Tiny Rhode Island prides itself on its history and charm. But since it decriminalized prostitution in 1980, it has become a haven for something decidedly uncharming: the trafficking of girls and young women into the commercial sex industry. There is a lesson in this for the nation.
Last month, a missing 16-year-old girl from Boston was found bleeding and incoherent in an apartment in South Providence. She was being held captive by an escaped convict who had her stripping in one of Providence’s many sex clubs.
In April, the so-called Craigslist killer allegedly assaulted a prostitute in a Warwick hotel. A federal investigation has linked some of Rhode Island’s “Asian spa” brothels to organized crime rings.
Late last year, an Asian woman ran from a brothel and burst into a nearby shop to plead for help, gesturing to indicate that she was being forced to engage in sex acts.
The intersection of highways I-95 and I-195 makes Providence an ideal location for the sex trade. Strip clubs and other sex establishments are flourishing there.
Activists fighting against sexual exploitation in Massachusetts say that many of the women and girls they aid have been trafficked to clubs in Rhode Island.
Decriminalizing prostitution sounds good in theory to some people of good will. It appeals to certain libertarians who imagine that without legal prohibitions, women will make “free choices” to sell themselves or not, just as they please. But the experience of Rhode Island exposes this as a tragic fantasy.
Without effective law enforcement, the sex industry is expanding rapidly, creating a haven for sex traffickers. Far from a libertarian utopia, decriminalizing prostitution has fostered coercion, exploitation, and abuse. In the early 1990s, Rhode Island had four strip clubs and one gay bathhouse. By 2005, there were nine “houses of prostitution,” according to the Providence Journal. The state has become a magnet for Asian-style spa-brothels, strip clubs, “gentlemen’s” clubs, gay bathhouses, and adult bookstores. There are now 40 known establishments offering prostitution, 12 of which have opened since January 2009, according to researcher Melanie Shapiro. Many more brothels have opened underground in residences and hotels.
Rhode Island police are stymied by the lack of laws enabling them to investigate effectively in order to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Prostitution was decriminalized in the state as a result of a lawsuit brought by a prostitutes’ rights group in 1980. Since then, Rhode Island has had no laws against prostitution so long as no solicitation occurs outdoors. Outdoor solicitation remains illegal as a form of loitering for indecent purposes.
Rhode Island has laws against sex trafficking and pimping (pandering, transporting, and harboring for prostitution, and deriving support and maintenance from prostitution). But without a predicate prostitution crime, state police lack the grounds to intervene and interview likely victims. Enforcement of federal sex-trafficking laws is also severely hampered. Consequently, there have been no federal or state prosecutions for sex trafficking and no state prosecutions for pimping for many years.
Rhode Islanders talk about the “embarrassment” to the state, and some legislators have worked for years to close what has come to be called “the loophole.” Each time, they have been defeated. This year, State Rep. Joanne Giannini (D.) introduced a bill creating a basic prostitution law. To allay fears that it would make the victims of trafficking subject to criminal charges, her bill explicitly gives them immunity. It passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly.
Then the Senate Judiciary Committee weighed in with a bill going in the wrong direction. State Sens. Paul Jabour, Charles Levesque, and Rhoda Perry crafted legislation that would repeal all of Rhode Island’s anti-pimping laws. Their bill would partially replace these felony crimes with a misdemeanor penalized at $1,000 and would make prostitution a civil offense, comparable to a traffic violation, with a penalty of $100 to $250. The bill passed the State Senate unanimously.
Law-enforcement agencies have rightly condemned the Senate bill for failing to give them the legal tools to investigate sex-trafficking crimes and for repealing or weakening existing laws that could be used if there were a predicate offense. The bill is so bad that many suspect it was passed deliberately to obstruct the passage of a serious prostitution law.
The Rhode Island legislature is in a deadlock. Another year could go by without real reform.
The State Senate’s obstructionism has been aided by the silence of many who should be speaking out. Some local and national anti-trafficking organizations have actually worked behind the scenes to oppose the desperately needed reforms. They blame the lack of trafficking prosecutions on lack of political will and inadequate police training. In reality, trafficking laws work only where law enforcement is empowered to fight prostitution.
Other groups, such as the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU and Rhode Island NOW, have opposed passage of a prostitution law for ideological reasons. They support the decriminalization of prostitution and mistakenly believe that good trafficking laws make prostitution laws unnecessary. The Rhode Island experience demonstrates that it is long past time to lay that utopian hope aside. The truth is that these very groups are to blame for obstructing efforts to equip police to protect victims of trafficking.
It is an unspeakable tragedy that women’s rights groups and even organizations dedicated to fighting trafficking are failing to understand how basic prostitution laws help officials to identify victims and prosecute traffickers.
Rhode Island’s lawmakers have a choice: They can give Rhode Island a serious prostitution law this year, or they can continue their obstruction.
Whatever they do, though, let the tragic consequences of Rhode Island’s experiment in decriminalizing prostitution be a lesson to lawmakers in other states, and to all who care about protecting women and girls from sexual exploitation.
– Donna M. Hughes holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson endowed chair of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island. Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.