Sex Work

No, Rhode Island Didn't 'Accidentally' Decriminalize Prostitution

Decriminalization was the direct result of a lawsuit filed by sex workers in 1976.

|

Coyote Georgia Chapter/Facebook

In the life of any person who regards herself as principled, there come times when those principles seem to conflict with one's goals; at that point, one is forced to decide whether the principles supersede the goals or the ends justify the means. I was recently faced with such a conflict. There's a study which seems to support the goal of decriminalizing prostitution that is making the rounds in the media and being quoted by everyone, his brother, and his maiden aunt. Unfortunately, that study—which links decriminalization in Rhode Island with falling rates of rape and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—is deeply flawed in a number of ways, and honesty demands that I not only refrain from promoting it but explain to others why they shouldn't either.  

The study in question comes from Scott Cunningham, an economics professor at Baylor University, and Manisha Shah, a public policy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. It seems to show that in 2004-2009, Rhode Island experienced a steep decline in cases of rape and cases of female gonorrhea. The authors attribute this to prostitution being decriminalized in the state throughout that time period. 

The way it's been promoted varies slightly from The Washington Post to Business Insider to Vox to others, but almost always includes phrases like "Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution" or (more correctly) "Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution". This isn't the place for an explanation of the difference between legalization and decriminalization (if you're interested I refer you to my Cato Unbound essay, "Treating Sex Work As Work"). The problem with these statements is more fundamental than that: The "accidental" decriminalization was nothing of the kind.

In July 1976, the first sex-worker rights organization, COYOTE, filed the lawsuit COYOTE v. Roberts in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The provisions of Rhode Island law which COYOTE challenged were those which criminalized the sale or purchase of sex by consenting adults. In May 1980, the Rhode Island legislature settled the case by amending state law so as to render the issues raised in the lawsuit moot.

There was nothing remotely "accidental" about this process. One might speculate about why the legislature chose to settle things rather than allow the case to run its course, but there is no question that it was a calculated and intentional act rather than a mass "whoopsie" by a legislative body. And yet the basic premise of Cunningham's study is that the community somehow managed not to notice the decriminalization of our work for an entire generation, despite the fact that said decriminalization was the direct result of a lawsuit by sex workers! Cunningham chooses the arbitrary date of 2003—the time at which a new crop of politicians realized that they lacked a prostitution prohibition available to their counterparts in other states—as the beginning date of his "natural experiment," despite the fact that there is no earthly reason to believe it should be significant to anyone who was actually buying or selling sex throughout the 23 years prior. 

This error speaks to a consistent problem in Cunningham's work: his incredible credulity. As I have previously detailed, Cunningham assumes that statements of age and weight in sex workers' ad copy are truthful and also that each worker has one and only one ad at any given time. In the Rhode Island study, as in others before, he incorrectly presumes that an increase in the number of sex worker advertisements directly correlates to the number of sex workers.

Furthermore, in interviews, Cunningham repeatedly makes the demonstrably-false claim that prior to the advent of the Internet, the great majority of sex work was solicited on the street. He subscribes to the rather odd belief that "before the Internet, clients didn't know where to find the prostitutes and prostitutes did not know where to find the clients"—which would surely come as a shock to the legions of successful sex workers of the pre-Internet era who found their clients via the plethora of other means available, including personal ads in newspapers.

Finally, there's the complicated issue of rape reporting. The relationship between the rape rate and the rape reporting rate is by no means a clear and direct one. And while my gut feeling is that rape would indeed decrease as commercial sex became less marginalized and stigmatized, and some studies do indeed indicate that to be the case, others show no such correlation

I'm a bit less skeptical of the study's STI findings. I asked Kevin Wilson, a research consultant and graduate student in epidemiology, to analyze the study when we first became aware of it months ago (in pre-publication). "I think it generates some really interesting (and methodologically credible) findings concerning…gonorrhea rates and arrest rates in the state," writes Wilson. And while that may be true, I feel that those findings' inclusion in a study with so many other credibility issues contaminates them to the point of uselessness.

I'm glad to see Americans in general, and journalists in particular, looking for reasons to support the decriminalization of sex work, and I'm heartened by the eagerness with which everyone spread the word about this study. If it had been a good one from a researcher with a solid reputation for dependability, this would be a very different article.

