Study: To Lower Rape and STD Rates, Decriminalize Prostitution

A loophole in Rhode Island decriminalized prostitution between 2004-2009. During this time the state saw significant decreases in rape and gonorrhea.



One of the most common rationalizations you'll hear for criminalizing prostitution is that permitting it would lead to more sexual violence. It's a tale shared by anti-prostitution feminists and Christian conservatives alike, though the former may see its roots in patriarchy and the latter immorality. Still, both believe that permitting people to pay for sex—a situation which, for their purposes, always involves a man paying for a woman's affections—somehow encourages men to rape.

I'm not quite sure how this argument is supposed to work—does the legal status of fruit encourage people to steal kiwi? Should we criminalize barber shops to stop people from forcing staff into free buzz-cuts? It's a silly idea, that prostitution encourages rape—and also one that's been routinely repudiated by researchers. 

The latest study to show a correlation between decriminalizing prostitution and declining sexual violence comes from Rhode Island. A loophole in Rhode Island law effectively decriminalized indoor prostitution there for a several year period ending in 2009. During that time period, the state also saw significant decreases in both sexual violence and cases of gonorrhea, according to data analyzed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"The results suggest that decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large–not just sex market participants," wrote economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah in a working paper about their research. Between 2004 and 2009, they estimate that decriminalization led to a 31 to 39 percent per-capita decline in rapes and a 39 to 45 percent decline in cases of female gonorrhea in Rhode Island. 

Perhaps, however, something else was happening that could explain both declines? After all, the overall gonorrhea rate in the United States did decline around the same time period as this study covers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the gonorrhea rate decreased 15.8 percent overall during 2006–2010. And the number of rapes reported in the U.S. as a whole also declined somewhat over this time period.

But Cunningham and Shah used several economic models to track decriminalization's effects versus other possible causes and compare Rhode Island to other states. "Robust evidence" across models points to decriminalization as the cause, they write. Basically, while other states saw some decreases post-2003, Rhode Island exhibited much sharper declines. 

Numerous studies from other parts of the world have showed a correlation between decriminalizing the sex trade and lowering rape rates. A 2004 working paper from The Independent Institute's Kirby R. Cundiff concluded that rape rates were "correlated with the homicide rate and anti-correlated with the availability of prostitution. It is estimated that if prostitution were legalized in the United States, the rape rate would decrease by roughly 25% for a decrease of approximately 25,000 rapes per year," Cundiff wrote. 

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  1. Yes, lots of Christian conservatives on that there tumblr.

    1. Go on….

  2. Okay, so people who oppose prostitution are in favor of STD transmission and rape. That’s how this works, right?

    1. Well, you have to choose your false dichotomy. It’s one or the either.

    2. But prostitutes are the victims of the patriarchy. We have to make hard choices here.

      1. Really, how do they keep up with what they are supposed to believe this week? Is there a newsletter? Regular conference calls? A WHAT TO BELIEVE THIS WEEK app?

        1. Sure, they can go to enlightened and forward thinking websites, like Jezebel or Salon, or read the latest books by angry feminists. Duh! Enlightened and liberated women know how to choose when and where and by whom to be told how to think this week!

          1. Maybe I should commission an app to help them, with libertarian concepts baked in subtly, yet with increasing frequency. At the end of a year of using the app, the user will be asking why the government is allowed to oppress women.

            1. I’m backing this project. Get that on Kickstarter right away. I’ve been thinking about subliminal libertarian propaganda for years. And make an app for pre-schoolers while you’re at it… wait, the hell with that, a pre-natal libertarian propaganda app!

              1. That should parallel my foundation’s work to train women to, using subliminal communication through the act of coitus, deliver libertarian messaging.

                1. I’m all in on this.

                  1. And the proggies think that we will fight fair just because we have the principles and morals. HA! We’ll kick you right in your shrivelved nutsacks, progtards! All is fair in love, war, and nut punching proggies!

                    1. Look, we are the good guys. They get sex, and it’s not like they have to accept the subliminal messages, though the Bene Gesserit-like skills of the women may accidentally provide some positive reinforcement of our messaging.

                    2. “I hold at your junk the gom jabbar…”

    3. I’m pretty sure STEVE SMITH is against less rape.


  3. Are there even any good reasons for keeping prostitution illegal? The state of Nevada outside of Las Vegas has legal prostitution in brothels, and the state hasn’t fallen off the face of the earth.

    1. Short answer: no. Long answer: nope.

    2. If only that’s all it took for Nevada to fall off the face of the earth.

    3. I spent some time post-law school working for a think tank on the human trafficking issue and I end up conflicted on the legalization issue. I’ll see if I kept any of the links/papers but a fair amount of research has been done showing that, even in places where legalization/decrim has occurred, there is still a thriving black market. The black market is largely controlled through the physical/sexual violence of pimps. If you want to prosecute pimps – so the theory goes – you need leverage over these sex workers who are, in many cases, exhibiting essentially Stockholm Syndrome due to their psychological abuse. A week in jail and the physical separation from the pimp might be the chance a social worker needs to break the cycle. Not saying this is a reason to bollocks up the whole legalization/decrim movement (I basically agree it should be legalized) but just thought I’d toss that out there as food for thought.

      1. The “human trafficking” response is one of the standard ones, and I have to say it’s not bad. If legalization results in increased demand for prostitutes, it could theoretically result in increased human trafficking.

        But the idea that continued illegality is the way to combat this is nuts. Driving an entire industry underground and threatening the victims with legal charges is not exactly encouraging them to come forwards.

        1. Yeah. I’m seeing there being a lot better chance of violent pimps being prosecuted if the prostitutes are legal workers who can easily come to the police and legitimately demand their assitance.

