A brothel is a place where people may come to engage in sexual activity with a prostitute, sometimes referred to as a sex worker. Technically, any premises where prostitution commonly takes place qualifies as a brothel. However, for legal or cultural reasons, establishments sometimes describe themselves as massage parlors, bars, strip clubs, or by some other description. Sex work in a brothel is considered safer than street prostitution.
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From the French bordel, ca. 1200 "bordel" sing. "prostitution place". The French word bordel comes from the Old German word Bord, which means "board". This word was used to describe the shacks made of boards in which prostitution occurred. The word bord was firstly transformed by the French to borde, then quickly became bordel.
Brothels are known under a variety of names, including bordello, cathouse, house of ill fame, house of prostitution, house of ill repute, knocking shop, pleasure house, strumpet house, sporting house, or whorehouse. Under English criminal law, a brothel is commonly referred to as a "disorderly house".
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Brothels are businesses in which sex workers provide sexual services to their patrons. Brothels vary in size, style, and range of services offered. They operate using a variety of business models, including:
- its prostitutes may operate as contract workers who pay part of their earnings to the brothel. They may at times be expected to "tip" support staff (cleaners, limo drivers, etc.). They will usually not receive benefits, such as health insurance, or tax withholding.
- its prostitutes may be employees who receive a small fixed salary and a portion of the money paid by the customer, the balance of which is retained by the brothel.
- its prostitutes may pay a fee for use of brothel facilities, with the brothel owner not being involved in the financial transaction between a prostitute and client.
In most cases, prostitutes are at liberty to determine whether they 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 are legal in some countries, but illegal in others. In countries where prostitution or the operation of brothels is illegal, establishments providing sex services may describe themselves as bars, massage parlors, saunas, spas, strip clubs, or some other front.
Even in countries where prostitution and brothels are legal, brothels may be subject to many and varied restrictions. Forced prostitution is usually illegal as is prostitution by or with minors, though the age restriction may vary. Some countries prohibit particular sex acts. In some countries, brothels are subject to strict planning restrictions and in some cases are confined to designated red-light districts. Some countries prohibit or regulate how brothels advertise their services, or they may prohibit the sale or consumption of alcohol on the premises. In some countries where operating a brothel is legal, some brothel operators may choose to operate illegally.
Attitudes around the world to prostitution and how it should be regulated (if at all) vary considerably, and have varied over time. Part of the discussion impacts on whether the operation of brothels should be legal, and if so, to the regulations they should be subjected to.
On 2 December 1949, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The Convention came into effect on 25 July 1951 and as at December 2013 has been ratified by 82 states. The Convention seeks to combat prostitution, which it regards as "incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person." Parties to the Convention agreed to abolish regulation of individual prostitutes, and to ban brothels and procuring. Some countries not parties to the Convention also ban prostitution or the operation of brothels.
Various United Nations commissions, however, have differing positions on the issue. For example, in 2012, a Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) convened by Ban Ki-moon and backed by United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS, recommended decriminalization of brothels and procuring.
In the European Union, there is no uniform policy and no consensus on the issue; and laws vary widely from country to country. Netherlands and Germany have the most liberal policies; in Sweden (and in Norway and Iceland outside the EU) the buying, but not selling, of sex, is illegal; in most former Communist countries the laws target the prostitutes; while in countries such as the UK, Ireland and France the act of prostitution is not itself illegal, but soliciting, pimping and brothels are, making it difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking any law. The European Women's Lobby condemns prostitution as "an intolerable form of male violence" and supports the "Swedish model".
In February 2014, the members of the European Parliament voted in a non-binding resolution, (adopted by 343 votes to 139; with 105 abstentions), in favor of the 'Swedish Model' of criminalizing the buying, but not the selling of sex.
Prostitution and the operation of brothels is illegal in many countries, though known illegal brothels may be tolerated or laws not strictly enforced. Such situations exist in many parts of the world, but the region most often associated with these policies is Asia. When brothels are illegal, they may nevertheless operate in the guise of a legitimate business, such as massage parlors, saunas or spas.
In other places, prostitution itself may be legal, but many activities which surround it (such as operating a brothel, pimping, soliciting in a public place) are illegal, 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, Italy and 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 allow 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, and there may be other restrictions. However, the existence of licensed brothels does not stop illegal brothels from operating. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (Australia), illegal brothels in Sydney in 2009 outnumbered licensed operations by four to one; while in Queensland only 10% of prostitution happens in licensed brothels, with the rest being either unregulated or illegal.
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. Although the Dumas Hotel in Butte, Montana operated legally from 1890 until 1982, brothels are currently illegal throughout 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.
The earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation, appears in Sumerian records from ca. 2400 BCE, 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, the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds but were free to seek out customers in the streets. In later years, sacred prostitution and similar classifications of females were known to have existed in Greece, Rome, India, China and Japan.
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.
