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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. Its legality reflects different opinions on exploitation, gender roles, ethics and morality, freedom of choice, and social norms.


By Micah SchwartzbachAttorney. Prostitution laws prohibit anyone from providing or offering to provide sexual conduct in exchange for money or any other form of compensation. They also punish those who offer sex for money that is, solicit or who purchase any sexual service.

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These laws are not confined to people who directly participate in the proscribed sexual activity; they also penalize those who arrange or benefit financially from prostitution arrangements. Pandering, the practice of procuring a person to be used for prostitution, and pimping, the act of receiving any part of a prostitute's earnings, are typical, illegal ways in which third parties promote prostitution.

For more information on pandering and pimping, see Pimping and Pandering. Informally dubbed the "world's oldest profession," prostitution is an American institution.

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Though the exchange of money for sexual acts is banned in all but one state—Nevada —prostitution was once entirely legal. With far more men than women in society, sexual commerce was ubiquitous in Colonial America. The "occupation" thrived from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth.

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During this time there was no legal definition of prostitution in most states. The practice remained legal despite public condemnation. Brothels and their patrons were prominent along the coasts and eventually spread to the country's rural areas.

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Local governments tried—mostly unsuccessfully—to regulate prostitution. Determining that absolute prevention was impossible, the country turned to the practice of confining prostitution to certain geographic areas known as "redlight districts.

Eventually, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the states began to enact criminal laws prohibiting prostitution, while Congress did the same.

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By every state other than Nevada had outlawed sex-for-sale. Some have argued that prostitution is a "victimless crime"—at least when adults are concerned—in that it involves only consenting individuals. The majority view, however, is that commercial sex harms these individuals and, more importantly, society at large.

The ban against prostitution is said to denounce the exploitation of sexual gratification. Prostitution laws are intended to protect public health and welfare including the suppression of sexually transmitted diseasesprotect minors who might otherwise become involved in the sex industry, thwart other associated forms of crime, and curb the incentive to exploit women.

In some states, prostitution is considered a form of disorderly conduct.

Health and safety in the sex industry

In most the crime includes offering or agreeing to, or actually engaging in, a sexual act in exchange for money. Statutes typically describe the contemplated sexual activity vaguely.

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They use terms such as " lewd acts ," but invariably describe intimate physical contact of some form. They require that the defendant intend to receive compensation, either directly or through a third party, in exchange for that contact.

In many states, the government must prove only that the prostitute offered or agreed to engage in sexual conduct for compensation, regardless of whether she or he intended to follow through on that offer or agreement. The only requirement is that the offer or agreement not be in jest. In some states, though, the prosecution must prove that the defendant specifically intended to engage in the sexual act in exchange for money.

Countries where prostitution is legal

In those states a prostitution violation requires some act showing that the defendant intended to follow through on the offer or agreement to partake in sexual activity. An example of such an act is touching the patron's crotch after offering intercourse. In all states where prostitution is illegal, the intentions of the would-be client are irrelevant—the alleged prostitute can be convicted even if that client doesn't actually intend to participate in any sexual contact.

Were the law otherwise, police sting operations to uncover and prosecute illegal sexual activity, which are vital to enforcing laws against prostitution, would be pointless.

Hiv risk among persons who exchange sex for money or nonmonetary items

In addition to pimping and pandering, there are several prostitution-related crimes that involve third parties. State laws relating to the sex trade typically prohibit certain of behavior that foster prostitution. These include:. In addition, federal law prohibits transporting a person across state lines with intent that that person engage in prostitution or any other criminal sexual activity.

Prostitution itself, whether the prostitute or customer is involved, is typically punished as a misdemeanor. Most acts that promote prostitution, however, such as pimping and pandering, are treated as felonies. Where underage prostitutes are involved, the penalties are considerably stiffer, and it is no defense for the pimp or panderer that he or she believed that the minor was of age.

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Choose your state from the list below to find information about your states laws regarding prostitution. The information provided on this site is not legal advice, does not constitute a lawyer referral service, and no attorney-client or confidential relationship is or will be formed by use of the site. The attorney listings on this site are paid attorney advertising. In some states, the information on this website may be considered a lawyer referral service.

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Please reference the Terms of Use and the Supplemental Terms for specific information related to your state. Market Your Law Firm.

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Lawyer Directory. Call us at 1 Issue: search. Prostitution Laws.

Sex workers’ human rights throughout the world

The History of the Oldest Profession Informally dubbed the "world's oldest profession," prostitution is an American institution. A Victimless Crime? Talk to a Lawyer Need a lawyer? Start here. Practice Area Please select Zip Code.

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Read 15 years of Mumbai Mirror's journalism here.


Sex workers must be able to work in safety without risking their health.


Half of the prostitutes in a new survey say they became prostitutes because of sexual curiosity, and 68 percent consider their line of work as part of their sexuality.


In many other nations, the criminalization of sex work is enforced according to existing laws or discriminatory social codes.