Prostitute c.1890
Prostitute monument in Amsterdam

Prostitution is the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. The person who receives payment for sexual services is called a prostitute and the person who receives such services is known by a multitude of terms, including a "john". Prostitution is one of the branches of the sex industry. The legal status of prostitution varies from country to country, from being a punishable crime to a regulated profession. Estimates place the annual revenue generated from the global prostitution industry to be over $100 billion.[1]

Prostitution occurs in a variety of forms. Brothels are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution. In escort prostitution, the act may take place at the customer's residence or hotel room (referred to as out-call), or at the escort's residence or in a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort (called in-call). Another form is street prostitution. Sex tourism refers to travelling, typically from developed to under-developed nations, to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes. Sex trafficking, one type of human trafficking is defined as using coercion or force to transport an unwilling person into prostitution or other sexual exploitation[2].


Etymology and terminology

"Prostitute" is derived from the Latin prostituta. Some sources cite the verb as a composition of "pro" meaning "up front" or "forward" and "situere", defined as "to offer up for sale"[3]. Another explanation is that "prostituta" is a is a composition of pro and statuere (to cause to stand, to station, place erect). A literal translation therefore would be: "to put up front for sale" or "to place forward". The online Etymology Dictionary states, "The notion of 'sex for hire' is not inherent in the etymology, which rather suggests one 'exposed to lust' or sex 'indiscriminately offered.'"[4] [5] However, another source says, "Being "up front" or being "exposed" referred to the Ancient Roman sex workers' habit of going about with their faces uncovered" which was in contrast to the general practice of women covering their faces with a "palla" (head cloth) while in public. Historically, "prostituta" was often applied to independent sex workers, those who worked in taverns, on the streets or in their own homes, as opposed to the slaves who were sold to the brothel-owners of the time's state-regulated brothels[6]. The word "prostitute" was then carried down through various languages to the present-day Western society. Most sex worker activists groups reject the word "prostitute" and since the late 1970's have used the term "sex worker" instead. However, a "sex worker" can also mean anyone who works within the sex industry or whose work if of a sexual nature and is not limited solely to prostitutes[7].

The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen (1622)

A variety of terms are used for those who engage in prostitution, some of which distinguish between different types of prostitution or imply a value judgment about them. Common alternatives for prostitute include escort and whore; however, not all professional escorts are prostitutes.

The English word whore derives from the Old English word hōra, from the proto-Germanic kohoron (prostitute), which derives from the proto-Indo-European root meaning "desire", a root which has also given us the Latin caritas (love, charity) and the French cher (dear, expensive). Use of the word whore is widely considered pejorative, especially in its modern slang form of ho'. In Germany, however, most prostitutes' organizations deliberately use the word Hure (whore) since they feel that prostitute is a bureaucratic term. Those seeking to remove the social stigma associated with prostitution often promote terminology such as sex worker, commercial sex worker (CSW), "tantric engineer" (coined by author Robert Anton Wilson), or sex trade worker. Another commonly-used word for a prostitute is hooker. Although a popular etymology connects "hooker" with Joseph Hooker, a Union general in the American Civil War, the word more likely comes from the concentration of prostitutes around the shipyards and ferry terminal of the Corlear's Hook area of Manhattan in the 1820s, who came to be referred to as "hookers"[8]. A streetwalker solicits customers on the streets or in public places, while a call girl makes appointments by phone.

Correctly or not, use of the word prostitute without specifying a gender may commonly be assumed to be female; compound terms such as male prostitution or male escort are therefore often used to identify males. Those offering services to female customers are commonly known as gigolos; those offering services to male customers are hustlers or rent boys.

Organizers of prostitution may be known as pimps (if male) and madams or Mama-san (if female). More formally, one who is said to practice procuring is a procurer, or procuress.

The clients of prostitutes are also known as johns or tricks in North America and punters in the British Isles. These slang terms are used among both prostitutes and law enforcement for persons who solicit prostitutes.[9] The term john may have originated from the frequent customer practice of giving one's name as "John", a common name in English-speaking countries, in an effort to maintain anonymity. In some places, men who drive around red-light districts for the purpose of soliciting prostitutes are also known as kerb crawlers.