But in our enthusiasm to support the causes of personal liberty and removing state violence from the voluntary activities of consenting adults, we cannot make the mistake of embracing shaky "facts" and shady methods as the prohibitionists do. There's some good sex work research available, and I hope for a lot more in the near future; perhaps someday soon a more trustworthy researcher will do another study which upholds Cunningham's conclusions. But until then, wanting the conclusions of a poor study to be true is insufficient grounds for celebrating them as though they were.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

41 responses to “No, Rhode Island Didn't 'Accidentally' Decriminalize Prostitution

  1. “Furthermore, in interviews, Cunningham repeatedly makes the demonstrably-false claim that prior to the advent of the Internet, the great majority of sex work was solicited on the street. He subscribes to the rather odd belief that “before the Internet, clients didn’t know where to find the prostitutes and prostitutes did not know where to find the clients”?”

    That notion alone is so silly that I would not take any study this guy does seriously.

    How he could be unaware of every city’s local version of Village Voice type papers with page after page of sex ads, and be a sex work researcher, is beyond me. Also, there’s this new fangled thing called the Yellow Pages where you could look up “escorts”.

    1. “How he could be unaware of every city’s local version of Village Voice type papers with page after page of sex ads…”

      You mean like the Providence Phoenix?

    2. That notion alone is so silly that I would not take any study this guy does seriously.

      Probably one of those guys that is oblivious to the implications of the ‘Open 24 hrs.’ sign.

      24 hr. massage parlors somehow make sense to him in the strictly massage sense.

  2. Both sides need to be cognizant of confirmation bias, I absolutely agree.

    I think 2003 was chosen (according to WSJ) because it was the year when a judge ruled on the issue specifically, invalidating a sting operation. (I can’t find the specific case, I guess it’s an unpublished trial court ruling?) The year is also convenient because it looks to be the peak of rapes over the past 50 years, so something could have caused this decline.

    So, I’m not sure the 2003 date entirely arbitrary. Maybe the sex workers of RI took notice of the failed sting operation and increased their efforts to draw in new business.

    1. *not sure the 2003 date is entirely arbitrary.

    2. “The year is also convenient because it looks to be the peak of rapes over the past 50 years, so something could have caused this decline.”

      That kind of logic is what actually leads to really bad empirical research. Good empirical research starts with a hypothesis, picks data that should be random with respect to factors other than the hypothesis, and then uses any pattern in that data as confirmation of the hypothesis.

      If you select data because it has a specific pattern, you can’t use the existence of that pattern as evidence of a hypothesis. To do so would be circular.

      Your point about the court ruling occurring in 2003, on the other hand, may be a legitimate counterargument to this article.

  3. ” in our enthusiasm to support the causes of personal liberty and removing state violence from the voluntary activities of consenting adults, we cannot make the mistake of embracing…”

    …someone we originally thought was a woman?

    1. Just roll with it Gilmore.

  4. “but there is no question that it was a calculated and intentional act rather than a mass “whoopsie” by a legislative body. ”

    I am not so sure about that. Legislative bodies seem to have been making a lot of Woopsie’s these days. Case in point: Obama and congressional Democrats mistakingly including language that limits Federal subsidies to health insurance purchased through state exchanges, which we are now told is “unmistakably” a typo.

    1. That wasn’t a whoopsie, that was a calculated move that backfired: “We’ll force everyone to implement state exchanges by giving federal money to those states that adopt them, and no federal money to the holdouts. No one could possibly pass up such free money!”

  5. A someone who grew up in Nevada the entire debate is a bit odd. Just legalize and regulate it with medical tests and licenses. It works fine. But, our Puritan foundations still obtain it seems.

    1. All vice laws are puritan bullshit.

    2. I agree sex work should be legal, as with all other victimless crimes. But Nevada doesn’t look like a model for sex work and aren’t we talking about just one county in Nevada?

      The medical testing and licensing is certainly BS, what business does the State have in licensing anyone?

      Private verification and certification industries would develop.

    3. Sadly, this is one issue that both major sides agree on. The left wants to keep prostitution illegal because it degrades/objectifies women, the right because God says it’s sinful. This one’s gonna be a tough nut to crack.

      1. Ironc though that the illegality is what objectifies and degrades women, denying them legal access to services most of us take ffor granted.

  6. I’ll make my own Rhode Island, with blackjack, and hookers!

    You know what? Forget the blackjack!

