Sometimes called the “world’s oldest profession,” prostitution is broadly defined as the exchange of sexual activity for money, although definitions and laws vary among jurisdictions. It is prohibited throughout the United States, except in 12 of Nevada’s 16 counties. A variety of different legal models exist around the world, including total bans, bans that only target the customers, laws permitting prostitution but prohibiting organizations like brothels, and laws that permit both prostitution and organizations. Laws regarding prostitution and the local and national level are often closely related to laws and international treaties regarding human trafficking. Prostitution is considered a form of “sex work,” and it is the subject of much advocacy and debate around the world.

Definitions of Prostitution

Florida’s criminal code, to give one example, defines prostitution as “the giving or receiving of the body for sexual activity for hire.” Not all paid sexual activity is considered prostitution in all jurisdictions. The supreme courts of California and New Hampshire have held that the production of pornographic films, which involves paying performers to engage in sexual activity, is not prostitution under state law. The jurisdictions that do not allow such productions often treat them as a form of illegal obscenity rather than prostitution.

The question of whether prostitution should remain illegal, or whether jurisdictions where it is legal should take further steps to prohibit it, is highly controversial. Proponents of treating prostitution as a legitimate form of sex work argue that it is a matter of human rights to allow consenting adults to decide for themselves how to make a living. They further note that no law has ever prevented prostitution, and that the goals of preventing human trafficking, child exploitation, and other forms of abuse are not helped by targeting adults who engage in prostitution freely. Opponents of legal prostitution argue that prostitution is inherently dehumanizing and damaging to those engaged in it. Arguments often focus on female sex workers, but men and transgender people are also involved in sex work.

State and Local Laws

State and local laws in 49 U.S. states, as well as four Nevada counties, prohibit prostitution. Federal criminal laws address prostitution in the context of human trafficking, as discussed below, or with regard to acts occurring on federal property like military or naval bases.  The 12 Nevada counties that allow prostitution require licensing, registration, and regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Prostitution laws often only address the specific acts of exchanging money for sex, or offering to do so. Prosecutors have brought down some prostitution rings by prosecuting them for offenses associated with criminal organizations, such as racketeering or tax evasion.

Other Countries’ Laws

Many countries allow prostitution as a regulated business. including the Netherlands, Germany, and Mexico. Others allow prostitution but prohibit brothels and other organized businesses. These include Canada and the United Kingdom. Some countries have laws prohibiting brothels but seldom enforce them. Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have enacted laws known as the “Nordic model” of prostitution, in which the act of selling sex is legal, but paying for it is illegal.

Human Trafficking Laws

Human trafficking is the act of moving people against their will for involuntary or forced labor. This includes sex work as well as work in agricultural, textile, and other industries. “Sex trafficking,” which can involve both children and adults, often receives the most attention. In addition to state laws, federal criminal and immigration laws address sex trafficking. The United States has ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the supplemental Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.