Letter to Members of the Rhode Island State Legislature
LETTER TO MEMBERS OF THE RHODE ISLAND STATE LEGISLATURE
RE: PROSTITUTION LAW REFORM PROPOSAL, 2009
BY: Ronald Weitzer & Elizabeth Anne Wood, and signatories listed below
Rhode Island is currently the only state in the U.S. without a statute expressly prohibiting prostitution. State law bans loitering in public places, which is used to arrest street prostitutes, but does not ban solicitation itself, which leaves the indoor trade untouched because no loitering is involved. This may change soon. The state legislature recently passed a bill criminalizing prostitution, although the House and Senate versions differ and will require changes before the bill can be forwarded to the governor.
In the past few weeks, advocates of criminalizing prostitution have lobbied Rhode Island’s legislators and made frequent appearances in the media. Many of their assertions about prostitution are myths. Research shows that there is a world of difference between those who work the streets and those who sell sex indoors (in massage parlors, brothels, for escort agencies, or are independent workers).
Regarding street prostitution, the problems often associated with it are best understood as outcomes of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and runaway youth – suggesting that the best way to deal with street prostitution is to tackle these precursors rather than simply arresting the sellers.
Compared to street workers, women and men who work indoors generally are much safer and less at risk of being assaulted, raped, or robbed. They also have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, enter prostitution at an older age, have more education, and are less likely to be drug-dependent or have a history of childhood abuse. Indoor workers also tend to enjoy better working conditions, although this is naturally not the case everywhere.
Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will. We oppose coercive trafficking whether for sexual labor, agricultural labor, or any other type of work. But when trafficking is conflated with prostitution, as is so often done now, it confounds law enforcement’s ability to target their efforts to fighting human rights abuses in the trafficking sphere.
Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and several studies also find that indoor workers have moderate-to-high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. One Australian study found that half of the call girls and brothel workers interviewed felt that their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, and more than two-thirds said they would “definitely choose this work” if they had it to do over again. (This study was conducted in the state of Queensland, where indoor prostitution has been decriminalized.) In other studies, a significant percentage of escorts report an increase in self-esteem after they began selling sex. These findings may surprise some people, because they are not the kinds of stories reported in the media, which usually focus instead on instances of abuse and exploitation.
This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. We believe that worker safety should be a high priority in all industries. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse, and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, and is associated with the vulnerabilities of poverty, addiction and abuse. While these are issues that need to be addressed, it is important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.
Since street and indoor sex workers differ markedly in their working conditions, experiences and impact on the surrounding community, public policies should be cognizant of these differences rather than a monolithic, broad brush approach. Policy makers would also do well to listen to those doing the work; all too often, the views of the sex workers themselves are marginalized in public debates. Because street-based prostitution has negative impacts on neighbors, policies should address those impacts separately from indoor prostitution. Moreover, the opportunity to work indoors, in itself, helps to reduce the problems associated with street-based prostitution. Rhode Island’s current system of treating indoor and street prostitution differently is a step in the right direction. Criminalizing indoor sexual services is not the answer.
Signed by the following members of the academic community:
Ronald Weitzer, George Washington University
Elizabeth Wood, Nassau Community College, a unit of the State University of New York
Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University, Canada
Barbara Brents, University of Nevada
Lisa Wade, Occidental College
Janet Lever, California State University, Los Angeles
Elaine Mossman, Victoria University, New Zealand
Susan Dewey, DePauw University
Christine Milrod, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality
Mindy Bradley-Engen, University of Arkansas
Molly Dragiewicz, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada
Ann Lucas, San Jose State University
Frances Shaver, Concordia University, Canada
Ariel Eisenberg, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Juline Koken, National Development and Research Institutes, Public Health Solutions
Larry Ashley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Barry Dank, California State University, Long Beach
Richard Lotspeich, Indiana State University
Tamara O’Doherty, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Canada
Lauren Joseph, Stony Brook University
Crystal Jackson, University of Nevada
Gayle MacDonald, St. Thomas University, Canada
Daniel Sander, New York University
Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
John Betts, New York University
Suzanne Jenkins, Keele University, UK
Benjamin Reed, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Anna Kontula, University of Tampere, Finland
Janell Tryon, New York University
Mindy Chateauvert, University of Maryland
Jessie Daniels, City University of New York - Hunter College
Rachel Hsiung, New York University
Gillian Abel, University of Otago, New Zealand
Deborah Brock, York University, Toronto, Canada
Elizabeth Nanas, Wayne State University
Charles Watson, Curtin University, Australia
Wendy Chapkis, University of Southern Maine
Ilona Margiotta, New York University
Jennifer Manion, Connecticut College
Lyle Hallowell, Nassau Community College
Emily van der Meulen, York University, Toronto, Canada
Rebecca Chalker, Pace University
Gilbert Geis, University of California, Irvine
Rachael Stern, New York University
Lynn Comella, University of Nevada
Alessandro De Giorgi, San Jose State University
Martin Schwartz, Ohio University
William Chambliss, George Washington University
Kelley Moult, American University