Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The accidental experiment with legal prostitution in Rhode Island

A scholarly paper and an easy to read-or-listen-to NPR report recount the period in which indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island.

The paper (forthcoming in Review of Economic Studies):

Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution:Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health  by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah

Most governments in the world, including the United States, prohibit sex work.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 sex work to provide causal estimates of the impact of decriminalization on the composition of the sex market, reported rape offenses, and sexually transmit-ted infections.  While decriminalization increases the size of the indoor sex market, reported rape offenses fall by 30 percent and female gonorrhea incidence declines by over 40 percent.

And here's the NPR report and podcast:
Prostitution decriminalized: Rhode Island’s experiment

It's worth reading, with lots of interesting bits, and links.  Here is a section of the transcript that struck me:

"So, what did she and her colleague, Scott Cunningham at Baylor University, find?
The obvious: sex work exploded.
But then, the not so obvious: female gonorrhea rates statewide plummetedduring the overt decriminalization period.
"It goes down by around 40 percent," Shah said. "We spent a lot of time beating up the data and estimating these things in different ways, and we just can't get the results to go away, regardless of what we do, they're there.
A forty percent drop is a big deal in the world of public health. Shah thinks one of the reasons for this positive outcome is that legalization empowered sex workers to say no to riskier sexual behavior. She also wonders if newer people were entering the market and didn't have as big of an STD risk.
Still, perhaps even more surprising than the decrease in gonorrhea was another public health development. Sexual violence, or rapes, dipped dramatically. And this wasn't just amongst sex workers. It was across the board, according to FBI crime reports and jurisdiction level data.
"Reported rape offenses decreased by about 30 percent," Shah said.
That's another big decrease. Shah says, if anything, you'd expect rape to go up as when prostitution is decriminalized, sex workers are more likely to report rapes. She compared this to neighboring states, too. The drop was only in Rhode Island. So she examined other crime data in Rhode Island, like burglaries and murders, to see if there had just been a drop in crime generally.
It didn't match. So what happened?
That, she says is harder to answer. She has a theory, though, in that while she knows for some men rape is about power, "I think the argument that we're making is that that might not be true for all men, and for some, these activities could be substitutes."
In other words, for some men, rape may be just about sex. And if there's a legal and accessible market for it, the number of rapes in a community may go down.
This has not been a popular theory or study. And for many, it challenges the notion that rape is about violence and power, and not sex.
"So I consider myself a feminist, but I think this finding angers a lot of feminists," Shah said. "It is a very controversial idea."
And then there's that other controversial area: could decriminalization fuel sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
"I definitely worry about that," Shah said. "It's an area that I would love to, to be able to do more with."
Still Shah believes there's no solid evidence yet that decriminalizing prostitution does lead to an increase in trafficking women and forcing them into prostitution.
"There is not good empirical evidence for this either way, and part of that is because it's just very, very hard to collect good data on numbers of human trafficking."
Scott Cunningham has been studying black markets for some time, and I'm a long time fan of his work. Here are some of my earlier posts covering it.

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