          (All caveats about involving the police presumed.)

        2. Overall, that was what made me realize the existence of a partial black market isn’t a justifiable rationale to keep the WHOLE thing a black market as is the status quo. I basically said, “even if 25% of this remains underground, isn’t making the working conditions of the other 75% better worth legalizing it?” Doesn’t take a genius to answer yes.

          I also should’ve been a bit more clear. Some of the femmebot groups we would talk to didn’t want legalization (for all the reasons others have outlined) but DID want decrim of the pros. They said incarcerating someone for being the victim of sexual violence was insult to injury. The catch-22 of course is you need a complaining witness to get the pimp and DA’s, cops and social workers couldn’t get many pros to cooperate in prosecution of pimps because of the reasons I discussed above. So the femmebots wanted to keep the black market but take away the major avenue of prosecuting the the perpetrators of the violence and extortion.

      2. Maggie says you’re full of shit. and I find Maggie’s research to be highly credible

        1. Full of shit about what? My comment wasn’t meant to be a “it will increase human trafficking” defense. It was meant to be strictly about tools for prosecution of violent pimps. However, based on yours and JD’s and perlhaqr’s response I probably wasn’t very clear on that so apologies. And I 100% agree with you that the statistics bandied about regarding trafficking in general and forced sex workers specifically are all over the map depending on what agenda is being pushed. Another thing that made me start to question what was going on during my stint on that issue.

      3. I’ll see if I kept any of the links/papers but a fair amount of research has been done showing that, even in places where legalization/decrim has occurred, there is still a thriving black market.

        I’d like to see the links, because I wonder how many of those thriving black markets are due to tight governmental controls–regulations, steep taxes, registration requirements, etc.

    4. and the state hasn’t fallen off the face of the earth.

      Are you sure? I’ve been through there. It’s pretty out of this world.

  4. The lecture I always heard from women is that rape had nothing to do with sex, that it was men asserting power over women through an act of humiliating violence. According to them, rapists rape even if they have easy access to sex with a wife/gf/fwb. Have any studies interviewed actual rapists who claim, “I only did it because I was horny and couldn’t find a willing partner?”

    1. All sex is rape if you are male and your partner is/was/will be female, as soon as the woman decides it is. It’s a woman’s right to choose if she’s been raped or not, even if it’s 20 years after the sex. If you don’t agree with that, you are against a woman’s right to choose.

      1. Oh, and prostitution is rape too, because patriarchy. So the study quoted in this story should be banned, because all free speech can’t be permitted, especially sexist rape speech like this.

    2. Yeah, I always heard the same thing from the “experts” ie rape has nothing to do with sex. Its about hatred and violence hetro or homo. Expert opinion subject to change for political reasons I’m sure

      1. Next thing your going to tell me its climate change not global warming. In all seriousness though prostitution should be legal and would no doubt be much safer if it were.

      2. This does fly in the face of that to some degree…

  5. What???!!! WAR ON WIMINZ!!!!

  6. It protects women from abuse if violent men those women can’t go to the police or hospitals for fear of imprisonment. Everyone knows isolated women with few allies and little leverage make terrible targets for abuse. Also, there are no gay prostitutes, and this is exclusively an issue of perverted men using filthy lucre to exploit oppressed women.

    Somehow this issue manages to pull in judgmental, traditionalist conservatives and judgmental, feminist progressives in a big conflagration of stereotypes and unintended consequences.

    1. Hey, it’s worked for alcohol prohibition.

  7. the rape rate would decrease by roughly 25% for a decrease of approximately 25,000 rapes per year

    First of all, since virtually every case of a man having sex constitutes rape if you look at it through the proper lens, those numbers are way, way off. And given the power imbalance within the structure of the male/female relationship vis-a-vis prostitution, I’m pretty sure prostitution is rape, so I don’t see how legalizing prostitution would help in that regard. Obviously another sad case of false consciousness perpetuating the patriarchy.

    1. Curse my one-fingered typing that takes me 15 minutes to post a few lines of response!

      1. What are you doing with the other 9 fingers?

  8. More shilling by Reason for Big Whore

    1. She’s a little meaty, but I wouldn’t really call her “big.”

    2. Are you telling me that the Kochtopus has it’s tentacles into Whoredom now too!? Is there anything they can’t control!?

      1. Tentacles. Whores. There’s a joke in there somewhere but it’s late.

  9. And yet it seems that in Europe in those jurisdictions that have long allowed prostitution, the pendulum is swinging towards more regulation.

    The selling of sexual favors would remain legal but the buying of sex is outlawed.

    Now how exactly is this supposed to work in practice? Is she supposed to give it away?

    I am frankly surprised there has not been a move on social justice grounds for a return of a state owned whorehouse.

    1. the pendulum is swinging towards more regulation.

      Geez, I am shocked. Imagine that, a group of elected politicians who consider themselves some sort of royalty, wanting to enact more laws to make themselves more powerful along with more excuses to steal money from the peasants. Shocked, I tell you.

  10. Same model would work well with drugs: legalize them, control the quality, have safehouses where your buzz is cheap and legal. Puts the remainder of the mob out of business and cuts prices to where a junky can afford to get high on his SSDI rather than needing to break into your house.

  11. Additional data:

    Rape rates should have increased when it was made illegal again in 2009.
    They didn’t.

    Rape rates looked to be in the high twenties for most of the historical data.
    There was a jump in 1996 which grew through 2003.
    In 2004 it dropped drastically to the average range.

    What caused the 7 year increase that got reversed?
    That may be the reporting rate?

    Still if legal hookers helped in 2004, outlawing them should have restored the rape rate in 2009.
    We don’t see that at all.

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