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Prostitution in the United States


Prostitution in the United States

Prostitution in the United States is illegal in all fifty states, except in some rural counties of the state of Nevada. Prostitution, however, is present in most parts of the country, in various forms.

The regulation of prostitution in the United States is not among the enumerated powers of the federal government. Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is therefore exclusively the domain of the states to permit, prohibit, or otherwise regulate commercial sex, except insofar as Congress may regulate it as part of interstate commerce with laws like the Mann Act. In most states, prostitution is considered a misdemeanor in the category of public order crime, a crime that disrupts the order of a community. It was at one time considered to be a vagrancy crime.

Currently, Nevada is the only U.S. jurisdiction to allow legal prostitution - in the form of regulated brothels - the terms of which are stipulated in the Nevada Revised Statutes. Only 8 counties currently contain active brothels. All forms of prostitution are illegal in Clark County (which contains the Las Vegas–Paradise metropolitan area), Washoe County (which contains Reno), Carson City, Douglas County, and Lincoln County. The other counties theoretically allow brothel prostitution, but some of these counties currently have no active brothels. Street prostitution, "pandering," and living off of the proceeds of a prostitute remain illegal under Nevada law, as elsewhere in the country.

As with other countries, prostitution in the United States can be divided into three broad categories: street prostitution, brothel prostitution, and escort prostitution.


  • History 1
    • 18th century 1.1
    • 19th century 1.2
    • 20th century 1.3
      • Legal measures 1.3.1
      • Other developments 1.3.2
    • 21st century 1.4
  • Types of prostitution 2
    • Street prostitution 2.1
    • Escort/out-call prostitution 2.2
    • Brothel prostitution 2.3
    • Child prostitution 2.4
  • Legal status 3
  • Statistics on prostitutes and customers 4
  • John schools 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7


18th century

Some of the women in the American Revolution who followed the Continental Army served the soldiers and officers as sexual partners. Prostitutes were a worrisome presence to army leadership, particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases. Some, however, encouraged the presence of prostitutes to keep troop morale high.

19th century

In the 19th century, parlor house brothels catered to upper class clientele, while bawdy houses catered to the lower class. At concert saloons, men could eat, listen to music, watch a fight, or pay women for sex. Over 200 brothels existed in lower Manhattan. Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but was not well-enforced by police and city officials, who were bribed by brothel owners and madams. Attempts to regulate prostitution were struck down on the grounds that regulation would be counter to the public good. Seventy-five percent of New York men had some type of sexually transmitted disease.[1]

Fannie Porter was a well-known madam in San Antonio, Texas.

The gold rush profits of the 1840s to 1900 attracted gambling, crime, saloons, and prostitution to the mining towns of the wild west. Widespread media coverage of prostitution occurred in 1836, when famous courtesan Helen Jewett was murdered, allegedly by one of her customers. The Lorette ordinance of 1857 prohibited prostitution on the first floor of buildings in New Orleans.[2] Nevertheless, prostitution continued to grow rapidly in the US, becoming a $6.3 million business in 1858, more than the shipping and brewing industries combined.

This area of Pennsylvania Avenue was known from the mid-1800s to the 1920s as "Murder Bay," home to numerous brothels. The youth on the left was a "procurer".

By the US Civil War, Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue had become a disreputable slum known as Murder Bay, home to an extensive criminal underclass and numerous brothels. So many prostitutes took up residence there to serve the needs of General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac that the area became known as "Hooker's Division." Two blocks between Pennsylvania and Missouri Avenues became home to such expensive brothels that it was known as "Marble Alley."[3]

In 1873, Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transport of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material and birth control information. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act of 1875 that made it illegal to transport women into the nation to be used as prostitutes.

In 1881, the George Hearst frequented the establishment.

In the late 19th century, newspapers reported that 65,000 white slaves existed. Around 1890, the term "red-light district" was first recorded in the United States. From 1890 to 1982, the Dumas Brothel in Montana was America's longest-running house of prostitution.

New Orleans city alderman Sidney Story wrote an ordinance in 1897 to regulate and limit prostitution to one small area of the city, "The District", where all prostitutes in New Orleans must live and work. The District, or Storyville, became the most famous area for prostitution in the nation. Storyville at its peak had some 1500 prostitutes and 200 brothels.

20th century

Legal measures

In 1908, The Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was founded by the government to investigate "white slavery" by interviewing brothel employees to find out if they had been kidnapped. Out of 1106 prostitutes interviewed in one city, six said they were victims of white slavery. (In 1935, the BOI became the FBI.) The White-Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act) of 1910 prohibited so-called white slavery. It also banned the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes". Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution and perceived immorality. The Supreme Court later included consensual debauchery, adultery, and polygamy under "immoral purposes".

