Prohibition: Criminalizing Prostitutes

The Ideology of Prohibition

The prohibition ideology generally stems from a desire to completely eliminate prostitution; these countries seek to prohibit sex work by penalizing all those who participate in it. Prohibition makes all prostitution illegal and holds every party liable for criminal penalties. Because of this, there is no government regulation of prostitution, as all prostitution is a criminal act.

Prohibitionist approaches to prostitution are generally found in societies and countries that highly value the symbolic and moral nature of the law. Prohibitionist laws generally say more about a country's moral views on prostitution than hey indicate about the actual nature of prostitution. Prostitution itself occurs in virtually every country, and even fully prohibiting it does not stop it; rather, it alters the way prostitution takes shape and may hide it from public view.

It is important to note that countries under the prohibitionist ideology don't all police prostitution identically in practice, even if in theory the laws are the same. There are some countries with prohibitionist ideologies that contain widespread (and fairly public) prostitution, as de facto legalization can occur due to police not expending too much time and energy on corralling it.

Present-Day Examples

The prohibitive criminalization approach is most notably taken in the United States. However, it also occurs in most Middle Eastern countries, as well as in China and Japan.


In the United States, laws against prostitution are justified as helping to decrease sex trafficking as well. The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking, US Bureau of Public Affairs, 2004, US Department of State.

The United States

The United States does not federally regulate prostitution. Rather, the decision is left up to the states individually. In 49 states, prostitution is completely criminalized and prohibited; the exception is Nevada.

The laws outlawing prostitution are generally framed through the lens of safety. With the argument that prostitution often brings with it drugs, public indecency, and sex trafficking, US laws on prostitution often claim to be helping both society and the victimized women.

Thus, the key ideological feature of US law is the narrow and nebulous line drawn between prostitution and sex trafficking. On one hand, the justification behind many of these laws is the idea that prostitutes are mostly trafficking victims. On the other hand, these 'victims' are still being punished by the state. State laws criminalize all prostitution acts without exempting juviniles or adults who have been prostituted through force, fraud, or coercion. [1]

Generally, prostitutes who work in private areas (escort agencies, brothels, massage parlors) are less likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system than streetwalkers are. Streetwalkers tend to be more concentrated in isolated, run-down areas to escape the notice of police.



[1] Fleharty, Kelsey. 2013. "Targeting the 'Tricks' of the Trade: A Comparative Analysis of Prostitution Laws in Sweden and the United States." Oregon Review of International Law, Vol. 15: pp. 443-466.