The threat to health from cheap brothels

Health concern ... many Asian brothels offer unprotected oral sex.
Health concern ... many Asian brothels offer unprotected oral sex.

ASIAN sex workers are being pressured to have unprotected oral sex to keep their jobs in an increasingly competitive prostitution industry, prompting fears of an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases in the wider community.

To kick-start business after the global financial crisis and meet a surge in client demand, Sydney brothels staffed exclusively by Asians now offer oral sex without a condom as a standard service.

NSW Health confirms rates of sexually transmitted infections among the general population are rising, although it has no evidence infections among sex workers are up.

But The Sun-Herald has learnt that any spread of disease among Asian sex workers in Sydney is being covered up because they bring in medicines from Hong Kong to treat themselves, rather than see local doctors.

Brothel owners estimate 80 per cent of men who pay for sex have wives or girlfriends. Engaging in unprotected oral sex risks spreading disease throughout the community.

''It's highly dangerous,'' warned Lee Cameron, who owns high-end Chatswood brothel La Petite Aroma, which does not offer unprotected sex.

''If the girls don't have proper health check-ups, they can give [an infection] to the client and the client can go home and give it to his wife. Men don't realise what they're getting into … I feel sorry for the unsuspecting wives and girlfriends.''

The Health and Safety Guidelines for Brothels is the only government regulation, and it requires owners to provide a safe working environment. Despite the public health implications, however, there is no law against unsafe sex in NSW brothels.

The Coalition had promised to clean up the sex industry if elected. But it has yet to convene a meeting of the working party it promised to consider a paid licensing system for brothels to pay for more council compliance inspectors.

The Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, declined to answer Sun-Herald questions about the public health ramifications of unsafe sex practices in the prostitution industry.

Already an outbreak of disease among men who visit Asian sex workers is being picked up by web forums. A man calling himself AnUnluckyPunter revealed he had contracted chlamydia or gonorrhoea after having unprotected oral sex with various Asian sex workers at four different brothels across Sydney in the past month.

''If you have received BBBJ [bareback blowjob] or any unprotected sexual activities from the [listed] girls, it is highly advisable that you get yourself checked up by your GP or at any medical centre/clinic,'' he warned on the Aus99 forum.

Another punter observed: ''These STDs are very active in Sydney at the moment.''

Oral sex without a condom has only recently become a standard service at specialist Asian brothels, many of them legal establishments.

More than half the sex workers in Sydney now are of Asian background, after an influx of workers from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand in the past decade, a University of NSW study found. Chris Seage, who investigates brothels on behalf of councils, said more than 90 per cent of illegal venues were Asian-owned or operated.

Most Asian sex workers come to Australia on student or working holiday visas, and prostitution is a well-paid job with flexible hours that requires little English.

To make as much money as possible in the limited time they are legally allowed to stay here, the women will often work double shifts five times a week, making up to $1000 cash in hand a day, sex industry sources said.

The influx of workers, coupled with a post-GFC slump in trade of 30 per cent, has sparked fierce competition in the sex industry and given male clients more power to demand the services they want.

Asian brothels are doing a roaring trade, with services half the price charged by Caucasian ones, and unprotected oral sex now a standard offering. ''They are busier,'' Fiona, a sex worker from China, said. ''Men want [oral sex without a condom] so they go to places that offer that.

''It only happens in Asian place because the boss want more customer so he use that as a method of attracting more customer. In local place they usually emphasise the safety of girls.''

Fiona said Asian brothels demanded workers offer unprotected sex if they wanted shifts. ''It wasn't like this a couple of years ago. There were less workers and more customer, so the worker can choose the customer, the worker can refuse to do something. Now always the customer choose the worker.''

Sex Workers Outreach Project, the sex worker health agency, is hearing anecdotal evidence that ''clients are requesting unsafe oral sex services from workers more often than in the past'', the general manager, Lance Schema, said.

Mr Schema said it was quite easy to catch STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhoea from unprotected oral sex, but there was ''variable understanding'' in the wider community about the risks.

Cases of gonorrhoea among the general population have risen 80 per cent in the past four years, and cases of chlamydia are up 70 per cent, says NSW Health. Sex Workers Outreach Project has published posters promoting safe oral sex in sex work.

Fiona believes most Asian sex workers ignore the risks of unprotected sex. ''People around me, I warn them but they are already used to it.''

The women that do contract infections treat themselves with fast-acting medicine brought in from Hong Kong.

''They don't want to go to a clinic because their English is too limited and they feel their job should be a secret,'' Fiona said.

Some men who pay for unprotected oral sex play down the risks. ''There's very little to hardly any risk in it,'' Herr-Doktor posted on Aus99. ''You can pick up something but you have more chance of being hit by a car.''

Even better-informed men are prepared to risk an infection for a more intimate encounter. La Petite Aroma is plastered with the outreach project's posters but they do not deter everyone.

''That's in their face and still they ask for it,'' Ms Cameron said. ''We'd show at least four clients a day the door who ask for it.''

Mr Seage said brothel operators encouraging unprotected sex were ''the worst kind of pimp''.

''They have no compassion or thoughts towards an individual's health or their clients' health. In the absence of any robust regulation in NSW, I can only see the situation getting worse.''