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Prostitution is the sale of sexual services (typically manual stimulation, oral sex, sexual intercourse, or anal sex) for cash or other kind of return, generally indiscriminately with many persons. A person selling sexual services is a prostitute, a type of sex worker. In a more general sense of the word, anyone selling their services for a cause thought to be unworthy can be described as prostituting themselves.

Prostitutes and their clients represent both sexes and all sexual orientations. Prostitution is rejected by many religions as being improper or sinful, and prostitutes are considered to be shameful or individuals of low standing in many societies; their customers are typically tolerated to a greater degree.

Male customers of prostitutes are known as clients, johns or punters.

The English word whore, referring to (female) prostitutes, is taken from the Old English word hōra (from the Indo_European root meaning "to like, desire.") but usage of that word is widely considered pejorative and prostitute is a less value-laden term. On the other hand, in Germany most prostitutes' organizations deliberately use the word Hure (whore) since they feel that prostitute is an evil word and an unnecessary euphemism for something not in need of euphemisms. The term sex worker is becoming the label of choice in Australia. See also: call girl, courtesan, escort.

Male prostitutes offering their services to male customers are called "escorts", "hustlers", "rent boys", "punks" (US), "trade", "man ho", "boy toys" or "bitches". Male prostitutes offering services to female customers are known as "escorts" or "gigolos". Though there is a stereotype that such male prostitutes are rare, a comprehensive study by Nither Tinnakul of Chulalongkorn University at Bangkok found the number in Thailand alone to be at least 30,000, versus an estimated 100,000 female prostitutes. In Argentina, male prostitutes serving both men and women are known as "taxi boys".

Organizers of prostitution are typically known as pimps (if male), madams (if female), and mama-sans (if female and East Asian).

The term prostitution is sometimes used in the more general meaning of having sex in order to achieve a certain goal different from procreation or pleasure. This includes forms of religious prostitution in which sex is practiced in compliance with religious precepts. Prostitution in this broader sense is also used in espionage. Arguably, it frequently occurs in normal marriages as well.

Another generalization is using the term or an equivalent to mean any form of earning well in an unscrupulous degrading manner, e.g. quote whore, media whore, karma whore, XP whore. The term pimp is also sometimes similarly used figuratively, as in poverty pimp.


Types of prostitution

Prostitution today occurs in various different settings.

  • In street prostitution the prostitute solicits customers while waiting at street corners or walking alongside a street.
  • Prostitution can also take place in the prostitute's apartment and in many countries this is the only legal form of prostitution. A hybrid between brothel and apartment prostitution exists in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands: female prostitutes rent tiny one-room apartments in red-light districts and solicit customers from behind windows.
  • Prostitution occurs in some massage parlors and in Asian countries in some barber shops where sexual services may be offered for an additional tip.
  • Where prostitution is more out in the open, solicitation is done at bars, even open-air bars. Thailand is famous world-wide for these establishments.
  • Brothels are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution, often confined to special red-light districts in big cities. Other names for a brothel include bordello, whorehouse and cathouse. Historical and rarer slang terms for brothels include bordel (from the French), bovril, case (compare Spanish casa or Italian casa chiusa), common_house*, creep, crib, dress_house, drum, flash_house, flesh_shambles, gaff, harlot_house, hook shop, hot house*, house of ill/evil repute/fame, house of accommodation, house of assignation, house of joy, house of horizontal refreshment, joy_house, juke, kip, knocking_shop, leaping house, lupanar (from Latin), maison close (French closed house), maison de passe (house of passage), maison de tolérance (tolerated house, i.e. licensed), massage parlour, meat house, moll-shop, notch-house, nunnery*, panel-house, parlour-house, peg house, picked hatch*, public house, rap club, rib-joint, slaughter-house, smuggling-ken, sporting-house, stew, trugging house/place, vaulting house, warren and whore-shop/sty. (* used by Shakespeare) Many of these are or originated as euphemisms, and their variety is affected in part by the euphemism treadmill.
  • In escort or out_call prostitution, the customer calls an agency and the act takes place at the customer's place of residence or more commonly at his hotel room. This form of prostitution often shelters under the umbrella of escort agencies, who supply attractive escorts for social occasions. While some escort agencies provide non-sexual services only, many turn a blind eye to escorts who provide additional sexual services or actively encourage them. Alternately, an escort may work independently of an agency and place advertisements in newspapers and magazines for his or her own services. Even where this prostitution is legal, the euphemistic term "escort service" is common. See call girl. In the US, escort agencies advertise frequently on the World Wide Web and example advertisements can be readily found on any major search engine.

