Legal Prostitution in Rhode Island Tied to Drop in Rapes and Sexually Transmitted Infections

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Graph comparing the decrease in rape reports in Rhode Island when prostitution became legal, compared with rape reports in three states where prostitution remained illegal
Graph comparing the decrease in rape reports in Rhode Island when prostitution became legal, compared with rape reports in three states where prostitution remained illegal.
Source: Max Ehrenfreund, “When Rhode Island Accidentally Legalized Prostitution, Rape Decreased Sharply,” washingtonpost.com, July 17, 2014

Legal prostitution may reduce instances of rape and gonorrhea infection, according to a July 2014 working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

A legal loophole effectively decriminalized indoor prostitution in Rhode Island between 2003 and 2009, which gave researchers Scott Cunningham, PhD, and Manisha Shah, PhD, an opportunity to study the possible effects of legal prostitution. Cunningham and Shah found that “forcible rape offenses” in the state decreased by 31% from 2004 to 2009, which translates to 824 fewer rapes being reported than would have been if prostitution had remained illegal. The study also found that female gonorrhea infections were reduced by 39%, with 1,035 fewer cases occurring. Three different statistical methods resulted in similar results, and Cunningham stated that “we have convinced ourselves that we have done everything we can do rule out alternative explanations.”

The decriminalization of indoor prostitution in Rhode Island can be traced back to a legislative error. In 1980, state lawmakers narrowed the prostitution statute to avoid infringement of First Amendment rights, but in doing do they inadvertently removed the portion of the law that made paying for sex illegal. The statute retained the laws against pimping, street prostitution, and human trafficking. In 2003, police conducted a sting named “Operation Rubdown,” during which women working in two spas offered sex to undercover police in exchange for money. A state district court judge dismissed the case against the women because no existing law had actually been broken. Prostitutes were able to operate legally from then until Nov. 2009, when the prostitution ban was reinstated. Brothels flourished in the state during the period, which gained notoriety for being the only location in the United States, outside several Nevada counties, where prostitution was not outlawed.

Some researchers were not persuaded by the study’s findings. Melissa Farley, PhD, a leading opponent of legalized prostitution, believes that the study’s distinction between paid sex and rape was misleading: “Women in prostitution generally describe it as paid rape. That’s what if feels like to them.” According to the Washington Post, anti-prostitution organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Equality Now agree with Farley, and believe that the expansion of the indoor prostitution market in Rhode Island between 2003 and 2009 was largely an increase in human trafficking.

Recently, however, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the medical journal Lancet have confirmed their support of decriminalizing prostitution. A July 2014 report from the WHO stated that “countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work” in order to reduce HIV infection in the world’s population. An edition of Lancet published online in July 2014 featured a series of seven HIV-related papers that called for “governments to decriminalise sex work. There is no alternative if we wish to reduce the environment of risk faced by women, men, and transgender people worldwide.” The journal’s editors went on to ask “why should we condemn and criminalise the exchange of money for sex, especially if the severely adverse conditions we create for such exchange hurt women and men and often fatally so?… Sex work is part of the human story.”

Sources:

Simmi Aujla and Jennifer Levitz, “Legal Prostitution Under Pressure in Rhode Island,” wsj.com, Sep. 5, 2009

Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, “Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health,” nber.org, July 2014

Pamela Das and Richard Horton, “Bringing Sex Workers to the Centre of the HIV Response,” thelancet.com, July 22, 2014

Max Ehrenfreund, “When Rhode Island Accidentally Legalized Prostitution, Rape Decreased Sharply,” washingtonpost.com, July 17, 2014

Ben Leubsdorf, “Researchers: Decriminalized Prostitution in Rhode Island Led to Fewer Rape, Gonorrhea Cases,” wsj.com, July 14, 2014

World Health Organization, “Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations,” who.int, July 2014