Fact Check

Licensed to Thrill

Did an American tourist have to buy a license to practice prosititution to avoid jail?

Published Jun 19, 2000


Legend:   An American tourist picked up pacing outside a foreign hotel is mistaken for a streetwalker; she avoids going to jail by purchasing a license to practice prostitution.


[Collected on the Internet, 1994]

An American woman is waiting for her husband on a streetcorner in France. A gendarme decides to cite her
for prostitution, and the language barrier prevents her from presenting the simple explanation.

She really needs a learner's permit, if you know what I mean.

As the ticket is being written, the husband shows up, and has enough command of French to figure out what's going on. The cop says that since he's started the ticket, he has to finish it. He does so and hands it to the couple.

They go to a local courthouse to ask what can be done. A clerk says that a citation written is a citation that has to be handled, but he helpfully points out that while the fine for the citation is N francs, a license to practice prostition is only (0.8 * N) francs. Since the license would be issued the same day, the citation would be invalidated.

The couple get to tell this story whenever anyone notices the license to practice prostitution hanging on the wall of their home.

[Reader's Digest, 1941]

Two pretty, earnest young school teachers went to Mexico last summer; they avoided all the tourist places, desiring only the real flavor of Mexico. They got it, too. Arriving in a highly flavored little inland city, they set out to explore. Coming to a street mellifluously named the Avenue of the Beautiful Springs and the Waterfall and the Bridge That Is Music in Stone, they turned into it, only to be pounced upon by a policeman and haled off to the police station. There the captain explained that their offense was trespassing on the red-light district. There was a fine of 300 pesos for any girl caught without a license on the Avenue of the Beautiful Springs and the Waterfall and the Bridge That Is Music in Stone.

The girls protested that they were simply sightseeing and had no idea of muscling in, but the captain said the fine remained. Then he had an inspiration. "The fine is 300 pesos, but the license costs only 25. Why don't you apply for licenses?" he asked. The girls thought this a fine idea. For the Mexican equivalent of $5 each, they received handsomly engraved documents giving them access to the Avenue of the Beautiful Springs, etc.

Origins:   The

second example quoted above provides an idea how old this legend is — it comes from a Reader's Digest anthology published in 1941. The actual tale, however, is older than that, because as that 1941 anthology notes, Reader's Digest took the item from an issue of The New Yorker published sometime in the previous twenty years. An anecdotal report dating it to the 1920s pushes the frontier back even further,

Usually told as having happened either in Mexico or France, the legend conveys typical traveller's fears in a laughing manner. Though the culture clash related in this story is resolved fairly easily, underneath the laughter one is left with the reminder that tourists can easily end up in foreign jails as a result of either linguistic misunderstandings or unfamiliarity with local laws. 'Travel is not without peril' is the message.

We're also reminded policemen in different cultures have been rumored to put the squeeze on helpless tourists. It's said the threat of languishing in a distant jail has opened many a reluctant wallet.

The tale also pokes fun at the seemingly incomprehensible bureaucracy of foreign lands, as well as their focus on what is seen through American eyes as the wrong priorities. That a hefty fine or incarceration could be avoided by purchasing a permit to commit what would be a jailable crime back home is a dig at how other countries manage their affairs. One is left with the self-congratulatory sense that the American way is superior; justice back home would be more concerned with dealing with the crime of prostitution than with making sure all the paperwork had been properly filled out.

Part of travel is reassuring oneself that one's own country is far superior to any of those visited. This story plays into that, and the inevitable framing and displaying of the offensive license in the tourist's home is not only a souvenir of a trip abroad, but also a visual reminder that home is best of all.

Barbara "pay up whore else!" Mikkelson

Last updated:   5 July 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (p. 141).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 151-152).

    Torgenson, Dial.   "Twice Told: The American Legends -- They Refuse to Die."

    Los Angeles Times.   6 January 1974   (pp. 1, 28).

    The Reader's Digest 20th Anniversary Anthology.

    Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, 1941   (p. 36).

  Sources Also told in:

The Big Book of Urban Legends

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 141).

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