Street prostitution

See main article at Street prostitution.

In street prostitution, the prostitute solicits customers while waiting at street corners or walking alongside a street, usually dressed in skimpy, suggestive clothing. Often the prostitute (commonly called a "hooker" or "street hooker" to distinguish them from other sex workers) appears to mind his or her own business and waits for the customer to initiate contact. The act is performed in the customer's car or in a nearby alley or rented room (motels that service prostitutes commonly rent rooms by the half or full hour).

Escort/Out-call Prostitution

See also main article at Call girl.

Those who work for an escort agency may obtain the position by responding to an employment advertisement, usually placed in a regional newspaper. Escort agencies maintain a database or "stable" of employees of different types in order to cater to a wider client base. Some agencies may specifically cater to a certain type of prostitute, such as "all-Asian". There are male-for-male, female-for-male, and female-for-female escort agencies, as well as a few male-for-female agencies. Agencies commonly offer only one gender. Transsexual prostitutes are available from some escort agencies.

Escort agencies typically advertise in regional publications and even telephone listings like the Yellow Pages. Many of them maintain websites with photo galleries of their employees. An interested client contacts an agency by telephone and offers a description of what kind of escort they are looking for. The agency will then suggest an employee who might fit the client's need.

The client's contact information is then taken down, and the agency calls the escort in question. It is then up to the escort to directly contact the client via telephone to make arrangements for an appointment. It is during this telephone call that details of the business arrangement are discussed—i.e., whether or not (and what) sex acts will be incorporated into the "date". The escort then makes a call to the agency to confirm the appointment's location and time. Generally the escort is also expected to call the agency upon arrival at the location and upon leaving to assure his or her safety.

The purpose of these details is to protect the escort agency (to some degree) from prosecution for breaking the law. If the employee is solely responsible for arranging any illegal aspects of their professional encounter the agency can maintain plausible deniability should an arrest be made.

The amount of money that is made by an escort is different depending on gender, service rendered and location. Generally male escorts make less than women, and women make less than transsexuals. For a point of reference, the gay escort agency "TOPPS", based in Washington, D.C., charges $150 an hour for male escorts, and $250 an hour for transsexuals. The agency takes $50 per hour from the employee.

Socio-economic and legal status of prostitution

There is a significant range in the socioeconomic status of prostitutes in Western countries. At the low end, a significant number of prostitutes are also drug addicts who use prostitution to pay for their habit, sometimes referred to as 'crack whores' because of the prevalence of this behavior among some communities of crack cocaine users. At the other end of the spectrum, 'high class' prostitutes may charge very high prices for their services and may be very selective about their clients.

In many countries, illegal immigrants work in prostitution, sometimes against their will and generally in circumstances where they feel they have no other choice. Often these prostitutes are kept in financial debt by the brothel owners, who charge them for their travel and other costs. The arrangement may be such that the prostitutes can never earn enough to pay off the debt. The term used for forcing people into prostitution is "sexual slavery".

In addition to the first world, this also takes place in countries of South Asia such as India and Thailand, where young girls are sometimes sold to brothel owners. In modern day Thailand and India this is becoming much rarer.

While in both of these societies visiting prostitutes is a common and almost normal behavior, Thailand is also a destination of sex tourists, travellers from rich countries in search of cheap sexual services. Other popular sex tourism destinations are Brazil, the Caribbean, and former eastern bloc countries.

