Due to a government screw-up (can you believe it?) in writing legislation, prostitution was inadvertently legal in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2009. This legislative mistake gave economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah an opportunity to study what happens when prostitution becomes legal. They found, remarkably, that legalization reduces the incidence of both rape and disease.
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…
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.”
A possible explanation for the result is that legalization gives prostitutes more opportunity to screen potential clients, and to report, or credibly threaten to report, clients who give them trouble to the police.
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.
In contrast, feminist Melissa Farley proffered the usual objection that legalization would make victims of more women and provide a boon to the criminal class.
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.
A sociologist points out, however, that the reverse is true; criminalization offers an opportunity for criminals, because criminals are the ones who will step in to provide goods when they are illegal. Prohibition also raises the price of the good, which gives criminals more financial incentive to traffic in women.
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.
Worth noting was the reaction of the lawyer for the Providence massage parlors in response to the notion that the sex workers, during the 2003-2009 decriminalization, were unwilling victims of ‘trafficking.’
“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.
Many Western nations have successfully legalized prostitution, but in the U.S. it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. In the U.S., unfortunately, the prostitution laws are staunchly defended by an unlikely combination of potent interest groups: radical feminists, pro-family conservatives, and police unions.
Those groups believe strongly that they enjoy the moral high ground, but the evidence now suggests that their preferred policies are responsible for increased rates of rape and disease, and incidentally, a significant waste of scarce police resources.
Maybe it’s time to start asking the prostitution prohibitionists, “Why do you want to promote rape and disease?”