Legal prostitution may reduce instances of rape and gonorrhea infection, according to a July 2014 working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
A legal loophole effectively decriminalized indoor prostitution in Rhode Island between 2003 and 2009, which gave researchers Scott Cunningham, PhD, and Manisha Shah, PhD, an opportunity to study the possible effects of legal prostitution. Cunningham and Shah found that “forcible rape offenses” in the state decreased by 31% from 2004 to 2009, which translates to 824 fewer rapes being reported than would have been if prostitution had remained illegal. The study also found that female gonorrhea infections were reduced by 39%, with 1,035 fewer cases occurring. Three different statistical methods resulted in similar results, and Cunningham stated that “we have convinced ourselves that we have done everything we can do rule out alternative explanations.”
The decriminalization of indoor prostitution in Rhode Island can be traced back to a legislative error. In 1980, state lawmakers narrowed the prostitution statute to avoid infringement of First Amendment rights, but in doing do they inadvertently removed the portion of the law that made paying for sex illegal. The statute retained the laws against pimping, street prostitution, and human trafficking. In 2003, police conducted a sting named “Operation Rubdown,” during which women working in two spas offered sex to undercover police in exchange for money. A state district court judge dismissed the case against the women because no existing law had actually been broken. Prostitutes were able to operate legally from then until Nov. 2009, when the prostitution ban was reinstated. Brothels flourished in the state during the period, which gained notoriety for being the only location in the United States, outside several Nevada counties, where prostitution was not outlawed.