Prostitution is the act of performing sexual activity in exchange for money. The legal status of prostitution varies greatly between different jurisdictions, from being punishable by death to being completely legal.
The term is also used loosely by some to refer to sexual activities of which they disapprove, such as sexual promiscuity or sex outside marriage. Cultural usage varies widely, and the use of the term as a pejorative indicates acts that are not formally considered prostitution in a cultural context.
Pornographic actors and actresses get paid for having sex, but are not generally referred to as prostitutes. If a woman has sexual intercourse with a man who supports her financially but doesn't live with her, then she is called a mistress, and is again not normally considered a prostitute. If a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who supports him financially but doesn't live with him, then he is called a kept man, and is again not normally considered a prostitute.
A variety of terms are used for those who engage in prostitution, some of which distinguish between different kinds, or imply a value judgment about them. Prostitute is generally accepted as the least value-laden term; common alternatives with varying implications include escort and whore. (Not all professional escorts are prostitutes, however.) Prostitution is sometimes nicknamed the "world's oldest profession".
The English word whore derives from the Old English word hōra (from the Indo-European root kā meaning "desire"). Use of the word whore is widely considered pejorative, especially in its modern slang form of ho'. In Germany 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 commercial sex worker (CSW) or sex trade worker. A hooker or streetwalker solicits customers in public places; a call girl makes appointments by phone.
The customers of prostitutes are known as johns or tricks in North America and punters in the British Isles. These slang terms and acronyms are used among both prostitutes and law enforcement for persons who solicit prostitutes. The term john may have originated from the customer practice of giving their 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.
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.
In escort prostitution, the act takes place at the customer's place of residence or more commonly at his or her hotel room (referred to as out-call), or at the escort's place of residence or in a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort (called in-call). This form of prostitution often shelters under the umbrella of escort agencies, who ostensibly supply attractive escorts for social occasions. While escort agencies claim never to provide sexual services, very few successful escorts are available exclusively for social companionship. Even where this type of prostitution is legal, the ambiguous term escort service is commonly used. (See call girl). In the US, escort agencies advertise frequently on the internet and example advertisements can be readily found on any major search engine and on open forum sites.
Some escorts may work independently of an agency (indies). This is achieved by advertising the services on offer directly in newspapers, magazines or the internet. Communication with clients is usually made on a telephone and appointments are negotiated without any third party involvement.
In sex tourism, travellers from rich countries travel to poorer countries such as Thailand in search of sexual services that may be more expensive in their own countries. Other popular sex tourism destinations are Brazil, the Caribbean, and former Eastern bloc countries.
The setting common in Russia and other countries of the former USSR takes the form of an open-air prostitution 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. Under these conditions in particular, the women (often very young girls) are exposed to the risk of abuse. Prevalent in the late 1990s, this type of service has been steadily declining in recent years.
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.
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 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.
Escort agencies typically advertise in regional publications and even telephone listings like the Yellow Pages. Many maintain websites with photo galleries of the 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 that client's need.
The agency collects the client's contact information and calls the escort. Usually, to protect the identity of the escort and ensure effective communication with the client, the agency arranges the appointment. Sometimes it may be up to the escort to contact the client directly to make arrangements for location and time of an appointment. If the agency does not supply transport to and from the client, the escort is also expected to call the agency upon arrival at the location and again upon leaving to assure his or her safe completion of the booking.
The purpose of discretion is to attempt 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 could try to maintain plausible deniability should an arrest be made. However in practice, the use of undercover police evidence or the use of links to reviews of the agencies escorts usually results in this failing.
Typically, an agency will charge their escorts either a flat fee for each client connection or a percentage of the prearranged rate. In San Francisco, it is usual for typical heterosexual-market agencies to negotiate for as little as $100, up to a full 50 percent of an escort's reported earnings (not counting any gratuity received). If they work independently doing either incalls or outcalls, prices can range from $200 to over $5,000 for more exclusive services. Most transactions occur in cash, and optional tipping of escorts by clients in most major US cities is customary but not compulsory. Credit card processing offered by larger scale agencies is often available for a service charge.
Independent escorts, also known as providers, have differing fees depending on many factors. For example; different seasons bring about different costs (and differing levels of demand), as do regular and semi-regular customers. Some may charge by the hour, half hour or even in 15 minute blocks. Time extensions (if offered or requested) are usually priced at the same rate as the original booking. Some escorts pay another individual to act as their personal security, thus providing a level of protection to themselves from violent or abusive clients.
