How to Spot an Illegal Brothel

All brothels are illegal in the UK. Many people argue that legalising them would make the women safer and prevent the involvement of criminal gangs. However, experience where the sex trade has been legalised tells a different story. Here Jacqueline Gwynne reports on the illegal brothels in Melbourne in the State of Victoria in Australia.

Prostitution has been legal in the State of Victoria since 1984. When the sex trade is legalised, prostitution-buying becomes more acceptable and the demand from men invariably increases.  The State of Victoria is no exception and it has seen an explosion of illegal activity and sex trafficking. As a result, Melbourne has become a major destination for sex tourists.


It has been estimated that there has been a 500% increase in illegal brothels in Victoria since 1984 and every year the number grows. This estimate is conservative as it is impossible to map all of the illegal pop up brothels that appear in motels, hotels and apartment blocks. The only way to curb this trend is to end the demand from men for buying girls and women for sex.

In this article, I explain how to recognise an illegal brothel. In these venues, which often pose as massage therapy or day spas, many women from Asia (and in the UK from Eastern Europe and Africa) are trafficked and many are under-age. Businesses like karaoke bars, nail bars, naturopaths or Chinese herbalists are sometimes also fronts for illegal brothels.

The following list, compiled with the assistance of women who have been in the sex industry in Australia, explains some of the common indicators of illegal brothels. This information applies in many other countries, including the UK.

  • Windows are covered – legitimate businesses are open and transparent, you can see inside and people can be seen coming and going
  • Unprofessional signage – e.g. a hand written sign at the front of a house saying “massage” with no other details
  • Lack of business details, such as phone number, licence or website details. Real massage clinics display education certificates and association membership certificates
  • Signage advertising massage (often “Thai massage” or day spa) or  promoting services like “sensuous massage,” body slides, “hot new Asian babes”, “couples welcome” or “lunchtime specials” – no actual massage clinics have these services
  • Odd business names that sound unprofessional, such as: 99 Sweety, Happy Day Spa or Massage Angels
  • Tacky flashing LED signs
  • The façade is painted red with no signage at all
  • Long hours, open late into the night seven days a week (few legitimate businesses are open this long)
  • Occasionally you’ll see a creepy looking man sneaking in or out
  • The website, if they have one, will promote girls only and say things like: new girls from Thailand
  • Services aimed at men only
  • Young female only staff, promoted online
  • They are reviewed on punter sites, where men review brothels
  • You never see anyone enter, because they have a back entrance or men sneak in when no one is around
  • Adverts for massage parlours describe the race, age and appearance of masseuse
  • Staff struggle to speak English
  • Advertisements for spa room, sauna, shower facilities or themed rooms online or in window
  • Online listings advertising “massage services” feature women in skimpy outfits and provocative poses, including their age, appearance, dress and bra sizes and country of origin
  • Ads state “no sex”, but include things such as: “new young sexy hot girls” or “all Asian young girls”
  • Online ads don’t quote an SWA number, which is required of all legal brothels under the Sex Work Act in the state of Victoria in Australia.

If you see venues that you suspect are illegal brothels, observe them for a week or two, note any features on this list and report to the authorities.

In the UK

To report a brothel or criminal activity in the UK, call the police on 101.

Further reading

In Australia

To report an unlicensed brothel or criminal activity in Australia, call:

  • The nearest police station
  • Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000

Further reading

Jacqueline Gwynne’s account of working as a receptionist in a high end legal brothel in Victoria, Australia, was published by Spinifex Press in Prostitution Narratives.

All images courtesy of Untameable Shrews.

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