Prostitution is the practice, business, or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone in exchange for payment. There are an estimated 42 million prostitutes around the world.
Prostitution occurs in a variety of forms, and its legality varies from country to country (sometimes even from one state or county to another). This inconsistency reflects the wide range of national opinions that exist on issues surrounding prostitution, including exploitation, gender roles, ethics and morality, freedom of choice, and social norms.
Prostitution is seen as a major issue by many religious groups and feminist activist organizations. Some feminists believe that prostitution harms and exploits women and reinforces stereotypical views about women as sex objects. Other feminists believe that prostitution is a valid choice for women who wish to engage in it.
Various legal stances on prostitution
Similarly, the world's countries have adopted many different legal approaches regarding exactly which aspects of prostitution are legal or illegal and how best to regulate or eliminate the industry.
- Prohibitionism - Prostitution is illegal (prohibited/criminalized) across the board. Selling, buying, organizing (via brothels, pimps, etc), and soliciting sex for money are all against the law. This approach is common in deeply religious countries, especially countries that outlaw pornography.
- Neo-abolitionism - This philosophy considers prostitution to be violence against women. Selling sex is technically legal—but buying, organizing, and soliciting sex are all illegal. Prostitutes are considered legally blameless when caught in the act, but their clients and pimps (the prostitute's "organizer" or boss) are prosecuted. This "reverse loophole" is designed to suppress demand.
- Abolitionism - The most prevalent approach worldwide. Selling sex and buying sex are both legal. However, in an effort to prevent exploitation of the sex worker, public solicitation; the operation of brothels; and forms of "organization" such as pimping, procuring, and forced prostitution are all usually prohibited.
- Legalization - Selling, buying, and some forms of organizing (typically brothels) and soliciting of sex are legal. But they are also regulated, such as requiring prostitutes to register or only allowing prostitution in certain districts.
- Decriminalization - Selling, buying, organizing, and solicitation of sex are all legal (or simply not addressed in the law at all) and are subject to minimal or no special regulations.
- Some countries, such as Australia and the United States, state and local governments may have additional laws regarding prostitution.
It is important to note that a country's laws often fail to paint an accurate picture of the level of prostitution in that country.
For instance, sex workers in many neo-abolitionist countries have found loopholes that have enabled prostitution to thrive despite the seemingly strict laws—for example, prostitutes may offer a perfectly legal service, such as a dance session, that just happens to progress to a sex act as an off-the-clock bonus. Similarly, local law enforcement often takes an opposite stance on prostitution. Especially in tourist areas, local law enforcement is often tolerant of prostitution despite laws that prohibit it ... conversely, law enforcement personnel may harrass, shake down, or even abuse sex workers in countries that have legalized prostitution.
A brief survey of prostitution laws in various countries
Prostitution in Canada is legal with strict regulations. Under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, it is legal to communicate with the intention of selling sex; however, it is illegal to communicate with the intention of buying sex and illegal to purchase sex services. It is legal for sex workers to advertise their own services, but not others' services. It is also illegal to sell sex near any area where a minor (under 18) could reasonably be expected to be present, such as schools, playgrounds, etc. These are just a few of the provisions in the law.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but the laws are ambiguous and often unenforced. As a result, red-light districts, massage parlors, go-go bars, and sex-focused karaoke bars are common sights. Sex work in Thailand is a significant economic incentive for many citizens, especially rural, unskilled women with financial burdens.
Engaging in prostitution as a buyer or seller is technically illegal in Japan. However, because the legal definition of prostitution is extremely narrow and specific (vaginal intercourse with a stranger), sex workers have devised a cornucopia of loopholes and end-arounds. These include "Soaplands", where guests are bathed by prostitutes; offering oral, anal, mammary, or some other form of non-vaginal intercourse; and "fashion health" or "delivery health" services, which sell legal services such as a massage and unofficially throw in a sex act as a freebie. As such, prostitution in Japan is prohibited, but thriving.
In one of the more progressive approaches worldwide, prostitution in Germany is legal, organized, and taxed. Germany also allows brothels, advertisements, and the processing of prostitution jobs through HR companies. Germany passed the Prostitutes Protection Act in 2016, which was intended to protect the legal rights of prostitutes. Part of the Act includes requiring a permit for all prostitution trades and a registration certificate for all prostitutes.
The legality of prostitution in Australia varies considerably from one states or territory to another, as each have their own laws. In New South Wales, prostitution is almost completely decriminalized (though pimping is still illegal). In Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria, sex work is legal and regulated. In Western Australia, Northern Territory, and South Australia, independent sex work is legal and not regulated, but brothels and pimping are illegal.
Prostitution is legal under federal law in Mexico. The country’s 31 states each enact their own prostitution policies, and 13 of those states allow and regulate prostitution. Some cities have “tolerance zones,” which act as red-light districts and enable regulated prostitution. Pimping is illegal in most parts of Mexico.
Where is prostitution legal in the United States? Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the U.S. except for 10 counties in Nevada. Brothels are permitted in counties where prostitution is legal, and both brothels and prostitutes are subject to federal income taxes. Prostitution is illegal in the remaining Nevada counties: Clark, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe. Las Vegas and Reno are located within Clark and Washoe county, respectively, meaning prostitution is illegal in both cities. Nonetheless, the majority of prostitution in Nevada occurs illegally in Reno and Las Vegas.
Prostitution laws around the world
For a more complete table of countries around the world and each of their legal stances on prostitution, see the table below.