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Joachim Beuckelaer, Brothel, 1562

A brothel is a place where people may come to engage in sexual activity with a prostitute.[1] Technically, any place where prostitution commonly takes place is a brothel, but in places where prostitution or the operation of brothels is illegal, establishments may attempt to disguise their involvement in prostitution by referring to the business as massage parlors, bars or strip clubs. The operation of a brothel is legal in some jurisdictions and illegal or regulated in others.

Laws regulating brothels vary considerably. These laws vary between countries as well as within countries, and have varied over time. In some jurisdictions, brothels are legal and regulated, while in others they are illegal. However, even in jurisdictions which regulate brothels, there are brothels which operate outside the officially approved system.



From the French bordel, ca. 1200 "bordel" sing. "prostitution place".

Brothels are known under a variety of names, including bordello, cathouse, knocking shop, whorehouse, strumpet house, sporting house, house of ill repute, house of prostitution and bawdy house.

Brothel business models

Brothels are sex businesses and vary in size and style, as do the range of sexual services each offers. They operate using a variety of business models:

In a brothel, sexual activity involves a prostitute or sex worker providing sexual services to a client. In most cases the prostitute is at liberty to determine whether she or he will engage in a particular type of sexual activity, but forced prostitution exists in some places around the world as does sexual slavery.

Prostitution and the operation of brothels is legal in some places, but in other places it is illegal. In places where prostitution or the operation of brothels is illegal, establishments such as massage parlors, bars or strip clubs may offer sexual services to patrons. Even in places where prostitution is legal, it is subject to many restrictions. For example, forced prostitution is usually not permitted nor is prostitution by or with minors. In some countries, brothels are subject to strict planning restrictions and in some cases are confined to designated red-light districts.

Current legal status

The red light district De Wallen in Amsterdam.

Prostitution and the operation of brothels is illegal in many countries, though known illegal brothels may be tolerated. In many countries where brothels are officially illegal, the laws are ignored; brothels in such countries may be tolerated and regulated by authorities. Such situations exist in many parts of the world, but the region most often associated with these policies is Asia. Such brothels often operate disguised as legitimate business, such as massage parlors, saunas or spas.

In other places, prostitution itself is legal, but most activities which surround it (such as operating a brothel, pimping, soliciting in a public place) are prohibited, often making it very difficult for people to engage in prostitution without breaking any law. This is the situation, for example, in the United Kingdom and in France.

In a few countries, prostitution and operating a brothel is legal and regulated. The degree of regulation varies widely by country. Most of these countries favor brothels, at least in theory, as they are considered to be less problematic than street prostitution. In parts of Australia, for example, brothels are legal and regulated. Regulation includes planning controls and licensing and registration requirements. Brothels are not permitted to advertise and there are other restrictions. However, the existence of licensed brothels does not stop illegal brothels from existing. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (Australia), illegal brothels in Sydney now outnumber licensed operations by four to one;[2] according to a 2009 report, in Queensland only 10% of prostitution happens in licensed brothels, the rest remains either unregulated or illegal.[3]

The Netherlands has one of the most liberal prostitution policies in the world, and attracts sex tourists from many other countries. Amsterdam is well known for its red-light district and is a destination for sex tourism. Germany also, has very liberal prostitution laws. The largest brothel in Europe is the Pascha in Cologne, Germany.

Although the Dumas Hotel in Butte, Montana operated legally from 1890 until 1982, brothels are currently illegal in the United States, except in rural Nevada; prostitution outside these licensed brothels is illegal throughout the state. All forms of prostitution are illegal in Clark County, which contains the Las Vegas–Paradise metropolitan area.


In 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all countries remove bans on prostitution and homosexual sex, because "such laws constitute major barriers to reaching key populations with HIV services". In 2012, the UN AIDS commission convened by Ban Ki-moon and backed by UNDP and UNAIDS reached the same conclusions, also recommending decriminalization of brothels and procuring. [4][5][6][7]


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Salon at the Rue des Moulins, 1894

The earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation, appears in Sumerian records from before 4000 BC, and describes a temple-bordello operated by Sumerian priests in the city of Uruk. The 'kakum' or temple, was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and housed three grades of women. The first group performed only in the temple sex-rites, the second group had the run of the grounds and catered to its visitors as well, and the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds but were free to seek out customers in the streets. In later years, similar "temple" or "sacred" bordellos and similar classifications of females were known to have existed in Greece, Rome, India, China and Japan.[8]


State brothels/bordellos with regulated prices existed in ancient Athens, created by the legendary lawmaker Solon. These brothels catered for a predominantly male clientele, with women of all ages and young men providing sexual services. (see Prostitution in ancient Greece.) In ancient Rome, female slaves provided sexual services for soldiers, with brothels being located close to barracks and city walls. Brothels existed everywhere. The custom was to display candles to signal that they were open.