    1. clap* clap* clap*
      Loving the reference

  7. Sounds like some pretty serious business dude.
    http://www.AnonCrypt.tk

    1. Once again, spambot for the win.

  8. The studies also confuse correlation with causation. Something else happened around 2003 that might have resulted in lower rates of prostitution and

    STDs — broadband internet started becoming prevalent:

    April 2001: 6%

    March 2002: 11%

    March 2003: 16%

    April 2004: 24%

    March 2005: 33%

    March 2006: 42%

    And so on, rising to about 75% by now.

    1. I *knew* there was a reason why the state needed to subsidize Google Fiber and sex bots.

    2. No prolefeed, your post is confusing correlation with causation.

      The paper, like almost all empirical academic papers by social scientists, is obsessed with NOT confusing correlation with causation.

      1. You’re making an argument from authority. Here’s what they said:

        “However, we also find that decriminalization caused both forcible rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to decline for the overall population. Our synthetic control model finds 824 fewer reported rape offenses (31 percent decrease) and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea (39 percent decrease) from 2004 to 2009.”

        They have a “model” that somehow attributes causation to one thing occurring, without any way to actually * prove * it was the cause (having a computer “model” is not proof), while ignoring something that common sense would suggest would significantly decrease both rape and gonorrhea, since jacking off to porn instead of being sexually frustrated would likely lead to more sex occurring with a computer and less with actual human beings.

        1. You’re making an argument from havenoideawhatyouaretalkingabout.

          The entire point of the synthetic control model framework is to be exceedingly careful about establishing causality.

          Further your concern is addressed in the paper.

          Maybe you should take a look at more than the abstract? If you do you will likely already be ahead of McNeill. Who apparently could not be bothered to actually read it.

          1. So which is it? Are you this Scott Cunningham clown, or just some random Academic who is butthurt over the bashing of a sex worker study done by someone who doesn’t know anything about sex workers?

            1. Random butthurt academic who is a longtime Reason reader.

              This is not a bashing. It’s someone hitch hiking on the viral success of a paper that she didn’t bother to read or evaluate. It’s self promotion. She is on a speaking tour (I just got the invite by email), and iI guess is looking to build up her profile.

              If she did read it then she is being dishonest and willfully misrepresenting what is in it. For instance there are about 4 pages of history in the paper including COYOTE. But she goes after him for not mentioning it.

              Look this is Reason. Not anti-science weekly. If you wanna take shots at serious scientific research you should know what you are talking about. Nothing she says cast any doubt on even one of the 53 pages in the study.

              1. Random butthurt academic who is a longtime Reason reader.

                Tulpa?

                If that is you, you need to be reminded that you are not an academic…Why the hell would you want to be?

    3. I think falling rape and STDs numbers pushed broadband adoption.

      People just stood around and discovered they were not being raped and had no STDs and like everyone in that situation would do they got broadband.

      1. People just stood around and discovered they were not being raped and signed up for internet service with AT&T or AOL/Timewarner and solved their lack-of-rape issue.

  9. Reason #4,724,783 to learn your stats kids.

    If you don’t you might write a critique of a an academic article that is face numbingly bad. A critique that even if you are correct about everything you say will have little to no baring on the findings in the paper. And here is the kicker, you will have no idea. You will actually think you have debunked the paper. When in actuality nothing you have said (if true) makes any difference for the articles findings.

    Then someone at Reason.com (who also obviously skimped on the stats) might publish it. You’d think with all the econ types running around the Reasonverse somebody’d know their way around some basic econometrics.

    Then it will be out there on the internet and everyone who does know stats will just stare in awe at your confident, some might say incredible, credulity.

  10. If you don’t you might write a critique of a an academic article that is face numbingly bad.

    I can’t tell if this is a misplaced modifier or whether you agree the academic article was face-numbingly bad.

    Whatever the case, you need to read paragraphs six through eight again, then take a moment to understand why methodology is so important to empirical endeavors.

    1. I re-read 6-8 and I also went and read the actual paper.

      Paragraphs 6-8 still have no bearing on the findings in the paper.

      So maybe, take a moment to understand why basic statistical literacy is so important to empirical endeavors.

  11. What frustrates me with too many of the organizations that support the legalization of sex work is that they tend to focus on some broad societal justifications for legalizing sex work. I don’t suppose you argue with your allies. But the reason to legalize sex work is not to improve anyone’s life, it’s not to clean up the town square, impose taxation, force licenses or testing, but to just leave people alone that aren’t hurting or stealing from anyone. I’d like the conversation to begin with: the sex worker and the client both own themselves and it’s none of our business what they do. The rest to me is superfluous.

