Objective: To estimate the number of unlicensed brothels operating in Melbourne, Australia, and the sexual health of the women working in them.
Methods: Advertisements from Melbourne newspapers published in July 2006 were systematically analysed based on the language used to identify premises likely to be unlicensed brothels. A visit was made to each of the businesses where an address was available. Participating sex workers were tested for Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis, Mycoplasma genitalium and Trichomonas vaginalis using self-collected tampons and polymerase chain reaction.
Results: There were 438 advertisements collated, representing 174 separate establishments. Of these, 78 were not considered likely to be brothels. Of the remaining 96, addresses were available for 42 and all of these premises were visited. Thirteen were confirmed as unlicensed brothels. We estimate there were between 13 and 70 unlicensed brothels in Melbourne. Twenty-three women were recruited from four brothels. Only 56% (95% confidence interval (CI) 35-77%) reported having regular sexual health checks and only 13% (95%CI 3-36%) reported prior testing for HIV. Among the 22 women tested, one had chlamydia while another had gonorrhoea, a prevalence of 4.5% (95%CI: 2.3-20.4%) for each infection.
Conclusions: The number of unlicensed brothels in Melbourne is much smaller than is generally believed. Women in the sector are infrequently tested for STIs.
Implications: As long as a licensing system persists, promotion of sexual health among women in this sector is likely to face hurdles. Further research is needed into the best model for regulating or not regulating sex industries.