Is sex tourism against the law?

By , J.D. · UC Law San Francisco

Yes. Sex tourism is illegal when it involves sex with minors. At least three states also make promoting sex tourism illegal (regardless of whether the prostitute is a minor or adult).

For more information on prostitution laws generally, see Prostitution.

What is sex tourism?

Sex tourism occurs when someone travels for the purpose of engaging in sexual activities with prostitutes. It is part of the global sex-slavery and trafficking problem, in which women and children are sexually exploited and abused.

Prostitution is illegal in most countries, but because of lack of resources many developing countries do not regularly enforce the ban, and are known destinations for sex tourists. Even the infamous exceptions—the Netherlands and certain counties in Nevada—where prostitution (or certain forms of it) is legal, strictly forbid child prostitution, and punish those who hire children for sex.

Federal law and sex tourism

Federal law makes it a crime for American citizens and U.S. residents to travel—between states or to a foreign country—to have sex with minors (people younger than 18 years old), but does not address sex with adult prostitutes.

Penalties include fines and up to 30 years in prison; and apply even if the offender did not travel with the direct purpose of sexually molesting a child, but nonetheless ended up engaging in sex with a minor. This makes it easier to convict defendants of their sex crimes against children.

This law targets the sex tourist, while the state laws described below target travel agents or other people who promote sex tourism.

State law and travel services

At least three states—Hawaii, Missouri, and Washington—make it a crime to sell travel services for purposes of engaging in what would be prostitution if it occurred in the state. "Travel services" include:

  • transportation by air, sea, or ground
  • hotel or any lodging accommodations
  • package tours, or
  • vouchers or coupons to be redeemed for future travel or accommodations for a fee, commission, or other valuable consideration.

In Washington, promoting sex tourism for purposes of sex with an adult prostitute is a class C felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. However, if the travel includes sex with a minor, the crime increases to a class B felony; which incurs a fine of up to $20,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. In either case, the convicted travel agent will also lose their professional license.

In Missouri, promoting travel for prostitution is a class C felony. The Missouri Secretary of State can also revoke the articles of incorporation and freeze the bank accounts of any travel agency or tour company that engages in promoting travel for prostitution.

Getting Legal Advice and Counsel

If you are charged with sex tourism or a related crime, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system and obtain the best possible outcome in your case.

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