In the United States, each state has the power to decide whether or not prostitution is legal in that state or part of that state. In all but two U.S. states (Nevada and Rhode Island), the buying and selling of sexual services is illegal and usually classified as a misdemeanor. In Rhode Island, the act of prostitution is legal as long as it happens indoors. In Nevada, prostitution is prohibited only in areas with a population of 400,000--Carson City Washoe and Clark Counties (where the county seats are Reno and Las Vegas, respectively — Nevada's two largest cities), and heavily regulated elsewhere.
Punishments for prostitutes and their customers vary widely from state to state, from 15 days imprisonment and/or $100 fine, to 1 to 3 years and/or $25,000 fine. Punishments for pimps and brothel owners range from up to 30 days or $200 to 20 years and/or $125,000 fine.
Prostitution is a public order crime, a crime that disrupts the order of a community. It was at one time considered to be a vagrancy crime.
As with other countries, prostitution in the United States can be divided into three broad categories: street prostitution, brothel prostitution, and escort prostitution.
A 2004 TNS poll reported 15 percent of all men have paid for sex and 30 percent of single men over age 30 have paid for sex. In the U.S., prostitution/commercialized vice arrests number between 73,800 – 100,200 per year typically.
Foreign prostitutes are not legally allowed to enter the U.S. However, if they fill out the United States Waiver of Inadmissibility form, they may be allowed legal entry.
Street based sex work is illegal throughout the United States. There is a superficial class divide between street walkers and high-end escorts. The services tend to be similar, even if the locations vary, and prices are not always variant. For example, a street-based sex worker who is paid $100 for sex may only take 15 minutes in the back seat of a client's car; however, a brothel worker may have to do a full half-hour sex job for less than $50.
In spite of its illegality, escort (or "out-call") prostititution exists throughout the United States from both independent prostitutes and those employed through escort agencies. Both freelancers and agencies may advertise under the term "bodywork" in the back of alternative newspapers, although some of these bodywork professionals are straightforward massage professionals.
The amount of money that is made by an escort is different depending on race, appearance, age, experience (e.g., pornography and magazine work), gender, services rendered, and location. Generally, male escorts command less on an hourly basis than women; white women quote higher rates than non-white women; and youth is at a premium. For one point of reference reflecting trends in the gay community, the gay escort agency "TOPPS", based in Washington, D.C., charges $150 an hour for male escorts and $250 an hour for transsexuals. That agency takes $50 an hour from the contractor. In larger metropolitan areas such as New York City, extremely attractive caucasian female escorts can charge $1,000–$2,000 per hour. The agency takes 40%-50%.
Typically, an agency will charge its escorts either a flat fee for each client connection or a percentage of the prearranged rate. In San Francisco, it is usual for typical heterosexual-market agencies to negotiate for as little as $100 up to a full 50% of a lady's reported earnings (not counting any gratuity received). Most transactions occur in cash, and optional tipping of escorts by clients in most major U.S. cities is customary but not compulsory. Credit-card processing offered by larger scale agencies is often available for a service charge.
Some of the women in the American Revolution who followed the Continental Army served the soldiers and officers as sexual partners. Prostitutes were a worrisome presence to army leadership, particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases.
The gold rush profits of the 1820s to 1900 attracted gambling, crime, saloons, and prostitution to the mining towns of the wild west.
In 1836, famous courtesan Helen Jewett was murdered, allegedly by one of her customers. The murder generated an unprecedented amount of media coverage.
In the 19th Century, parlor house brothels catered to upper class clientele, while bawdy houses catered to the lower class. At concert saloons, men could eat, listen to music, watch a fight, or pay women for sex. Over 200 brothels existed in lower Manhattan. The word 'hooker' was allegedly a name given to streetwalkers in Corlaer's Hook, a place in lower Manhattan that was notorious for prostitution. Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but was not well-enforced by police and city officials, who were bribed by brothel owners and madames. Attempts to regulate prostitution were struck down on grounds that it is against the public good. Seventy-five percent of New York men had some type of social disease.
In 1857, the Lorette ordinance prohibited prostitution on the first floor of buildings in New Orleans. In 1858, prostitution made 6.3 million dollars, more than the shipping and brewing industries combined.
In 1873, Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transport of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material and birth control information. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act of 1875 that made it illegal to transport women into the nation to be used as prostitutes.