Other meanings

The word "prostitution" can also be used metaphorically to mean debasing oneself or working towards an unworthy cause or "selling out".[10] In this sense, "prostituting oneself" or "whoring oneself" the services or acts performed are typically not sexual. For instance, in the book, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says of his brother ("D.B."): "Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me." D.B. is not literally a prostitute; Holden feels that his job writing B-movie screenplays is morally debasing. Sex work researcher and writer Gail Pheterson says that this additional definition exists because "the term "prostitute" gradually took on a Christian moralist tradition, as being synonymous with debasement of oneself or of others for the purpose of ill-gotten gains". [11]


Prostitution is historically and culturally ubiquitous,[12][13] with every culture adopting their own standards and attitudes. Since ancient history, concubines and courtiers often lived in the same house as the wife and often had equal status and some legal rights. A mistress usually maintains a separate residence provided by her keeper, has no legal rights, and the relationship is often kept secret.


According to Zohar and the Alphabet of Ben Sira, there were four angels of sacred prostitution, who mated with archangel Samael. They were the queens of the demons Lilith, Naamah, Agrat Bat Mahlat and Eisheth Zenunim.

Ancient Near East

Customer and a prostitute illustrated on an ancient Greek wine cup
Fresco from the Pompeii brothel

In the Ancient Near East along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers there were many shrines and temples or "houses of heaven" dedicated to various deities documented by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories[14] where sacred prostitution was a common practice.[15] According to Samuel Noah Kramer in The Sacred Marriage Rite, in late Sumerian history kings established their legitimacy by taking part in the ceremony in the temple for one night, on the tenth day of the New Year festival Akitu.[citation needed] It came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD destroyed the goddess temples and replaced them with Christianity.[16]

As early as the 18th century B.C., the ancient society of Mesopotamia recognized the need to protect women's property rights. In the Code of Hammurabi, provisions were found that addressed inheritance rights of women, including female prostitutes.[17]


In ancient Greek society, prostitution was engaged in by both women and boys.[18] The Greek word for prostitute is porne (Gr: πόρνη), derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. The English word pornography, and its corollaries in other languages, are directly derivative of the Greek word porne (Gr: πόρνη).[citation needed] Female prostitutes could be independent and sometimes influential women. They were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the Greek hetaera and the Japanese oiran, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitution and courtisanerie.[citation needed] (See also the Indian tawaif.) Some prostitutes in ancient Greece, such as Lais were as famous for their company as their beauty, and some of these women charged extraordinary sums for their services.


In ancient Rome, a registered prostitute was called a meretrix while the unregistered one fell under the broad category prostibulae. There were some commonalities with the Greek system; but as the Empire grew, prostitutes were often foreign slaves, captured, purchased, or raised for that purpose, sometimes by large-scale "prostitute farmers" who took abandoned children. Indeed, abandoned children were almost always raised as prostitutes.[19] Enslavement into prostitution was sometimes used as a legal punishment against criminal free women. Buyers were allowed to inspect naked men and women for sale in private and there was no stigma attached to the purchase of males by a male aristocrat.

An oiran preparing herself for a client, ukiyo-e print by Suzuki Haronubu (1765)
Köçek troupe at a fair. Recruited from the ranks of colonized ethnic groups, köçeks were entertainers and sex workers in the Ottoman empire.
French prostitutes being taken to the police station.


According to Shia Muslims, the prophet Muhammad sanctioned fixed-term marriage - muta'a in Iraq and sigheh in Iran — which has instead been used as a legitimizing cover for sex workers, in a culture where prostitution would otherwise be forbidden.[20] Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Muslims worldwide, believe the practice of fixed-term marriage was abrogated and ultimately forbidden by either Muhammad, or one of his successors, Umar. Like the Shia, Sunnis regard prostitution as sinful and forbidden.

In the early 17th century, there was widespread male and female prostitution throughout the cities of Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka, Japan. Oiran were courtesans in Japan during the Edo period. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo (遊女?) "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫 or 大夫?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan available only to the wealthiest and highest ranking men. To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry, and calligraphy as well as sexual services, and an educated wit was considered essential for sophisticated conversation. Many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among wealthy women. The last recorded oiran was in 1761. Although illegal in modern Japan, the definition of prostitution does not extend to a "private agreement" reached between a woman and a man in a brothel. Yoshiwara has a large number of soaplands that began when explicit prostitution in Japan became illegal, where women washed men's bodies. They were originally known as toruko-buro, meaning Turkish bath.

A tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. These courtesans would dance, sing, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.[21]

Middle Ages

In Renaissance Europe, courtiers played an extremely important role in upper-class society. It was customary for royal couples to lead separate lives — marrying simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances — men and women would often seek gratification and companionship from people living at court. In fact, the verb "to court" originally meant "to be or reside at court", and later came to mean "to behave as a courtier" and then "to pay amorous attention to somebody".[22] The most intimate companion of a ruler was called the favourite.