An escort who works less often may be able to command a premium for his or her exclusivity. One who sees several clients each day may charge less, but earn more in the end. Independent escorts might see clients for extended meetings involving dinner or social activities, whereas escorts who work through agencies generally provide only sexual services.
Whilst the vast majority of escort agencies are sex related, there are some non-sexual escort agencies, where escorts provide companionship for business and social occasions.
Sex tourism is travelling 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".
Often the term "sex tourism" is mistakenly interchanged with the term "child sex tourism". As opposed to regular sex tourism, a tourist who has sex with a child prostitute possibly commits a crime against international law, in addition to the host country, and the country that the tourist is a citizen of. The term "child" is often used as defined by international law and refers to any person below the age of consent.
Adult contact sites, chats and on-line communities are also used.
At one end of the legal spectrum, prostitution carries the death penalty for third-time offenders in the Sudan; at the other end, prostitutes are tax-paying unionised legal workers in Hungary as well as the Netherlands, where brothels and advertising businesses are legal (however, prostitutes must be at least 18, while the age of consent is 16 in other contexts). The legal situation in Germany, Switzerland (where the issue of legal age is a source of avid dispute, some insisting that one can legally be a prostitute as of one's sixteenth birthday, others maintaining it is eighteen), and New Zealand is similar to that in the Netherlands (see prostitution in the Netherlands, prostitution in Germany and prostitution in New Zealand). In the Australian state of New South Wales, any person over the age of 18 may offer to provide sexual services in return for money. In Victoria and Queensland, a person who wishes to run a prostitution business must have a licence. Prostitutes working for themselves in their own business, as prostitutes in the business, must be registered. Similarly, the state of Nevada in the United States allows regulated brothels, though certain counties and cities within the state have passed laws making them illegal. Individual sex workers are not required to be registered or licensed. In some countries the legal status of prostitution may vary depending on the activity; in Japan, for example, vaginal prostitution is against the law while fellatio prostitution is legal, as women who perform fellatio for money are not considered prostitutes in Japan.
In Turkey, street prostitution is illegal. Prostitution through government regulated brothels is legal. All brothels must have a license, and all sex workers working in brothels must be licensed as well. Municipality based "Commissions for the struggle against venereal diseases and prostitution" are in charge of issuing such licenses.
In many jurisdictions, the act of obtaining money for sex is not illegal, but many of the activities surrounding it are illegal. For example, in England and Wales, Scotland, Rhode Island, Canada, Bulgaria, Brazil, Denmark and Costa Rica, amongst others, activities such as solicitation, pimping and owning or running a brothel are illegal.
In these countries, police often differ in their control of prostitution. In England and Wales for example, local police forces have historically flipped between zero tolerance of prostitution and unofficial red light districts.
Rules vary as to which roles in prostitution are illegal: being a prostitute, being a client, or being a pimp. In Sweden it is legal to sell sex but not to buy sex. Pimping is also illegal. Prostitutes are generally viewed by the government as oppressed, while their clients are viewed as oppressors. Norway has the same laws as Sweden, except that it's not illegal to buy sex. This situation is liable to change within a year or so, however, as the delegates at the 2007 annual meeting of the Labour Party, Norway's largest, and part of the 2005–2009 coalition government, voted in favour of banning the purchase of sexual services.
In Thailand, prostitution is illegal as stated in the Prevention and Suppression Act of B.E. 2539 (=1996)
In Hong Kong, prostitution is legal so long as it is done in private, but brothels are illegal as is any third-party profit from prostitution (pimping). However in practice much of the prostitution is controlled by triad societies or as informal additions to otherwise nonsexual services such as massage parlors, bars and karaoke establishments. Among the many forms of prostitution common in Hong Kong are "one for one" girls. To avoid the operation of an illegal brothel, triads will rent tiny apartments and allow girls to "sublet" them so they appear to be operating out of their own homes. The triads then advertise the girls' services on web sites or in local publications. Another avoidance strategy is to operate a karaoke establishment and provide girls as entertainment or companionship only; the girls then take customers to an hourly hotel in the same building and pay for the room separately. Informal, individual prostitution (mostly of Filipinas, Indonesians, Thais, and sometimes women from Latin America and the former Soviet Union) is almost always available at discos or hotel bars, especially in the Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai districts (the latter famous as the setting for The World of Suzie Wong. Occasionally the police raid the triad-run prostitution setups, but usually the only arrests made are for immigration violations. Women frequently enter Hong Kong from mainland China for prostitution services. However, this travel is not forcible; most women working as prostitutes in Hong Kong are of age and are doing so voluntarily.