Female prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, are commonly associated with a pimp, a man who lives off the proceeds of several prostitutes and may offer some protection in return. The relationship between pimp and prostitute is often abusive. In areas where legal restrictions on prostitution are greatest, the power of pimps over prostitutes can actually be increased by the illegality of prostitution. For example, in Finland, the immigration law allows the state to deport immigrants suspected of prostitution without a trial; thus in cases of physical abuse by the pimps, the prostitutes cannot even resort to the police.

There are other commercial sexual activities that are generally not classified as prostitution. These include acting and modeling for pornographic materials, even if this involves engaging in sexual intercourse; exotic dancing, which is naked, sexually provocative acting (sometimes involving masturbation) without physical contact with the customer; lap dancing, where the dancer may come into contact with the customer in sexually provocative but strictly limited ways; and the services of professional dominants.

In the case California v. Freeman, the California Supreme Court ruled that adult film makers could not be prosecuted under state laws against prostitution.

Legality of selling sex

In most countries, the basic act of exchanging money for sex among adults is legal. However, it is almost impossible to engage in most forms of prostitution legally because surrounding activities such as advertising, solicitation, pimping, as well as owning, operating, or working in a brothel are illegal. Prostitution itself is illegal in the United States (except for ten counties in the state of Nevada), India, some Muslim and various Communist countries.

At one end of the legal spectrum, prostitution carries the death penalty in some Muslim countries; at the other end, prostitutes are tax-paying and unionized professionals in the Netherlands and brothels are legal and advertising businesses there (however, prostitutes must be at least 18, while for non-commercial sex the age of consent is 16). The legal situation in Germany and New Zealand is almost as liberal as in the Netherlands; see prostitution in the Netherlands, prostitution in Germany and prostitution in New Zealand.

Rules vary as to which roles in prostitution are illegal: being a prostitute, being a client, or being a pimp. Sweden outlaws the buying, but not the selling of sex. In the case of a prostitute under 18 in the Netherlands, being the client or pimp is illegal, but being the prostitute is not, except if the client is also underage (under 16).

Establishments engaged in sexual slavery or owned by organized crime are the highest priority targets of law enforcement actions against prostitution. Police also frequently intervene when prompted by local resident complaints. In most countries where prostitution is illegal, at least some forms of it are tolerated. This ambiguous status allows the police to extort money or services from prostitutes in exchange for "looking the other way".

Pimping is a sex crime in almost all jurisdictions.

In 1949, the United Nations adopted a convention stating that prostitution is incompatible with human dignity, requiring all signing parties to punish pimps and brothel owners and operators and to abolish all special treatment or registration of prostitutes. The convention was ratified by 89 countries with the notable exceptions of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

Some municipalities in the Netherlands would like a "zero policy" for brothels, i.e. not allow any, on moral grounds, but by law this is not possible. However, regulations, including restrictions in number and location are common. Whether a zero policy on urban planning grounds is allowed is still unclear.

Advertising prostitution

In countries where prostitution is legal, advertising it may be legal (as in the Netherlands) or illegal (as in Germany). In countries where prostitution is illegal, advertising it is usually also illegal.

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 World Wide Web

Regulated prostitution

In some jurisdictions, such as Nevada (see Switzerland and several Australian states, prostitution is legal but heavily regulated.

Such approaches are taken with the recognition that prostitution is impossible to eliminate and thus these societies have chosen to regulate it in ways that reduce the more undesirable consequences. Goals of such regulations include controlling sexually transmitted disease, reducing sexual slavery and controlling where brothels may operate.

The Dutch legalisation of prostitution has similar objectives, as well as improving health and working conditions for the women and weakening the link between prostitution and criminality.

Daily Planet is a brothel in Melbourne, Australia whose shares have been listed on the Australian Stock Exchange since 2003. There are various regulatory regimes governing prostitution in Australia and a level of increasing professionalism is being seen in the industry with the establishment of business associations like the Queensland Adult Business Association [1] (http://qaba.org.au)that ascribe to a strict ethical code which entrenches the independence of service providers.

Child prostitution

For child prostitution the laws on prostitution as well as those on sex with a child apply. If prostitution in general is legal there may be a minimum age requirement for legal prostitution that is higher than the general age of consent (see above for some examples). There are about one million child prostitutes in China.

