As with most things sexual, and otherwise, the progress of technology has made the process of definition somewhat harder than it was. The most restrictive definition of prostitution is to regard it as paid sex where there is an expectation that full physical intercourse (copulation or anal intercourse if we wish to encompass non-heterosexual prostitution in the definition) is part of the menu of services. A lot of activity is not covered by this, which falls into the broader definition of services sold in the 'paid sex market' including such things as lap dancing, strip shows, internet interactions and indulgence in the fetishes of customers by paid sex workers which do not involve copulation. At the latter point the distinction becomes blurred as the client may obtain full sexual release for the exchange of money. Words have been used other than prostitute, such as whore and harlot, but these have not persisted with any regularity into modern times where hooker seems to be the most prevalent demotic alternative. The archaic term 'whore' seems sometimes to be used by those campaigning for the rights of prostitutes in order to give an edge to their message.

The term prostitute has escaped from its occupational sphere to become a wider form of condemnation. We commonly hear of people 'prostituting' their morals or their talent in the sense that they are exploiting something, of intrinsically higher moral worth, for the mere pursuit of income for its own sake. This reflected stigma derives from the notions emanating from religion and the 'romantic love' era of capitalism, that sex is a sacred act to be saved for the person's partner. In the strictest religious views, prostitution is the tip of an iceberg of sexual sinning. Apart from any absence of love and presence of money, it involves sex outside marriage which is a sin in itself. On top of this, it involves sex for purely recreational purposes which can be construed as sinful on the 'not natural' grounds that it perverts the status of procreation ordained by God. Given the presence of money it should be higher in the tariff of sins than the adultery of Chapter 9 or masturbation as discussed in Chapter 4.

In more theoretical terms we might claim that one's sexual services, like one's blood, are inalienable rights which should not be traded. As with blood, the sexual trade may reflect an enforced case of unjustly unequal exchange where individuals are driven by poverty or some other power imbalance into surrendering their inalienable rights. This takes us to the Marxist-Feminist position that marriage has been, in many times and places, a form of prostitution hidden behind a veil of respectability. That is, with property being concentrated in male hands often to the extent that wives are legally treated as the property of the husband, women are forced to sell their sexuality in order to obtain support. The radical view is that there are two systems of prostitution co-existing rather than a primary market for sex (marriage), which is consolidated in the serially monogamous form due to transactions costs and the commodity benefits of 'locked in' child-rearing inputs, that is then supplemented by a secondary market. The secondary market view follows from the analysis already encountered in Chapter 9. This implies that the primary market (marriage and 'ongoing' serially monogamous relationships) may fail due to constraints on meeting the needs of the male partner for variety/unusual practices, etc. In Chapter 9 it should have been clear that this also applies to any partner, however the use of paid markets to adjust to a disequilibrium in internal 'relationship' trades has historically been a mainly male preserve.

Prostitution, like the other activities in the present section of this work, has been widely regarded as sinful in many times and places but has been tolerated. Prostitution is commonly labelled as the oldest profession, indicating its intrinsically economic character. There is a plethora of historical research on the subject. Timothy Taylor (1996, pp. 205-7) reports that there is considerable evidence of female sex professionals in the Iron Age. On page 206 he reproduces drawings of the symbols on Roman brothel tokens which had long baffled archaeologists. These contain drawings which indicate the tariff of charges for different sexual acts. Their wide acceptability meant that a fully regularized sex economy was established at least as early as markets for other goods. The Roman professional prostitutes were either slaves or full-time employees in brothels in which men controlled the revenues.

One fact which strikes the lay reader of historical research is the presence of communities where prostitution is treated as virtuous rather than sinful. The profession afforded considerable esteem to women when in ancient history it was sanctioned by, and housed in, religious temples, e.g. the hetaerae of Ancient Rome [see Griffin (1999, pp. 36-40)]. Before we go on, it should be emphasized that the higher status of prostitution in ancient civilization was not based on free market economics or sexually liberated thinking which would form the arguments for such a system today. Rather [see Frazer (1993, pp. 330-331) and Ryley-Scott (1996)] it was premised on magical thinking such as the sex being an offering to the gods or that sex, by the appointed harlots, with a stranger would confer benefits on the community from wider cosmic forces.

With the suppression of magical thinking as a major factor in social codes we find tolerance, alongside sinful status, as the major prevailing attitude. Toleration has generally derived from the 'lesser of two evils' position. In older times the belief was that male lust was a raging torrent that had to be satisfied and therefore prostitution served to protect 'decent' women by siphoning it off. This necessity was clearly recognized by Mandeville [Harth (1970, pp. 127-8)] who remarked that:

Where Six or Seven Thousand Sailors arrive at once, as it often happens at Amsterdam, that have seen none but their own Sex for many months together, how is it to be suppos'd that honest Women should walk the Streets unmolested if there were no Harlots to be had at reasonable Prices? (capitals as in original)

A modern analogue to this was found in the proposal to establish sex zones in out-of-town industrial estates to cater for the needs of incoming fans for the duration of the Rugby World Cup in Wales.

St. Augustine [Ryley-Scott (1996, pp. 20-21)] had earlier endorsed this view also on the protective grounds of preventing rape and adultery and thus reducing the threat to marriage, i.e. the 'secondary market' view expounded above. Thomas Aquinas defended the acceptance of prostitution as a necessary evil, the extinguishing of which would lead to the prevalence of the worse sin of sodomy. Various risk externalities have led to the evolution of more organized tolerance of the secondary market for male lust. A major one is the fear of the spread of infectious diseases which has inspired various forms of quasi-regulation in military [Fels (1971)] and nautical contexts in order that the fighting fitness of the men be maintained. In commercialized sex centres we encounter the use of mandatory health checks as a condition of the operators being relatively free from stricter official interference.

