Behind the Masquerade: Massage parlours and the unregulated sex industry in Melbourne
Massage businesses that provide illicit sexual services known colloquially as ‘massage parlours’, operate in neoliberal cities all over the world and have been recognised as a key site of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. In the city of Melbourne, Australia, it is estimated that there are 500 massage parlours in operation, which is five times the amount of licensed brothels. The project is located across the disciplinary fields of urban planning, public policy and feminist studies. The research is underpinned by a feminist analytical framework which allows assessment of the influence of gender on policy, such as the identification of problems and implementation of policies to address them. The research seeks to understand how and why, through what policy and legislative frameworks, massage parlours are able to persist. Additionally, the project is concerned with how massage parlours as sites of the sex industry impact public space.
A systematic process of street observation is undertaken to map massage businesses in the selected local government areas. Internet-mediated research (IMR) methods, using primary sources such as online advertisements and ‘sex buyer’ forums, are used to determine whether the massage business provides sexual services or not. Massage businesses that are mentioned in an advertisement or sex buyer review are considered likely to be providing illicit sexual services. The data can be analysed from many perspectives to understand hidden patterns such as how local demographics intersect with the location of massage parlours. The data may shed some light on the potential extent of human trafficking in Victoria and will contribute to a clearer picture of the situation in Melbourne in order to begin taking steps towards policy options for stemming the proliferation of illegal brothels. The project also examines broader questions around massage parlours in the urbanscape and the implications for gender equality.