From Red Lights to Regulations – Mapping the Legal Landscape of Sex Work


Sex Work that is performed in return for money or other rewards is known as prostitution. Prostitutes, sometimes referred to as sex workers, offer their services in various places, including the street, brothels, and escort services. Prostitution is often seen as a divisive and delicate subject with several moral, social, and legal ramifications. While it is prohibited in many countries, it is legal or decriminalized but regulated in others. Prostitution has been practiced throughout history, and it continues to be an essential topic that is discussed by policymakers, activists, and members of the general public.

Prostitution can involve heterosexual or gay behavior and might involve prostitutes who are male, female, or transgender. They earn money by selling sexual services. Most of them work in the industry because it is the only option. They live destitute and have no skills for any other employment options. Others believe that compared to other jobs, sex work offers higher pay and more flexible working hours.

Sex workers across all times and places are considered immoral beings and are regarded as sinners and have to face consequences even in religious ways by just doing their livelihood. They often are neglected by their government and without having the necessary government documents they face difficulties in getting the benefits from the welfare schemes which is easy for an ordinary citizen to get. Due to this, they are also neglected medically, and often a very high rate of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and syphilis are found in them.

Why can’t Prostitution be criminalized?

Sex Work

Criminalizing sex work leads to Community violence that encourages crime and prevents access to resources for public health. As a result of criminalization, sex workers find it more difficult to bargain with customers, collaborate with other sex workers for safety, and carry condoms without worrying that they would be used as proof of prostitution. Due to their risk of jail, additional abuse, and retaliation, criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to disclose rights abuses, especially when they are committed by the police.

Criminalization can reinforce unfavorable beliefs and preconceptions about sex workers, which can result in stigma, prejudice, and marginalization. This may hinder their search for alternative work, housing, and social support.  Other marginalized groups that may be disproportionately impacted by the prohibition of prostitution include persons of color, LGBTQ+ people, and the poor because the majority of sexual workers come from all these communities which already live in poverty and have to face discrimination in day-to-day life. Many who oppose sex work recognize the negative effects of criminalizing sex workers and are in favor of a system that criminalizes buyers and other parties—such as managers or brothel owners—but not the actual sex workers. It aims to reduce the demand for sex labor while treating sex workers more like victims than criminals.

Perspective on Sex Work

Sex Work

United States of America

Except for a few Nevada counties where sex work is permitted but regulated, prostitution is prohibited across the United States of America. States and municipal governments, however, have different prostitution laws and enforcement policies. The rules may be laxer or not enforced at all in certain regions, while others may have stringent restrictions that are strictly followed. The strongest prostitution laws are often found in rural regions, whereas more lax regulations might be found in metropolitan states. This generalization about state prostitution laws only applies to those who deal with the criminal prosecution of prostitutes and promoters of prostitution. Repeat offenders of prostitution and soliciting prostitution face harsher punishments and imprisonment in several states. Pimps are subject to the harshest prostitution regulations. Federal charges will be pursued against those who import immigrants for prostitution or labor.

Prostitution decriminalization initiatives have been made at the state and municipal levels in the US, with varying degrees of success. For instance, New York City established a program in 2018 to transfer people arrested for crimes connected to prostitution to social services rather than the criminal court system. Similar to this, Washington D.C. approved a law in 2021 that makes it illegal to buy sex but legal to sell it, as well as other associated acts like pimping and running brothels.

Any matter of the USA is incomplete without the mention of race. Black children account for 55 percent of all prostitution-related arrests in the United States for those under the age of 18, more than any other racial group, according to the FBI. The number increases by as much as 75 percent in Chicago. We can see the general attitude of the public changing every now and then where ‘Hookers’ and ‘Strippers’ form a significant part of pop culture and are even advertised across the various shows in the USA, which are considered brand ambassadors of America that includes ‘Friends and ‘How I met your mother.’


Each state and territory in Australia has its own set of prostitution laws. Prostitution is generally legal and regulated, while state and territorial laws controlling the industry vary. Legislators have had to strike a delicate equilibrium between upholding citizens’ rights to engage in sexual activity and taking into account residents’ and citizens’ worries about prostitution’s problematic aspects, which historically have included the spread of infectious diseases, concern for the public’s health, disorderly houses, and public nuisance. If a person is above the age of 18 and works independently or for a licensed brothel, it is lawful for them to operate as a prostitute in the majority of states and territories.

However, in some states and territories, prostitution on the streets is prohibited. Politicians there generally hold the view that decriminalizing the industry will give sex workers the confidence to report crimes. It is against the law for both individuals and organizations to treat someone differently or refuse their services on the grounds that they work in the sex industry. The exception is the territory of South Australia where the harshest sex work regulations in the nation through the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1935 and the Summary Offences Act of 1953 made street prostitution, soliciting, collecting payment for any sort of sexual services, and operating licensed brothels illegal.

A measure that would essentially decriminalize sex work in South Australia was submitted and passed by the Upper House in 2019, but it is currently being discussed in the lower house, which keeps the harsh criminal rules in place. It is essential to remember that human trafficking and sexual exploitation are crimes in Australia, where they are rigorously investigated and prosecuted. The Daily Planet, the first publicly traded brothel in history, calls itself the only “six-star” hotel in Australia and features sex on its menu for in-room dining. Overall, Australia’s prostitution policy is centered on minimizing harm, protecting sex workers’ rights, and guaranteeing their health and safety while simultaneously battling crime and exploitation which should be the case for every country to learn.


India has a long history of prostitution. In reality, sex workers are mentioned in a number of Hindu mythological allusions known as Apsaras. The devadasi system, which was prominent during the pre-colonial era, required Hindus to give up their female child as a symbol of their devotion to God. Devadasi, which literally translates as “devoted to the god,” refers to those who were wedded to God and were therefore exempt from having to wed anybody else.

In Modern India, prostitution is not illegal, but the actions that go along with it are. According to Section 8 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, soliciting or pimping is forbidden. It’s also against the law to run a brothel, live off a prostitute’s income, or coerce someone into prostitution. In accordance with the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, anybody involved in prostitution—including customers, brothel proprietors, and pimps—is subject to penalty. Rehabilitating prostitutes and their offspring is another provision of the Act. Also living with a prostitute, someone who engaged in sexual behavior with a minor is discovered, sex works in close proximity to the public space, or call girls advertising their number is strictly prohibited. There are more than 3 million women engaged in sexual work and it is very important to safeguard their rights as per the constitution of India.

In the case of Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal, It was held that as sex workers are people, they need to be treated with respect and humanity. No one has the right to physically harm them. The judgment also emphasized the difficulties and misery of the sex workers. The court believes that these women are forced to engage in prostitution for economic and social reasons alone, not out of choice or desire. Budhadev Karmaskar was held liable for murdering a sex worker. The court additionally declared that a lady engaged in prostitution out of necessity rather than pleasure. Such a woman can earn her basic living from her ability instead of selling her body if she has the option to pursue technical or vocational training.

Conclusion – Dispelling the unfavorable perceptions and myths about Sex Work

Sex Work

Sex work regulation and decriminalization have long been hotly contested issues. Others contend that it should be legalized and regulated to safeguard the rights and safety of sex workers, while some contend that it is an act of exploitation that should be prohibited. Decriminalizing and regulating sex work has the potential to benefit society in a variety of ways, including better public health outcomes, less violence and exploitation, and more safety and protection for sex workers. Regulating the sector may also provide sex workers access to legal, medical, and other support services that are now out of reach for them because of the stigma associated with their line of work. A more educated and compassionate society can result from dispelling the unfavorable perceptions and myths around sex work.


Submitted by Parikshit Panigrahi.