Cities first began setting up municipal brothels between 1350 and 1450. Municipalities often owned, operated, and regulated the legal brothels. Governments would set aside certain streets where a keeper could open a brothel. 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 also put constraints on when the brothel could be open. For example, 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 them. No clerics, no married men, and no Jews were permitted. Often foreigners such as sailors and traders were the main source of revenue. 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.
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 them over unpaid debts. 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. 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 and also inspired the 1631 play, Holland's Leaguer. Charles I of England licenced a number of brothels including the Silver Cross Tavern in London, which retains its licence to modern day because it was never revoked.
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.
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 a visit with the President of the Senate in the official program. 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. Premises suspected of being gay brothels, including the Hotel Marigny, were however subject to frequent police raids, 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 officers and soldiers. One brothel in the Monmartre district of the French capital was part of an escape network for POWs and shot down airmen.
Italy made brothels illegal in 1959.
Brothels have been used formally in China for prostitution and entertainment since Ancient China in its feudal period. For much of China's ancient and imperial history, brothels were owned by wealthy merchants, typically stereotyped as "madams", and engaged in business in urban areas such as the Capital city. Prostitutes, or "courtesans" as they were known, were well-dressed and groomed to proper table and drinking manners(禮). A Chinese prostitute may have been artistic and skilled at practices such as dancing, playing musical instruments, singing and conversing in verse. Prostitution was not outlawed in ancient and imperial China (although they were not considered fit for marriage to men of respectable social ranking) and instead prostitutes hosted in street brothels were popularly placed in the same social class as female artisans and regarded as elegant, albeit tainted, beings, most notably courtesans who used similar means to entertain members of nobility. Both young women and men worked as prostitutes in these elaborate brothel settings, though historical records and works of literature have widely romanticized the free-flowing, artistic nature of female prostitutes.
The practice of hosting prostitutes in these elaborate brothels spread to surrounding regions of Chinese cultural influence, notably in Japan after the sixth century AD where prostitutes and courtesans evolved to Japanese geisha. Again, the geisha of Japan emphasized good table manners, artistic skills, elegant styling and sophisticated, tactical conversational skills. The practice also spread to Korea, where prostitutes evolved into the Korean kisaeng.
From 1911 – 1913, the United States Department of Justice undertook the task of collecting information on the numbers of prostitutes in brothels in order to use this information against the much feared “White Slave Traffic". This effort collected information from 318 cities of 26 Eastern states. It estimated about 100,000 women to be working in brothels at the time, yet some estimated the total number of prostitutes to be as high as 500,000.
During the late nineteenth century, brothels in the United States were no secret. George Kneeland articulated his growing concern about the organized sex business in America well, saying that prostitution had grown into a “highly commercialized and profitable business that penetrated the deepest recesses of the political, cultural and economic life of the city.” Brothels were commonly referred to as "disorderly houses", and their residents were called by many names, some euphemistic - e.g., "abandoned woman", "bawd good-time daisy", "fallen angel", "fille de joie", "jeweled bird", "lady of the evening", "shady lady", "soiled dove", "wanton woman", and "woman of the town" - and some less kind – e.g., "hooker", "slut", and "whore". Through the 19th century, prostitution as a profession became more common, rather than just occasionally necessitated occasional prostitution. As a result of these changes, the way prostitution was practiced changed. Many prostitutes still practiced their trade independently, but the new class of professional prostitutes created a demand for a location to do their regular business, and the brothel served this purpose.
Visitors could easily find disorderly houses by merely opening up the local or statewide directories, such as the 1895 Travelers’ Guide of Colorado. This 66-page manual helped the interested client decide which brothel was right for him. These manuals did not attract by using euphemistic language, and though bold by standards of the time, were not crude. Some examples read: “Twenty young ladies engaged nightly to entertain guest”, and “Strangers cordially welcome”. In some areas, brothels simply could not be ignored. A nineteenth-century authority describes the city of New Orleans as such: “The extent of licentiousness and prostitution here is truly appalling and doubtless without a parallel in the whole civilized world. The indulgence and practice is so general and common that men seldom seek to cover up their acts or go in disguise.”
The average house held five to twenty working girls; some higher end brothels also employed staff servants, musicians, and a bouncer. The typical brothel contained several bedrooms, all furnished. Some upscale brothels were much larger; such is the case with that owned by Mary Ann Hall of Arlington, Virginia. It is described as “a rather grand house with twenty five rooms and was enclosed by a brick wall. The interior was elegantly furnished. The principle rooms on the first floor contained large oil paintings, Brussels carpets, red plush 'parlor furniture', étagères (a shelf for small ornaments), and numerous items of silver plate." An archeological dig of the area outside of Mary Ann Hall’s estate revealed a high quality of material superior to those in surrounding working class areas. This included many champagne bottles and corks, wire cages from such bottles, perfume bottles, high quality porcelain with gilt edging, along with remnants of exotic foods – coconut shells and berry seeds, bones from beef, fish, and pork indicating that elegant meals were being eaten at this high class brothel. These “five and ten dollar parlor houses” attracted wealthy men, who used the facilities much as a gentlemen’s social club, where they made business and political connections, met with associates, and had exquisite dinners with wine, champagne, and women. Brothels were not only for the wealthy. "One-dollar houses" were visited by those of the working class. A 1910 Kansas vice report compares the two: “A few brothels were equipped with expensive furniture and furnishings including the finest of upholstered chairs, well done paintings and costly rugs, which others were hovels of repulsive squalor.” 
