In 2003, a Rhode Island District Court judge de facto decriminalized indoor prostitution in the state. Researchers used this fact to study the impact decriminalization had on the sex market (size, supply, and cost) and on sexual violence and gonorrhea infections in the state's population as a whole. A newly published article from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the decriminalization of prostitution decreased both reported sexual violence and incidence of gonorrhea in Rhode Island's general population.
Technically, this loop hole had been in effect since a 1980 revision of state law removed the language that made prostitution illegal. The change applied specifically to indoor prostitution - street walking, pimping, and trafficking were still considered illegal activities. In 2003, the Providence police targeted two spas in the brilliantly named "Operation Rubdown." The case went to court, and the judge ruled in favor of the defendants based on the state legislation. Word spread quickly. State legislature worked to correct the error, but for six years indoor prostitution was not a crime in RI.
Not surprisingly, decriminalization decreased prostitute arrests, increased advertising for indoor prostitution, and increased the number of women involved in prostitution. Population surveys indicate a demographic shift among sex workers with a significant influx of white and Asian women into the prostitution trade. Women were also more likely to work out of their homes or hotel rooms, rather than on the streets. Consistent with economic theory, there was a corresponding decrease in prices over the same time period.
The authors also focused on two issues with a high association with prostitution: rates of gonorrheal infection and incidence of sexual violence. A 1992 national study indicated that more than 20% of female prostitues reported gonorrheal infections as compared to less than 5% of non prostitute women. Disease spread is a significant concern when discussing prostitution. There are a few possible explanations for the reduced rates of infection over the 6 year time period. The increased number Asian and white sex workers (two groups with the lowest rates of gonorrhea nation wide) led to a lower risk market, possibly reducing the spread of disease. The decreased rates of infection may also have been due to increased condom use and decreased risky sex acts in some indoor locations or an unmeasured change in the trade following decriminalization. The cause is unknown, but the effect is clear. Statewide incidence of gonorrhea declined by 39%.
The authors also examined state crime reports and found that the number of rapes reported to police declined by 31%. The data suggests that decriminalizing prostitution may dramatically reduce incidents of violence against women. They estimate that decriminalized prostitution prevented over 800 reported rapes in the state of Rhode Island. This statistic does not include rapes that would otherwise have gone unreported to police. Prior studies have suggested that nearly 70% of women involved in street level prostitution have been raped by clients. With prostitution decriminalized, female sex workers may be more more comfortable approaching police for help with threatening clients, seeking protection before things escalate to violence. One completely horrifying theory is that, if the option is readily available and affordable, men who would commit rape instead hire a prostitute.
The data sets from this study do not allow the authors to draw any conclusions on the cause of these findings. This was not a peer reviewed research experiment, but rather a detailed analysis of state wide findings during this legislative loophole. Further research is needed to investigate the cause of this dramatic decrease in reported sexual violence and why exactly legalizing prostitution would prevent rape.
Prostitution is illegal in most countries for a variety reasons – some cite moral concerns, others focus on disease transmission and risk of sex trafficking. The indoor prostitution market (massage parlors, online advertisements, escort agencies) accounts for roughly 85% of sex work activity in the United States. Despite its criminalization in the United States, prostitution generates over $14 billion each year in revenue. A 2004 study found that 30% of men over 30 have paid for sex at one point in their lifetime.
I'm not well versed enough on the societal, political, legal and ethical implications of legalization of prostitution to speak knowledgeably on the topic. I will leave that to people with a greater understanding of these issues. These findings do, however, suggest that legalization of indoor prostitution may increase public health and safety for not only sex workers but the general population. Hopefully this fact will be folded into future conversations.