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Letter to Members of the Rhode Island State Legislature

July 2009

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

Wendy Chapkis, University of Southern Maine

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

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

 

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