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, often directed against street prostitution. 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, particularly information on criminal activities that prostitutes are often well-placed to obtain, from prostitutes in exchange for "looking the other way".
Pimping is a sex crime in almost all jurisdictions. Some other countries retain the ill-defined offence of "living off the proceeds of the prostitution of others", one of the prima facie evidences of which is co-habiting with a prostitute.
In 1949, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention stating that forced 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 but Germany, the Netherlands and the United States did not participate.
Some municipalities in the Netherlands would like a "zero tolerance 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.
In countries where prostitution is legal, advertising it may be legal (as in the Netherlands) or illegal (as in Germany).
Covert advertising for prostitution can take a number of forms:
In Las Vegas prostitution is often promoted overtly on The Las Vegas Strip by third party workers distributing risqué flyers with the pictures and phone numbers of prostitutes. Prostitution is illegal in Clark County where Las Vegas is located.
In some jurisdictions, such as Nevada (see prostitution in Nevada), Switzerland and in four Australian states or territories (Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory), prostitution is legal but heavily regulated.
Such approaches are often, but not always taken with the stance that prostitution is impossible to eliminate and thus these societies have chosen to regulate it in ways that reduce the more undesirable aspects. Goals of such regulations include controlling sexually transmitted disease, reducing sexual slavery, controlling where brothels may operate and dissociating prostitution from crime syndicates.
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 were listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2003, before listing difficulties - investors were asked to undergo police checks before buying shares - forced the listed company to divest the brothel back into private ownership (the company remained listed and continues its other business interests). 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 that ascribe to a strict ethical code which entrenches the independence of service providers.
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. 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.
It has been suggested that human trafficking is the fastest growing form of modern day slavery and is the third largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world.
Due to the illegal and underground nature of sex trafficking, the exact extent of women and children forced into prostitution is unknown.
Children are sold into the global sex trade every year. Often they are kidnapped or orphaned, and sometimes they are actually 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.
Poverty, social exclusion and war are at the heart of human trafficking. Some women are hoodwinked into believing promises of a better life, sometimes by people who are known and trusted to them. Traffickers may own legitimate travel agencies, modeling agencies and employment offices in order to gain women's trust. Others are simply kidnapped. Once overseas it is common for their passport to be confiscated by the trafficker and to be warned of the consequences should they attempt to escape, including beatings, rape, threats of violence against their family and death threats. It is common, particularly in Eastern Europe, that should they manage to return to their families they will only be trafficked once again.
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). 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. In some countries counselling, accommodation, specialist care exists for trafficked people to help them escape, whilst in other countries, this support is lacking and individuals are often treated as illegal immigrants and deported.
Typical responses to the problem are:
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.
In Australia, where sex-work is largely legal, and registration of sex-work is not practiced, education campaigns have been extremely successful and the non-intravenous drug user (non-IDU) sex workers are among the lower HIV-risk communities in the nation. In part, this is probably due both to the legality of sex-work, and to the heavy general emphasis on education in regard to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Safer sex is heavily promoted as the major means of STI reduction in Australia, and sex education generally is at a high level. Sex-worker organisations regularly visit brothels and home workers, providing free condoms and lubricant, health information, and other forms of support.
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. 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.
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. A follow-up paper entitled "Prostitution and the sex discrepancy in reported number of sexual partners" (Brewer et al., 2000) goes on to estimate a mean number of 868 male sexual partners per prostitute per year of active sex work, and offers the conclusion that men's self-reporting of prostitutes as sexual partners is seriously under-reported.
A 1994 study found that 16 percent of 18 to 59-year-old men in a U.S. survey group had paid for sex (Gagnon, Laumann, and Kolata 1994).
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.
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.
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. In Australia the lead sex worker rights organisation is Scarlet Alliance. International prostitutes' rights organizations include the International Committee for Prostitute's Rights and the Network of Sex Work Projects.
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.
In areas where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are commonly charged with crimes ranging from pandering to tax evasion. Their clients can be charged with solicitation of prostitution. Prosecution for various other sex crimes can be sought against the client and pimps depending on such things as the age of the prostitute and the nature of the act performed.
Feminists who believe that prostitution is inherently exploitative, such as authors like Andrea Dworkin, herself an ex-prostitute, argued in the 1980s that commercial sex is a form of rape enforced by poverty (and often overt violence by pimps). Proponents reject the idea that prostitution can be reformed. These feminists believe that the assumptions that women exist for men's sexual enjoyment, that all men "need" sex, or that the bodily integrity and sexual pleasure of women is irrelevant underlie the whole idea of prostitution, and make it an inherently exploitative, sexist practice. One feminist argument against Dworkin's position is that prostitution, insofar as it colludes with the perception of an inherent 'need' on the part of men for sexual release, is exploiting men more than it exploits women.
