In 1980, the Rhode Island State Legislature amended a law believed to mistakenly outlaw some forms of consensual sex between adults. Some 23 years later a judge interpreted that amendment in a way that essentially legalized indoor prostitution. The judge’s interpretation legalized the sale of sex through escorts and massage parlors, as opposed to on-the-street prostitution, which remained illegal. Six years passed before the loophole closed. What happened during those six years, while a small sample size, is fascinating according to a new study published in National Bureau of Economic Research.
The 54 page study, “Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health” by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, found as expected, that prostitution in Rhode Island grew. While prostitution is potentially seen as “morally repugnant,” during those six years rape offenses declined sharply by 31%. Another unexpected outcome was a 39% decrease in gonorrhea according to CDC data. The overall national average saw no noticeable change during the same time period. Cunningham and Shaw conclude: “the results suggest that decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large not just sex market participants.” They are quick to note, however, that society obviously frowns upon the prostitution market, and point out there is an argument that sex trafficking could be increased if prostitution is decriminalized. Still, this six year accidental experiment shouldn’t go unnoticed, if even if just to open the door for further research.
– Daniel Freudberg is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC