Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts into a star almost overnight. She had been in a number of films before starring as the “hooker with a heart of gold,” but nothing she had done had made her catch the public’s attention quite like this. In the film, Roberts plays Vivian Ward, a prostitute who offers driving directions to a wealthy businessman named Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere). Lewis offers her $3,000 to be at his side for the week while he attends several business meetings. Though sex is not explicitly part of their agreement, (spoiler alert) Vivian and Edward do end up in bed together.

The film, now 24 years old, does present an interesting legal question: Could Vivian and Edward’s agreement be considered a legal contract for Vivian’s time, or was it an agreement to commit the illegal act of prostitution?

Understanding the Difference Between Escort Services and Prostitution

Know the difference between an escort service and prostitution.
It is crucial to understand the difference between an escort service and prostitution.

The key to answering this question is to know what is considered an act of prostitution. California law defines prostitution as “engaging in sexual intercourse or any lewd act with another person in exchange for money or other consideration.” 1 Generally, a lewd act is the touching of genitals, buttocks, or breasts for the purpose of sexual gratification or arousal.

California’s law on prostitution can be violated in three ways. Under California Penal Code section 647(b), a person commits a crime by:

  • Willfully (meaning, intentionally) engaging in an act of prostitution
  • Soliciting prostitution, which is the act of offering to pay for an act of prostitution; or
  • Agreeing to commit an act of prostitution. This includes any steps taken in furtherance of committing an act of prostitution. This means any act that could be seen as a link in a chain of events that leads to the illegal act, such as withdrawing money from an ATM for the purpose of paying for the sex act, or driving to a location where the act will take place.

Thus, under California’s laws, it is when money is promised for sex, when the promise is accepted, or when the money (or other form of payment) is exchanged for sex that a person can be found guilty of prostitution.

An escort service, on the other hand, offers women and men to serve as a date in a public place. The escort is paid to be present at a social function, such as a cocktail party or a business dinner. They are not paid for anything other than their time, which does not violate the law.

In fact, some cities in California allow escort services to run as a business. San Francisco, for example, has a permitting process for a person who wants to run such a service, which will be issued provided that the person has not been convicted of any number of sex related crimes, and if the business complies with state and local regulations. 2

A case concerning San Francisco’s permitting process also confirmed that operation of an escort service does not constitute an illegal act in itself under the state’s prostitution laws. In Cohen v. Board of Supervisors, the California Supreme Court said, “By contrast, the state prostitution statute, like other state statutes which describe criminal conduct, does not deal with the business of escort services. Instead, it proscribes particular acts which may or may not occur while escort services are being provided to a patron.” (Emphasis added). 3

Is Consensual Sex With an Escort Illegal?

The answer to this question is the same as the answer to most questions about gray areas of the law: It depends. The tricky part is the provision about acts in furtherance of prostitution discussed above. If the prosecution can prove that the hiring of the escort was an act in furtherance of prostitution, it is possible that you could be convicted of violating the law. While you may not have done anything that is technically illegal, the police only need probable cause to make an arrest. Even if you and your escort did not have sex while he or she was “on the clock,” the prosecution could spin the events to look like the escort was hired for that purpose, which could lead to a conviction.

Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Today

sex crimes attorneysNot every escort arrangement has a fairy tale ending like in Pretty Woman. That is why if you or someone you love has been arrested for violating California’s prostitution laws, you will need an experienced and aggressive attorney to defend you against the charge. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have been successfully defending clients against all types of criminal charges for more than 30 years. Let us help you, too. Contact us today for a free, no obligation phone consultation.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney near you, no matter where you work or live.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will be there when you call.


1. [California Jury Instructions (Criminal). CALJIC 16.420.]
2. [http://police.sanfranciscocode.org/15.6/1074.12/.]
3. [Cohen v. Bd. of Supervisors, 40 Cal. 3d 277, 296, 707 P.2d 840, 851 (1985).]

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