Rhode Island: The next step

Michael's picture

In writing our letter to the Rhode Island legislature in July of this year, we were forced to depart from our usual position of building and bridging communities by the political realities. Nor was it easy for us to explain to the politicians how the bills` supporters conflated and generalised information from one sector of a highly diversified activity without appearing to privilege the indoor market.

As it so happened, our decision to send a letter from the academic community was reasonably effective. Predictably we were attacked by the extreme right wing as perverts and pedophiles.  We now need to move on to the planned second stage, a letter from the rest of the community involved in sex work, and also an opportunity for those who were unable to sign the first letter.

Elizabeth Wood and I have drafted a second letter (below). Please read it carefully, keeping in mind (i) the political realities in Rhode Island (solicitation, and hence the outdoor market, is illegal, and it is now intended to criminalise the act of sexual exchange, effectively making the indoor market illegal), (ii) the intent of the letter (to persuade local State politicians not to proceed with enacting the legislation), and (iii) that it comes from people in a position to understand sexual exchange and the effects of regulation. Do not sign it if you have already made a submission. 

We welcome your comments, either here or by email to us, since we are not wedded to the exact text. If you decide to lend your name to this letter, please email us providing the following information;

Name, location

Profession if relevant and likely to carry weight as having credibility

Organisational affiliation if relevant


Mary Smith, Providence, Rhode Island, Social Worker

John Brown, Social Justice Center, New York

Susan White, Sex Work Clinic, San Francisco


Michael Goodyear



Elizabeth Wood


TinyURL for this page: http://is.gd/2au8F


As individuals who have either knowledge of or experience with sex workers and sex work and its regulation we wish to express our concerns about the consequences of the proposed legislation.  Our intent is neither to condone nor condemn sex work but to express our concern regarding many of the public statements that have resulted from the introduction of these bills, which we believe to be not only untrue but also harmful to the people  involved in such work.

 Many of the statements made in support of the legislation are misleading. For instance they frequently generalize from studies on certain subpopulations of sex workers. Sex workers  are a  very diverse population. In particular descriptions of sex work frequently refer to a subset of  outdoor workers referred to as 'survival sex workers'  who have multiple health and social problems and are often studied in outreach centers, clinics and detention facilities where they form a convenient  sample for researchers. These people often have chaotic lives, are effectively street people who sell sex in desperation, often for illegal substances, and should be considered from a policy perspective as people with addiction problems, not simply sex workers, the selling of sex often being incidental. Sex workers in this sector represent only a very small proportion of the total population of sex workers, and while the current legislation creates many problems for them, it is totally inappropriate to generalize any research findings from this group, or to make comments about the essential nature of sex work based on these studies.

 We appreciate that part of the motive of the proponents and supporters of these bills is to protect sex workers, but  the proposed measures will not provide any protection, but rather will inflict much personal and social harm. In addition, this legislation will place a large burden on law enforcement, and the criminal justice and correctional systems and divert resources away from more urgent needs. A number of the problems that outdoor workers face arise from social conditions that urgently require addressing, but reducing economic opportunity and increasing punitive policing can only make conditions worse. A number of studies have shown that it is the effect of unjust laws and the resulting stigma that create many of the problems that have concerned legislators, and make working conditions increasingly unsafe. 

The burden of the proposed legislation will fall mainly on those in the indoor market. Despite what supporters of the bills have stated, there is little evidence to suggest that indoor workers pose any threats to social order, or constitute any harm that justifies placing them under the criminal law. Much of the justification of the proposed legislation comes from people who have campaigned against human trafficking – the forced migration of individuals against their will. Yet most researchers, experts and organizations concerned with combating trafficking are completely against criminalizing sex work because of a belief that this will make matters worse not better. The supporters of these bills represent a small but emotionally persuasive minority of opinion on the relationship between trafficking and sex work, relying heavily on rhetoric rather than fact, and do the campaign to combat trafficking a great disservice by deflecting attention away from the many other sectors that exploit trafficking victims, including  domestic, factory and farm labor. Only in a transparent and legal environment can victims of trafficking be assisted and protected. Criminalization has always attracted organized crime and violence, lessons that were learned tragically from the prohibition of alcohol and the war on drugs.

Contrary to information provided to the Assembly, many studies on sex workers show no difference in stress levels or health from those employed in other personal service industries. Some studies have also focused on the role of sex workers in counseling, personal care of  disadvantaged groups, such as the disabled, and in health promotion. The Government of New Zealand funded sex workers as partners to combat sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, and similar arrangements have been made in other countries such as Australia. Similarly those countries that have changed their laws to remove sex work from the criminal law have not shown the harmful social effects predicted by opponents. The evidence  for this includes the official investigations of the effects of the changes in the laws in the Netherlands and New Zealand, contrary to what legislators have been told by the  bills' supporters. Sex workers are not asking to be rescued, they are asking for equal protection and working conditions under the law.

Rhode Island may be unique in its laws within the United States, but certainly is not unique on the world stage. If the arguments advanced about the harm of sex work in support of these bills were true, Rhode Island should have a much higher level of social problems than the rest of the United States. No evidence has been advanced to substantiate this, nor does evidence from the rest of the world support such claims.

 We strongly advise the General Assembly to consider what are credibly established  facts over emotion and rhetoric, and to examine the likely consequences of criminalizing a consensual sexual interaction between adults. These include wasteful use of public funds, increased danger for many women and men, especially those with limited economic opportunities, a misdirection of attention away from the realities of human trafficking and increased crime and violence. We urge you not to pursue a course of action that can benefit no one and that will create many new problems for the State of Rhode Island.