In 1918, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act gave the government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having a sexually transmitted disease (STD). A medical examination was required, and if it revealed an STD, this discovery could constitute proof of prostitution. The purpose of this law was to prevent the spread of venereal diseases among U.S. soldiers. During World War I, Storyville was shut down to prevent VD transmission to soldiers in nearby army and navy camps.

Mortensen vs. United States, in 1944, ruled that prostitutes could travel across state lines, if the purpose of travel was not for prostitution.

In 1967, New York City eliminated license requirements for massage parlors. Many massage parlors became brothels. In 1970, Nevada began regulation of houses of prostitution. In 1971, The Mustang Ranch became Nevada's first licensed brothel, eventually leading to the legalization of brothel prostitution in 10 of 17 counties of the state. In time, Mustang Ranch became Nevada's largest brothel, with more revenue than all other legal Nevada brothels combined.

Other developments

Basin Street brothels in New Orleans, ca. 1908.

In 1917, New Orleans government shut down prostitute cribs and tried unsuccessfully to segregate New Orleans. On January 25, 1917, an anti-prostitution drive in San Francisco attracted huge crowds to public meetings. At one meeting attended by 7,000 people, 20,000 were kept out for lack of room. In a conference with Reverend Paul Smith, an outspoken foe of prostitution, 300 prostitutes made a plea for toleration, explaining they had been forced into the practice by poverty. When Smith asked if they would take other work at $8 to $10 a week, the ladies laughed derisively, which lost them public sympathy. The police closed about 200 houses of prostitution shortly thereafter.[4]

Heidi Fleiss became one of America's best known madams in the late 1990s.

In the early 20th century, widespread use of phones made call girls possible. This took prostitutes indoors and off the streets. They give their phone numbers on cards to customers. By World War II, prostitutes had increasingly gone underground as call girls.

Conditions for sex trade workers changed considerably in the 1960s. The Combined oral contraceptive pill was first approved in 1960 for contraceptive use in the United States. "The Pill" helped prostitutes prevent pregnancy. In 1971, famous New York madame Xaviera Hollander wrote The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, a book that was notable for its frankness at the time, and considered a landmark of positive writing about sex. Carol Leigh, a prostitute's rights activist known as the "Scarlot Harlot," coined the term "Sex worker" in 1978. That same year, the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened. It was based on the real-life Texas Chicken Ranch brothel. The play was the basis for the 1982 movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.

COYOTE, formed in 1973, was the first prostitute's rights group in the U.S. Other prostitute's rights groups formed, such as: FLOP, HIRE, and PUMA.

In 1997, "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss was convicted in connection with her prostitution ring with charges including pandering and tax evasion. Her ring had numerous famous and wealthy clients. Her original three-year sentence prompted widespread outrage at her harsh punishment, while her customers had not been punished. Earlier, in the 1980s, a member of Philadelphia's social elite, Sydney Biddle Barrows was revealed as a madam in New York City. She became known as the Mayflower Madam.

In 1990, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) admitted to paying for sex in 1989. The House of Representatives voted to reprimand him.[5]

21st century

Ted Haggard, former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned in 2006 after he was accused of soliciting homosexual sex and methamphetamine.[6]

Randall L. Tobias, former Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator, resigned in 2007 after being accused of patronizing a Washington escort service.[7]

In 2007 Louisiana Senator David Vitter acknowledged past transgressions after his name was listed as a client of "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey's prostitution service in Washington.[8]

Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York in 2008 amid threats of impeachment after news reports alleged he was a client of an international prostitution ring.[9]

In 2009, Rhode Island signed a bill into law making prostitution a misdemeanor. Prior to this law, between 1980 and 2009, Rhode Island was the only U.S. state where prostitution was decriminalized, as long as it was done indoors.[10] See Prostitution in Rhode Island.

In 2014, due to the stagnant economy in Puerto Rico, the government considered legalizing prostitution.[11][12]

Types of prostitution

Street prostitution

Street prostitution is illegal throughout the United States. Street prostitution tends to be clustered in certain areas known for solicitation. For instance, statistics on official arrests from the Chicago Police Department from August 19, 2005 to May 1, 2007, suggest that prostitution activity is highly concentrated: nearly half of all prostitution arrests occur in a tiny one-third of one percent of all blocks in the entire city of Chicago.[13]

Escort/out-call prostitution

In spite of its illegality, escort prostitution exists throughout the United States from both independent prostitutes and those employed through escort agencies. Both freelancers and agencies may advertise under the term "bodywork" in the back of alternative newspapers, although some of these bodywork professionals are straightforward massage professionals.

The amount of money that is made by an escort is different depending on race, appearance, age, experience (e.g., pornography and magazine work), gender, services rendered, and location. Generally, male escorts command less on an hourly basis than women; white women quote higher rates than non-white women; and youth is at a premium. For one point of reference reflecting trends in the gay community, the gay escort agency "TOPPS", based in Washington, D.C., charges $150 an hour for male escorts and $250 an hour for transsexuals. That agency takes $50 an hour from the contractor. In larger metropolitan areas such as New York City, extremely attractive European American female escorts can charge $1,000–$2,000 per hour. The agency takes 40%-50%.