During the Middle Ages, prostitution was commonly found in urban contexts. Although all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage were regarded as sinful by the Roman Catholic Church, prostitution was tolerated because it was held to prevent the greater evils of rape, sodomy, and masturbation (McCall, 1979). Augustine of Hippo held that: "If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts". The general tolerance of prostitution was for the most part reluctant, and many canonists urged prostitutes to reform.

After the decline of organised prostitution of the Roman empire, many prostitutes were slaves. However, religious campaigns against slavery, and the growing marketisation of the economy, turned prostitution back into a business. By the High Middle Ages it is common to find town governments ruling that prostitutes were not to ply their trade within the town walls, but they were tolerated outside if only because these areas were beyond the jurisdiction of the authorities. In many areas of France and Germany town governments came to set aside certain streets as areas where prostitution could be tolerated. In London the brothels of Southwark were owned by the Bishop of Winchester. (McCall) Still later it became common in the major towns and cities of Southern Europe to establish civic brothels, whilst outlawing any prostitution taking place outside these brothels. In much of Northern Europe a more laissez faire attitude tended to be found.[23] Prostitutes also found a fruitful market in the Crusades. According to Jacques Rossiaud, the clergy made up about twenty percent of the clientele of private brothels and bath-houses in Dijon, France during the 14th century, and it seems the situation was similar all throughout Europe.[24] Sixtus IV (1471–1484) was the first Pope to impose a license on brothels.[25]

16th–17th centuries

By the end of the fifteenth century attitudes seemed to have begun to harden against prostitution. An outbreak of syphilis in Naples 1494 which later swept across Europe, and which may have originated from the Columbian Exchange,[26] and the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases from the earlier sixteenth century may have been causes of this change in attitude. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, numbers of European towns closed their brothels in an attempt to eradicate prostitution.[27] In some periods prostitutes had to distinguish themselves by particular signs, sometimes wearing very short hair or no hair at all, or wearing veils in societies where other women did not wear them. Ancient codes regulated in this case the crime of a prostitute that dissimulated her profession.[clarification needed] In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public or act in theatrical performances.

18th century

Prostitutes on display in Yoshiwara during the Edo Period, Japan

According to Dervish Ismail Agha, in the Dellâkname-i Dilküşâ, the Ottoman archives,[28][29] in the Turkish baths, the masseurs were traditionally young men, who helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies. They also worked as sex workers.[30] The Ottoman texts describe who they were, their prices, how many times they could bring their customers to orgasm, and the details of their sexual practices.

During the British East India Company's rule in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was initially fairly common for British soldiers to engage in inter-ethnic prostitution in India, where they would frequently visit local Indian nautch dancers.[31] As British females began arriving in British India in large numbers from the early to mid-19th century, it became increasingly uncommon for British soldiers to visit Indian prostitutes, and miscegenation was despised altogether after the events of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.[32]

19th century

In the 19th century, legalized prostitution became a public controversy as France and then the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation mandating pelvic examinations for suspected prostitutes. This legislation applied not only to the United Kingdom and France, but also to their overseas colonies. A similar situation did in fact exist in the Russian Empire; prostitutes operating out of government-sanctioned brothels were given yellow internal passports signifying their status and were subjected to weekly physical exams. Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection describes legal prostitution in 19th-century Russia.

De Wallen red-light district in Amsterdam. Most sex workers are foreigners, the majority from central and eastern Europe.

20th century

The leading theorists of Communism opposed prostitution. Communist governments often attempted to repress the practice immediately after obtaining power, although it always persisted. In contemporary Communist countries, it remains illegal but is nonetheless common. The economic decline brought about by the collapse of the Soviet union led to increased prostitution in many current or former Communist countries.[33]

Originally, prostitution was widely legal in the United States. Prostitution was made illegal in almost all states between 1910 and 1915 largely due to the influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which was influential in the banning of drug use and was a major force in the prohibition of alcohol.[citation needed] In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wanted all prostitution ended near any military and naval base as America prepared to enter World War I.[citation needed]

In 1956, the United Kingdom introduced the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which would partly be repealed, and altered, by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. While this law did not criminalise the act of prostitution itself, it did prohibit such activities as running a brothel and soliciting.

Beginning in the late 1980s, many states in the US increased the penalties for prostitution in cases where the prostitute is knowingly HIV-positive. Penalties for "felony prostitution" vary, with maximum sentences of typically 10 to 15 years in prison.

Sex tourism emerged in the late 20th century as a controversial aspect of Western tourism and globalization.

