Science and Responsibility: A response to Margaret Brooks and Donna Hughes

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Margaret Brooks and Donna Hughes of Citizens Against Trafficking (CAT) criticise our lettter to the Rhode Island legislature of July 31st raising concerns about proposed criminalisation of sex work. . In their article "International Sex Radicals Campaign to Keep Prostitution Decriminalized in Rhode Island" they claim the presence of an international conspiracy.

Science involves responsibility and those responsibilities take several forms. Scientists have a scientific responsibility to ensure that research in their field is both valid and reproducible and that the conclusions accurately reflect the methods used and the data obtained. This is the essence of peer review and academic critique, since theories gain credibility through their resistance to refutation.

Scientists have a moral responsibility to those who participate in their research (in this case those who work in the sex trade) to ensure that the research is reported accurately and that the research subjects are not harmed by their voluntary participation.

Scientists have a social responsibility to ensure that the results of their research are translated into sound public policy to benefit society.

Governments and other research funding agencies require scientists to rapidly disseminate their findings, ensure that they are shared with the people on whom the research was carried out, and are translated into overall benefit for the State and the population. To this end they encourage the formation of formal knowledge networks on which scientists share their results and plans, collaborate, and consult with representatives of the populations studied.

In sex work research a recent addition to knowledge networks has been the Centers for Sex Work Research and Policy (CSWRP). Professor Elizabeth Wood of New York is the convenor of the US network, Professor Michael Goodyear in Canada is the international convenor. Collaborative networks have also been established in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

There is no international campaign to keep indoor sexual exchange decriminalised in Rhode Island. However certain supporters of the proposed legislative changes have created sufficient publicity as to draw international attention to Rhode Island’s laws on this issue.  Statements made in support of changing the law created sufficient concern among researchers and those who provide health and social services to sex workers that CSWRP decided to investigate the situation and to attempt to create some balance by ensuring that legislators based their decisions on factual information rather than rhetoric, emotion and ideology.

The consensus among the academic community who study sex work, including sex work regulation is that there is no evidence that sex work is intrinsically harmful or violent, but rather that oppressive and punitive laws and policing create situations that encourage violence. The most recent example of this was published in the British Medical Journal on August 11th by Professor Kate Shannon of Vancouver Canada. Professor Shannon and colleagues studies of disadvantaged outdoor sex workers demonstrate that the major determinants of violence against female sex workers are homelessness, access to services, laws and policing.[1]

CSWRP is concerned that none of these factors is likely to be improved by proposed legislation in Rhode Island, but rather worsened. Furthermore by essentially closing down the much safer and larger indoor market, and forcing more women out on to the street, violence and health problems are likely to escalate sharply. The proposals in Rhode Island are in sharp contrast to the carefully researched situation in New Zealand where similar concerns about protecting workers led to the removal of sexual exchange from the criminal law, a legislative move which appears to have been successful. [2]

Brooks and Hughes questions why academics living or working outside Rhode Island would want to take an interest in Rhode Island. This concern on their part runs contrary to all scientific principles. It is unclear as to why she should consider Rhode Island to somehow be immune to international scrutiny and accountability. Such a situation would not be in the interests of Rhode Islanders. We are not convinced that there are any unique factors related to sex work in Rhode Island that make it an exception to principles which have proved to be reasonably robust in all other jurisdictions.

Rather it is Rhode Island’s unique legal situation within the United States that makes it a subject of study by the international community seeking evidence that the lack of criminalisation has in any way harmed Rhode Island or Rhode Islanders.

CSWRP is also concerned that rather than study and debate the overwhelming factual evidence against criminalisation, they have instead chosen to attack the 50 signatories of the letter sent to the General Assembly by members of the academic community. Many researchers who were unable to be reached prior to July 31st have expressed an interest in signing a second letter. The academic community is also concerned that Brooks and Hughes have chosen to ignore the strong tradition of academic freedom and the citizen’s right of free speech to attempt to discredit the opinions expressed. Those opinions were based on fact and the personal lives of the signatories are irrelevant. To threaten the employment of one signatory is especially concerning.

CSWRP is also concerned that Brooks and Hughes and CAT appear to ignore the very people whose lives are most likely to be affected by the legislation – the sex workers themselves. We note from the CAT website that the official anti-trafficking organization in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, does not support their position, which suggests that the former are a fringe organisation. [3]

We would urge the General Assembly to treat Brooks and Hughes’ submission for what they appear to be, personal moralizing unsupported by fact, and to base public policy in the State of Rhode Island on rational evidence based legislation.


1. Shannon, K, T Kerr, S A Strathdee, J Shoveller, J S Montaner, M W Tyndall. Prevalence and structural correlates of gender based violence among a prospective cohort of female sex workers. British Medical Journal. August 11, 2009.

2. Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. New Zealand Ministry of Justice, 2008

3. CAT