Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the effect of legalizing indoor prostitution?

In 2009 I wrote a blog post about the unusual situation in Rhode Island, in which a change in legislation had inadvertently made only outdoor prostitution illegal:

Where it's illegal for prostitutes to give massages

The complicated legal situation in Rhode Island makes indoor prostitution legal, but requires masseurs to be licensed, so prosecutors "brought charges against alleged brothels for performing unlicensed massages."
(That was a situation that Cheap Talk characterized as "happy endings but no beginnings.").

But now a serious paper has been written on the effect of this change (which was reversed later in 2009):

Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health

Scott CunninghamManisha Shah

NBER Working Paper No. 20281
Issued in July 2014
NBER Program(s):   HE      LS   LE 
Most governments in the world including the United States prohibit prostitution. Given these types of laws rarely change and are fairly uniform across regions, our knowledge about the impact of decriminalizing sex work is largely conjectural. We exploit the fact that a Rhode Island District Court judge unexpectedly decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003 to provide the first causal estimates of the impact of decriminalization on the composition of the sex market, rape offenses, and sexually transmitted infection outcomes. Not surprisingly, we find that decriminalization increased the size of the indoor market. However, we also find that decriminalization caused both forcible rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to decline for the overall population. Our synthetic control model finds 824 fewer reported rape offenses (31 percent decrease) and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea (39 percent decrease) from 2004 to 2009.

The story has been picked up:
Here's Vox,  Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution, and good things happened
That post concludes as follows
"Why is this research important?

"According to a 2013 estimate, prostitution is an industry that generates over $14 billion annually in the United States. That's despite the fact that it's almost universally illegal across the country, save for some regulated brothels in some parts of Nevada. (Recall that Rhode Island recriminalized sex work in 2009.)

"Despite the industry being huge and persistent, almost everything we know about decriminalizing prostitution is rooted in speculation, rather than good data.

"Prior research has been plagued by problems, like relying on small sample sizes that aren't necessarily representative of the industry. According to the authors, most of the studies that exist examine street prostitution, even though 85 percent of all sex-work activity is considered part of the indoor market.

"Sex work is a predictably fraught policy issue, because it gets entangled in matters of morality. But this study adds to a body of research that suggests criminalizing prostitution causes higher rates of victimization and unsafe practices."

And the Washington Post weighs in here, with a wider discussion of prostitution and its repugnance,

For those of you who don't know Scott Cunningham, he's a serious student of the dark side of the economy...see a previous post on his work here.

1 comment:

Paul Walker said...

Has anyone thought of looking at a country with legal prostitution? I speak, of course, of New Zealand. Lots of data to be had.