Before the appearance of effective contraception, infanticide was common in brothels. Unlike usual infanticide—where historically girls were more likely to be killed at birth—prostitutes in ancient times were more likely to kill male offspring.[9]

Cities first began setting up municipal brothels between 1350 and 1450.[10] Municipalities often owned, operated, and regulated the legal brothels. Governments would set aside certain streets that a keeper could open a brothel.[11] These separate sections of town were the precursors to the so-called “red light districts”. Not only did the towns restrict where a keeper could open a brothel, they put constraints on when the brothel could be open. For instance, most brothels were forbidden to be open for business on Sunday and religious holidays. The reason for this is not completely clear. Some scholars believe these restrictions were enforced to make the prostitutes go to church but others would argue that it was to keep parishioners in church and out of the brothels. Either way it was a day of no revenue for the keeper.

Although brothels were set up as a sexual outlet for men, not all men were allowed to enter into them. No clerics, no married men, and no Jews were permitted.[12] Often foreigners such as sailors and traders were the main source for clientele. Local men who frequented the brothels mainly consisted of single men; laws restricting the patrons were not always enforced. Government officials or police would periodically do searches of the brothels to cut down on the number of unpermitted customers. However, since the government was so closely related to the church, common punishments were minor. These restrictions were put in place to protect the wives of married men from any sort of infection, and because the church saw prostitutes as a necessity for those without a woman of their own.

The Brothel Scene from A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, 1735

Multiple restrictions were placed on the residents of brothels. One limitation prohibited prostitutes from borrowing money from her brothel keeper. Prostitutes paid high prices for the basic necessities of life: room and board, food, clothes, and toiletries to the brothel keepers. Room and board was often a price set by the local government but the price for everything else could add up to a common woman’s entire earnings. Prostitutes were sometimes prohibited from having a special lover. Some regulations put on prostitutes were made to protect their clients. A woman was kicked out if she was found to have a sexually transmitted disease. Also the prostitutes were not allowed to pull men into the brothel by their clothing, harass them in the street, or detain him for unpaid debts.[13] Clothing worn by prostitutes was regulated as well and had to be distinguishable from that of respectable women. In some places a prostitute had to have a yellow stripe on her clothing while in others red was the differentiating color. Other towns required harlots to don special headdresses or restricted the wardrobe of proper women. All restrictions placed on prostitutes were put in place to not only protect them but nearby citizens as well.

Even with all the regulations placed on legalized brothels and those people associated with the establishments, they were fated to be done away with. Because of a syphilis epidemic throughout Europe many brothels were shut down during the end of the Middle Ages.[14] This epidemic had been brought on by Spanish and French military pillages after the return of Christopher Columbus from the newly discovered Americas. The church and citizens alike feared that men who frequented brothels would bring the disease home and infect morally upright people.

From the 12th century, brothels in London were located in a district known as the Liberty of the Clink. This area was traditionally under the authority of the Bishop of Winchester, not the civil authorities. From 1161, the bishop was granted the power to license prostitutes and brothels in the district. This gave rise to the slang term Winchester Goose for a prostitute. Women who worked in these brothels were denied Christian burial and buried in the unconsecrated graveyard known as Cross Bones.

By the 16th century, the area was also home to many theaters, (including the Globe Theatre, associated with William Shakespeare), but brothels continued to thrive. A famous London brothel of the time was Holland's Leaguer. Patrons supposedly included James I of England and his favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. It was located in a street that still bears its name[15] and also inspired the 1631 play, Holland's Leaguer.

The authorities of Medieval Paris followed the same path as those in London and attempted to confine prostitution to a particular district. Louis IX (1226–1270) designated nine streets in the Beaubourg quartier where it would be permitted. In the early part of the 19th century, state controlled legal brothels (then known as "maisons de tolérance" or "maisons closes") started to appear in several French cities. By law, they had to be run by a woman (typically a former prostitute) and their external appearance had to be discreet. The maisons were required to light a red lantern when they were open (from which is derived the term red-light district) and the prostitutes were only permitted to leave the maisons on certain days and only if accompanied by its head. By 1810, Paris alone had 180 officially approved brothels.

