Updated 12.40pm, adds PN statement

More than 500 men were tested in the past two years after having unprotected sex with Chinese and Eastern European women in ‘massage parlours’, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt.  

The figures, compiled by Mater Dei Hospital’s GU Clinic, shed light on a trend of Maltese men, particularly those aged over 50, paying women in ‘massage parlours’ for sex. 

Nearly one in every 10 men who signed up to be tested at the GU clinic since 2017 have admitted to paying a sex worker for a sexual encounter. 

Sources said that more than 90% of these had embarrassedly admitted to nurses and doctors that the prostitution had taken place in one of the dozens of massage parlours mushrooming across the island.   

Most of them had sought testing after developing sexually transmitted infection symptoms.

“There is a clear trend of men, mostly older and married or divorced ones, contracting sexually transmitted infections after having sex in massage parlours,” a source in the clinic told The Sunday Times of Malta.

One nurse said she had “no doubt” that these parlours posed a threat to public health, as the men presented a high risk of passing these infections on to their wives or other partners. Herpes and genital warts were among the most common STIs, the nurse said, adding that more serious cases had also been flagged.  In 2016 the GU clinic conducted a short three-month monitoring programme to identify whether there was cause for alarm on the ‘massage parlour’ issue.

At the time, The Sunday Times of Malta had already flagged how the clinic was treating men for STIs after visiting mostly Chinese-run ‘massage parlours’.

Since then, the clinic has been collecting further figures on the phenomenon and using it to help public authorities make “data-driven decisions”.

The GU Clinic sources confirmed that in recent months a number of these sex workers had tested positive for STIs

The information is then shared with public health officials who reach out to the sex workers in many of Malta’s ‘massage parlours’. 

What are the challenges?

The GU Clinic sources confirmed that in recent months a number of these sex workers had tested positive for STIs. 

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“There are a number of challenges here. The women in these parlours are often victims of human trafficking. They barely speak English, and if even if they do wish to come forward, their circumstances often prevent them from doing so,” one source said.

Up until 2016 there were nearly 200 registered massage parlours on the island. However, figures are not available for the years after that as the government removed licensing requirements for the establishments. 

Figures presented in Parliament by Economy Minister Chris Cardona two years ago had shown how the majority of these parlours were concentrated in and around the Sliema and St Julian’s area. 

What's the reality for sex workers?

While the world of sex work is largely kept behind closed doors, last year a court sitting had offered a rare glimpse into the realities behind the facade of Malta’s massage parlour industry. 

Four women, three Ukrainians and one from Moldova had detailed being trafficked into the island and made to work 13-hour shifts, having sex with as many as a dozen men each every day. 

The women, who were charged with prostitution, all turned witnesses for the prosecution against the Maltese businessman who allegedly ran a number of massage parlours. 

Starting at 9am and finishing at around 10pm, the women would deal with a stream of men and end the day splitting the money they made with their employer.

The women all detailed how the clients would “nearly always” want sex, and few would want to just have a massage. Some would leave a tip at their discretion, but the €50 charge included “any kind” of sexual activity the client wanted, the women said. They were monitored through CCTV equipment and felt unable to turn men away, even when they feared for their safety. 

At the end of a long day, the women would then be made to clean the parlour themselves and be taken to an apartment rented for them by their employer. 

Aside from giving away half of the money they made from their daily prostitution, the women would also have to pay another €20 for food, wet wipes, and condoms. 

Most women who are charged with working as prostitutes in massage parlours turn witnesses and are eventually deported from the country.

Government should regulate massage parlours - PN

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said that the government’s decision to remove all type of licencing and regularisation in the sector was wrong because it was taken without consideration of the negative consequences.

This could be seen from the ugly reality regarding sexually transmitted diseases.

The GU Clinic statistics were proof that there were massage parlours in Malta that were being used for ulterior motives including prostitution and human trafficking.

Faced with this reality, the government should take action.

Some massage parlours were being used as brothels and if the government wanted its campaign against human trafficking to reach its aims, it should take immediate action to regulate such parlours, the PN said

Correction August 25: A previous version of this article stated that more than 500 men tested positive for an STI after having sex at a massage parlour.
The figure actually refers to the number of men who reported having sex at a massage parlour when they got tested. No data is available yet about the number who tested positive.