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Updated: Apr 11, 2021

Sakshi R. Patil, Botanist and Lawyer from Pune University



Prostitution is the practice of engaging in relatively indiscriminate sexual activity, in general with someone who is not a spouse or a friend, in exchange for immediate payment in money or other valuables. Several related activities including soliciting in a public place, kerb-crawling, owning or managing a brothel, prostitution in a hotel, child pimping, and pandering are illegal. There were 657,829 prostitutes in India in 2016. It can be said that women in India are in danger from the time they are conceived until the time they die.


The complex history of prostitution across the globe reveals where and when prostitutes offer way more than sex. Most often the modern sex workers are reduced to merely being a victim of circumstances and poor lifestyle choices. A brief history is discussed below of some era;

  • Renaissance Italy: They are the ones who knew freedom like no other prostitutes in the world. During that time the women were able to educate themselves freely even though they were sent to convent or courtesans. With the service of sex, they were also involved in discussions of poetry, philosophy, and many other topics with their clients. They even were able to influence politics by sharing their view among the clients.

  • Edo-Period Japan: During Edo-Period in Japan in the early 1600s –mid-1800s “Oiran” was the highest-ranked prostitute. Oiran were skilled enough to entertain and were use extremely formal language and elaborative costumes for the entertainment. Contrary to popular belief in Japan, the Japanese geishas were entertainers and hostesses but not as a sex-worker. These prostitutes were able to maintain influence and power without any hindrance and can escape heavy patriarchy which mostly affects a married woman.

  • The Ottoman Empire: With the rise of the Turkish Bathhouses of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, young boys called “tellaks” help the clients to bathe and massage and also provide sexual services. In the history of the Ottoman Empire woman were not exclusively prostitutes. Tellaks often found other ways to please their customers and often form close relationship with them even, the act of sodomy was illegal in those times. They were well compensated for the services they provide and all the money was allowed to keep near them.

  • Pre-colonial India: Featured from nine different tires of sex-workers, India has one of the most complex histories of prostitution. At the very low age of four, unwillingly sold by their parents, ‘Devadasis’ originated from the untouchable caste are pledge to the goddess of fertility, Yellamma. They worked until they are no longer young and attractive and cast out to live life as beggars as they are unable to marry the mortal man. And they were found residing in the overcrowded brothels. With the Master of performing sixty-four art forms and extensive knowledge of music, poetry, theatre & painting, ‘Ganika’ was considered as the highest tier of prostitution. These elite courtesans were not a woman of skill and intellect but also a woman of beauty. They were respected enough to be brought to public functions, festivals, and occasions.

  • Ancient –Greece: At the time when sex services were taxed by the state, of all women in the history of prostitution in Greece ‘Auletrides’ were held to high standards and were skilled in more than just an art of sexual pleasure. These women were able to earn several thousand dollars with single evenings worth the work and were able to find a respectable place in culture and found themselves featured in countless works of literature and art.

  • Modern America: Within designated locations, Nevada is the only state that legally allows prostitution. STD tests are administered weekly to 500 women each to work at the brothel. Drug use is strictly prohibited and sexual limits are set by the women that need to be strictly followed. Also, these women can create their marketing database and can even promote themselves online.


Mumbai’s infamous area ‘Kamathipura’ was the massive brothel for British occupiers and shifted to a local clientele following Indian Independence. India is said to be Asia’s largest Red-Light district. During the British Era, prostitution flourished in the area of Bombay as the refreshment area for British troops and was taken over by Indian sex workers.

The area of prostitution is in the limelight since ancient and medieval India has is ever increasing in gigantic outlook in of modern era. According to the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India, ‘Devadasi’ women migrate either to nearby towns or other cities to practice prostitution.

In India, prostitution is considered the oldest profession; it is one of the most debated topics. Generally, the majority of people claim it to be immoral and unethical. When dealing with topics like gay marriage, prostitution, and abortion many challenges are faced when it comes to ethical values, public opinion, or interest. Differing from place to place few governments speak about prostitution but when it is associated with the crime, we public tends to speak about it and it needs to be settled for once and for all. Though in some countries prostitution is illegal, many crimes are linked with it. Recently, India was commonplace for international sex tourism.