Sweden's 1999 law forbidding the purchase (but not sale) of sex was a natural extension of this view. Many prostitutes in Sweden have decried the laws targeting clients, as they say the laws just drive the industry further underground and reduce sex workers' incomes without providing greater safety.
Some jurisdictions have responded to sex worker activism by decriminalising prostitution. The rationale for these legal reforms has been to extend to sex workers the same health and safety standards that apply to other professions involving close bodily contact, for example dentistry, nursing or hairdressing.
The Cihuacalli was a closed compound with rooms, all of which were looking to a central patio. At the center of the patio was a statue of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of "filth". Religious authorities believed women should work as prostitutes, if they wish, only at such premises guarded by Tlazolteotl. It was believed Tlazolteotl had the power to incite sexual activity, and at the same time do spiritual cleansing of such acts.
There are stories that also refer to certain places, either inside the Cihuacalli or outside, where women would perform erotic dance in front of men. The poet Tlaltecatzin of Cuauhchinanco noted that special "Joyful Women" would perform erotic dances at certain homes outside of the compound.
Prostitution was common in ancient Israel, despite being tacitly forbidden by Jewish Law. Within the religion of Canaan, a significant portion of temple prostitutes were male. It was widely used in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess ‘Ashtart. Presumably under the influence of the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, such as Erice (Sicily), Locri Epizephiri, Croton, Rossano Vaglio, and Sicca Veneria. Other hypotheses include Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and the Etruscans.
The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) provides a depiction of prostitution as practiced in the society of the time. The prostitute plies her trade at the side of a highway, waiting for travelers; she covers her face, which - unlike in the Middle Eastern societies of the present day - marks her as a prostitute, available for casual sex ("he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face"); she gets paid in kind, asking for a kid as her fee - a rather high price in a herding society, which only the wealthy owner of numerous herds could afford to pay for a single sexual encounter; and if the traveller does not have his cattle with him, he must give some valuables as a deposit, until the kid is delivered to the woman.
Though in this story the woman was not a real prostitute but Judah's widowed daughter-in-law, who had good reasons of seeking to trick Judah and become pregnant by him, she succeeds in impersonating a prostitute and her conduct can be assumed to be the real conduct expected of a prostitute in the society of the time.
A later Biblical story, in the Book of Joshua, a prostitute in Jericho named Rahab assisted Israelite spies with her knowledge of the current socio-cultural and military situation due to her popularity with the high-ranking nobles she serviced, among others. The spies, in return for the information, promised to save her and her family during the planned military invasion as long as she fulfilled her part of the deal by keeping the details of the contact with them secret and leaving a sign on her residence that would be a marker for the advancing soldiers to avoid. When the people of Israel conquered Canaan, she left prostitution, converted to Judaism and married a prominent member of the people.
In ancient Greek society, prostitution was engaged in by both women and boys. The Greek word for prostitute is porne (Gr: πόρνη), derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. 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. (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.
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. Procuring, however, was severely forbidden. In Cyprus (Paphus) and in Corinth, a type of religious prostitution was practiced where the temple counted more than a thousand prostitutes (hierodules, Gr: ιερόδουλες), according to Strabo.
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.
Male prostitution was also common in Greece. It was usually practiced by adolescent boys, a reflection of the pederastic tastes of Greek men. Slave boys worked the male brothels in Athens, while free boys who sold their favours risked losing their political rights as adults.
In ancient Rome, 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. 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. A large brothel found in Pompeii called the Lupanar attests to the widespread use of prostitutes in Rome around the turn of the century. Life expectancy for prostitutes was generally low, but some managed to get free and establish themselves e.g. as folk doctors. Like Greece, Roman prostitution was highly categorized, with titles for prostitutes and their places of trade including:
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. Prostitutes also found a fruitful market in the Crusades.
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, 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 Southern German towns closed their brothels in an attempt to eradicate prostitution. The 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. In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public or act in theatrical performances.
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. Many early feminists fought for repeal of these laws, either on the grounds that prostitution should be illegal and therefore not government regulated or because it forced degrading medical examinations upon women. 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.
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. 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 (though not yet a US state), and is still 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. An episode of COPS which aired in the early 1990s detailed the impact of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes to which the felony prostitution laws is deemed as part of HIV/AIDS awareness.