Legal and socio-economic status


A detail from plate 1 of William Hogarth's (1697-1764) The Harlot's Progress, showing brothel-keeper Elizabeth Needham, on the right, procuring a young woman who has just arrived in London.

Roughly speaking, the possible attitudes are:

  • "Prostitution should be made to disappear":
    • prohibitionism (both prostitutes and clients are criminalized and are seen as immoral, they are considered criminals): the prevailing attitude nearly everywhere in the United States, with a few exceptions in some rural Nevada counties (see Prostitution in Nevada).
    • abolitionism (prostitution itself is not prohibited, but most associated activities are illegal, in an attempt to make it more difficult to engage in prostitution, prostitution is heavily discouraged and seen as a social problem): prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but the surrounding activities such as public solicitation, operating a brothel and other forms of pimping are prohibited, the current situation in the United Kingdom, France and Canada among others;
    • neo-abolitionism ("prostitution is a form of violence against women, it is a violation of human rights, the clients of the prostitutes exploit the prostitutes"): prostitutes are not prosecuted, but their clients and pimps are, which is the current situation in Sweden, Norway and Iceland (in Norway the law is even more strict, forbidding also having sex with a prostitute abroad).[34]
  • "Prostitution should be tolerated by society":
    • regulation: prostitution may be considered a legitimate business; prostitution and the employment of prostitutes are legal, but regulated; the current situation in the Netherlands, Germany, most of Australia and parts of Nevada (see Prostitution in Nevada). The degree of regulation varies very much, for example in Netherlands prostitutes are not required to undergo mandatory health checks (see Prostitution in the Netherlands) while in Nevada the regulations are very strict (see Prostitution in Nevada).
    • decriminalization: "prostitution is labor like any other. Sex industry premises should not be subject to any special regulation or laws", the current situation in New Zealand; the laws against operating a brothel, pimping and street prostitution are struck down, but prostitution is hardly regulated at all. Proponents of this view often cite instances of government regulation under legalization that they consider intrusive, demeaning, or violent, but feel that criminalization adversely affects sex workers.[35]

In some countries, there is controversy regarding the laws applicable to sex work. For instance, the legal stance of punishing pimping while keeping sex work legal but "underground" and risky is often denounced as hypocritical; opponents suggest either going the full abolition route and criminalize clients or making sex work a regulated business.

Prostitution Information Centre, in Amsterdam

Many countries have sex worker advocacy groups which lobby against criminalization and discrimination of prostitutes. These groups generally oppose Nevada-style regulation and oversight, stating that prostitution should be treated like other professions. In the United States of America, one such group is COYOTE (an abbreviation for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics") and another is the North American Task Force on Prostitution.[36] In Australia the lead sex worker rights organisation is Scarlet Alliance.[37] International prostitutes' rights organizations include the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights and the Network of Sex Work Projects.[38]

Other groups, often with religious backgrounds, focus on offering women a way out of the world of prostitution while not taking a position on the legal question.

Prostitution is a significant issue in feminist thought and activism. Many feminists are opposed to prostitution, which they see as a form of exploitation of women and male dominance over women, and as a practice which is the result of the existing patriarchal societal order. These feminists argue that prostitution has a very negative effect, both on the prostitutes themselves and on society as a whole, as it reinforces stereotypical views about women, who are seen as sex objects which can be used and abused by men. Other feminists hold that prostitution can be a valid choice for the women who choose to engage in it; in this view, prostitution must be differentiated from forced prostitution, and feminists should support sex worker activism against abuses by both the sex industry and the legal system.


  Prostitution legal and regulated
  Prostitution (the exchange of sex for money) legal, but organised activities such as brothels and pimping are illegal, prostitution is not regulated
  Prostitution illegal
  No data

The position of prostitution and the law varies widely worldwide, reflecting differing opinions on victimhood and exploitation, inequality, gender roles, gender equality, ethics and morality, freedom of choice, historical social norms, and social costs and benefits.

Legal themes tend to address four types of issue: victimhood (including potential victimhood), ethics and morality, freedom of choice, and general benefit or harm to society (including harm arising indirectly from matters connected to prostitution).

Prostitution may be considered a form of exploitation (e.g. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, where it is illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them — the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute), a legitimate occupation (e.g., Netherlands, Germany, where prostitution is regulated as a profession) or a crime (e.g., many Muslim countries, where the prostitutes face severe penalties).

