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Tyler Rosenbaum '11: Criminalization doesn't work

When I first set foot in this great state, I knew there was something special about it. Something unique. Rhode Island makes New England's other small states look gigantic by comparison, and yet it has the longest name of any state in the union.

Also — and I learned this interesting little bit of trivia when I recovered from shock after first opening the Providence Phoenix — indoor prostitution is not illegal. These are just a few examples of Rhode Island's little peculiarities.

Later this month, the Rhode Island General Assembly will do its best to remove at least these two distinctions.     

The General Assembly seems intent on applying the tactics of this nation's tremendously successful War on Drugs to commercial sexual encounters. Just think, my fellow Rhode Islanders, what a paradise our fair state will be when prostitution is as rare — and as effectively deterred — as marijuana use!   

None of this is meant to minimize, whitewash or excuse the individual and societal evils prostitution engenders. Books — and letters to the editor — can be written about these problems. There are concrete ills, such as disease transmission and sexual exploitation, along with more abstract concerns like moral decay.   

The people of Rhode Island need to have a conversation with their legislators about the best way to tackle the problems prostitution causes. Broadly, there are three paths the state could take.     

First, like other societal ills, prostitution could be heavily regulated. The state could test the participants to prevent the spread of disease. It could assert itself vigorously to ensure that the prostitution is consensual. If a woman (or man, for that matter) wants out, the state could provide any training or help necessary for him or her to find different employment. Additionally, the state could heavily discourage unsafe and exploitative prostitution by strenuously prosecuting pimps and johns who attempt to circumvent the regulated establishments.

However, experience in countries that have followed this path (and in Nevada), shows that this leads to many unintended consequences, such as increased trafficking. Moreover, governments rarely have the capacity or desire to regulate prostitution as much as would be necessary.

Most disturbingly, interviews with women in jurisdictions where prostitution is permitted and regulated demonstrate that the conditions are generally barbaric, and most women would leave if they could. As one prostitute put it, "It's like you sign a contract to be raped."

Alternatively, the state could close the loophole in current prostitution laws and throw prostitutes and johns in jail. This is the approach favored by the House of Representatives, which proposed a bill that, in its current draft, would punish prostitutes and johns equally with six months' jail time for the first offense. But this strategy, followed by most of our fellow states, is highly problematic.   

As with drugs and other sources of societal problems, criminalization of commercial sex does not eliminate the difficulties it causes. Rather, it exacerbates them.   

Consider, for example, whether a sex worker is more likely to be exploited by a john if she can safely notify the police of any misconduct, or if she has to skulk around in the shadows, avoiding the authorities for fear of criminal sanctions.   

But there is a third way, a sort of middle ground, which would allow the state to spend its resources mitigating the damage prostitution causes, without throwing poor, exploited sex workers into prison or morally condoning and permitting prostitution and its ills.   

The Senate bill comes closer to this path, refusing to permit prostitution, but slapping first- and second-time violators only with small fines, the proceeds of which go toward victim compensation. 

But it could still be changed for the better. The ideal law would follow Sweden's successful model of punishing only the johns, while focusing the state's attention on helping the prostitutes rise out of their desperate situation.   

This kind of law is a sensible compromise. The state would rehabilitate prostitutes by providing them the social services necessary to allow them to end their dependence on the sex trade and exploitative pimps and johns.

Moreover, by bringing the hammer down on the johns and pimps, the state would send an important signal that it will not tolerate the abuse and degradation that prostitution engenders.

Most importantly, this approach has proven to be very effective. After its implementation, the number of street prostitutes in Stockholm, Sweden's capital, has decreased by two-thirds, and the number of johns by four-fifths. Sex trafficking is now almost non-existent in Sweden. 

Obviously, this is a very emotional issue. To many people — the author included — prostitution is morally wrong. It might seem callous to look at the issue through such an academic lens when the reality on the ground is so much more complex.   

But the status quo in Rhode Island is unacceptable. Legislators should step up to the plate and fix the problem, but not by making criminals of desperate men and women. Prostitution is unfortunate for everyone involved. The state should do its best to discourage prostitution, but the focus should be on helping exploited sex workers escape and build new lives.    

 
Tyler Rosenbaum '11 is an international relations and economics concentrator from Seattle. He can be reached at tyler (at) brown.edu.   




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