Prostitution: A Review of Legislation in Selected Countries


Over the last 20 years, the governments of various Western nations have significantly changed their approach to managing prostitution and street solicitation. Several have attempted to tackle the problem through revised legislation. Little consensus exists, however, with regard to the most appropriate legislative response; and in various countries, attempts to adopt new laws (whether to enact or dismantle criminal legislation) have met with fierce controversy.

In June 2003, for instance, the New Zealand Parliament repealed a series of century-old laws prohibiting soliciting, running brothels, and living off the avails of prostitution. The private member’s bill passed by a margin of only one vote: 60 to 59, with one abstention. (1) In contrast, France, which licensed brothels during the 19th and early 20th centuries, has recently begun to move towards criminalizing more aspects of the prostitution trade. (2)

In Canada, there has been long-standing debate over the role of the Criminal Code in controlling and/or regulating prostitution. The divergence of opinion in this country over prostitution and street solicitation is perhaps most visible in the large number of special review committees created and laws passed at every level of government over the past two decades.

On the surface, there appears to be little, if any, common ground among the diverse legislative directions taken by the countries and states examined in this paper. Nonetheless, their governments are largely wrestling with the same set of issues and seeking to balance two often-competing sets of responsibilities. On the one hand, they attempt to prevent the exploitation of persons selling sexual services (3) by pimps and clients. On the other, they aim to eliminate the increased crime (e.g., illegal drug consumption) and “nuisance” (noise, traffic, etc.) that prostitution creates in communities where it takes place. (4) The following questions underlie a wide range of government reports, critics’ analyses, and specific pieces of legislation:

Protecting Sex Workers

  • How can persons involved in prostitution be shielded from violence and exploitation? How can sex workers more easily contact the authorities when they need help?
  • How can the involvement of organized crime in prostitution be reduced? How can pimping be controlled?
  • How can persons selling sexual services and their clients be protected from the health risks associated with the trade?
  • How can prostitutes’ working conditions be improved?
  • How can trafficking and the exploitation of young people be prevented?
  • How can prostituted persons be helped to leave the industry if they so choose?

Protecting Communities

  • How can the “nuisance” aspects associated with prostitution be reduced?
  • Should the criminal justice system be targeting particular sectors of the prostitution industry?
  • How can the ancillary crime typically associated with prostitution (for example, drug dealing) be prevented?

This paper reviews the key legislative approaches to prostitution in a number of Western jurisdictions. In particular, it examines the specific laws and/or regulations these countries and states have instituted, and how they have fared in meeting their objectives.

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