I’d never been to a brothel before. So my vague idea has been that anything goes as long as a client pays.

But after visiting an Australian establishment with international journalists as part of the 20th International Aids Conference, which wraps up in Melbourne on Friday, I’ve learnt that there are boundaries and rules.

It’s a regulated industry, and brothels have to abide by strict health guidelines to avoid spreading sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/Aids.

In many countries, including South Africa, sex work and brothels remain illegal, but it is no longer a crime in some countries, including Australia, where it has been decriminalised for years, although street work remains illegal in several states.

Nick Costello, who has managed the Boardroom in Melbourne for 12 years, said the strict regulations not only protected the flourishing business against persecution by law enforcement authorities, but also protected sex workers against sexually transmitted infections.

The state of Victoria laid down that sex workers must be screened for infection at a government clinic every three months and present a certificate to their employer. The result of their screening remained confidential, but “we know they get treated for whatever infections they might have”, Costello said.

“The government also requires all brothels to issue condoms to sex workers... so by law you are not allowed to have unprotected sex as a sex worker. As a brothel owner or manager you don’t always know what happens behind closed doors, but should a sex worker feel uncomfortable after examining the client – if there are any physical signs that a client might have a sexually transmitted disease for instance – then it is her right to refuse to proceed with her services. Her health comes first.”

Clients who refused to wear a condom were shown the door. If a client pretended to use one, he could be prosecuted, Costello said.

At the conference Australia was praised for its liberal laws in fighting the spread of HIV, including decriminalisation of sex work and the distribution of free needles to drug users. Sex workers, including men sleeping with men, and drug injectors are considered most at risk for HIV infection.

Sue White, general manager of Inner South Community Health, a government outreach programme providing health and community services, believes Australia’s liberal laws have saved it from the HIV/Aids pandemic.”The country was heavily criticised when it introduced these laws in the mid-80s, but today we are reaping the fruits of those laws… having the lowest HIV infection rates in the world,” she said.

Since the Aids pandemic began in the early 1980s, Australia has had just over 34 000 infections. This compares to about 6.4 million South Africans who live with the disease.

Mish, 27, pictured left, who is a sex worker in Melbourne, said his job was like any other . “I see what I do as a normal job even though it’s still frowned upon in parts of Australian society and by some family members.

“I see myself as a psychological stress relief therapist… it’s a lot of things. Sometimes people come to me just to offload their problems.

“The law is on my side. I know if anything happens I can always report it to authorities because I’m not breaking any law,” he said.

Cape Argus