In India prostitution is considered as a most controversial topic as it comes with a several related activities like, pimping and pandering, owning or managing brothels, sex trafficking, kerb crawling, soliciting in the public place which is serious crimes. So, it can be said as in India Prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) legal but the other activities alongside prostitution are crimes. The status quo of prostitution in India is problematic. Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 declares certain illegal activities related to prostitution.


In case if prostitution is legalized, the state will manage the brothels by issuing a license to the authorized person. It will also require formulating the guideline regarding the age of the prostitute, medical facilities for the prostitutes, and managing a database for the clientele, and also providing remuneration to prostitutes. On legalizing prostitution, the prostitutes will have basic rights such as medical care, education for their children and, right against exploitation and rape. Also, it will help in the eradication of sex racquet prostitution, abuse, and street hidden prostitution. There shall be shelter homes for such prostitutes who have lost their livelihood or for those who are forced into such fields and do not want to continue this lifestyle. The training and basic education to prostitute should be provided by the government so that they can find other means to sustain their livelihood.

On another side, the legalizing of prostitution can be misinterpreted and could pave the way to easy money for prostitution. The sex trade would be highest in the market. Many women can be forced into prostitution. This would lead to a revenue-generating industry for governments around the globe. Not only sex trafficking but other crime related to women will be highest at the peak.

To fix the status quo of one of the oldest professions ‘prostitution’, it is important that the Government shall issue stringent rules to regulate this industry so that it is not legitimized. The ethical and moral values should be looked into while making any rules and regulations.


The main statute dealing with prostitution in India is The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA). It does not criminalize prostitution or prostitutes but punishes the acts done by the third-party like brothel keeping, pimping, etc. A proposal was made in 2006 to amend ITPA. The bill constitutes authorities at the central and state level to combat trafficking and criminalized the act of visiting a brothel for sexual exploitation of trafficked victims.

And in the Indian Penal Code,

  • Section 372: Selling minor for purposes of prostitution, etc.— Whoever sells, lets to hire, or otherwise disposes ... employed or used for prostitution or illicit intercourse with any person or for any unlawful and immoral.

  • Section 373 : Buying minor for purposes of prostitution, etc.—Whoever buys, hires or otherwise obtains possession ... employed or used for the purpose of prostitution or illicit intercourse with any person or any unlawful and immoral.

Apart from these Legislations,

  • Article 23(1) of the Indian Constitution prohibits traffic in human beings and beggars and other forms similar to forced labor. Also, Article 23(2) states that any contravention of this provision shall be a punishable offense.

In Raj Bahadur v. Legal Remembrancer [1], it was stated that Clause (2) however permits the State to impose compulsory services for public purposes provided that in making so it shall not make any discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste or class or any of them. 'Traffic in human beings' means selling and buying men and women like goods and includes immoral traffic in women and children for immoral" or other purposes.”

For the prostitution, soliciting or seducing is punishable with six months in jail and a fine of Rs.500. Over the years India has seen in growing mandate in legalizing prostitution to avoid exploitation of sex workers and their children by middleman and in the wake of growing high chances of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.


The issue of prostitution is the need of an hour. Government authorities and agencies are required to take action and settle the issue for once and for all. The saddening lives of sex workers are in the hands of society and curbing this issue and providing some status to sex workers could lead to solving many crimes related to prostitution. Not only the female prostitution industry but the male prostitution industry is an unrecognized hidden area that calls for urgent attention from the law. Noting that it is high time, the law shall be amended and strict penal code needs to be regulated for women and men prostitution industry. However, there are many brothels illegally operating in Indian cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai. In 2016, UNAIDS estimate there were 657,829 prostitutes in the country.

According to National Crime Records Statistics, The Ministry of Home Affairs made reports which depict crimes against women among other crimes. It estimated that more than 110 women of all age groups are abducted and forced into prostitution. About 2300 cases under ITPA were filed in 2016 and about 100 victims were men. Metropolitan cities are the major players in this industry.

[1] AIR 1953 Cal. 522

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