The legal status of prostitution varies from country to country, from being legal and considered a profession to being punishable by death.[39] Some jurisdictions outlaw the act of prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money); other countries do not prohibit prostitution itself, but ban the activities typically associated with it (soliciting in a public place, operating a brothel, pimping etc.), making it difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking any law; while in a few countries prostitution is legal and regulated.

A number of stickers affixed to a pay phone in São Paulo

In 1949, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention stating that "prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person",[40] requiring all signing parties to punish pimps and brothel owners and operators and to abolish all special treatment or registration of prostitutes. As of January 2009, the convention was ratified by 95 member nations including France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and not ratified by another 97 member nations including Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

September 2011, Bonn's administration has regulated Bonn's street walkers to pay tax on a 6-euro ticket per-night basis. The ticket can be bought from a handy automatic dispenser.[41]


In countries where prostitution is legal, advertising it may be legal (as in the Netherlands) or illegal (as in India). Covert advertising for prostitution can take a number of forms:

  • by cards in newsagents' windows
  • by cards placed in public telephone enclosures: so-called tart cards
  • by euphemistic advertisements in regular magazines and newspapers (for instance, talking of "massages" or "relaxation")
  • in specialist contact magazines
  • via the internet
  • in public bathroom stalls (i.e. "for a good time call...")

In Las Vegas prostitution is often promoted overtly on The Las Vegas Strip by third party workers distributing risque flyers with the pictures and phone numbers of "escorts" (despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas and Clark County, see Prostitution in Nevada).

Exploitation in prostitution

Prostitution may sometimes be associated with illegal, abusive and dangerous activities such as human trafficking, sexual slavery, sexual exploitation of children, assault, drug dealing and illegal immigration. One view maintains that this results from prostitution being stigmatized and/or illegal.[42] Another, however, believes that legalizing and regulating prostitution does not improve the situation, but instead makes it worse, creating a parallel illegal prostitution industry, and failing to dissociate the legal part of the sex trade from crime.[43][44][45][46]

Human trafficking and sexual slavery

The United Nations estimates that about 79% of human trafficking is for prostitution.[47] It is described as "the largest slave trade in history"[48] and is the fastest growing form of contemporary slavery.[49] It is also the fastest growing criminal industry, set to outgrow drug trafficking.[47][50][51] While there are more slaves today than at any time in history, the proportion of population is probably the smallest in history.[52][53]

“Annually, according to U.S. Government-sponsored research completed in 2006, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders, which does not include millions trafficked within their own countries. Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors,” reports the US Department of State in a 2008 study.[54] Due to the illegal and underground nature of sex trafficking, the exact extent of women and children forced into prostitution is unknown.

The White Slave by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle

Children are sold into the global sex trade every year. Often they are kidnapped or orphaned, and sometimes they are sold by their own families. According to the International Labour Organization, the problem is especially alarming in Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and India.[55]

Globally, forced labour generates $31bn, half of it in the industrialised world, a tenth in transition countries, the International Labour Organization says in a report on forced labour ("A global alliance against forced labour", ILO, 11 May 2005).[56] Trafficking in people has been facilitated by porous borders and advanced communication technologies, it has become increasingly transnational in scope and highly lucrative within its barbarity.

The most common destinations for victims of human trafficking are Thailand, Japan, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the US, according to a report by the UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime).[57]

The major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.[57]

Use of children

Regarding the prostitution of children the laws on prostitution as well as those on sex with a child apply. If prostitution in general is legal there is usually a minimum age requirement for legal prostitution that is higher than the general age of consent (see above for some examples). Although some countries do not single out patronage of child prostitution as a separate crime, the same act is punishable as sex with an underage person.

In India, the federal police say that around 1.2 million children are believed to be involved in prostitution.[58] A CBI statement said that studies and surveys sponsored by the ministry of women and child development estimated that about 40% of all India's prostitutes are children.[58]

Thailand’s Health System Research Institute reported that children in prostitution make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand.[59]

Young prostitutes wait for customers in Mumbai's red light district. India is the world’s hub in prostitution-related human trafficking and forced labour.[60]

Some adults travel to other countries to have access to sex with children, which is unavailable in their home country. Cambodia has become a notorious destination for sex with children.[61][62] Thailand is also a destination for child sex tourism.[62][63] Several western countries have recently enacted laws with extraterritorial reach, punishing citizens who engage in sex with minors in other countries. As the crime usually goes undiscovered, these laws are rarely enforced.[64][65][66]

Illegal immigration

A difficulty facing migrant prostitutes in many developed countries is the illegal residence status of some of these women. They face potential deportation, and so do not have recourse to the law. Hence there are brothels that may not adhere to the usual legal standards intended to safeguard public health and the safety of the workers.

