The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution, rape decreased sharply

The number of rapes reported in Rhode Island over time is compared that in to three similar states. The red line marks the de facto decriminalization of prostitution. (NBER)

For decades, few people noticed that legislators in Providence had deleted crucial language from Rhode Island state law in 1980. It wasn't until a 2003 court case that police, to their chagrin, discovered they couldn't prevent prostitutes and their customers from engaging in commercial exchange.

For the next six years until legislators corrected their error, the oldest profession was not a crime in Rhode Island -- and public health and public safety substantially improved as a result, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The statewide incidence of gonorrhea among women declined by 39 percent, and the number of rapes reported to police in the state declined by 31 percent, according to the paper.

The study by Baylor University's Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah of the University of California, Los Angeles contributes to an impassioned, long-running debate about prostitution among advocates for women's rights. Their work appears to be the first quantitative evidence that removing criminal penalties for prostitutes can reduce violence against women and curtail sexually transmitted infections in society generally -- and dramatically so. Yet opponents argue that legal prostitution would encourage traffickers to kidnap women and girls into lives of sexual slavery.

Shah and Cunningham did not explore this question in their paper, due to a lack of data.

"Operation Rubdown"

Lawmakers revised the state statute on prostitution in 1980, concerned that it was overly broad and could infringe on First Amendment freedoms. They went too far, accidentally removing the section defining the act itself as a crime. Other associated activities, such as streetwalking, pimping and trafficking, remained illegal.

Since prostitutes couldn't walk the streets, they had few opportunities to take advantage of the mistake until the advent of the Internet gave them another way to advertise. In 2003, police in Providence hit two spas in a sting officially called "Operation Rubdown." The women were staying off the street, and a judge ruled in their favor. Legislators revised the law in 2009.

There are a number of reasons to think that making prostitution legal might improve working conditions for prostitutes. If they were having a problem with a client, they could threaten to call the police. Not only could this threat reduce the risk of physical violence, but it could also allow them to demand that their clients use condoms.

Additionally, according to supporters of legal prostitution, unlawful streetwalkers have no opportunity to vet their clients before their hurried, clandestine encounters. A regular market for sex, whether online or in a brick-and-mortar establishment, could solve that problem. Opponents dispute these theories, arguing that prostitution is inherently violent and dangerous, whether legal or not.

Shah and Cunningham did not consider these questions specifically, but instead examined the consequences of decriminalization for the state as a whole. The two economists found that more women entered prostitution, particularly white and Asian women, and that the price of their services fell. In addition to the lower rate of gonorrhea infections among women, Shah and Cunningham estimated that decriminalizing prostitution prevented 824 rapes that would have been otherwise reported to police -- and presumably many more that otherwise would not have been reported in any case.

The decline in the number of rapes was so large that Cunningham and Shah felt obliged to examine their data with three separate statistical methods, but the effect persisted. The authors were eventually persuaded that their result was not a fluke, and that imposing criminal sanctions on prostitutes and their clients might cause violence against women. "The human costs are so big, if this is in fact a very real causal effect," Cunningham said. "I think we have convinced ourselves that we have done everything we can do rule out alternative explanations."

Is prostitution rape?

Possibly the most disturbing and surprising implication of these results is that men who commit rape would simply find a prostitute if doing so were less expensive. Cunningham and Shah considered and ruled out several other possible explanations for the decline in rape. The economists wondered, for example, whether police officers working on massage parlor stings had been reassigned to rape investigations, but it seemed they had not.

Melissa Farley, a feminist, psychologist and trenchant critic of prostitution, argued that Cunningham and Shah were simply misunderstanding the nature of paid sex. Prostitutes are often victims of abuse, whether it is perpetrated by johns or pimps, she said. If so, then the decrease in rapes reported to police does not really represent a decrease in the total amount of violence.

"Women in prostitution generally describe it as paid rape. That’s what if feels like to them," said Farley, who feels the study embodies a "reactionary worldview."

Farley, along with major international feminist organizations such as Equality Now and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, worries that legalizing prostitution would make it easier for traffickers to operate, and that many of the new prostitutes who appeared in Rhode Island between 2003 and 2009 were unwilling participants.

"Demand fuels trafficking," said Kristen Berg, Equality Now's trafficking program officer. "With the demand for commercial sex, there's an incentive for traffickers to traffic women and girls to these locations. With increased demand, you’d expect to see increased supply."

Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University, disagreed, arguing that legal prostitution would reduce the financial incentive for organized crime to risk running afoul of law enforcement by kidnapping and transporting girls. "When something is prohibited, it allows organized crime to gain a foothold," he said, comparing the sex market to the markets for alcohol during Prohibition or for marijuana and other drugs today.

Weitzer studies European countries, which have been adopting lenient legal regimes that would be politically unthinkable in the United States. The Netherlands and Germany legalized prostitution in 2000 and 2002, respectively. (It is also legal in New Zealand and some Australian jurisdictions, and has been for decades in Nevada. All of these schemes employ various forms of regulation.)

Both parties in the debate draw their own conclusions from these experiments. Farley cites a recent study by European researchers purporting to show that legal prostitution encourages trafficking in people. Weitzer counters that the study improperly draws on data from countries where trafficking is defined and reported differently, and notes that the number of trafficking cases in Germany has fallen.

A legal dilemma

The model developed by Sweden and copied elsewhere offers a kind of compromise: prostitutes are not criminals, but their clients are. This is the approach favored by Donna Hughes, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an eyewitness to inadvertent decriminalization.

Hughes, like Farley and Berg, views prostitutes as victims, not as criminals, but she was forced to make a difficult decision when Rhode Island began to debate amending the law.

The Nordic model, as Sweden's regime is known, was a political nonstarter in Rhode Island. Hughes, a prominent scholar of trafficking, was forced to choose between the status quo and imposing criminal sanctions on prostitutes. She eventually threw her support to the latter option.

"The situation was so horrible in Rhode Island, that the pimps and traffickers were operating with absolute impunity," she said.

Hughes's story shows why the debate over prostitution can become so contentious. In practice, the distinction between criminals and victims is often unclear. Many prostitutes and their advocates dislike both labels. They object strenuously to the view that they are not in the industry through their own choice but through manipulation or coercion.

"They have heard that, and they laugh at it," said Mike Kiselica, a Providence attorney who represented massage parlors and their prostitutes during decriminalization. "The frontline workers, the girls, they were free to move around, and would do so if one of the other places offered them a more attractive working environment or a better clientele," he said.

He said that even though the law had changed, police continued to conduct extensive raids on his clients, often involving superior officers, social workers and Korean interpreters. Although the police confiscated ledgers, calendars and cell phones, they did not find evidence of involvement by organized crime, Kiselica said. To his knowledge, few if any of the arrests made during the period led to convictions on trafficking charges.

The question of how governments should deal with prostitutes has been debated widely around the world. As European states have experimented with new systems, Canada and Israel have considered reforms as well. So far, the debate has not begun seriously in the United States, but perhaps it will in Providence.

Further reading:

  • "The War on Sex Workers," an essay arguing that the crusade against human trafficking harms prostitutes
  • A critique of the Swedish law in the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice
  • An essay by Melissa Farley arguing that prostitution leads society to condone violence against women