That Time Rhode Island Accidentally Decriminalized Prostitution


Ben Leubsdorf flags a study showing what happened:

A loophole in Rhode Island law that effectively decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003 also led to significant decreases in rape and gonorrhea in the state, according to a new analysis published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “The results suggest that decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large – not just sex market participants,” wrote economists Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Manisha Shah of the University of California, Los Angeles, in a working paper issued this month.

Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Shah got an opportunity to study the effects of decriminalized prostitution on crime and public health because Rhode Island lawmakers made a mistake. A 1980 change to state law dealing with street solicitation also deleted the ban on prostitution itself, in effect making the act legal if it took place indoors. The loophole apparently went unnoticed until a 2003 court decision, and remained open until indoor prostitution was banned again in 2009.

Adrianna McIntyre delves into the data:

The authors found evidence that, after decriminalization, size of the indoor sex market increased – as expected – and prices commensurately fell. More surprising was the finding that forcible rape offenses fell by 31 percent in Rhode Island from 2004 to 2009, as decriminalized indoor sex work scaled up in the state. This translates to 824 fewer reported rapes. The majority of the reduction in rapes came from Providence, where the state’s sex work is concentrated.

The chart [above] depicts reported rape offenses (per 100,000 people) in Rhode Island (the black line) compared to similar control states. The red line demarcates 2003, when decriminalization took place – and only Rhode Island’s offenses drop off steeply after that.

Peter Weber adds:

[The researchers] speculate that the up to 31-percent drop in per capita rape cases was “due to men substituting away from rape toward prostitution,” and the drop in sexually transmitted diseases is likely because indoor prostitutes tend to be safer sexually than outdoor ones.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Nolan Brown slams the FBI for shutting down, “a popular San Francisco-area website used by sexual service providers (and seekers) of all sorts”:

By almost all accounts, it was a space that not only connected sex workers with clients but also served as a sort of community forum, one which enabled sex workers to vet clients, warn about predators, and offer advice to one another. The website’s shutdown – visit and you’ll see only the seals of the FBI, Department of Justice, and Internal Revenue Service – has produced ample outrage from sex workers, who see it not only as a financial hit but also a strike against their safety. … [S]hutting down web forums where sex workers advertise isn’t going to actually stop people from buying or selling sex. But they sell this shit in the language of heroes, speaking to all the women and children they’re helping. They are liars.