Around the world attitudes towards prostitution, and how it should be regulated (if at all), vary considerably, and have varied over time. Part of the discussion impacts on whether the operation of brothels should be legal, and if so, to what sort of regulations they should be subjected.
On 2 December 1949, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The Convention came into effect on 25 July 1951 and by December 2013 had been ratified by 82 states. The Convention seeks to combat prostitution, which it regards as "incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person." Parties to the Convention agreed to abolish regulation of individual prostitutes, and to ban brothels and procuring. Some countries not parties to the Convention also ban prostitution or the operation of brothels.
Various United Nations commissions, however, have differing positions on the issue. For example, in 2012, a Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) convened by Ban Ki-moon and backed by United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS, recommended decriminalization of brothels and procuring.
In the European Union, there is no uniform policy and no consensus on the issue; and laws vary widely from country to country. Netherlands and Germany have the most liberal policies; in Sweden (and in Norway and Iceland outside the EU) the buying, but not selling, of sex, is illegal; in most former Communist countries the laws target the prostitutes; while in countries such as the UK, Ireland and France the act of prostitution is not itself illegal, but soliciting, pimping and brothels are, making it difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking any law. The European Women's Lobby condemns prostitution as "an intolerable form of male violence" and supports the "Swedish model".
In February 2014, the members of the European Parliament voted in a non-binding resolution, (adopted by 343 votes to 139; with 105 abstentions), in favor of the "Swedish Model" of criminalizing the buying, but not the selling of sex.
Brothels are legal only in countries and areas shown in green or light blue
Prostitution and the operation of brothels is illegal in many countries, though known illegal brothels may be tolerated or laws not strictly enforced. Such situations exist in many parts of the world, but the region most often associated with these policies is Asia. When brothels are illegal they may nevertheless operate in the guise of a legitimate business, such as massage parlors, saunas or spas.
In other places, prostitution itself may be legal, but many activities which surround it (such as operating a brothel, pimping, and soliciting in a public place) are illegal, often making it very difficult for people to engage in prostitution without breaking any law. This is the situation, for example, in the United Kingdom, Italy and France.
In a few countries, prostitution and operating a brothel is legal and regulated. The degree of regulation varies widely by country. Most of these countries allow brothels, at least in theory, as they are considered to be less problematic than street prostitution. In parts of Australia, for example, brothels are legal and regulated. Regulation includes planning controls and licensing and registration requirements, and there may be other restrictions. However, the existence of licensed brothels does not stop illegal brothels from operating. According to a report in the Australian Daily Telegraph, illegal brothels in Sydney in 2009 outnumbered licensed operations by four to one; while in Queensland only 10% of prostitution happens in licensed brothels, with the rest being either unregulated or illegal. The introduction of legal brothels in Queensland was to help improve safety of sex workers, punters and the community at large and reduce crime. This is believed to have been successful in many ways in Queensland with The Viper Room being one of the most well known, clean, safe and most highly regard brothels in Brisbane and Queensland.
The Netherlands has one of the most liberal prostitution policies in the world, and attracts sex tourists from many other countries. Amsterdam is well known for its red-light district and is a destination for sex tourism. Germany also has very liberal prostitution laws. The largest brothel in Europe is the Pascha in Cologne. Although the Dumas Hotel in Butte, Montana operated legally from 1890 until 1982, brothels are currently illegal throughout the United States, except in rural Nevada; prostitution outside these licensed brothels is illegal throughout the state. All forms of prostitution are illegal in Clark County, which contains the Las Vegas–Paradise metropolitan area.