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. Continue reading

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