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 reasons establishments may describe themselves as massage parlors, bars, strip clubs or by other description. Sex work in a brothel is considered safer than street prostitution.
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, knocking shop, whorehouse, strumpet house, sporting house, house of ill repute, house of ill fame, house of prostitution, and pleasure house. Under English criminal law, a brothel is commonly referred to as a "disorderly house".
Brothel business models
Brothels are businesses which provide sexual services to their patrons. Brothels vary in size and style, as do the range of services each offers. 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, and no withholding for taxes.
- 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 the brothel facilities, with the brothel owner not being involved in the financial transaction between a prostitute and client.
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
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, Italy 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, and there may be 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; according to a 2009 report, in Queensland only 10% of prostitution happens in licensed brothels, the rest remains 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.
Whether brothels should be legal, and if so, to what sort of regulation they should be subjected to, is a subject of controversy in many countries.
The United Nations 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others requires state signatories to ban pimping and brothels, and to abolish regulation of individual prostitutes. It states:
"Whereas prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community"
The convention reads:
The Parties to the present Convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another:
(1) Procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person;
(2) Exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person.
The Parties to the present Convention further agree to punish any person who:
(1) Keeps or manages, or knowingly finances or takes part in the financing of a brothel;
(2) Knowingly lets or rents a building or other place or any part thereof for the purpose of the prostitution of others.
Various UN commissions however have differing positions on the issue. For example, in 2012, a UNAIDS commission convened by Ban Ki-moon and backed by UNDP and UNAIDS, recommended the 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".
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, similar "temple" or "sacred" bordellos 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, and because the church saw prostitutes as a necessity for those without a woman of their own.
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.
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.
Once common, houses of prostitution are less common than in the past. New Orlean's Storyville and San Francisco's Barbary Coast typify the romanticized heyday of luxurious brothels, with women working and living in the same establishment for many years.
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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. 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".
Japanese women worked as prostitutes for G.I. in Special Comfort Facility Association. The Japanese government recruited 55,000 patriotic women to sacrifice themselves to protect the chastity of Japanese women. In Korea, Western princesses worked as prostitutes for U.N. forces. Between the 1950s and 1960s, 60 percent of Korean prostitutes worked near the U.S. military bases. Then 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, thereby supporting modern-day slavery.
- Lupanar (Pompeii)
- The Benchmark
- Sex on Premises Venue
- Gay bathhouse
- Sex worker
- Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others
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