Typically, an agency will charge its 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% of a woman's reported earnings (not counting any gratuity received). Most transactions occur in cash, and optional tipping of escorts by clients in most major U.S. cities is customary but not compulsory. Credit card processing offered by larger scale agencies is often available for a service charge.

Escorts and escort agencies have historically advertised through classified ads, yellow pages advertising, or word-of-mouth, but in more recent years, much of the advertising and soliciting of indoor prostitution has shifted to internet sites. Sites may represent individual escorts, agencies, or may run ads for many escorts. There are also a number of sites in which customers can discuss and post reviews of the sexual services offered by prostitutes and other sex workers. Many sites allow potential buyers to search for sex workers by physical characteristics and types of services offered.

Internet advertising of sexual services is offered not only by specialty sites, but in many cases by more mainstream advertising sites. Craigslist for many years featured an "adult services" section of this kind. After several years of pressure from law enforcement and anti-prostitution groups, Craigslist closed this section in September 2010, first for its US pages, then some months later internationally. As of 2011, Backpage carries similar advertising and has received criticism from many of the same groups that were critical of Craigslist's advertising of sexual services.[14]

Brothel prostitution

With the exception of some of the more rural counties of Nevada, brothels are illegal everywhere in the United States. However, many "massage parlors", "saunas", "spas" and similar establishments sometimes serve as illegal fronts for prostitution, especially in larger cities.

Child prostitution

The minors along United States Numbered Highways, where the girls are forcibly prostituted to truck drivers.[15] When news of Stormy Nights was made public, there was a strong public response across the country, so the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established "Innocence Lost", a new department working to free children from prostitution.[16] FBI agent Mike Beaver, who headed Stormy Nights,[17] said, "What we've learned is if you have adult prostitution in an area, there's probably child prostitution occurring as well."[18]

Legal status

Nevada is the only U.S. jurisdicition to allow any form of legal prostitution. However, prostitution is illegal in some counties in Nevada. Counties shown in yellow contain at least one active brothel. Counties in blue allow prostitution, but do not have any active brothels. Counties in red do not permit prostitution at all.

Nevada is the only U.S. jurisdiction to allow some legal prostitution. Currently eight counties in Nevada have active brothels (these are all rural counties); as of June–July 2008 there were 28 legal brothels in Nevada.[19][20][21] Prostitution outside the licensed brothels is illegal throughout Nevada. Prostitution is illegal in the major metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City, where most population lives; more than 90% of Nevada citizens live in a county where prostitution is illegal.

Prostitution in Rhode Island was outlawed in 2009. On November 3, governor Donald Carcieri signed into law a bill which makes the buying and selling of sexual services a crime.[10] Prostitution was legal in Rhode Island between 1980 and 2009 because there was no specific statute to define the act and outlaw it, although associated activities such as street solicitation, running a brothel and pimping were illegal.

Louisiana is the only state in which convicted prostitutes are required to register as sex offenders. The state's crime against nature by solicitation law is used when a person is accused of engaging in oral or anal sex in exchange for money. Only prostitutes prosecuted under this law are required to be registered. This has led to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.[22]

The federal government also prosecutes some prostitution offenses. One man who forced women to be prostitutes received a 40-year sentence in federal court.[23] Another was prosecuted for income tax evasion.[24] Another man pled guilty to federal charges of harboring a 15-year-old girl and having her work as a prostitute.[25] Another federal defendant got life imprisonment for sex trafficking of a child by force.[26]

Statistics on prostitutes and customers

One 1990 study estimated the annual prevalence of full-time equivalent prostitutes in the United States to be 23 per 100,000 population based on a capture–recapture study of prostitutes found in Colorado Springs, CO, police and sexually transmitted diseases clinic records between 1970 and 1988.[27]

A continuation of the Colorado Springs study[28] found a death rate among active prostitutes of 459 per 100,000 person-years, which is 5.9 times that for the (age and race adjusted) general population. This corresponds to an occupational fatality rate more than triple that of fishing workers (the highest fatality profession tracked by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Among voluntary substance abuse program participants, 41.4% of women and 11.2% of men reported selling prostitution services during the last year (March 2008).[29]

In Newark, New Jersey, one report claims 57 percent of prostitutes are reportedly HIV-positive, and in Atlanta, 12 percent of prostitutes are possibly HIV-positive.[30]

A 2004 TNS poll reported 15 percent of all men have paid for sex and 30 percent of single men over age 30 have paid for sex.[31]

