Until earlier this month, Rhode Island was the only place in the country where prostitution was legal across an entire state — because of an unintended loophole in the law. But the move to close that loophole is fueling concerns that victims of the sex trade are being put at even more risk.
Back in 1980, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law meant to speed the prosecution of streetwalkers. But in the process, legislators unwittingly decriminalized prostitution that took place indoors. This loophole didn't attract much notice for years.
Then, in 2003, a court case made it clear that prostitutes were free from prosecution if their sex trade occurred behind closed doors. The result has been a growing number of so-called Asian spas that critics say are thinly veiled brothels.
On Nov. 3, Gov. Donald Carcieri closed the loophole by signing a bill that immediately banned indoor prostitution. "Prostitution, outdoors or indoors, is a bad thing," he announced. "I think it's been a black eye, frankly, in our state, that we've allowed this to go, for whatever the reason is, for far too long."
Cleaning Up Main Street
Law offices and other small businesses dominate South Main Street in Providence, not far from downtown and the state attorney general's office.
Above a hair salon, there's a "spa" that advertises "Hot and Sexy Asian Girls" who are waiting to pamper visitors. An Internet listing for the business shows an attractive young Asian woman wearing a camisole and thong underwear. At last count, there were more than 30 spas in Rhode Island, most of them in Providence, the state's largest city.
Attorney General Patrick Lynch says the new law will allow law enforcement to shut down these spas if they continue to offer sexual services, and to go after organizations that exploit women as prostitutes.
"We're going to look to cut to that source and to shut it down," Lynch says. He predicts that the law will also have a deterrent effect.
"You'll see a dramatic drop in the number of brothels that are allegedly open in the state and the business that they do," he says.
Putting Victims At More Risk?
But even the main legislative sponsor of the new law acknowledges that it won't end prostitution. And critics like state Rep. Rod Driver say it will hurt women forced into the sex trade by poverty or drug addiction.
"The proponents of the bill keep talking about the victims — the victims being the women that are in this profession," he says. "So we're going to help the women by putting them in prison, and I have a real problem with that."
The new law carries maximum penalties of six months in prison, a $1,000 fine or both for first-time offenders convicted of buying or selling sex.
Streetwalking has remained illegal all along in Rhode Island. And critics of the new law say most of the women locked up at the state prison are already there for crimes related to on-street prostitution.
Judging the actual impact of Rhode Island's new law will take time. Even some legislative supporters call it an imperfect measure. But, they say, they're open to making changes.