Most child prostitution is forced teenage prostitution and the customers are usually not true pedophiles. Forced prostitution of pre-teenage children does exist but is considerably rarer.

Sex tourism

Sex tourism is tourism, partially or fully for the purpose of having sex, usually with prostitutes. Sex tourism destinations are typically poor countries, where poverty drives people into prostitution. Some paedophiles use sex tourism to have access to sex with children that is unavailable in their home country. Most countries with a major sex tourism industry are working on attempting to reduce or eliminate sex tourism.

Several western countries have recently enacted laws punishing citizens who, as sex tourists, engage in sex with minors in other countries. These laws are rarely enforced since the crime often goes undiscovered.

Medical situation

Since prostitutes tend to have large numbers of sexual partners, prostitution has often been associated with the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as AIDS.

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 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.

The encouragement of safer sex practices, combined with regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases, has been very successful when applied consistently.


Roughly speaking, the possible attitudes are:

  • abolition: "prostitution should be made to disappear"
    • "prostitution is immoral and prostitutes and their clients should be prosecuted": the prevailing attitude in the United States and Muslim countries;
    • "prostitution is a sad reality of exploitation of the prostitutes, especially women, but prostitutes should not be criminalized":
      • "the clients of prostitutes exploit the prostitutes": prostitutes are not prosecuted, but their clients are prosecuted, the current situation in Sweden.
      • prostitution is legal, but discouraged, while pimping is prohibited, the current situation in the United Kingdom and France among others;
  • regulation: prostitution may be considered a legitimate business, or at least an unavoidable evil; prostitution and the employment of prostitutes are legal, but regulated (with respect to health etc... concerns).
  • legalization: "prostitution is a victimless crime, and should be made completely legal so that it is no longer an underground activity, allowing the normal checks and balances of society and existing laws to apply"
  • decriminalization: "prostitution is inevitable, but exploitative; laws should target violent pimps and traffickers, not prostitutes." Proponents of this view often cite instances of government regulation under legalization that they consider instrusive, demeaning, or violent, but feel that criminalization adversely effects prostitutes.

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

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 C.O.Y.O.T.E. (http://www.bayswan.org/COYOTE.html,) (which an abbreviation for "Call Off YOur Tired Ethics") and another is North American Task Force on Prostitution (http://www.bayswan.org/NTFP.html,). An international prostitute's rights organization is the International Committee for Prostitute's Rights (http://www.voy.com/164439/157.html?z=1,).

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.

The feminist position towards prostitution is divided. Some theorize prostitution as an act of sexual self-determination, decry discrimination and demand destigmatization and decriminalization; women are supposed to be adults who can choose what they wish to do with their bodies. In that view, the moral prohibition of prostitution is just mere masked patriarchal moralism, with a traditional view of considering women to be incapable of making decisions for themselves. Others, exemplified by the American radical feminist and ex-prostitute Andrea Dworkin, consider it to be sexual abuse or even rape; the prostitutes are then victims, which must be protected from the abuse of the clients and pimps. The former group pushed a law reform in Germany, resulting in January 2002 in the recognition of prostitution as a regular profession, making it possible for prostitutes to join the social security and health care system and to form trade unions. The latter faction of feminists was able in Sweden in 1999 to implement the law outlawing the buying of sexual favors but not the selling.

In the United States, the only political party that favors legalization of prostitution is the United States Libertarian Party. The USLP believes all consensual crimes (any act that is against the law where all parties involved voluntarily consent to engage in the activity) should be legalised.


Prostitution is often described as "the world's oldest profession". However, this is dubious, prostitution (at least in the modern sense) cannot have emerged before the emergence of money, which can only have taken place after the emergence of several trades, and it has been claimed that midwives are really the world's oldest profession.

One of the first forms is sacred prostitution, supposedly practiced among Sumerians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of sacred prostitution, starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once in their lives, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodites or Nana/Anahita) and there have sex with a foreigner as a sign of hospitality for a symbolic price.

