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A brothel, also known as a bordello, whorehouse, or cathouse, is a place where people engage in sexual activity with prostitutes.

A brothel, bordello, ranch, or whorehouse is a place where individuals pay for sexual services provided by prostitutes. Although establishments may refer to themselves as massage parlours, bars, strip clubs, body rub parlours, studios, or by other names, they all provide the same service. Sex work that is conducted in a brothel is typically considered to be safer than street prostitution.

On 2 December 1949, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Coming into effect on 25 July 1951, the Convention sought to combat prostitution, deemed incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person. 82 states have since ratified the Convention, which calls for the abolition of regulation of individual prostitutes, and the banning of brothels and procuring. Some countries that are not parties to the Convention have also enacted laws to ban prostitution or the operation of brothels. However, UNAIDS, convened by Ban Ki-moon and backed by United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS in 2012, recommended decriminalization of brothels and procuring.

The laws regarding prostitution in the European Union vary greatly from country to country. In Netherlands and Germany, the most liberal policies are in place. Sweden, Norway, and Iceland (all non-EU countries) have laws prohibiting the buying of sex. Most former Communist countries have laws targeting prostitutes. In the UK (except Northern Ireland), Italy, and Spain, prostitution itself is not illegal, but soliciting, pimping and operating brothels are. The European Women’s Lobby has publicly denounced prostitution as “an intolerable form of male violence” and supports the “Swedish model”.

In February 2014, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution, with 343 votes in favor, 139 against, and 105 abstentions, endorsing the “Swedish Model” of criminalizing the purchase of sex but not the sale.

Prostitution and running brothels are prohibited in many countries, although unlicensed brothels may be tolerated or laws not strictly enforced. This is especially true in Asia, where such establishments often operate under the guise of other businesses, such as massage parlors, saunas or spas.

In some countries, prostitution and running a brothel is sanctioned and regulated. The amount of regulation varies by nation. Most of these countries permit brothels, at least in theory, as they are thought to be less troublesome than street prostitution. In certain areas of Australia, brothels are officially approved and regulated. This regulation includes controls on the use of land, licensing and registration demands, and there may be other limitations. Nevertheless, the presence of sanctioned brothels does not stop illegal brothels from operating. According to a report in the Australian Daily Telegraph, illegal brothels in Sydney outnumbered licensed operations four to one in 2009; while in Queensland, only 10% of prostitution occurred in licensed brothels, with the remainder being either independent sex workers (which is legal) or illegal operations.

The introduction of legal brothels in Queensland was an effort to improve the safety of sex workers, customers, and the community at large, as well as reduce crime. This has proven successful, with establishments like The Viper Room being one of the most reputable and well-respected brothels in Brisbane and the state. Countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and even the United States have adopted very liberal prostitution policies. Amsterdam is renowned for its red-light district and is a major tourist destination for sex tourism. While brothels are currently illegal in the United States outside of Nevada, the Dumas Hotel in Butte, Montana was a notable exception, running legally from 1890 until 1982.


The first recorded instance of prostitution as a profession dates back to ca. 2400 BCE in Sumerian records, which describe a temple-bordello run by priests in the city of Uruk. This ‘kakum’ or temple was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and housed three grades of women who performed different roles. The first group engaged only in temple sex-rites; the second group had access to the grounds and catered to its visitors; and the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds but were free to solicit customers in the streets. Similar classifications of female sex workers were later documented in Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan.


In ancient Athens and Rome, regulated brothels were established, providing sexual services for predominantly male clients. The brothels featured a variety of women and young men, and were located near barracks and city walls. Each brothel was marked with a lit candle to indicate that it was open for business.

In brothels, prior to the availability of effective contraception, infanticide was a common practice. Archaeological evidence from a site at Ashkelon in Israel suggests that the victims of this practice were predominantly male infants.

Between 1350 and 1450 CE, cities began to set up and regulate municipal brothels. These brothels were often owned and operated by the government, and specific streets or districts were designated for them. To further ensure public morality, brothels were typically closed on Sundays and religious holidays. There is debate about the purpose of this closure, with some believing it was to encourage prostitutes to attend church, while others assert that it was to keep parishioners out of the brothels. Regardless, it was a day of lost profits for the keepers.

Although brothels were set up as a sexual outlet for men, certain groups were excluded, such as clerics, married men, and Jews. The primary patrons were often sailors, traders, and other foreigners, with single men from the local area being the main source of revenue. Though laws prohibiting unmarried men from visiting these establishments were in place, they were rarely enforced. Periodic searches of the brothels by government officials or police officers were conducted in an effort to reduce the number of unpermitted customers. However, punishments were usually minor due to the close relationship between the government and the Church. These laws were designed to protect married men’s wives from the potential risk of any contagious diseases.

Residents of brothels were subject to various restrictions, including a prohibition on borrowing money from their brothel keeper. They had to pay high prices for basic necessities such as room and board, clothes, and toiletries, which could add up to their entire earnings. Prostitutes were also barred from having special lovers and kicked out if they were found to have a sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, they were not allowed to pull men into the brothel by their clothing, harass them in the street, or detain them over unpaid debts. The clothing they wore was regulated, often with a yellow or red stripe to distinguish it from that of respectable women, and in some places, they were required to wear special headdresses or restricted wardrobes. All of these restrictions were put in place to protect them and the local citizens.

