Prostitution Laws in California

In California, it is a crime to buy or sell sex for money. A person commits the crime of prostitution by:

  • participating in any sex act in exchange for money or anything else of value
  • agreeing to participate in a sex act for money, or
  • soliciting sex in exchange for money.

California punishes prostitution under its disorderly conduct statute. The disorderly conduct law applies equally to prostitutes and "johns."

A person can be convicted of disorderly conduct based on an agreement to engage in prostitution only if he or she does some act towards committing prostitution. For example, a person cannot be convicted of this crime based on a mere agreement to sell sex for money, but if the person also got into the car of the individual who offered money for sex (or allowed the person who offered sex for money into his or her car), that could be considered disorderly conduct.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 647, subd. (b).)

For more information on prostitution laws generally, see Prostitution.

Getting out of prostitution

Many people engaged in prostitution think that they have no other alternatives. If you are involved in prostitution and would like to stop, there are organizations that can help you.

Pimping and Pandering

Laws against pimping (making money off of prostitution) and pandering (facilitating or promoting prostitution) generally target third parties who benefit from the prostitution business, although they may also apply to prostitutes and "johns."

For more information, see Pimping and Pandering in California.

Children and Prostitution

Under California's laws, it is a crime to procure or seek out the services of a prostitute who is under the age of 18. (Cal. Pen. Code § 261.9.) Until January 2017, it was also illegal for a minor to work as a prostitute, which mean that minors could be detained, placed in juvenile hall, and found to have committed a crime. Often, these minors were themselves child victims.

California legislators changed this unethical and unfair scenario by providing, effective January 2017, that no minor engaged in an act of prostitution may be arrested for that offense. Instead, law enforcement who encounter a minor engaged in a commercial sex act must refer that minor to the county child welfare agency, where the minor will be evaluated and possibly adjudged a ward of the juvenile court. A child in this situation may be taken into immediate custody if his or her health or safety requires it. (Penal Code § § 647 and 653.22.)


Prostitution by an adult is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in a jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Prior to January 2017, the law imposed mandatory incarceration periods for defendants who have committed a second or third act of prostitution. These mandatory minimum terms of incarceration were removed by the Legislature. (SB 1129; Cal. Pen. Code § 647.)

In addition to any other punishment imposed, a person who uses or seeks the services of a prostitute under the age of 18 can be fined up to $25,000.

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 19, 261.9, 647.)

Other consequences

Additionally, a conviction for prostitution may make it difficult to obtain certain jobs or professional licenses.

Getting Legal Advice and Counsel

If you are charged with prostitution, you should contact a California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can tell you how your case is likely to fare in court and make the strongest possible arguments on your behalf, so that you can achieve the best possible outcome in your case. With an attorney's help, you may be able to get the charges reduced or dismissed, obtain an acquittal, or be sentenced to probation or a shorter term than the maximum allowed by law.

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