A similar type of prostitution was practiced in Cyprus (Paphus) and in Corinth, where the temple counted more than a thousand prostitutes (hierodules), according to Strabo. It was widely in use in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess ‘Ashtart. Presumably by the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, like in Erice (Sicily), in Locri Epizephiri, Croton, Rossano Vaglio, Sicca Veneria and other towns. Other hypotheses regard Asia Minor, Syria and Etruscans.

It was common in Israel too, but some prophets, like Hosea and Ezekiel strongly fought it; it is assumed that it was part of the cults of Canaan, where a significant portion of prostitutes were male.

In the Bible there are many stories about common (non-sacred) prostitution, with also a case (Tamar) of a false prostitute that commits incest with her father-in-law (Judah). In Jericho, a prostitute named Rahab assisted Israelite spies and was spared from death when the Israelites invaded. Salmon, son of Nahshon, married Rahab, making her an ancestor of King David.

In ancient Greek society, prostitutes were independent and sometimes influential women who were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the Greek Hetaera and the Japanese Geisha, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitution and courtisanerie. 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 Greece, Solon instituted the first of Athens' brothels (oik`iskoi) in the 6th century BC, and with the earnings of this business he built a temple dedicated to Aprodites Pandemo (or Qedesh), patron goddess of this commerce. The Greek word for prostitute is porne, derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. The procuring was however severely forbidden.

Each specialised category had its proper name, so there were the chamaitypa`i, working outdoor (lie-down), the perepatetikes who met their customers while walking (and then worked in their houses), the gephyrides, who worked near the bridges. In the 5th century, Ateneo informs us that the price was of 1 obole, a sixth of a drachma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker's day salary. The rare pictures describe that sex was performed on beds with covers and pillows, while triclinia usually didn't have these accessories.

In ancient Rome, while there were some commonalities with the Greek system, as the Emprire grew prostitutes were often foreign slaves, caught, bought, or raised for that purpose, sometimes by large-scale "prostitute farmers". Enslavement into prostitution was sometimes used as a legal punishment against criminal free women. Life expectancy for prostitutes was generally low, but some managed to get free and establish themselves e.g. as folk doctors.

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 Catholic Church, prostitution was tolerated because it was held to prevent the greater evils of rape and sodomy. Augustine of Hippo held that prostitution was a necessary evil: just as a well-ordered palace needed good sewers, so a well-ordered city needed brothels. 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 the France town governments came to set aside certain streets as areas where prostitution could be tolerated. Still later it became common in the major towns and cities of Southern Europe to establish civic brothels, whilst outlawing prostitution taking place outside these brothels. In much of Northern Europe a more laissez faire attitude tends to be found. By very end of the fifteenth century attitudes seemed to have begun to harden against prostitution. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation numbers of Southern German towns closed their brothels in an attempt to eradicate prostitution. The prevalence of sexually transmitted disease from the earlier sixteenth century may also have influenced attitudes.

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 woman did not wear them. Ancient codes regulated in this case the crime of a prostitute that dissimulated her profession. In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public or act in theatrical performances.

In the 18th century, presumably in Venice, prostitutes started using condoms, made with catgut or cow bowel.

Many of the women who posed in 19th and early 20th century vintage erotica were prostitutes. The most famous were the New Orleans women who posed for E. J. Bellocq.

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 Women's Christian Temperance Union which was influential in the banning of drug use and was a major force in the prohibition of alcohol. In 1917 the legally defined prostitution district Storyville in New Orleans was closed down by the Federal government over local objections. Prostitution remained legal in Alaska until 1953, and still is legal in some counties of Nevada. Beginning in the late 1980s, many states increased the penalties for prostitution in cases where the prostitute is knowingly HIV-positive. These laws, often known as felony prostitution laws, require anyone arrested for prostitution to be tested for HIV, and if the test comes back positive, the suspect is then informed that any future arrest for prostitution will be a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Penalties for felony prostitution vary in the states that have such laws, with maximum sentences of typically 10 to 15 years in prison.

In the 1970s some religious groups were discovered practicing religious prostitution as an instrument to make new adepts.

Related articles

External links and references

  Results from FactBites:
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