Tolerance of prostitution has also sometimes been posited on other 'secondary market' grounds. In terms of welfare economics we are dealing with its role as an externality abatement technology. Two chief defences spring to mind, both of them particularly rife in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. One is that the prostitute can be used to help cure someone who has sexual problems, such as the inability to achieve orgasm other than through indulging strange and dangerous fetishes. This view is amply illustrated in Krafft-Ebing's case notes, the twelfth and last edition of which was published in 1897, where he frequently recommends trips to prostitutes in the hope of overcoming problem behaviours. The second argument springs from the notion of an ideal marriage being one where the man was highly sexually experienced yet the woman was a blushing virgin. Equilibrium in a market with such a code can only be obtained if there are secondary markets where the man can acquire this marriage-specific human capital. This could be met by a segment of the potential partner supply who have higher promiscuity or who can be coerced into sexual activity. Regular prostitution, servants, slaves and mistresses from the existing group of married women can serve this function. A moderated version of this second benefit is the use of prostitutes to, at the very least, remove a male of his virginity so that he is not embarrassed and disadvantaged with his first major partner in the informal market. For example, the noted French philanderer and novelist George Simenon took his son to a prostitute for this reason [see Bressler (1983)].

Tolerance has generally taken place within a context of illegality or very attenuated legal status. There has been a remarkable variety of laws in the piecemeal process of dealing with the issue. In many cases ancillary activities, like causing a public nuisance, have been the basis of prosecution rather than the selling of sexual services per se. It is difficult to establish the precise policies in operation, in any given country, as the legal statutes are subject to local interpretation which is hard for the scholar to discern in the abstract. Paradoxically, one can find a more liberal sex economy in places where it is technically illegal than in others where it is legal. The best source of information, on formal legal status and informal practice, is the World Sex Guide published on the internet which provides many reports by customers who have travelled in the countries discussed. I have attempted to summarize the information, as available at July 2001, in Table 10.1.

Some judgement had to be made in summarizing the information into a workable table. Where there are blanks in answers to the headings or a one-line summary is given this is because further information was not available. Clearly it is not that easy in practice to tell the difference between countries which have legal prostitution and those which do not. In terms of the Akerlof models of Chapter 2 we have some economies where behaviour and observance are concordant and some where it is discordant.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that those regions with a legalized system do not still have an illegal system in operation. There are several reasons why illegal prostitution, in terms of unregistered and non-health-checked workers, will continue to be supplied alongside legal prostitution. For one thing, they may stand to gain from tax evasion and offering higher-risk premium services (i.e. no use of condoms) which are prohibited in the legal market. Further, the prostitute who has failed a health check is now under pressure to work illegally to sustain their income. Organized crime might also continue to provide prostitutes from a selection of workers against the general tendency in Table 10.1 for third-party financial gain to be unacceptable. They could sustain this market form due to scale economies and pre-existing holdings of coercion capital with which to enlist sole traders in their ring.

Table 10.1 Legal status of prostitution in various countries

(a) Countries with 'legal' prostitution Country Allows third- Tax paid Health checks Zoned party gains

Aruba Australia Austria Costa Rica Cyprus

Czech Republic Denmark

Dominican Republic



Germany Honduras Hungary

Iceland Israel

Italy Latvia

Luxembourg Netherlands

Norway Poland Portugal Singapore

South Africa Spain




Albania Bahrain

[Dutch colony regulated as Netherlands (see below]

yes yes yes yes yes yes yes licences and ID cards unconfirmed; seems to be legal in both parts no no yes no not formally regulated but generally contacted via magazines as 'daytime coffee service' no yes yes yes yes (ID cards) no yes yes

(legal since 1992 and are treated as private entrepreneurs) no no (but law on brothel-keeping widely flouted) no no legal in principle but most is illegal no yes no yes

(zoning is up to individual city governments which may also impose health checks in some cases) no tax is being mooted: no explicit regulation yes* yes yes

(some Singapore brothels give benefits) fully legalized in 1997 no yes yes yes yes regulated with licences no

(reports of coercion of women to service soldiers in government brothels to work off fines and prison sentences they cannot pay)

(b) Countries with illegal prostitution

Allegedly thrives at low prices since end of communism

Table 10.1 continued

(b) Countries with illegal prostitution Allows third- Tax paid Health checks Zoned party gains





China Cuba


Hong Kong











South Korea


United Arab Emirates USA

Tolerated mostly in hotels and bars Pimping and running or working in a bawdy house and soliciting are the offences as prostitution is not strictly illegal

Police do not enforce law and hotels are used Widespread and actively promoted

Run by organized crime using legitimate business fronts

Widespread use of escorts

Must be caught in the act to be charged

Technically illegal but ignored by police

Streeet girls pay fee to organized crime

Widespread under fronts of hotels, etc.


100 lashes anti-fornication law is used but paid sex can be obtained through difficult covert operations Despite illegality has health checks and registration

Fines are used: the only country in which buying or offering to buy is punished but selling or offering to sell is not

Designated red light districts (RLDs) exist


Like Canada

Widely available and almost tolerated

Except in certain parts of Nevada (where it is legal)

generally like Canada

(c) Countries with ambiguous systems

Belgium Illegal with similar set-up to Canada but the regulated system abolished in the 1950s has been unofficially reinstated in parts

Mexico There are regulated zones in bigger cities and prostitutes must pay for their own health checks. There is also some tolerance of third-party gain New Zealand Described as 'nearly legal' yet is advertised on radio

Portugal Status unknown but prostitution is widespread

Russia Not specifically regulated or prohibited

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