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What Is Prostitution?

Prostitution is paying for sex. Prostitution is illegal for both the one paying and the one receiving the money in most of the United States and around the world. It has a historical presence in nearly every ancient culture, so the idea of engaging in sexual acts in exchange for money is not new. Today, prostitution is generally frowned upon, and though it is illegal, there are covert ways of going about paying for sex. 

The purpose of prostitution depends on the person in the relationship. The one paying for the act gets sexual gratification from the transaction, while the one receiving payment has a financial incentive for engaging in prostitution. 

The Different Types of Prostitution

Call Girl

Sometimes referred to as escorts, call girls don’t work in public, but advertise their services online through social media or websites geared towards advertising sexual activity. Some call girls are independent, while others working for an agency and have to give a cut of their earnings to their employers.  

Brothel Employee

In parts of the world where brothels are legal, another example of a prostitute is one who works in and is employed by a brothel. 

Window Worker

In some parts of the world like Amsterdam, the red-light district prostitutes advertise themselves in the windows for those who are walking by. 


These are prostitutes who walk the streets, usually in red-light districts or rough parts of town. The services are typically cheaper than those of a high-end call girl or escort. 

Is Prostitution Illegal? 

Prostitution is not illegal all around the world. However, in most first-world countries, prostitution is illegal. Here are some of the categories regarding how prostitution is regulated or criminalized throughout the world. 

  • Illegal: 49 of the 50 U.S. States, Russia, China, Greenland, most of Africa, the Middle East, and the Baltic States. 
  • Legal and Regulated: Nevada, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, parts of Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, and Bangladesh. 
  • Illegal To Buy Sex but Legal To Sell: Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Romania. 
  • Prostitution is Legal, but Brothels and Pimping are Illegal: Brazil, Chile, Argentina, India, Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Finland, Kazakhstan, and several countries in Africa. 
  • Non-Intercourse Prostitution is Legal: Japan
  • Completely Legal: Parts of Indonesia, South Sudan, Mozambique, and Nepal. 

Prostitution Laws in The United States

In the United States, prostitution is illegal in 49 of the states. Nevada is the only state to have legalized prostitution through brothels that are regulated, and only eight counties in Nevada have prostitution legalized. 

There are many cases in the United States where prostitution has been engaged in outside of the eight Nevadan counties. For example, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was in the news for a prostitution scandal involving a Florida day spa called Orchids of Asia. Some massage parlors such as these double as institutions that have clientele paying for sex. 

Human Trafficking and Prostitution 

Human trafficking is a major issue around the world, and today there are an estimated 50,000 people trafficked into the United States every year, mostly from Mexico and the Philippines. Many of the victims involved in sex trafficking are children. 

Prostitution plays a major role in the prevalence of human trafficking because of the profits. According to Human Rights First, trafficking earns $150 billion dollars every year for the traffickers, $99 billion of that comes from sexual exploitation. Because so much of the prostitution that takes place is covert and under-the-radar, it can be difficult for law enforcement to track down those who are victims of this terrible sex trade. 

Those who are victims of human trafficking and exploited for prostitution are essentially sex slaves. This is a serious problem in the world today, and many organizations are fighting to put an end to human trafficking and the sex trade. 

View our other Glossary Terms here

*This article is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice.