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A streetwalker solicits customers on the streets or in public places, while a call girl makes appointments by phone, or in recent years, through email or the internet.Correctly or not, use of the word prostitute without specifying a sex may commonly be assumed to be female; compound terms such as male prostitution or male escort are therefore often used to identify males.Most sex worker activists groups reject the word prostitute and since the late 1970s have used the term sex worker instead.However, sex worker can also mean anyone who works within the sex industry or whose work is of a sexual nature and is not limited solely to prostitutes.

Common alternatives for prostitute include escort and whore; however, not all professional escorts are prostitutes.

A literal translation therefore is: "to put up front for sale" or "to place forward".

The Online Etymology Dictionary states, "The notion of 'sex for hire' is not inherent in the etymology, which rather suggests one 'exposed to lust' or sex 'indiscriminately offered.'" The word prostitute was then carried down through various languages to the present-day Western society.

There are about 42 million prostitutes in the world, living all over the world (though most of Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa lacks data, studied countries in that large region rank as top sex tourism destinations).

Another explanation is that prostituta is a composition of pro and statuere (to cause to stand, to station, place erect).