Over 200 men answered ads placed in Chicago area sex service classifieds for in depth interviews. Of these self-admitted "johns", 83% view buying sex as a form of addiction, 57% suspect that the women they paid were abused as children, and 40% said they are usually intoxicated when they purchase sex.[32]

The prostitution trade in the United States is estimated to generate $14 billion a year.[33]

John schools

John schools are programs aimed towards the rehabilitation of purchasers of prostitution. In the first 12 years of the still ongoing program, now called the First Offender Prostitution Program, the recidivism rate amongst offenders was reduced from 8% to less than 5%. Since 1995, similar programs have been implemented in more than 40 other communities throughout the US, including Washington, DC, West Palm Beach, FL, Buffalo, NY, Los Angeles, CA, and Brooklyn, NY. A 2009 audit of the first john school in San Francisco done by the city's budget analysis, faults the program with ill-defined goals and no way to determine its effectiveness. Despite being touted as a national model that comes at no cost to taxpayers, the audit said the program didn't cover its expenses in each of the last five years, leading to a $270,000 shortfall.[34]

See also


  1. ^ XY factor, Prostitution: Sex in the City (History Channel)
  2. ^ "Prostitution: Historical Timeline". Retrieved January 20, 2013. 
  3. ^ Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, 1994, p. 61-65.
  4. ^ San Francisco History - The Barbary Coast, Chapter 12. The End of The Barbary Coast
  5. ^ "TV Movie Led to Prostitute's Disclosures". The Washington Post. 
  6. ^ "Amid allegations, Haggard steps aside".  
  7. ^ Glenn Kessler (April 28, 2007). "Rice Deputy Quits After Query Over Escort Service".  
  8. ^ "Scandal-linked senator breaks a week of silence". July 17, 2007. Retrieved December 7, 2009. 
  9. ^ Deeply sorry,' Spitzer to step down by Monday"'". March 12, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2009. 
  10. ^ a b Arditi, Lynn (2009-10-03). "Bill Signing Finally Outlaws Prostitution". Providence Journal. Retrieved 2009-10-03. 
  11. ^ "Puerto Rico to legalize marijuana and prostitution". Apr 23, 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2014. 
  12. ^ "Prostitution Proponents in Puerto Rico". Apr 27, 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2014. 
  13. ^ Chicago Booth. "Capital Ideas: Selected Papers on Chicago Price Theory - April 2009 - Trading Tricks". Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  14. ^ Deborah Feyerick and Sheila Steffe (11 May 2011). "A lurid journey through". CNN. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  15. ^ Louise Shelley (2010). Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective.  
  16. ^ C.G. Niebank (September 7, 2011). "Human network".  
  17. ^ John Dankosky (April 17, 2013). Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery.  
  18. ^ Eric M. Strauss (July 14, 2008). "Domestic Sex Trafficking in the U.S.".  
  19. ^ "Nevada Brothels Hit Hard by Gas Prices - ABC News". 2008-06-23. Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  20. ^ "Nevada Brothels Feel Pinch of Higher Fuel Prices - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe News Weather, Video". Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  21. ^ McKenna, Barrie (August 19, 2010). "Nevada brothel's 'shady' deal: Come often, get free gas". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  22. ^ Nathan Koppel (February 16, 2011). "Louisiana's 'Crime Against Nature' Sex Law Draws Legal Fire".  
  23. ^ "Sex Trafficking Ring Leader Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison - OPA - Department of Justice". 
  24. ^ Pankratz, Howard (September 16, 2010). "Owner of Denver Players prostitution service pleads guilty to tax evasion". Denver Post. 
  25. ^ "FBI — Brooklyn Man Pleads to Guilty to Forcing Underage Girls Into Prostitution in New York". Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  26. ^ "FBI — Tea Man Sentenced to Life Imprisonment Plus 10 Years for Sex Trafficking of a Child by Force and Solicitation to Murder a Federal Witness". Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ Potterat, J. J.; Brewer, D. D., Muth, S. Q., Rothenberg, R. B, Woodhouse D. E., Muth, J. B., Stites, H. K. & Brody, S. (15 April 2004). "Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women". American Journal of Epidemiology 159 (8): 778–785.  
  29. ^ ML Burnette, E Lucas, M Ilgen, Susan M. Frayne, J Mayo, JC Weitlauf "Prevalence and Health Correlates of Prostitution Among Patients Entering Treatment for Substance Use Disorders," in, Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 65 no. 3, page(s) 337-344
  30. ^ "Prostitution: Not a Victimless Career Choice - Womens eNews". 
  31. ^ Gary Langer, with Cheryl Arnedt and Dalia Sussman (2004-10-21). "Primetime Live Poll: American Sex Survey".  
  32. ^ [2]
  33. ^ "Prostitution Statistics – Facts about Prostitution and Latest News". 
  34. ^ "Audit faults S.F. D.A.'s prostitution program". SFGate. 
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