    1. They do that because most people aren’t generally convinced by ethical and deontological arguments. They want to have some prediction–even if it’s clearly nonsense to everyone who knows better–about why this policy would be good for them and their kids.

      Thus all of the “decriminalizing sex work makes you and your daughters safer” stories. Because just appealing to people’s right to choose isn’t enough for most people to leave one another alone.

      1. Are you really denigrating people for wanting what’s best for them and their kids rather than bowing to your ideology regardless of consequences?

        1. Not sure about Knarf’s position, but what’s best for people is fine and they can want whatever they like, they can act on their wants. They can even ostracize, shame, refuse business, and denounce the actions of others all they desire. But when they turn to using state violence to get their way, then I’ll gladly denigrate them.

          I don’t want sex work in the hotel next door, please kidnap the sex worker and take her money if she works in the hotel next door! That is not okay.

  12. This guy Cunningham very naive ; he sounds like someone who has never been to a prostitute , This study is sounds deeply flawed , but that does not mean that decriminalizing prostitution was a bad idea . It was actually a great idea. I don’t know why the Gov. suddenly chose to make it illegal. I personally think that prostitution should be a made a legal profession that pays taxes and has health insurance.It would work as follows : Any woman wishing to do sex work needs to be of legal age show proof of I.D. , ss#, and a clean bill of health from a free clinic in order to be placed on a registry. Once the applicant pays the processing fee, has her info verified,she will get a photo i.d. with a number on it.Now she is registered.every three months she will need to get a check up which insurance will pay for 100% because no one should have to pay to go to work. Sex work would ONLY be allowed in “massage parlors” and in brothels, no street workers, no pimps, and no working out of your own home. Working out of your home would not be allowed b/c there is no way to regulate it.There is no security in place.Security is for the benefit of both the woman and the john. What is to stop a woman who works from home as a prostitute to take a man’s money, deny him service, the when he protests, threaten to tell police he beat her threatened her etc. ? That would be legal robbery and it is wrong .

    1. No thank you. It should be legal, the government need not issue any license, registration, or new IDs. We don’t need a Department of Sex Work. The government has no place telling them where they can work: that should be up to landlords, HOA’s, etc. Why turn prostitution into the taxi, raisin, or coffin manufacturing industry? I could see licenses becoming so limited and so expensive that only a company could afford to pay, making it impossible to be legally independent. What you’re proposing is codifying pimping into law. Again, no thank you.

      Why wouldn’t private associations and certifications do the same job better? You’d have websites that were dedicated to reviewing sex workers. Some certifications would mean something, some wouldn’t. People who chose not to do their homework might find themselves without the service they expected. Frankly, won’t the civil courts also come into play? The criminal courts will also find a place, a sex worker who knowingly spreads an illness could very well be charged with a crime. It’d be much easier to build a case in a society where sex work was legal.

      On one hand your wanting to take government coercion out of their lives and with the other hands your putting government coercion back into their lives.

      Fail.

  13. Thanks for the article. The ‘study’ is drivel, and missed not only the lawsuit but substantial lobbying by Libertarian activists. Libertarians have brought this problem up several times in comments.

    For actual data on what people in the movement are doing, please see the Libertarian International at http://www.libertarianinternational.org

    1. The study has 4 pages of history leading up to 2003. Including the COYOTE case. Its there… go look.

      These guys have a carefully done robust scientific study on a data set that can actually shed some new light on the subject and their findings support your policy goals.

      Why does the author and others wanna take cheap shots at his work. Cheap shots that actually have no bearing on the results of the study.

      Read her article she asks a grad student (really?) in epidemeiology. And he told her it was solid work:

      “”I think it generates some really interesting (and methodologically credible) findings concerning…gonorrhea rates and arrest rates in the state,””

      She could have asked any number of the quantitative social scientists in the Reason network to take a look. And while they all could find their quibbles (because there is no perfect study with observational data) they would have told her it is solid work and her issues with the paper don’t affect the outcome (even if she is right.).

      So she claims they omit facts about the court cases that are clearly in the paper for anyone to see.

      She ignores the statistical experts that she herself hand picked to review the article.

      She didn’t ask anyone else with any expertise if her claims have any bearing on the findings of the study.

      Then uses a pretty big megaphone of Reason and social media to claim these guys are “wrong” and the study is awful” and “flawed”.

  14. my best friend’s mother makes $66 /hr on the computer . She has been without work for 7 months but last month her payment was $13283 just working on the computer for a few hours. go…..

    ?????? http://WWW.JOBSAA.COM

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.