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In the United States, each state has the power to decide whether or not prostitution is legal in that state or part of that state. In all but one U.S. state (Nevada) the buying and selling of sexual services is illegal and usually classified as a misdemeanor.

Prostitution is considered by some US governments to be a public order crime, a crime that disrupts the order of a community. It was at one time considered to be a vagrancy crime. As with other countries, prostitution in the United States can be divided into three broad categories: street prostitution, brothel prostitution, and escort prostitution.



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.

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 grounds that it is against the public good. Seventy-five percent of New York men had some type of sexually transmitted disease.[1]

The gold rush profits of the 1820s 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.[citation needed] Nevertheless, prostitution continued to grow rapidly in the US, becoming a 6.3 million-dollar business in 1858, more than the shipping and brewing industries combined.

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.[citation needed]

In 1881, the Elite Theater Opera House opened in Tombstone, Arizona. It included a brothel in the basement and 14 cribs suspended from the ceiling, called bird cages. Famous men such as Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst frequented the establishment. Inspired by the feather-wearing prostitutes in the bird cages, Arthur J. Lamb wrote his famous melody, A Bird in a Gilded Cage.[2] Lillian Russell premiered it on stage at the Elite. Later, the theater was renamed the Birdcage Theatre, after the song.

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 immorality. The Supreme Court later included consensual debauchery, adultery, and polygamy under “immoral purposes”.

In 1918, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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 ten of seventeen 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

In 1916, 40,000 prostitutes died from syphilis in the US. In 1917, New Orleans government shut down prostitute cribs and tried unsuccessfully to segregate New Orleans.[citation needed] 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.[3]

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 know 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.[citation needed]

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.

In 1990, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) admitted to paying for sex in 1989. The House of Representatives voted to reprimand him.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

Types of prostitution

Street prostitution

Street prostitution is illegal throughout the United States. Street prostitution is considered to be the most dangerous form of prostitution, and many or most people who sell sex on the streets do so to feed a drug addiction.[citation needed] The services offered by street prostitutes are similar to those of escorts, but the locations vary, and in most cases escorts set higher prices.[citation needed]

Escort/out-call prostitution

In spite of its illegality, escort (OR "out-call") prostititution 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 Caucasian 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.

The owner of Fascinations Escort and Entertainment Service in Morgantown, West Virginia, was convicted of conspiring to commit racketeering activity involving prostitution from 2000 until March 2008. Duelly was also convicted on Counts Two through Fourteen of the Indictment charging her with committing acts of racketeering related to prostitution.[9]

An escort service in Alaska targeted women who were homeless, in low paying jobs, or runaway. Females would meet the caller at his residence or at a hotel paid for by the caller. The operators also used the prostitutes to sell cocaine. The women were required to turn over all of the money they earned. When they returned from a “date,” they would receive an “issue,” which was approximately a gram of cocaine. The women described going on up to 10 dates per day, every day, with no days off. They would work up to five days in a row without sleeping. All of the victims indicated that they were addicted to crack cocaine when they were involved with Webster’s “escort services.” The women were kept isolated. They could not have any visitors to the house, nor talk to anyone outside of the “family.” They could not purchase anything without the pimp’s knowledge, and had to provide receipts if they did. They could not talk to men unless they were getting paid and they were not allowed to get drugs from anyone other than the pimp.[10]

Strip club prostitution

Affidavits associated with a TRO filed by a U.S. Attorney detailed extensive prostitution activities at strip clubs. They claimed that paid sex acts are obvious to undercover officers, as well as the owners and managers of the clubs. Customers use an ATM or credit card machine which dispense tokens used for purchasing “services” at the club. The affidavits allege that the club takes a cut of the payment for illegal sex acts, by reducing the amount of money provided to the dancer when she cashes in the tokens at the end of the night.[11]

