Maggie McNeill on How the Study Linking Prostitution, Rape, and STIs in Rhode Island Is Wrong


COYOTE Georgia Chapter/Facebook

Earlier this year, a study from researchers Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah showed that in 2004-2009, Rhode Island experienced a steep decline in cases of rape and gonorrhea. The authors attribute this to the fact that prostitution was decriminalized in Rhode Island during this time period. The study was widely reported, with outlets from The Washington Post to Vox chirping about the unintended but happy effects of that time "Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution."

But there's a problem with these statements, notes Maggie McNeill: the "accidental" decriminalization was nothing of the kind. In July 1976, the first sex-worker rights organization, COYOTE, filed a lawsuit challenging the Rhode Island law which criminalized the sale or purchase of sex by consenting adults. In May 1980, the state legislature settled the case by amending the law so as to render the issues raised in the lawsuit moot. There was nothing remotely accidental about this process, McNeill points out . And there's no reason to think that the arbitrary time period researchers studied should be significant to anyone who was actually buying or selling sex throughout the 23 years prior.