Is Prostitution illegal in India?
Team SoOLEGAL 18 Jul 2023

Is Prostitution illegal in India?


Prostitution, often regarded as the world's oldest profession, has long been a subject of debate and controversy. In the Indian context, the legal status of prostitution is complex and nuanced, reflecting the country's evolving social and cultural landscape. This article aims to shed light on the legality of prostitution in India, examining the legal framework surrounding it while considering the broader societal implications.


Prostitution in India has a long and intricate history, dating back to ancient times. It is believed to have existed during the Mughal era, where women were often used by kings and ministers for their pleasure. The practice continued during British colonial rule when women were treated as objects solely for sexual purposes. Over time, this exploitative pattern extended to the heirs of these women, perpetuating a cycle of sex work. Even women dedicated as devadasis in temples were subjected to sexual exploitation.

As poverty prevailed, many women resorted to prostitution as a means of earning a livelihood. Desperate for money, they saw it as the easiest option available. Tragically, this led to instances where men even sold their wives and children for sex or monetary gain, resulting in the emergence of human trafficking. Brothels became prevalent, with either men or women acting as owners and overseeing a group of girls who would entice men into engaging in sexual acts.

During this era, there was a severe lack of awareness about sexual health and contraceptives. Women were often forced to engage in unprotected sex, leading to unplanned pregnancies and a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections. The absence of proper sexual education contributed to the perpetuation of exploitative practices and the suffering of sex workers.

The grim consequences of such circumstances were not limited to adults. Shockingly, even children as young as six years old were trafficked and forced into the sex industry. This abhorrent exploitation created an environment where red light areas flourished, particularly in the northern parts of India. 

What is Prostitution as per Indian Law?

As per the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, prostitution is defined under Section-2(f) as, “means the sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purpose, and the expression “prostitute” shall be construed accordingly 

Is Prostitution legal in India?

The Answer to this question shall be both “Yes and “No”. As per Indian laws, a sex-worker is free to practice prostitution but there are certain activities that are considered illegal such as soliciting prostitution, running brothels, pimping etc. Section-3 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 punishes the afore-mentioned offences. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 also punishes prostitution but is only restricted towards minor girls. 

What is the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s Opinion about the subject?

The Indian judiciary has played a crucial role in shaping the discourse surrounding prostitution. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India issued a landmark judgment in the case of Budhadev Karmaskar (1) v. State of W.B., (2011) 11 SCC 538, recognizing sex work as a legitimate means of livelihood. The court emphasized the need for a more comprehensive approach, urging the government to consider regulating the trade instead of criminalizing it.

Also, recently the Hon’ble Apex in Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of W.B., 2022 SCC OnLine SC 704 has in its order dated 19.05.2022, recognized sex work as a legitimate profession and emphasized that sex workers are entitled to dignity and equal protection under the law. The apex court made it clear that engaging in voluntary sex work is not illegal. Furthermore, the court issued noteworthy guidelines aimed at safeguarding the rights and well-being of sex workers.

The court's guidelines underscored the importance of taking complaints from sex workers seriously and ensuring that law enforcement agencies act in accordance with the law. They emphasized that during brothel raids, sex workers should not be subjected to arrest, and no child of a sex worker should be separated from their mother solely on the grounds of her involvement in the sex trade. The court also emphasized that the police should treat all sex workers with respect, refraining from any form of abuse or mistreatment. 

The legality of prostitution in India is a complex and evolving issue. While prostitution itself is not explicitly illegal, various activities surrounding it are prohibited under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. The legal framework aims to combat exploitation, but its effectiveness in protecting the rights and well-being of sex workers remains debatable. As discussions around the decriminalization and regulation of prostitution gain traction globally, India faces the challenge of striking a balance between addressing the concerns of public morality and safeguarding the rights of those engaged in the trade. India's legal stance on prostitution also intersects with international debates. The United Nations has been advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution as a means to protect the human rights of sex workers. Some argue that adopting a legal framework similar to countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where prostitution is regulated and sex workers enjoy legal protections, could be a way forward for India.


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