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SEXtember: International students in the sex industry

Meld Magazine

Wed Oct 15 2014


THE sex industry is a little talked about source of part-time work for international students – both male and female. As part of SEXtember, Marina Solomon explores students’ attitudes towards sex work, and the challenges they face.


While it may not be the first option that comes to mind for part-time work, the sex industry is being regarded by some international students as an attractive source of income.

Working in Victorian Brothels, an independent report commissioned by Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) in June 2009, provides significant insight into the experiences of international students engaged in the sex industry and their attitudes. The report reveals that both female and male students are found in sex work, with the latter working as managers within the industry.

These findings are in line with latest anecdotal evidence by the CAV of the rise in the number of brothel manager approval applicants who are international students.

There are 46 brothels, 18 escort agencies and 75 combined brothel and escort agencies in Victoria, and an additional 525 small owner-operators registered to provide sex work services.

The 2009 CAV report estimates that university students make up 10 to 25 per cent of workers in brothels, which include female and male domestic and international students. The most common reason for students entering the industry, is the flexibility it offers for study and sufficient pay to cover living and study expenses.

In addition, visa restrictions, which limit the amount of time international  students are eligible to work (now 40 per fortnight during the term) make the sex industry an attractive source of employment.

In the report, a licensee said sex work enabled students to earn “a hell of a lot of money” in a short period of time to facilitate the “exorbitant cost they have to pay in rent and student accommodation and that gets them through the course”.

The lack of alternate employment was also reported as a driver for entry into the industry – and many international students never started out with the intention of working in the industry.

“I mean I knew that there was going to be things that I wouldn’t be able to support and afford and things like that, but I hadn’t planned it,” said one international student quoted in the report.

“And when I came here and with time it was hard finding jobs, and I went through issues of racism and races and there was so much going on and I just needed something that where I don’t have to sort of be what I’m not, and you know, just have an easy life.”

Another student Sanjit, said he began escort work not long after arriving in Australia, when he realised the funds offered by his family would not cover his living costs, which had been considerably underestimated by the education agent who had assisted with his passage. It’s a secret the Masters student keeps from his family, and a job he plans on keeping till he graduates.

According to the report, sex work is also suggested through contacts at the point of arrival –  often by students from their home country who are already in the industry.

It was the case for Chinese student Jessica. The 26-year-old business student told The Age that a recommendation from a friend led to her job as brothel manager.

Starting work at 5pm till about 3am, it’s a job she has maintained for the past one-and-a-half years because it pays well and fits her timetable – and in between introducing customers, washing towels and taking bookings, Jessica squeezes in time to study in the spare moments behind the front desk.

“One of my friends introduced me to this job – she is working here but I couldn’t do the work so decided to become a manager,” she said in The Age interview.

While challenges faced by sex workers were similar overall, including social stigma, variable access to good, effective health care and refusing demands for unsafe sex, the CAV Working in Victorian Brothels report identifies a unique problem faced by international students around access to support services.

“According to licensees, international students appear to have some concerns about whether sex work itself is genuinely legal, which may inhibit their willingness to access support services,” the report stated.

There is also a gritty underside to the industry – unlicensed brothels.

In July last year, five people were charged over an illegal brothel syndicate involving 100 sex workers. And according to one outreach worker, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

Following the arrests, Project Respect’s outreach coordinator Shirley Woods told the ABC that in Australia up to 1000 women are trafficked by the sex industry every year, with international students among them.  

“Student visas are definitely common,” Ms Wood told the ABC.

“And essentially if they’ve got a visa that says that they’re allowed to work, then there’s nothing that the police can really do about it.”

“So if the police go into a place, even if they suspect that woman might be victims of human trafficking, they’ve often had their families threatened, they’ve been threatened, they’re too afraid of authority and they won’t come forward,” she said.