a camouflage that enables bonded labour and human trafficking to feed into the low skilled end of Australia’s massage sector. It enables sex workers to exploit formal massage therapy qualifications that are recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF); and supports illicit activities such as pimping.

Mrs Davey said, ‘Reforms to decriminalise sex work in Victoria have not provided protections against this. In contrast the Department of Consumers Affairs (DoCA) website now encourages the use of the term ‘massage’ to describe sex work in advertising if that is a relevant description of services provided.'

‘The outcome is to sexually stereotype massage therapists as sex workers by equating massage services to sex work, and massage to sex; and inadvertently open the door for illicit activities.’

‘We stress that we are not arguing against decriminalisation or questioning the legitimacy or morality of sex work. We are simply stating that qualified professional massage therapists are not sex workers, and sex work is not massage therapy in any form.'

There is no reference to sexual services in any massage diploma, advanced diploma or degree qualification recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework, or qualifications obtained in other countries.

Sex work involves providing sexual stimulation, eroticism and gratification in exchange for financial or other reward.

In contrast, massage therapy and myotherapy complement medical and allied health treatments, as described on the Victorian Government Better Health Channel, and is used to improve mobility, and alleviate pain and stress caused by injury, chronic and palliative health conditions.

In this, the Victorian sex work reforms appear to regard what is euphemistically called ‘erotic massage’ (otherwise known as ‘nude massage’, ‘full body massage’, ‘body to body massage’, ‘happy-ending massage’ or a ‘rub and tug’) as basically like a ‘regular health massage’ but with a few added bonuses.

Exacerbating this is the lack of acknowledgement or scope of practice for qualified massage therapists in any health legislation or policy funded by the Victorian government, under the umbrella of Medicare.

Mrs Davey said that this contributes to the confusion and conflation of massage therapists with sex workers because it allows any unqualified person to open a quasi-massage business that can offer anything from spa style massage to sex services under the camouflage of legitimate healthcare related massage therapy.

For the massage sector there are now few effective barriers to entry for human trafficking and illegal sex work activities such as pimping that can be adequately policed.

The consequences are grievous and well documented.

As recently reported in the Daily Mail (22/11/23), Germany, which decriminalised sex work in 2002, is considering re-criminalising some aspects of sex work amongst reports that Germany is considered the brothel of Europe and that almost all of the country's sex workers are from abroad and do not have documents, and are therefore at the mercy of exploitative human traffickers and pimps.

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

Mrs Davey said, ‘As a female dominated small business and sector, with a ratio of close to 4:1 women to men the sector is vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses.’

The evidence on this is unequivocal. Numerous studies indicate that the conflation of massage therapy with sex work as a camouflage and the subsequent confusion around health-related massage contributes to:

‘According to a 2022 Pulse Survey of our 8,600 members, and conducted on behalf of Massage & Myotherapy Australia sexual harassment and abuse of professional massage therapists has reach epidemic proportions,’ Mrs Davey said.

Respondents to the Survey, indicated that some professional massage therapists experience sexual harassment from clients in their workplace daily.

Around 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.

Mrs Davy added, ‘The experience of our members also indicates that even very visible signs 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.’

This experience is also supported in general online advice provided to the community. For example, the Pocket Essential City Guide November 2023: The Gold Coast's Illicit Sex Trade:

It can all be a bit confusing, which is probably one of the reasons why the illicit sex trade accounts for an estimated 90% of the industry in the state, mostly in the form of unlicensed brothels, illegal 'happy ending' massage parlours and independent sex workers who flaunt the rules.

Additionally, 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 that around 50% of respondents disclosed that themselves or their co-workers have experienced work-based violence such as sexual assault, physical/verbal abuse, or rough customers.

The evidence also indicates that advertising laws designed to deter sex workers from misrepresenting their services as massage, have little effect. NSW, NT and ACT have decriminalised or legalised sex work, yet a simple Google Search ‘Sexy Massage’ will present hundreds of listings using massage as a front for sexual services.

Mrs Davey said, ‘While the intent is that decriminalisation will make sex work safer, in its current form decriminalisation in Victoria makes the massage therapy profession less safe and opens the massage sector to further abuse.’


About us:

Massage & Myotherapy Australia is a not-for-profit organisation formed in 2003 and is the leading representative body for professional massage therapists nationwide, with a membership of over 8,500 therapists.


Contact details:

Glenn Schaube 0439 320 151; glenns@grscom.com.au

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