It may surprise some to learn that behind closed doors in downtown Victoria, away from the dimly lit street corners of the stroll, brothels are not only operating – they’re licensed by the city.

One operator, whose identity CTV News has concealed at her request, says she’s making sex workers safer by running her agency as a proper business.

“Pay taxes, we’ve had benefits for the girls, medical and dental and support with accounting and financial planning,” she said.

She’s just the latest in a long line of madams in the capital, dating back to before the turn of the 20th century.

Back then, horses ruled the roads and downtown Victoria’s Broad Street was dotted with saloons and brothels, including the top two floors of the historic Duck’s Building.

That building is no longer a brothel and Broad Street has changed dramatically, but Victoria does still have four brothels in operation all licensed as escort agencies by the City of Victoria.

Agencies that advertise online show off the women they employ, their hourly rates and even the rooms where they provide services.

The city says its bylaws only allow escort agencies to make introductions for short-term companionship – but nothing more.

“They’re not to be combined with other businesses that might provide more personal service-type things,” said City Clerk Chris Coates.

But much more personal services including sex are provided for clients – and the madam who spoke with CTV News said those clients number in the thousands.

“Probably close to about 6,000,” she said. “Not all of them active all the time, some of them more active than others.”

The industry has been buoyed by online advertisements that make accessing local sex workers a keystroke away, whether they’re at agencies or self-employed.

They include classified sites like “Backpage,” which caters to the sex trade, and “Perb,”which allows clients to rate sex workers.

“Consumers, they’re able to do more research and know what they’re getting into when they’re booking an appointment with someone,” said the madam.

The sites also go both ways, enabling sex workers like Natasha Potvin to assess potential clients – creating an ultimately safer environment.

“Online is very good to negotiate so you can just, when you expose yourself on some sites, you can say I’m doing that service, that service, that price, and it’s clear,” said Potvin.

The city says selling sex at brothels is a federal issue to be enforced by local police if needed, but it hasn’t had any bylaw complaints in years.

Coun. Marianne Alto says she thinks it’s time brothels were regulated much like the city’s many pot dispensaries.

“I think the sex trade is part of our community and we need to look at regulating that in the same type of way,” said Alto.

Despite the internet changing how sex is advertised, sex work appears to still be a thriving business behind closed doors in the capital.

Part three of a four-part series. Tomorrow, Robert Buffam takes a look at prostitution laws and how they’re enforced by Victoria police.