Women joined brothels from all walks of life. The average prostitute was approximately age 21, but many were as young as thirteen or as old as 50. Typically thought of as an escape for young, poor, troubled women, brothels sometimes attracted those less expected. Trained musicians and singers sometimes were lured into it by their interest in easy money and fun times. Some others turned to brothels to get out of their boring, abusive, or otherwise unfulfilling marriages. Although they might be of various classes, ethnicities, and ages, most women who began or joined brothels had a shared goal: quick money. Ironically, many found themselves always indebted to their mistresses. Due to their lack of credit, a prostitute was unable to buy items necessary for her trade herself – powder, cosmetics, perfumes, and “evening wear” - but was forced to buy them through her Madam.
Some madams, often former prostitutes themselves, rose to become independently wealthy. Take the example of Mary Ann Hall of Arlington, Virginia. Clearly attractive and a good business woman, Mary Ann purchased a lot and built a brick house. This would be the location of an upscale brothel for another 40 years, sitting right at the foot of Capitol Hill. Her brothel was very lucrative, and Mary Ann was able to buy multiple slaves and even a summer home. She was responsible for the behavior or her prostitutes, which could prove challenging since drug abuse was common. A large focus for madams was keeping their business transactions discrete and staying on the good side of the law; they did so by contributing money to charitable organizations, schools, and churches. Despite these efforts, much of the profit still went to legal fines and fees, since prostitution was largely illegal. Timely payment of these fines could guarantee a madam that her business could continue without fear of being shut down, usually. Brothels were expected to pay significantly higher rent than others. A madam stayed involved in her business. Running a house with so many in it required skill. A brothel required the purchase of regular food and food preparation. A madam had to monitor the cleanliness of the brothel, including the sheets that had to be changed several times in an evening, and maintain a stock of wines and liquors for clientele. She was the boss of the brothel, so a madam fired and hired servants, maids, and prostitutes. New faces in the brothel were desired by patrons, so madams had to find new women to recruit. Sometimes this meant taking in a less than desired woman, yet with youth and good looks. The "new" prostitute received training, cosmetics, and clothes from the madam. A prostitute from Kansas City is recorded as saying that she is no match for the “proper” behavior and dress required for the famous Ice Palace in Chicago.
Disorderly houses, or any other dwelling used for purposes of selling sex or other lewd acts in the early 20th century, were illegal with a few exceptions: the states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, and South Carolina. Penalties could range from $1,000 and time in jail, to much smaller fines.
Until recently, in several armies around the world, mobile brothels were attached to the army as auxiliary units, especially attached to combat units on long-term deployments abroad. Because it is a controversial subject, military brothels and the women who provided sex services in them 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". France used mobile brothels during World War I, Second World War and First Indochina War to supply sex services to French soldiers who were facing combat in areas where brothels were unusual, such as at the front line or in isolated garrisons. Brothels were outlawed in France in 1946; but the French Foreign Legion continued to use mobile brothels until the late 1990s.
During World War II, women drawn from throughout East Asia were forced into prostitution by the occupation armies of Imperial Japan. These women were referred to as "comfort women" (jūgun-ianfu). During World War II in Europe, Nazi Germany created camp brothels where an estimated 34,140 enslaved women from Nazi-occupied Europe, particularly Poland, were forced to work as prostitutes in brothels attached to concentration camps.
After the Japanese surrender following WWII, the Japanese government formed the Recreation and Amusement Association and recruited 55,000 of its "patriotic women" to "sacrifice themselves" to the G.I. occupation, to protect the chastity of pure Japanese womenfolk.
In South Korea, women who worked as prostitutes for UN forces were called Western princesses. Between the 1950s and 1960s, 60% of South Korean prostitutes worked near the US military bases. Korean leader Park Chung-hee encouraged the sex trade, particularly with the U.S. military, in order to generate revenue. Since the mid-1990s, Filipina and Russian women have worked as prostitutes for U.S. servicemen in South Korea. In 2010, the Philippine government stopped approving contracts that promoters use to bring Filipinas to South Korea to work near U.S. military bases. United States Forces Korea has acknowledged that US troops patronize bars which force their hostesses into prostitution.
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- "Inside a brothel"—interview by Richard Fidler with three brothel owners, June 2006 on ABC Local Radio (audio download available)
- France’s military brothels: Hidden history of the First World WarMilitary-related organizations