Many Brown students recite the fact that a loophole in Rhode Island law allows indoor prostitution as a piece of amusing trivia about our quirky little state. However, it's no laughing matter for state legislators. The House and the Senate have both passed bills that sponsors claim close the loophole, but partisans of each bill have taken to the Providence Journal to highlight the perceived inadequacies of the other side's legislation. The arguments made by both sides are striking in the paucity of empirical data used to support their position, and, in our view, with good reason. Studies of prostitution have consistently found that legal and regulated prostitution is the most humane and effective policy available. Rhode Island ought to heed their advice.
Advocating legal prostitution is not an attempt to minimize the suffering of many women involved in the sex trade. The testimony of women like Norma Hotaling, who credits her arrest for prostitution with saving her from a brutal 18 year-long career in the business, cannot and should not be discounted. However, it is equally important to remember the stories of women (and men) whose contraction of fatal sexually transmitted infections or rape at the hands of an "arresting" officer could have been prevented with adequate regulation. In reports about prostitution, such stories are sadly prevalent.
There is good reason to believe that a strong regulatory framework can improve or even solve many of these problems. Academic studies of Nevada's famous legal brothels have found that condom use, relatively rare among street prostitutes, is universal among legal sex workers. These and other legally mandated health precautions have apparently prevented any HIV infection in Nevada brothels since 1988, though estimates of infection rates among illegal prostitutes range up to 60 percent in certain areas. This claim is borne out by other research: A study in Australia found that illegal prostitutes were 80 times more likely than their legal counterparts to have a sexually transmitted infection and that the discrepancy stemmed directly from state-enforced rules like mandatory condom use and STI testing.
Nevada's approach also has been shown to reduce violence. "Protection sex" — sex forced out of prostitutes by police or pimps — is virtually unheard of among legal Nevada sex workers. A survey by Barbara Brents and Kathryn Hausbeck, professors at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, found that Nevada prostitutes overwhelmingly feel safer in legal brothels than on the street. Brents and Hausbeck conclude more broadly that "there is strong indication… that legal brothels generally offer a safer working environment than their illegal counterparts," significantly "work(ing) to eliminate systematic violence."
We have little hope that the Rhode Island legislature will take our advice: No politician can advance a career by becoming the pro-prostitution candidate. Of the two available bills, the Senate's version is clearly preferable. Its focus on arresting solicitors is welcome, as is its omission of the House's odious jail sentence of up to six months for convicted prostitutes. However, we wish that a state facing a budget crisis the Journal describes as "a sea of red ink" would reject ineffective, dangerous and expensive new prohibitions in favor of a policy that better serves the people the legislators claim to be protecting. But in a state whose prostitution policy was determined for decades by an obscure loophole, that might be too much to ask.
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