What India Can Learn From Countries That Legalised Prostitution

A look at the world’s best and worst prostitution laws and the Indian problem.

4 min read

And I’ve seen him with the girls of the night
And he told Roxanne to put on her red light
They’re all infected but he’ll be alright
Cause he’s a scumbag don’t you know
I said he’s a scumbag don’t you know
–When the Sun Goes Down, Arctic Monkeys

English punk rock band Arctic Monkeys nailed it when they sang that it’s always the pimps who benefit more from prostitution.

The fact that legalising prostitution benefits pimps more than sex workers - is at the heart of the universal debate.

Germany’s Ill-fated Experiment

A 2005 Guardian report states that an unemployed German woman under the age of 55 years can be legally forced into prostitution - or lose her unemployment benefits. While the report itself was debunked as promoting a political agenda, theoretically speaking, there is nothing that can stop the German government from enforcing such a travesty.

This is because under the country’s welfare laws, if an unemployed person refuses a job offer, they stand to lose their unemployment benefits, and with prostitution a recognised profession, brothels have access to the official database of jobseekers.

A look at the world’s best and worst prostitution laws and the Indian problem.
A huge inflatable Father Christmas figure is seen in the balcony of a brothel in the red-light district of Frankfurt. (Photo: Reuters)

“Europe’s Brothel” Rethinks Liberal Law

In 2002, Germany passed what is regarded as one of the most liberal prostitution laws. The one-page legislation allowed prostitutes to obtain work contracts and said that prostitution should no longer be considered immoral.

But far from regularising the oldest profession in the world, legalising prostitution has done little to protect the rights of women who willingly or unwillingly sell their bodies. Prices and health standards have nosedived in the last 13 years to such an extent that the government is finally planning to amend its Prostitution Act, described as a “subsidy program for pimps” by German magazine Der Spiegel. The amended law will mandate health check ups and impose an age limit of 21 years.

If the German law is an example of everything that can go wrong with legalising prostitution, the Swedish law lends perspective of all the good it can do.

A look at the world’s best and worst prostitution laws and the Indian problem.

Sweden Gets It Right, Sort of

In Sweden, selling sex is not a crime, but buying sex is. The Swedish Ministry of Justice claims that prostitution across the country has fully halved since the Sex Purchase Act was passed in 1999. Megan Murphy, who writes extensively on international prostitution laws, told Mic:

It includes a strong welfare state, exiting services for women who wish to leave the industry, the retraining of police officers, so that they understand that prostituted women are victims, not criminals, and public education.

A look at the world’s best and worst prostitution laws and the Indian problem.
A prostitute waits for business on Malmskillnadsgatan street in central Stockholm despite the bone piercing cold. (Photo: Reuters) 

Sweden has been partially successful in reducing prostitution and trafficking. But the country’s feminist parties have not yet been able to remove the social stigma attached to women who solicit sex. It’s hard for them to get parental rights or even rent houses for that matter.

But despite its shortcomings, it has worked so far and even prompted other Nordic countries like Iceland and Norway to adopt the Swedish model.

Should India Follow Suit?

As per our existing law, prostitution is legal, but related activities like operating a brothel, pimping, and soliciting sex are illegal

India reportedly has 25 lakh prostitutes working out of nearly 3 lakh brothels in 1,100 red-light areas across the country.

The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act 1956 (SITA) allows a woman to sell her body for money, as long as it’s done individually and voluntarily. The law however, prohibits a woman from soliciting customers by gestures or wilful exposure of her body. And organised prostitution is illegal.

To say that the law is vague would be putting it mildly.

The Supreme Court of India has asked the government to consider legalising prostitution if it cannot curb it. But how prudent is this move for a country like India?

A look at the world’s best and worst prostitution laws and the Indian problem.
Sex workers photographed in one the country’s oldest red light areas in Mumbai ‘Kamathipura’. (Photo: Reuters)


  • Curb money laundering
  • Help curb spread of AIDS, better access to better health care
  • Break the police-trafficker-pimp nexus
  • Licenses and registration will allow access to public facilities


Proposed law won’t deal with trafficked/abducted children
  • Most laws have inadvertently benefited pimps and brothel owners.
Could increase trafficking of young women and children
  • Won’t change the social stigma attached to prostitution

To say that legalising prostitution would reduce the number of rapes would be a simplistic statement to make, especially in the Indian context. But no amount of punitive action is going to prevent prostitution either. The logical solution then, could be to legalise prostitution with the hope that the government is able to regulate the trade in the best interest of the sex workers.

This cannot be achieved by blindly applying the European formula, but initiating a wider dialogue with all stakeholders. Legalizing prostitution should make way for successful rehabilitation of women who find themselves to be in the ‘clutches’ of brothel owners. Taxing what is estimated to be an 8.4 billion dollar industry in India could allow the government to channel the money into protecting sex workers’ interests.

Above all, sex workers could avail of what many of working women take for granted - regulated working hours, remuneration, health care and education

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