[Dash of SAS] What regulated sex looks like

MELBOURNE, Australia – Say the word “brothel” and you are likely to think of a dark, rowdy, seedy place where women flow from customer to customer as freely as booze. That is unless you are at The Boardroom, a licensed brothel and escort agency in Melbourne.  

“Yes, we are really called a brothel,” said Nick Costello, who has been the manager of The Boardroom for more than a decade.

But this is not exactly a scene from The Game of Thrones. Don’t expect to be greeted by half-clothed women with provocative looks and feathery touches. Instead, a receptionist will assist and greet you with a smile. You can get almost anything you want and can pay for in the bedroom – except for your favorite cocktail or any alcoholic beverage. As a suitable alternative, you can guzzle up your energy drink of choice or a cup of coffee.

When a gentleman client comes into The Boardroom, he will choose his companion from the ladies who are available for the afternoon or evening. They will meet in the lounge area where they can chat over coffee before deciding to carry on their business to any one of The Boardroom’s limited number of rooms. The number of rooms is also regulated. 

Both the client and the escort can decline to proceed with their transaction after this initial chit-chat.

Sex work: legal and regulated

Sex work is legal and a highly regulated industry in Melbourne. Like any recognized business, getting a license to operate a brothel means complying with strict sanitation, building, and health guidelines.

Some of these guidelines include not serving alcoholic beverages – as selling and serving alcoholic beverages would require a different license.

All escorts must be 18 years old or older; if a foreigner, they must have a work permit and a medical certificate to show that they are fit to work. Given the nature of The Boardroom’s services, the sex worker’s clean bill of health must state that she is cleared of any sexually transmitted infections.

The sex work laws of the state of Victoria mandate sex workers to be screened for infection at a government clinic every 3 months. The results of their screening are confidential, but The Boardroom works in close collaboration with city health workers to make sure their escorts are regularly screened and treated, if necessary. 

Needless to say, condom use is also strictly enforced.

“The government requires all brothels to issue condoms to sex workers. By law, you are not allowed to have unprotected sex as a sex worker,” said Costello.

And that’s where the panic button comes in.

If you misbehave in the bedroom and that includes being unruly or violent or stubborn about wearing a condom, the sex worker can press the panic button.

The Boardroom’s well-appointed rooms come with a shower area or a hot tub and comfortably sized bed. The room’s soft lighting allows enough illumination for a physical inspection.

“If there are any physical signs that a client might have a sexually transmitted disease, the sex worker has the right to refuse to proceed with her services,” said Costello.

Escorts include college students, solo moms from a range of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Some are full time sex workers, some moonlight for extra income. They work on mostly a freelance basis. They apply, present the necessary documents, and come in when they are free to work.

Sex work is legal in Melbourne, but street prostitution is not.

“Sex workers work under the license of the brothel or escort service and do not need to register themselves as a sex worker individually. It is the brothel or escort agency that is required to register for a license,” said Sarah Rogan, a health officer from Inner South Community Health, a non-profit that offers health and community health services for areas in Melbourne. 

Sex workers who work privately or independently by advertising their services are exempt from securing a license. Known as an "exempt escort,” they still need to register for this exemption and get an SWA (Sex Worker Act) number.

A sex worker – male, female, or trans – who advertises their services must include their SWA number. Similarly, brothels or escort agencies must include their license number details in any advertisements. 

Australia has one of the lowest HIV infection rates in the world. When the country passed liberal laws that decriminalized sex work and the distribution of free needles to drug users back in the mid-80s, it was heavily criticized.

Today, it is these laws that health workers say saved the country from uncontrollable HIV infection rates. “Today, we are reaping the fruits of these laws,” Sue White, general manager of Inner South Community Health, said in an interview.

Legalization comes with regulation and Costello admits that there are a lot of laws to comply with, business licenses and permits to secure, but it is all for a good reason. 

“Regulation professionalizes the industry, lessens the stigma and protects the customer, the sex worker and the industry," he said. – Rappler.com

 Ana P. Santos writes about sex and gender issues. Seriously. She is a regular contributor for Rappler apart from her DASH of SAS column, which is a spin off of her website, www.SexAndSensibilities.com (SAS). Follow her on Twitter at @iamAnaSantos.