Due to an outbreak of syphilis that had spread across Europe, the Church and general public pushed for the closure of brothels at the end of the Middle Ages. The origin of the epidemic was attributed to Spanish and French military pillages in the Americas, following Christopher Columbus’ return from his voyage of discovery. Fearing that men who patronized brothels would spread the disease to innocent people, authorities sought to eliminate the sources of contagion.

From the 12th century onward, the Liberty of the Clink in London was home to a district of brothels that were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester. This resulted in the slang term “Winchester Goose” being used to refer to prostitutes. Unfortunately, these women were not entitled to receive a Christian burial and were instead laid to rest in the unconsecrated graveyard known as Cross Bones.

By the 16th century, London had become home to many theatres, including the world-famous Globe Theatre, associated with William Shakespeare. However, the area was not without its brothels, such as Holland’s Leaguer, which was frequented by James I of England and his favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. The street where the brothel was located still bears its name today and was even immortalized in a 1631 play, Holland’s Leaguer. Charles I of England even licensed a number of brothels, the most notable of which is the Silver Cross Tavern, which has managed to retain its license to this day.

In the Middle Ages, the authorities in both Paris and London took measures to confine prostitution to certain districts. Louis IX of France (1226–1270) designated nine streets in the Beaubourg Quartier for this purpose. By the early 1800s, state-approved brothels, called “maisons de tolérance” or “maisons closes,” began to appear in French cities. These establishments had to be run by a female proprietor (often a former prostitute) and had to maintain a discreet appearance. Red lanterns were hung outside the brothels when they were open, thus the origin of the phrase “red-light district.” By 1810, Paris alone had 180 approved brothels.

In the first half of the 20th century, certain Paris brothels, such as le Chabanais and le Sphinx, had earned an international reputation for their opulence. The French government sometimes even included a visit to the Chabanais in the official program for foreign guests of state, disingenuously claiming it was a meeting with the President of the Senate. The Hotel Marigny, opened in 1917 in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, was renowned for its services to gay male clients. However, the authorities weren’t as accepting, as the Marigny and other suspected gay brothels were regularly subjected to police raids.

After World War II, brothels became illegal in most European countries. France banned them in 1946 following a campaign by Marthe Richard. This was due to certain brothels collaborating with the occupying Germans during the war and profiting off of the situation. In 1959, Italy followed suit. In recent years, the introduction of sex dolls and sexbots in some brothels has become a trend.

East Asia

Brothels have been a mainstay of the Chinese social landscape since the feudal period. Well-known madams owned these establishments in cities like the capital, and courtesans within were expected to uphold proper manners, such as table and drinking etiquette. These women and men were often skilled in the arts, like singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. Despite not being considered suitable for socially respectable marriage, prostitution was not illegal in China. In fact, female courtesans were sometimes romantically portrayed as elegant figures, even though their profession was looked down upon.

The practice of hosting prostitutes in elaborate brothels spread to other regions under Chinese influence, such as Japan and Korea, during the 6th century AD. In Japan, this gave rise to the Oiran and Geisha professions, which focused on table manners, artistic skills, and sophisticated conversation. Similarly, in Korea, prostitutes became known as kisaeng.


Prior to the 1860s, many Indian princely states had regulated prostitution. In an attempt to control the spread of prostitution, the British Raj passed the Cantonment Act of 1864. This Act was intended to provide British soldiers with an outlet for sexual gratification while they were away from their homes. As a result, chaklas – brothels – were established and licensed by military officials, allowing up to twelve to fifteen Indian women to consort with the soldiers.

In the early 1920s, prostitution in India emerged in the form of Lavani dancers and Tamasha performers from states like Maharashtra. These individuals, largely from lower caste and economic backgrounds, resorted to sex work as a means of livelihood.

Military brothels

Until recently, in many countries, mobile brothels were attached to the army as auxiliary units, providing sexual services to soldiers, particularly those on long-term deployments abroad. To avoid controversy, these establishments and the women who worked in them were often referred to with euphemisms, such as “la boîte à bonbons” (“the sweet box”) instead of “bordel militaire de campagne”. France employed mobile brothels during the First World War, the Second World War, and the First Indochina War, so soldiers in remote areas and those at the front line could access sex services. Brothels were made illegal in France in 1946, but the French Foreign Legion maintained them until the late 1990s.

During the Second World War, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany both employed sexual slavery as a tool of war. In Japan, thousands of women from the Far East were forced into brothels known as Ianjo and referred to as “comfort women.” In Nazi Germany, an estimated 34,140 women from Nazi-occupied Europe, primarily Poland, were enslaved and forced to work as prostitutes in military brothels.

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Japanese government created the Recreation and Amusement Association and enlisted 55,000 of their female citizens to provide entertainment and companionship for the Allied troops occupying Japan, in order to protect the innocence of the country’s female population.

During the 1950s and 1960s, up to 60% of South Korean prostitutes were known as “Western princesses” and served US military forces stationed in the country. This trade was actively encouraged by the then-leader Park Chung-hee, who saw it as a source of income for the nation. In the mid-1990s, Filipina women began entering the field, though the Philippine government has since ceased issuing contracts for them to work near US military bases.

Sex doll brothel

Brothels with sex dolls have been popping up all over the world, from Japan and Germany to Canada, Australia, and Denmark. Most recently, one opened in Toronto, Canada in September 2018, though it was shut down due to a violation of a local by-law. Similarly, Denmark opened its first sex doll brothel in Aarhus in February 2018.

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