The immigration status of the persons who sell sexual services is - particularly in Western Europe - a controversial and highly debated political issue. Currently, in most of these countries most prostitutes are immigrants, mainly from Eastern and Central Europe; in Spain and Italy 90% of prostitutes are estimated to be migrants, in Austria 78%, in Switzerland 75%, in Greece 73%, in Norway 70% (accordind to a 2009 TAMPEP report, Sex Work in Europe-A mapping of the prostitution scene in 25 European countries[67]). An article in Le Monde diplomatique in 1997 stated that 80% of prostitutes in Amsterdam were foreigners and 70% had no immigration papers.[68]

Violence against prostitutes

Female prostitutes may be at risk of violent crime,[69] as well as possibly at higher risk of occupational mortality than any other group of women ever studied.

For example, the homicide rate for female prostitutes was estimated to be 204 per 100,000 (Potterat et al., 2004), which is considerably higher than that for the next riskiest occupations in the United States during a similar period (4 per 100,000 for female liquor store workers and 29 per 100,000 for male taxicab drivers) (Castillo et al., 1994). However, there are substantial differences in rates of victimization between street prostitutes and indoor prostitutes who work as escorts, call girls, or in brothels and massage parlors.[70][71] While women who work on the streets are the most likely to be victimized, attacks and even murders of prostitutes have also occurred in legal and licensed brothels (such as in the German brothel Pascha).


A street prostitute talking to a potential customer in Torino, Italy, 2005


In street prostitution, the prostitute solicits customers while waiting at street corners, sometimes called "the track" by pimps and prostitutes alike. They usually dress in skimpy, provocative clothing, regardless of the weather. Street prostitutes are often called "streetwalkers" while their customers are referred to as "tricks" or "johns." Servicing the customers is described as "turning tricks." The sex is usually performed in the customer's car, in a nearby alley, or in a rented room. Motels and hotels which accommodate prostitutes commonly rent rooms by the half or full hour.

In Russia and other countries of the former USSR prostitution takes the form of an open-air market. One prostitute stands by a roadside, and directs cars to a so-called "tochka" (usually located in alleyways or carparks), where lines of women are paraded for customers in front of their car headlights. The client selects a prostitute, whom he takes away in his car. Prevalent in the late 1990s, this type of service has been steadily declining in recent years.

"Lot lizards"

A "lot lizard" is a commonly encountered special case of street prostitution. Lot lizards mainly serve those in the trucking industry at truck stops and stopping centers. Prostitutes will often proposition truckers using a CB radio from a vehicle parked in the non-commercial section of a truck stop parking lot, communicating through codes based on commercial driving slang, then join the driver in his truck.


Brothels are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution, often confined to special red-light districts in big cities. Other names for brothels include bordello, whorehouse, cathouse, knocking shop, and general houses. Prostitution also occurs in some massage parlours, and in Asian countries in some barber shops where sexual services may be offered as a secondary function of the premises.


Tart cards in a British phone box advertising the services of call girls (placing them in phone boxes is illegal, but they are very common [72])

In escort prostitution, the act takes place at the customer's residence or hotel room (referred to as out-call), or at the escort's residence or in a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort (called in-call). The prostitute may be independent or working under the auspices of an escort agency. Services may be advertised over the Internet, in regional publications, or in local telephone listings.

Use of the Internet by prostitutes and customers is common.[73] A prostitute may use adult boards or create a website of their own with contact details, such as email addresses. Adult contact sites, chats and on-line communities are also used. In many parts of the developed world, the Internet is one of the main ways in which buyers find and contact prostitutes.[citation needed] This, in turn, has brought increased scrutiny from law enforcement, public officials, and activist groups toward online prostitution. In 2009, Craigslist came under fire for its role in facilitating online prostitution, and was sued by some 40 US state attorneys general, local prosecutors, and law enforcement officials. Craigslist has since altered its policies to make it more difficult for prostitutes to advertise anonymously, but still allows the advertising of sexual services, which critics contend includes illegal prostitution.[citation needed]

Reviews of the services of individual prostitutes often can be found at various escort review boards worldwide. These online forums are used to trade information between potential clients, and also by prostitutes to advertise the various services available. However, many other prostitutes are critical of such sites, as threats of a negative review are sometimes used by clients used to extort extra services or unsafe sex from sex workers.[citation needed] Sex workers, in turn, often use online forums of their own to exchange information on clients, particularly to warn others about dangerous clients. Participants in these forums also exchange information on law enforcement activity, working conditions, and other matters important to sex workers.[citation needed]

Prostitutes in front of a gogo bar in Pattaya, Thailand.

