Is Prostitution Legal in California?

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated March 13, 2023

In California, prostitution, pimping (making money off of prostitution), and pandering (facilitating or promoting prostitution) are crimes, and are either misdemeanors or felonies depending on the offense. This article covers the laws in California specifically. For more general information on these types of laws, see Pimping and Pandering.

Does California Allow Prostitution?

In short, no. In California, a person commits the crime of prostitution by engaging in sexual contact in exchange for money. They can also commit the offense by agreeing to or offering to engage in sexual contact for money and doing some act to further that agreement. Both prostitutes and johns (their clients) can be prosecuted for prostitution in California. The offense is normally a misdemeanor.

Even though prostitution is illegal, California has passed a number of laws that protect the health and safety of sex workers. For example, in 2019, the state passed a law that says that someone's possession of condoms can't be used as evidence that they are a prostitute. The new law also says that people who report violent crimes (as a victim or witness) related to prostitution can't be charged with misdemeanor drug offenses or prostitution they engaged in near the time of the reported crime. The new law allows people to protect their health and report violent crimes without fear that they'll be arrested for doing so.

In 2022, the state passed another law that did away with the crime of "loitering" for the purpose of prostitution. The law changed because the police were arresting people for just appearing to be sex workers based on what they were wearing (like high heels and certain types of clothing and makeup). Before the change, anti-loitering laws resulted in disproportionate numbers of transgender women and Black and Brown women being arrested just for what they were wearing.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 647, subd. (b), 647.3; Cal. Evid. Code § 782.1.)

For more information, see Prostitution Laws in California.

Felony Pimping, Pandering, and Related Offenses in California

Several statutes make it illegal to encourage and profit from prostitution. Below are some of the commonly charged offenses.

Felony Pimping in CA

Under California law, a person commits the crime of felony pimping by soliciting customers for a prostitute, or living off of, or making money from, a prostitute's earnings. Technically, the person doesn't have to encourage or force someone to engage in prostitution. It's enough that they live off of a prostitute's income. In reality, most people receiving a financial benefit from a prostitute's income are doing something to ensure that the other person works as a prostitute.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 266h.)

Felony Pandering in CA

A person commits the crime of felony pandering by:

  • procuring (getting) someone for the purpose of prostitution or to work in a house of prostitution
  • causing or encouraging (by threats, violence, or promises) someone to engage in prostitution or work in a house of prostitution
  • causing someone to come in or out of the state for purposes of prostitution, or
  • receiving or giving (or agreeing to receive or give) any money to procure a person for prostitution.

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 266h, 266i.)

For example, a person who is employed to find women to work as prostitutes or who encourages women to work as prostitutes could be convicted of felony pandering. So, even a prostitute who recruits other prostitutes could be guilty of pandering. A john could also be guilty of pandering. For example, if a man enticed a young woman to become a prostitute just so that he could be her customer, he could be guilty of pandering. (People v. Jabobo, 37 Cal.App.5th 32 (2019).)

Pimping and pandering are often charged together because pimps (usually men) often recruit people (usually young women or teenage girls) to become prostitutes. Once the pimp convinces or otherwise gets the person to be a prostitute, he starts profiting off of her earnings.

Other Prostitution-Related Felonies

In California, it's also a crime to:

  • cause any woman to engage in prostitution by fraud or misrepresentation
  • take any person without the person's consent (or if the person's consent is obtained by fraud or misrepresentation) for the purpose of prostitution, or
  • force, cause, or permit your wife to work in a house of prostitution.

(Cal. Pen. Code §§ 266a, 266g.)

California Human Trafficking Laws

California also has a specific law against human trafficking, which is holding people against their will to obtain forced labor or services, including prostitution.

The definition of human trafficking can also include simply persuading or otherwise causing a minor to engage in sex acts for the purpose of prostitution (pandering, essentially), even if the minor isn't held against their will. (This definition of human trafficking is consistent with statutory rape laws that say minors can't consent to sexual activity).

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 236.1.)

CA Misdemeanor Pimping and Pandering

In 1998, California enacted a law to target more people who profit from prostitution. The law created misdemeanor offenses for various acts related to pimping and pandering. Although the new law had some overlap with existing felony laws, it criminalized a broader range of conduct in order to make it easier to arrest, prosecute, and convict pimps who work on the street.

In California, a person commits the crime of misdemeanor pimping and pandering by:

  • directing, supervising, recruiting, or otherwise assisting another to engage in prostitution, or
  • collecting or receiving money earned from prostitution.

The following behavior can be considered evidence of misdemeanor pimping or pandering:

  • repeatedly communicating with a person who is engaged in prostitution
  • watching or monitoring a person who is engaged in prostitution
  • repeatedly engaging in conversations with people or stopping people (or trying to engage in conversation or stop people) who are passing by to solicit or arrange prostitution
  • circling an area in a car and attempting to stop people to solicit or arrange prostitution
  • receiving money from anyone engaged in prostitution
  • having been convicted of prostitution or a related crime within the past five years, or
  • engaging in any other behavior that indicates participation in any way in prostitution.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 653.23)

In California, a person also commits a misdemeanor by causing another to visit a place of prostitution.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 318.)