Brothel prostitution

With the exception of some rural counties from Nevada, brothels are illegal everywhere in the US. However, many "massage parlors", "saunas", "spas" and similar establishments are fronts for prostitution, especially in big cities. Although police raid these places occasionally and make arrests, in some areas there is a degree of tolerance for such forms of prostitution.[citation needed]

Mail Order Brides

There is a newer form of prostitution, mail order brides. American men either purchase these women from the internet through an agency or go to the country and tour the available women through an agency. The agencies promise that these women are more subservient than western woman and some men find this to be an appealing quality. [12]

These women come from poverty and are in need of financial support, shelter, and food and in return they are offering everything about themselves, including sexual access to their bodies to these men. These women are economically dependent, have a lack of language skills and cultural knowledge, are isolated from their friends, family, and the rest of their support group. These women cannot leave the marriage for fear of the man, because they will lose everything they have gained from the marriage, and immigration issues. Mail order brides have a higher chance of being murdered or abused at the hands of their husbands due to an unequal balance of power in the home.[13]

Internet Prostitution

A new way of finding a prostitute is through the internet. There are agency websites that take care of 200 to 300 girls. Some of these are organized by things such as race and physique. Men also have the ability to search by type of service they want. The websites generally include photographs where the girls are rarely in provocative poses but are usually scantily clad. The websites also include pricing, usually by the hour or by sex act. There is also a statement of acceptable and unacceptable behavior for each girl. [14]

Child prostitution

In 2001, it was estimated that about 293,000 American youth were at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Approximately 55% of street girls engage in formal prostitution. Of the girls engaged in formal prostitution, about 75% worked for a pimp. Pimp-controlled commercial sexual exploitation of children is linked to escort and massage services, private dancing, drinking and photographic clubs, major sporting and recreational events, major cultural events, conventions, and tourist destinations. About one-fifth of these children become entangled in nationally organized crime networks and are trafficked nationally. They are transported around the United States by a variety of means – cars, buses, vans, trucks or planes, and are often provided counterfeit identification to use in the event of arrest. The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12-14. It is not only the girls on the streets that are affected—for boys and transgendered youth, the average age of entry into prostitution is 11-13. The lifestyle of such children revolves around violence, forced drug use and constant threats.[15]

A convicted defendant initially met the victim, a 15-year old girl, and recruited her to work as a prostitute for him in the area. The defendant explained to the victim that this was a business and that she was to respect her pimp (the defendant) and give him all of her money. While working as a prostitute for the defendant, the victim was required to make $1,000 a day. When the victim started having second thoughts, the defendant told her, “I know where you live and your family lives. I will kill you and your family if you say anything to anybody. You’re mine now.” Due to concerns for her own safety, the victim continued to work as a prostitute for the defendant and she continued giving him the money she earned by turning “dates.” The prostitution activities were set up either by working on “the street” or through advertisements on[16]

Operation Cross Country III rescued 48 teenaged prostitutes, ages 13–17, in one weekend.[17]

The girls who become child or teenage prostitutes are not just runaways anymore, some still are, but now bored upper middle class girls are doing it as well to pay for things such as clothes and other material items. These girls have loving homes and are often honor students. Some girls have been sexually or physically abused, see no value in themselves, and are running around from dysfunctional families. Others are kidnapped at gun point.[18] For girls who have never had a reliable adult in their lives a pimp may fill that place. [19]

Pimps are getting younger, some people call them ‘metrocard pimps’ because they are still too young to drive themselves. The boys are drawn to pimping because its less risky than selling drugs is. A younger pimp has an easier time picking up young girls because the girls enjoy the attention and the company they are receiving from boys closer to their own age. [20] These boys tend to find girls to recruit at malls and parties. He can buy her things, act like her boyfriend, and in the process she gets to thinking about the money she could make and the things she could buy with that money. Some say that the pimps go after socially awkward or lonely girls and make them feel special. The mall of America has been having a big problem with pimps picking up young girls while they are shopping and on the weekend nights minors have to have chaperones. [21]

