Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health
by Scott Cunningham (Baylor University) and Manisha Shah (UCLA School of Public Affairs; NBER)
July 17, 2014
Most governments in the world including the United States prohibit prostitution. Given these types of laws rarely change and are fairly uniform across regions, our knowledge about the impact of decriminalizing sex work is largely
conjectural. We exploit the fact that a Rhode Island District Court judge unexpectedly decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003 to provide the first causal estimates of the impact of decriminalization on the composition of the sex market, rape
offenses, and sexually transmitted infection outcomes. Not surprisingly, we find that decriminalization increased the size of the indoor market. However, we also find that decriminalization caused both forcible rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to
decline for the overall population. Our synthetic control model finds 824 fewer reported rape offenses (31 percent decrease) and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea (39 percent decrease) from 2004 to 2009.
The inadvertent legalization of prostitution in Rhode Island after legislators tinkered with state laws wasn't made public until 2003, when police in
Providence raided two massage parlors under a program they dubbed Operation Rubdown. The defendant prostitutes hired Michael Kiselica as their attorney, and it was through his legal research that the women were acquitted at trial when the legal
status of indoor prostitution came to light--and within two years, that legality was well-known across the state, if not New England in its entirety. After debating the issue for several years, lawmakers finally revamped the law in 2009 to make indoor
prostitution illegal once again.
The decriminalized paid sexual activity turned out to have unexpected benefits, as the researchers found. Shah said during an interview:
A lot of the literature on sex markets
has focused on disease transmission because in a lot of places, we worry that sex markets are places where you have the spread of sexually transmitted infections from sex workers to the general adult population So we said, let's look at gonorrhea [which]
is one of these STIs which is really associated with risky heterosexual markets. We were able to get good data from the CDC and one of the first things we find is that post-2003, post-decriminalization of indoor prostitution, we're finding decreases in
gonorrhea incidence among the population of heterosexual men, and that's big finding number one.
There's a lot of data suggesting that indoor sex work is a lot safer than street work, in that people tend to use condoms more,
disease prevalence is lower, and one thing we find is that post-2003, women are a lot less likely to engage in anal sex, which is the riskiest type of sex one can have, and they're much more likely to be using condoms [and] providing oral sex with
condoms, so it looks like their behavior is getting safer post-decriminalization. You also have all these new entrants into the market, and you have this supply increase. A lot of the new entrants tend to be lower risk, so when you change a sexual
network, even if more people are having sex, if you're infusing safer people into that network, there's possibilities for disease incidents to actually decrease.
The researchers also found that reports of rape decreased nearly
one-third from pre-legalization figures. While Shah and Cunningham could come to no clear conclusions why sexual violence decreased, they had a couple of theories:
We hypothesize that these sex workers are probably
more likely to report rape after indoor sex work has been decriminalized than they were before, Shah noted. There's another hypothesis, that there's these men that might substitute between rape and prostitution, and we do find a pretty significant
correlation between men who both admit to seeing prostitutes and men who admit to raping, and so one potential hypothesis is when these markets grow, with supply increasing and prices decreasing, there might be some men on the margin where, if 'all of a
sudden I can buy sex a lot cheaper than I could buy it before, maybe I'm going to be more likely to go to see a prostitute rather than raping.'
Rhode Island lawmakers pass bill to criminalise indoor prostitution
Rhode Island Senate lawmakers have approved the bill to make prostitution a misdemeanor offense regardless of where it occurs. Prostitutes would face a maximum six-month prison sentence for a first offense, while their customers could face up to a year.
The bill now goes to the state Governor for approval into law.
Rhode Island is the only state, besides parts of Nevada, that currently allows indoor prostitution. More than two dozen brothels are now operating across the state.
A group of 50 professors has signed a letter urging Rhode Island lawmakers not to ban indoor prostitution.
Rhode Island is the only state in the country besides several counties in Nevada where indoor prostitution is legal.
In a letter,
George Washington University professor Ronald Weitzer and Nassau Community College professor Elizabeth Wood said prostitutes who work indoors are less likely to be assaulted, raped or robbed. They said treating indoor and outdoor prostitution differently
is a step in the right direction.
Rhode Island House and Senate lawmakers have backed sharply different bills that would ban indoor prostitution. They are trying to reach a compromise before a vote expected in September.
The Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee have approved a bill to criminalize prostitution that occurs indoors, with a full vote on the House floor expected soon.
The bill, which the committee approved in an 8-to-4 vote, seeks to
rewrite a nearly 30-year-old law that outlaws streetwalkers and soliciting for prostitution outdoors, but has no prohibition against prostitution that occurs indoors.
Rhode Island is the only state, except for certain counties in Nevada, that has
no prohibition against indoor prostitution.
Supporters of the bill include state and local police, who claim that it’s needed to investigate and prosecute cases where prostitutes may be coerced or forced into prostitution, generally defined as
Opponents of the bill generally fall into two categories: those such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes what it views as an intrusion into peoples’ privacy, and those such as members of Brown University
Students Against Human Trafficking, who say that criminalizing indoor prostitution will mean prosecuting prostitutes, who they view as victims.
The amended version of the prostitution bill (H-5044 Sub A) includes exemptions for women who were
“forced” into prostitution. Under the bill approved last night, anyone found guilty of prostitution or of procuring the services of a prostitute (both misdemeanors) would face imprisonment of up to six months, and a fine of $250 to $1,000. For a
subsequent offense, they could face up to a year in prison and a fine of $500 to $1,000.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr said: I’m very confident we’ll pass it on the floor of the House.
Rhode Island House lawmakers have voted 62-8 to criminalize the solicitation of sexual acts behind closed doors. It now heads for a vote in the Senate, where identical legislation is pending.
The push comes in response to years of
whinges by police that Rhode Island's law essentially permitted brothels to operate in plain sight.
It's a black eye for Rhode Island, and I believe it's time we close the loophole, said Rep. Joanne Giannini who sponsored the bill ending
the distinction between indoor and outdoor prostitution.
If it becomes law, prostitutes could be punished by a prison term of up to six months in prison and a maximum $1,000 fine for a first offense. Subsequent convictions would carry a prison
term of up to one year and similar fines.
Those convicted of hiring a prostitute would face the same penalties.