In the late 19th century, newspapers printed that 65,000 white slaves existed. High-priced courtesan Josephine Marcus aka "Shady Sadie" had an affair with Wyatt Earp.
In 1881, the Elite Theater Opera House opened in Tombstone, Arizona. It included a brothel in the basement and 14 cribs suspended from the ceiling, called bird cages. Famous men such as Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Randolph Hearst frequented the establishment. Inspired by the feather-wearing prostitutes in the bird cages, Arthur J. Lamb wrote his famous melody, A Bird in a Gilded Cage. Lillian Russell premiered it onstage at the Elite. Later, the theater was renamed the Birdcage Theatre, after the song.
Around 1890, the term "red-light district" was first recorded in the United States, and derives from the practice of placing a red light in the window to indicate to customers the nature of the business.
From 1890 to 1982, the Dumas Brothel in Montana was America's longest-running house of prostitution.
In 1897, New Orleans city alderman Sidney Story wrote an ordinance to set up the District, where all prostitutes in New Orleans must live. The District, or Storyville, became the most famous area for prostitution in the nation. Storyville had 1500 prostitutes and 200 brothels.
In 1908, The Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was founded by the government to investigate white slavery by interviewing brothel inmates to find out if they had been kidnapped. Out of 1106 prostitutes interviewed in one city, six said they were victims of white slavery. (In 1935, the BOI became the FBI.)
In 1910, the White-Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act) prohibited so-called white slavery. It also banned the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes". Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution and immorality. The Supreme Court later included consensual debauchery, adultery, and polygamy under "immoral purposes".
In 1916, 40,000 prostitutes died from syphilis. In 1917, New Orleans government shut down prostitute cribs and tried unsuccessfully to segregate New Orleans.
On January 25, 1917, an anti-prostitution drive in San Francisco attracted huge crowds to public meetings. At one meeting attended by 7,000 people, 20,000 are kept out for lack of room. In a conference with Reverend Paul Smith, an outspoken foe of prostitution, 300 prostitutes made a plea for toleration, explaining they had been forced into the practice by poverty. When Smith asked if they would take other work at $8 to $10 a week, the ladies laughed derisively, which lost them public sympathy. The police closed about 200 houses of prostitution shortly thereafter.
In the early 20th century, widespread use of phones makes call girls possible. Prostitutes go indoors, off the streets. They give their phone numbers on cards to customers.
In 1918, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act gives the government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having an STD. A medical examination was required, and if it revealed an STD, this discovery could constitute proof of prostitution. The purpose of this law was to prevent the spread of venereal diseases among U.S. soldiers. During World War I, Storyville was shut down to prevent VD transmission to soldiers in nearby army and navy camps.
By World War II, nearly all prostitutes had gone underground as call girls.
In 1944, Mortensen vs. United States ruled that prostitutes could travel across state lines, if the purpose of travel was not for prostitution.
In 1960, Combined oral contraceptive pill was first approved for contraceptive use in the United States. "The Pill" helped prostitutes prevent pregnancy.
In 1967, New York City eliminated licence requirements for massage parlors. Many massage parlors became brothels.
In 1970, Nevada began regulation of houses of prostitution. In 1971, The Mustang Ranch became Nevada's first licensed brothel, eventually leading to the legalization of brothel prostitution in ten of seventeen counties of the state. In time, it became Nevada's largest brothel, with more revenue than all other legal Nevada brothels combined.
In 1971, famous New York madame Xaviera Hollander wrote The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, a book that was notable for its frankness at the time, and considered a landmark of positive writing about sex.
In 1973, COYOTE was the first prostitute's rights group in the U.S. Other prostitute's rights groups formed, such as: FLOP, HIRE, and PUMA.
In 1978, Carol Leigh, aka The Scarlot Harlot, coined the term "Sex worker". She was a prostitute's rights activist.
In 1978, the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened. It was based on the real-life Texas Chicken Ranch brothel. The play was the basis for the 1982 movie staring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
In 1997, "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss was convicted in connection with her prostitution ring with charges including pandering and tax evasion. Her ring had numerous famous and wealthy clients. Her original three-year sentence prompted wide outrage at her harsh punishment, while her customers had not been punished.
In 1999, the Mustang Ranch was forfeited to the federal government following a series of convictions for tax fraud, racketeering, and other crimes.
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