There was an instance where a 12 year old girl wearing nothing but a t-shirt was found whose own mother had led her into prostitution. When they found her she had pit, alcohol, and crack in her, had STD’s, and had had sex with ten men that night. It was days before she would speak to anyone . The sad thing is that it isn’t uncommon for girls to end up on the streets due to a relative.[22]

Girls don’t see as much of a problem with this way of life because music and pop culture are now glorifying prostitution, pimps, and sex in general. But the reality is your not sleeping with an attractive celebrity or the people who sing these songs, your sleeping with drug addicts, alcoholics, or just nasty men, it’s not as glamorous as it’s made out to be.[23]

Young girls are preferred because they are less likely to have STD’s. [24]

In a lot of cases the necessary resources a girl picked up off the streets needs such as therapy, medical care, and some place to stay where her pimp cannot find her are not provided through the court. [25]

Parents who get their daughters back off the streets have trouble keeping them from leaving again and how to help them. Some girls end up in rehab programs that help them to realize they have self worth and aren’t just “ho’s”. [26]

The FBI recently a program called the Innocence Lost national Inniative. This program helps states go after pimps who tend to go after young girls. Congress has approved $4 million dollars to help take care of this growing problem of child and teenage prostitution and other forms of child exploitation. [27]

Immigration and prostitution

DOJ in Brooklyn New York prosecuted a family for sex trafficking. A family-run gang smuggled women from Mexico to New York and forcing them, sometimes violently, into prostitution. Her family recruited the women primarily from impoverished communities in Mexico, smuggled them across the border, brought them to New York and housed them in simple apartments. Three men compelled the women “through physical violence, sexual assault, threats of harm, deception, false promises and coercion” to become prostitutes in “various brothels in New York City and elsewhere". The women were ordered to charge $25 to $35 for each sex act, and then were forced to surrender their earnings. The business thrived from 1991 until 2004 when DOJ began prosecution.[28]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Labor and the Los Angeles Police Department exposed a gang in Los Angeles. They allegedly had approached young women in Guatemala where they were told jobs in restaurants and clothing stores awaited them in the United States. After being smuggled across the United States-Mexico border and driven to Los Angeles, the women were turned over to the defendants, who informed them that their "job" would be working as prostitutes. When the women protested, they were told they had no choice. The affidavit describes how the victims endured frequent threats of violence, as well as physical abuse, while working seven days a week. In one incident detailed in the affidavit, four of the defendants repeatedly kicked and hit one of the victims following an unsuccessful escape attempt. After the first two women fled, one gang member allegedly made repeated calls to one of the women's cell phones threatening to kill her and her family.[29]

Legal status

Nevada is the only US state which allows some legal prostitution in some of its counties. Currently eight out of Nevada's 16 counties have active brothels. Prostitution outside these brothels is illegal throughout the state; prostitution is illegal in the major metropolitan areas (Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City). Prostitution is heavily regulated by the state of Nevada.

Rhode Island outlawed prostitution in 2009.[30] On November 3, governor Donald Carcieri signed into law a bill which makes it a misdemeanor crime to exchange sex for money. Between 1980 and 2009, prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, 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.

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.[31]

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).[32]

In New Jersey, 57 percent of prostitutes are HIV-positive, and in Atlanta, 12 percent of prostitutes are HIV-positive.[33]

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.[34]

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.[35]

John Schools

John schools are programs aimed at the 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 it's 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. [36]


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  33. ^ Constance Johnson "Prostitution: Not a Victimless Career Choice" 09/22/00
  34. ^ Gary Langer, with Cheryl Arnedt, and Dalia Sussman (2004-10-21). "Primetime Live Poll: American Sex Survey". ABC News. Retrieved 2007-03-28. 
  35. ^ David Heinzmann "Some men say using prostitutes is an addiction 200 take part in study about motivation" Chicago Tribune 5/06/08
  36. ^ Audit faults S.F. D.A.'s prostitution program

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