Pimping and Pandering Minors in California

Felony pimping and pandering are punished more severely when the prostitute is under the age of 18.

Under California law, it's also a crime to:

  • entice (or assist in enticing) an unmarried woman under the age of 18 to engage in prostitution, or
  • take a child from the child's parent or guardian for the purpose of prostitution.

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 266, 266h, 267.)

Also, as explained below, any other pimping, pandering, or trafficking offenses involving minors under 16 are punished harshly.

Punishment for Prostitution-Related Crimes in CA

Penalties for prostitution aren't usually severe (at most six months in jail), and the defendant might just get probation. But pimping and pandering offenses are another story. The sentences for those offenses vary significantly depending on the type of offense, and factors such as the age of the victim.

Below are the sentences for some common types of prostitution-related crimes. Additional fines and fees not listed below are often imposed in all criminal cases. And sentencing statutes can change, so it's important to look up a statute for any recent changes that might have happened.

Also, keep in mind that many acts of pimping and pandering can be charged as other crimes. For example, pimping that involves depriving a prostitute of her freedom, or pandering of a minor, can be charged as human trafficking, which significantly increases the punishment. Or, having sex with a prostituted minor could be charged as statutory rape. (See, e.g., People v. Jabobo, 37 Cal.App.5th 32 (2019).)

  • Felony pimping carries a prison sentence of three, four, or six years and a fine of up to $5,000. But if the prostituted person is under 16, the prison term is three, six, or eight years, and a fine of up to $15,000. If the person is under 18, there's a fine of up to $2,000.
  • Felony pandering is punished by three, four, or six years and a fine of up to $5,000. The court can impose an additional fine of up to $25,000 if the prostituted person is under 16.
  • Taking a person (by abduction or by fraud) for prostitution is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months or two or three years, and a fine of up to $10,000. If the person is under 18, there's might be an additional fine of up to $25,000.
  • Causing your wife to work in a house of prostitution is punishable by two, three, or four years imprisonment.
  • Felony human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution is punishable by eight, 14, or 20 years. , And if the victim is a minor, the sentence can be up to life n prison in certain circumstances. The defendant also faces a fine of up to $500,000.
  • Causing a woman to engage in prostitution by fraud and enticing a woman under the age of 18 (but over 16)to engage in prostitution are both punishable as wobblers, meaning the judge can choose to treat the offense as a misdemeanor (up to a year in county jail) or a felony (16 months, two, or three years in prison). Either way, there's also a fine of up to $2,000.
  • Misdemeanor pimping or pandering is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Engaging in or soliciting prostitution carries a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. And if the defendant solicits a prostitute he knows is a minor, the sentence is up to a year and the fine up to $10,000.
  • Causing another to visit a place of prostitution is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

(Cal. Pen. Code §§ 19, 236.1, 266, 266a, 266e, 266g, 266h, 266i, 266k, 318, 653.26, 1170.)

Can Minors Be Charged With Prostitution in California?

Since 2016, minors in California can't be prosecuted or punished for being a prostitute. But that doesn't mean they are allowed to continue having sex for money. When a police officer learns or suspects that a minor is involved in prostitution, they can take the child into protective custody. The child and her parents or guardian will likely be brought to juvenile dependency court so the court can determine if the child should remain with their parents or be placed with someone else who can provide more supervision and support. Juvenile dependency courts often provide referrals to resources to help parents better care for and protect the child, with the goal of getting them out of prostitution, and reuniting the family.

The law against charging minors with prostitution reflects a growing recognition that underage prostitutes are "commercially sexually exploited children" who are usually persuaded or forced by adults to provide sex for money (often because they have nowhere else to turn). And since minors are considered to be unable to consent to sex under the law, they should not be charged with crimes when adults pay them for sex that is illegal to begin with due to their age.

(Cal.Pen. Code § 647, subd. (b)(2); Cal. Welfare and Inst. Code § 300.)

Sex Offender Registration

People convicted of felony pimping or pandering of a person under the age of 18, or taking a minor for the purposes of prostitution, are also required to register as sex offenders.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 290.)

Other Consequences

A conviction for pimping, pandering, and related offenses can result in the loss of a professional license. For example, a teacher licensed by the State Board of Education or the Commission on Teacher Credentialing who is convicted of felony pimping or pandering (or a related felony) can have their teaching credentials revoked by both the state and county boards of education. Similar laws may apply to other jobs.

(Cal. Educ. Code § § 44424, 44435.)

Getting Legal Advice and Counsel

If you're charged with pimping, pandering, or any other crime, you should contact a local, experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately. A conviction could result in time in prison or jail, job loss, a hefty fine, and, in some circumstances, sex offender registration. Being required to register as a sex offender can have a lasting impact on your ability to find a place to live and work. An experienced criminal defense attorney can tell you how your case will likely be treated in court and help you navigate the criminal justice system so that you can achieve the best possible outcome in your case.

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