Brothel Sex Workers
Who They Are
Brothel workers are predominantly female, with some transgender workers and the occasional male worker. Brothel-based sex workers may also engage in other types of sex work, such as street-based sex work, self-employed sex work or escort agency work. In most brothels, sex workers do not have full control over their hourly rate. Brothel management sets minimum rates and is responsible for advertising. Brothel-based sex workers share a percentage of their income with the establishment (brothel). Despite this, they are classified as contractors, not employees, and therefore must pay their own tax. There are no longer any licensed brothels in Melbourne exclusively offering male to male services (gay brothels). Some brothels also operate as escort agencies, thus workers may find themselves visiting clients outside the premises.
How They Work
Much of a brothel worker’s time is spent waiting for clients. Practically all clients are men. When a client walks into a brothel he is introduced to the workers, who then tell him about their services and their prices. Prices vary according to the services provided. Many licensed brothels have websites indicating which workers are available at any particular time.
Brothel workers work in rostered shifts – which may be day/night shifts or others as decided by brothel management, e.g. 12pm – 8pm, 3pm – 10pm. Victoria has unique laws attempting to control brothels and the sex industry at large. By law, licensed brothels cannot have more than six rooms available for sexual services. This limit on the number of rooms does not apply to brothels that opened before 1994. Licensed brothels are forbidden by law to serve alcohol.
Brothel workers in licensed brothels are required to provide a certificate of attendance from a doctor, certifying that they have been tested for sexually transmissible infections (STIs). They do not give the brothel management the results of the STI test, only the certificate of attendance. A certificate is required every three months.
In 2018 there were 88 licensed brothels and at least 500 unlicensed (illegal) brothels across greater Melbourne and the larger regional centres. Most licensed brothels are located in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, away from residential areas.
In 2018 there were 88 licensed brothels in Victoria. These brothels are heavily regulated by Victoria Police, WorkSafe Victoria, DHHS and local councils. A number of sex industry specific requirements are imposed on licensed brothels, such as high licensing fees and the requirement to provide condoms and lubricant.
Despite the fact that Victoria’s sex work laws seek to control sex work, there are an estimated 500 unlicensed (illegal) brothels in Victoria. Because these establishments masquerade as massage therapy businesses they are NOT heavily regulated or subject to sex industry specific requirements such as restrictions on location or high licensing fees.
Prices in licensed brothels range from $170/hr to $350/hr for a full service and $125/hr to $260/hr for a happy ending massage service. In most unlicensed brothels, prices range from $80/hr to $150/hr. These prices are the prices the client pays. These are not the prices the workers are paid. The brothel keeps a cut of the service fee, and the rest goes to the sex worker. For example, in early 2019 one licensed brothel charged clients $220/hour, of which the sex workers received $125/hr.
Sex workers in brothels do not carry the burden of arranging advertising, photography or attending to texts and phone calls. By law, licensed brothels must provide condoms and lubricant. In contrast to private sex work, working in a brothel can be a convenient way for a worker to keep sex work separate from their personal life. Brothel work takes place indoors, providing a level of comfort from the elements. Unlike private sex workers, brothel workers are NOT required to register with the government or obtain an SWA registration number – obligations widely opposed by the majority of sex workers. While private sex workers often work in isolation, brothel workers spend their time between bookings in the company of other sex workers.
The biggest disadvantage of working in a brothel is an economic one, namely that the establishment takes a percentage of a worker’s earnings.
By law, licensed brothels cannot advertise for new sex workers, so a worker seeking a position in a brothel must approach the establishment directly. Brothel workers also have much less flexibility over the hours they work as they are required to commit to a specific roster/shift. A brothel may be busy at some times and quiet at others, so brothel workers may have to wait long periods of time between clients. The number of licensed brothels is declining (see chart below), so workers have fewer choices of licensed establishments in which to work. As in many other industries, competition for clients can be fierce.
Notes on Data
- The RED Magazine is published by RhED, a community health program in Melbourne.
- This graph excludes the estimated 500 illegal brothels in Victoria.
*Names changed for privacy reasons.
© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2020
Last Updated: 7 August 2020