About the map of Sex Work Law

What the Map Does

This is a map of national 'legal frameworks' around sex work. It aims to provide an accurate overview, in plain English of the laws, regulations, directives and enforcement practices that govern the sale of sexual services by adult women.

The entry for each country begins with an account of criminal law that directly addresses adult female sex work. Where possible and relevant, information is also included about regulations intended to limit public nuisance, exploitation, disease and injury associated with commercial sex. 

Enforcement practices are mentioned in most entries because they play a key part in determining outcomes regardless of the content of the actual law. Sometimes very harsh law is not enforced and in other cases more benign law may be enforced in ways that are unfair or even abusive.  In most cases, information about law enforcement cannot be verified and it is frequently contested. The published views of sex workers and organisations that provide services to sex workers have been included even though law enforcement agents and governments may not agree with their claims.

It is important to recognise that even where laws and regulations are the same or similar, they do not function in the same way across various countries whose geopolitical positions, constitutions, religions, and institutions vary significantly. Nevertheless it is valuable to be able to see groups of countries where the law is similar.  

The map can be searched in 3 ways:

1)      By Country

The entry for each country begins with an account of criminal law that directly addresses adult female sex work. These entries tell us what the criminal law makes illegal by creating offences for which people can be punished. In some cases criminal law renders an activity legal, usually by making a specific exception to an offence. For example, by making brothel keeping illegal except where a license has been granted. Administrative law both permits and disallows activities. For example planning, health, fiscal and labour regulations set out how and where businesses can operate.  

2)      By Legal Approach

By searching 'Legal Approaches’, users can identify groups of countries that share similar formal law. For example where it is illegal to ‘sell sex in public and to organise commercial sex in any place’ or those in which it is illegal ‘to organise commercial sex in any place expect where permission has been granted by a licensing authority’

3)      By Characteristics

By searching 'Characteristics' users can identify groups of countries with similiar features.  For example you can see where sex workers must be tested for STIs and HIV, where trafficking and sex work are conflated in law or where the sex industry is able to operate if it is disguised as entertainment or personal services.


Global mapping of laws on any subject is hampered by lack of consistent definitions.  In this case the definitions of prostitution; organizing prostitution; human trafficking; adult, female and many other terms vary from country to country. For example some countries define a brothel as any place a sex worker lives or works. In other countries it is a place where sex is sold by more than one woman.

The law described in this map primarily addresses adult females who sell sexual services to adult males. In some countries this includes transwomen but in others it applies only to those designated female at birth.  

The definitions of 'adult' and 'child' varies between countries, as does the age of consent. In some cases there is no distinction in the law between trafficking, sexual exploitation and sex work or between children and adults.  

Many terms are used in the offences that relate to people who arrange, or profit from, commercial sex. These are sometimes termed '3rd party offences'. In the Map the term ‘to organise commercial sex’ is used to describe provisions on living off immoral earnings; procuring; pandering; brothel keeping; advertising or supplying buildings and services to be used for prostitution. 


Each entry was developed using information from legislation, websites of organisations that work with sex workers, books, reports of relevant agencies, articles in networked media, peer reviewed journals and material from the author's archive. As well as national level resources, previously published international guides to sex work law were consulted including ‘Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific’ by John Godwin, UNDP and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and the websites of Wikipedia and ‘ProCon 100 Countries and Their Prostitution Policies’. The reliability of sources varies. To attain the highest degree of accuracy of country entries documents were cross checked and, wherever possible, inputs were sought from relevant experts and appropriate people in the country. 

What the Map Does Not Do

The Map does not try to answer the question 'is sex work legal or illegal?'

This question cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because commercial sex, or sex work is not a single act done by a single type of actor. Rather it involves many different acts, (e.g soliciting, brothel keeping, advertising etc.); various actors (e.g. employers, customers, police; managers, workers); and a range of spaces (e.g. brothels, entertainment venues, streets, internet; clinics) Moreover commercial sex, and the laws that govern it, exist in very different legal, political and geographic settings - rural/urban; rich/poor; secular/religious; and in both well and poorly governed countries.   

The Map does not categorise sex work as 'criminalised', 'legalised', 'regulated' or 'decriminalised'.