Sex tourism

Sex tourism is travel for sexual intercourse with prostitutes or to engage in other sexual activity. The World Tourism Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations defines sex tourism as "trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, with the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination".[74]

Often the term "sex tourism" is mistakenly interchanged with the term "child sex tourism". As opposed to regular sex tourism, which is often legal, a tourist who has sex with a child prostitute will usually be committing a crime in the host country, under the laws of his own country (notwithstanding him being outside of it) and against international law. Child sex tourism (CST) is defined as a travel to a foreign country for the purpose of engaging in commercially facilitated child sexual abuse.[75] The term "child" is often used as defined by international law and refers to any person below the age of consent.[clarification needed][citation needed] Thailand, Cambodia, India, Brazil and Mexico have been identified as leading hotspots of child sexual exploitation.[76]


A political cartoon from 1787 jesting about the notion of taxation affecting prostitutes.

According to the paper "Estimating the prevalence and career longevity of prostitute women" (Potterat et al., 1990), the number of full-time equivalent prostitutes in a typical area in the United States (Colorado Springs, CO, during 1970–1988) is estimated at 23 per 100,000 population (0.023%), of which fraction some 4% were under 18. The length of these prostitutes' working careers was estimated at a mean of 5 years.

In 2003 it was estimated that in Amsterdam, one woman in 35 was working as a prostitute, compared to one in 300 in London.[77]

In the United States, a 2004 TNS poll reported 15% of all men admitted to having paid for sex at least once in their life.[78] However, a paper entitled "Prostitution and the sex discrepancy in reported number of sexual partners" (Brewer et al., 2000) made the conclusion that men's self-reporting of prostitutes as sexual partners is seriously under-reported.

In Australia, a survey conducted in the early 2000s, showed that 15.6% of men aged 16–59 reported paying for sex at least once in their life, and 1.9% had done so in the past year.[79]

A number of reports over the last few decades have suggested that prostitution levels have fallen in sexually liberal countries, most likely because of the increased availability of non-commercial, non-marital sex.[80]

Prostitutes have long plied their trades to the military in many cultures. For example, the British naval port of Portsmouth had a flourishing local sex industry in the 19th century, and until the early 1990s there were large red light districts near American military bases in the Philippines. The notorious Patpong entertainment district in Bangkok, Thailand, started as an R&R location for US troops serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

Medical situation

In some places, prostitution may be associated with the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Lack of condom use among prostitutes and their clients has been cited as a factor in the spread of HIV in Asia: "One of the main reasons for the rapid spread of HIV in Asian countries is the massive transmission among sex workers and clients".[81] As a result, prevention campaigns aimed at increasing condom use by sex workers have been attributed to play a major role in restricting the spread of HIV.[82]

One of the sources for the spread of HIV in Africa is prostitution, with one study finding that encounters with prostitutes produced 84% of new HIV infections in adult males in Accra, Ghana.[83] The spread of HIV from urban settings to rural areas in Africa has been attributed to the mobility of farmers who visit sex workers in cities, for example in Ethiopia.[84] Some studies of prostitution in urban settings in developing countries, such as Kenya, have stated that prostitution acts as a reservoir of STDs within the general population.[85]

Typical responses to the problem are:

  • banning prostitution completely.
  • introducing a system of registration for prostitutes that mandates health checks and other public health measures.
  • educating prostitutes and their clients to encourage the use of barrier contraception and greater interaction with health care.

Some think that the first two measures are counter-productive. Banning prostitution tends to drive it underground, making safe sex promotion, treatment and monitoring more difficult. Registering prostitutes makes the state complicit in prostitution and does not address the health risks of unregistered prostitutes. Both of the last two measures can be viewed as harm reduction policies.

In countries and areas where safer sex precautions are either unavailable or not practiced for cultural reasons, prostitution is an active disease vector for all STDs, including HIV/AIDS, but the encouragement of safer sex practices, combined with regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases, has been very successful when applied consistently. As an example, Thailand's condom program has been largely responsible for the country's progress against the HIV epidemic.[81] It has been estimated that successful implementation of safe sex practices in India "would drive the [HIV] epidemic to extinction" while similar measures could achieve a 50% reduction in Botswana.[86]

Help and support for male sex workers

Rich Holcomb and James Waterman displaying the Project Weber poster at the 2010 HIV Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C.
One of the many locations in Providence where sex workers were recruited for the Project Weber needs assessment survey

In the United States, there are few resources and little support for male sex workers living and working on the streets who seek recovery. There are many issues that need to be addressed if recovery from this traumatic lifestyle is possible. They are at a high risk for HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and C, rape and abuse. Many male prostitutes are addicted to drugs and only have sex with men for money to support their drug use. A great number of male prostitutes consider themselves heterosexual, which makes identifying and treating them difficult because of their reluctance to disclose their behaviors to health care and substance abuse professionals.

