Everybody knows Amsterdam and parts of Nevada are the places to go if you want legalized prostitution. You can add Rhode Island to the list (sort of). It turns out prostitution is "legal" there, if the solicitation occurs indoors instead of the street. Now the state legislature is moving to close a loophole lawmakers passed by mistake 30 years ago.
According to a report on MSNBC.com, back in 1976 a group filed a lawsuit, arguing that the state cannot ban purely private sexual activity between adults, even if money is involved. The disputed statute was so restrictive that a federal judge found it could potentially ban even some forms of consensual sex between adults.
At around the same time, residents of Providence complained that prostitutes were flooding the streets, soliciting customers. So legislation was passed that outlawed only paid sex, and cracked down on those making solicitations outside. A federal judge who later analyzed the statute ruled it also had the effect of making indoor prostitution legal.
Former House Speaker Matthew J. Smith said lawmakers never meant to draw a distinction between indoor and outdoor prostitution. He said it's long past the time to make the law clear:
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"There's no choice. We're the laughing stock of the country."
Rep. Joanne Giannini is sponsoring the bill to close the loophole:
"We're going to become a safe haven for the sex industry. I don't think that Rhode Island should have this dubious distinction."
Giannini said many of the women who work in the Rhode Island sex trade are victims of human trafficking, smuggled into this country and forced into the business. She says without a strong anti-prostitution law it is hard for law enforcement to help these women.
But some activists say closing the loophole will actually hurt the women. They say the women will be arrested, and having a criminal record will make it harder for them to leave the sex industry. Giannini said her bill would allow the women to claim at trial that they were coerced or threatened into being prostitutes, or had their immigration papers stolen.
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But that does not satisfy the state branch of the National Organization for Women or the Rhode Island Commission on Women, which withdrew its support for the bill. The commission's executive director, Shanna Wells, wants a guarantee that trafficking victims won't be charged in the first place:
"You're arresting her and she'd have to go through this whole legal process before she could even defend herself."
Andrea Ritchie, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, who has lobbied against the bill, adds:
"We would never arrest a domestic violence victim in the hope we could get her to cooperate against her abuser."
The bill passd the state House last month. Now it's on to the Senate for a vote.