France, Brest, Soldatenbordell

During the first half of the 20th century, some Paris brothels, such as le Chabanais and le Sphinx, were internationally known for the luxury they provided. The French government sometimes included a visit to the Chabanais as part of the program for foreign guests of state, disguising it as visit with the President of the Senate in the official program.[16] The Hotel Marigny, established in 1917 in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, was one of several that were well known for catering to gay male clients.[17] Premises suspected of being gay brothels, including the Hotel Marigny, were however subject to frequent police raids,[18] perhaps indicating less tolerance for them from the authorities.

In most European countries brothels were made illegal after World War II. France outlawed brothels in 1946, after a campaign by Marthe Richard. The backlash against them was, in part, due to their wartime collaboration with the Germans during the occupation of France. Twenty-two Paris brothels had been commandeered by the Germans for their exclusive use; some had made a great deal of money by catering for German soldiers and officials.[19]

Italy made brothels illegal in 1959.

Military brothels

A young Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army's "comfort battalions" is interviewed by a British military officer in Rangoon after being liberated in August 1945.

Until recently, in several armies around the world, a mobile brothel service was attached to the army as an auxiliary unit, especially attached to combat units on long-term deployments abroad.

Because it is a controversial subject, military brothels were often designated with creative euphemisms. Examples of such jargon are la boîte à bonbons (English: "the sweet box"), replacing the term "bordel militaire de campagne". Women were forced into prostitution by the Japanese occupation armies as a form of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.[20][21] Drawn from throughout East Asia, the prostitutes were individually referred to as "military comfort women" or jūgun-ianfu and were collectively known as "comfort battalions".

It has been estimated that 34,140 women from occupied states, particularly in Poland, were also forced to work as involuntary prostitutes for the Nazis during WWII.[22]

See also


  1. ^ [1] Definitions of brothel on the Web
  2. ^ "NSW papers urged to cut brothel ads, ABC news" (in (Bulgarian)). 2009-05-18. Retrieved 2011-12-10. 
  3. ^ "Queensland sex industry still largely illegitimate, Brisbane Times". 2009-08-16. Retrieved 2011-12-10. 
  4. ^ Decriminalisation integral to the fight against HIV, Michael Kirby & Michael Wong, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 13 JULY 2012
  5. ^ U.N. Commission Calls for Legalizing Prostitution Worldwide, Amanda Swysgood, CNS News, July 23, 2012
  6. ^ AIDS used as reason to legalize prostitutes, Cheryl Wetzstein, The Washington Times, August 2, 2012
  7. ^ Risks, Rights & Health, GLOBAL COMMISSION ON HIV AND THE LAW, UNDP, HIV/AIDS Group, , July 2012, page 43 ("Recommendation"): "Repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living of the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping."
  8. ^ Murphy, Emmet (1983). Great Bordellos of the World. Quartet Books. 
  9. ^ Roman dead baby 'brothel' mystery deepens, BBC
  10. ^ "Historical Timeline--Prostitution". Should prostitution be legal?. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 
  11. ^ Heckel, N.M.. "Sex, Society, and Bedieval Women". River Campus Libraries. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 
  12. ^ Bennett, Judith M. (1989). Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 100–134. 
  13. ^ Karras, Ruth Mazo (1996). Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 32–47. 
  14. ^ "A Brief History of Brothels". The Independent Newspaper. 21 January 2006. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 
  15. ^ Edward Walford (1878). "'Southwark: Winchester House and Barclay's Brewery', Old and New London: Volume 6". British History Online. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  16. ^ Die Sphinx im Freudenhaus, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 August 1996. (German)
  17. ^ Roberts, Genevieve (6 November 2009). "Sin city: show celebrates the Paris brothel that was loved by Cary Grant". The Independent. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  18. ^ Julian Jackson (2009). Living in Arcadia: homosexuality, politics, and morality in France from the liberation to AIDS. University of Chicago Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-226-38925-7. 
  19. ^ Peter Allen, Sleeping with the enemy: How 'horizontal collaborators' in Paris brothels enjoyed a golden age entertaining Hitler's troops, Daily Mail, 1 May 2009
  20. ^ Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’: It's time for the truth, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, March 8, 2007,, retrieved 2008-12-15 
  21. ^ WCCW 2004.
  22. ^ The Blessed Abyss: Inmate #6582 in Ravensbruck Concentration Prison for Women by Nanda Herbermann

Further reading

External links