Various organisations and authors have used different taxonomies to describe sets of laws that affect the selling, buying and organisation of commercial sex. e.g  ‘criminalised’ “prohibited’ ‘regulated;’ ‘tolerated’  ‘decriminalised’; "fully decriminalised';  ‘legalised’; ‘depenalised’; ‘partially criminalised’ and ‘partially decriminalised.’ 

The sex workers rights movement has traditionally used ‘criminalised’ to describe legal environments in which selling or buying of sexual services and the operation of sex businesses is illegal; ‘decriminalisation’ to mean no criminal law but a set of fair non-criminal laws governing the sex industry and ‘legalisation’ to mean a mix of criminal law and discriminatory regulations such as mandatory medical examinations or restrictions on freedom of movement.  Although these terms are useful to generally describe legal approaches, they do not appear in the Map because they do not have consistent or agreed meanings and they do not appear in legal texts.  

The Map does not try to identify which sex work is legal.

The legal approaches described in the country entries are actual law so they usually articulate what is illegal rather than what is legal. It can not be assumed that what is not prohibited by criminal law is permitted. For example where street soliciting and brothels are illegal, sex workers may be able to conduct home visits without breaching any law but that is not certain everywhere. Different constitutions, international legal commitments, precedents and complex legal rules and doctrines influence what law means in each country. Non-criminal law, policy and instructions from the executive wing of government can also play an important role in determining what is permitted and prohibited. For example ‘administrative law’ such as planning regulations may permit brothels in certain places but not others and set out the labour conditions that employers must fulfil.

Penalties for offences are not included in the Map

Fines and jail terms for criminal offences and penalties for breaches of administrative law can change rapidly and frequently the official penalty does not reflect the actual penalty applied. This information has been excluded in the interests of the Map remaining as accurate as possible for as long as possible. 

Male sex workers

In some countries criminal law against selling sex applies exclusively to females and in others it is gender neutral so that male sex workers can be charged with relevant offences. In seventy six countries homosexuality itself is illegal. Even in the absence of criminal provisions that directly address male sex work there is evidence that public decency and nuisance provisions and anti-homosexuality law are used against male sex workers. Like the criminal law regulatory responses to sex work such as licensing are infrequently applied to male sex work. The use of law against male sex workers is therefore an important issue and the Map has been designed to expand to include male sex work.  

The Map does not describe the consequences or impact of the law in detail.

Law directly affects those sex workers who come into direct contact with it when they are arrested or rescued, required to register or to undergo medical examinations. It also indirectly affects all sex workers by shaping the sex industry and the conditions in which sexual services are bought and sold. A third way it affects sex workers is by forming a barrier to citizenship and the capacity to claim rights. This includes rights in respect of family, the justice system, and crucially, the right to associate with others and to form organisations to make claims.  

The Map describes the legal framework around sex work but it does not describe the influence that law has on outcomes related to human rights, public health, public order, gender based violence, child welfare and human trafficking. Because law does not exclusively determine outcomes, thorough research on a broad range of factors is needed to fully understand the situation in any country and make reliable associations between the law and outcomes. 

Information in the Map does not constitute legal advice. 

The purpose of the Sex Work Law Map is to inform discussions about sex work law and policy. It is not intended to provide guidance or advice to individuals or groups affected by the law. Those concerned with individual application of law should seek legal advice from a qualified, local legal practitioner.

Reusing content from the map - Accreditation

The map was created by Cheryl Overs for the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) UK. Content is licenced under CC-BY 4.0 which permits free re-use as long as the authors and this location are attributed.


Despite the methodology described above, gaps in source material and the complex and changeable nature of the legal environment mean that some entries may contain errors. Users of the map are invited to provide information that increases the accuracy of the map through the ‘Feedback’ form provided.    

The Map does not yet include all countries in the world, or each jurisdiction in the many federal systems in the world. Users of the map are invited to contribute entries for countries not currently covered by the map. To ensure consistency new entries should be similar in size, format and language to existing entries.

Over time the subjects the map addresses will be expanded. For example fields will be added that address the laws affecting male and transgender sex workers as well as more information about enforcement practices and the impact of law and regulation. The Map design enables this to be done by adding fields and users are welcome to suggest new fields or new categories in the 'characteristics' list.

Use the feedback form to make suggestions