After identifying that there were no data available on male commercial sex workers in the state of Rhode Island, Richard Holcomb,[87] founder of Project Weber, helped develop a survey tool to conduct a needs assessment on this population. This required him to recruit and survey 50 male sex workers living on the streets of Providence, R.I. The fact that Holcomb and his team are former sex workers themselves was one of the primary reasons why this needs assessment was successful.[88] For the first time in Rhode Island history, there are now valuable data on male sex workers.

Prostitution was legal in Rhode Island between 1980 and 2009 because there was no specific statute to define the act and outlaw it, although associated activities were illegal, such as street solicitation, running a brothel, and pimping.

Project Weber is a harm reduction program in Providence R.I. that offers resources and support such as needle exchange and HIV testing to male sex workers living on the streets. This program is named in honor of Roy Weber, a young sex worker who was murdered on the streets of Providence on Christmas Day 2003.[89] Since 1998, Holcomb has created several documentary projects on the subject of male prostitution and addiction. He has done film work on this subject on location in the United States, Canada and Europe.

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Further reading

External links


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • prostitution — Prostitution …   Thresor de la langue françoyse

  • prostitution — [ prɔstitysjɔ̃ ] n. f. • XIIIe « impudicité, débauche »; lat. prostitutio 1 ♦ (1611) Le fait de « livrer son corps aux plaisirs sexuels d autrui, pour de l argent » (Dalloz) et d en faire métier; l exercice de ce métier; le phénomène social qu il …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • PROSTITUTION — (Heb. זְנוּת, zenut), the practice of indiscriminate sexual intercourse for payment or for religious purposes. Prostitution was practiced by male and female prostitutes. The word zenut, applied to both common and sacred prostitution, is also… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • prostitution — pros·ti·tu·tion /ˌpräs tə tü shən, tyü / n: the act or practice of engaging in sexual activity indiscriminately esp. for money; also: the crime of engaging in such activity Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. prosti …   Law dictionary

  • Prostitution — Pros ti*tu tion, n. [L. prostitutio: cf. F. prostitution.] 1. The act or practice of prostituting or offering the body to an indiscriminate intercourse with men; common lewdness of a woman. [1913 Webster] 2. The act of setting one s self to sale …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Prostitution — Sf erw. fach. (18. Jh.) Entlehnung. Entlehnt aus frz. prostitution, dieses aus l. prōstitūtio ( ōnis) Preisgabe zu sexuellen Handlungen , zu l. prōstituere für sexuelle Handlungen öffentlich preisgeben , zu l. statuere hinstellen , zu l. sistere… …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • prostitution — Prostitution. s. f. v. Abandonnement à l impudicité. En ce sens il ne se dit que des femmes & des filles qui vivent dans cet abandonnement. Elle a vescu dans une prostitution honteuse. On dit fig. La prostitution de la Justice. la prostitution… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • Prostitution — (v. lat.), 1) die öffentliche Hin od. Ausstellung; 2) die Preisgabe seiner Person zu niedrigem Zweck, bes. 3) die Selbsthingabe eines Frauenzimmers in gewerbsmäßiger Unzucht. Die große Verbreitung, welche die P. in neuerer Zeit namentlich in den… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Prostitution — (lat.), die von einem Weib öffentlich gewerbsmäßig betriebene Preisgebung des eignen Körpers gegen Entgelt an jeden Beliebigen. Zwischen dieser Form des geschlechtlichen Verkehrs und dem in einer aus Liebe geschlossenen Ehe liegen sehr viele… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Prostitution — Prostitutiōn (lat.), Preisgebung, bes. die gewerbsmäßige Selbstpreisgebung eines Frauenzimmers (einer Prostituierten) zur Unzucht. Schon im Altertum erwähnt bei Juden, Babyloniern, Phöniziern, Persern (meist mit religiösem Kultus verbunden), bei… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • prostitution — (n.) 1550s, from L.L. prostitutionem, noun of action from pp. stem of prostituere (see PROSTITUTE (Cf. prostitute)) …   Etymology dictionary

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