What would happen if prostitution were “decriminalized.”

Rhode Island lawmakers did just that, from 1980 to 2009, inadvertently so. Responding to pressure from a group seeking to legalize prostitution, the legislature made prostitution a misdemeanor, but it also inadvertently removed language that made exchanging money for sex a crime if it took place indoors.

The mistake was rectified, but it gave UCLA public policy professor Manisha Shah and colleague Scott Cunningham of Baylor University a chance to see what happened when prostitution was pretty much legal in Rhode Island:


The duo examined rates of rape and STDs in Rhode Island from about 2003, the year a court case exposed the inadvertent legalization, to 2009, when the loophole was closed.

Their paper, Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health, published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the world's oldest profession prospered after 2003, when folks realized it was essentially legit.

Shah and Cunningham examined classified ads in the back of a local alternative weekly newspaper. According to a UCLA summary:

 … The number of massage parlors and online sex workers increased and transaction prices decreased after decriminalization.

Sort of like what happened with medical marijuana in L.A.

But more interesting than that is this: The pair found that rape decreased by almost one-third, down 31 percent. Gonorrhea decreased by 39 percent.

The authors concluded that …

 … decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large — not just sex market participants.

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