An unintended experiment in Rhode Island found that when prostitution conducted indoors was decriminalized due to a loophole in the law, there was a decrease in rape and cases of gonorrhea. The Wall Street Journal reports:
A loophole in Rhode Island law that effectively decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003 also led to significant decreases in rape and gonorrhea in the state, according to a new analysis published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“The results suggest that decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large – not just sex market participants,” wrote economists Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Manisha Shah of the University of California, Los Angeles, in a working paper issued this month.
Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Shah got an opportunity to study the effects of decriminalized prostitution on crime and public health because Rhode Island lawmakers made a mistake. A 1980 change to state law dealing with street solicitation also deleted the ban on prostitution itself, in effect making the act legal if it took place indoors. The loophole apparently went unnoticed until a 2003 court decision, and remained open until indoor prostitution was banned again in 2009.
As you might expect, the economists found that decriminalizing indoor prostitution was a boon to the sex business. “Decriminalization decreased prostitute arrests, increased indoor prostitution advertising and expanded the size of the indoor prostitution market itself,” they wrote.
Rhode Island also saw “a large decrease in rapes” after 2003, while other crimes saw no such trend in the state, they wrote. There also was “a large reduction in gonorrhea incidence post-2003 for women and men,” they wrote.
The economists then used several economic models to track the decriminalization’s effects versus other possible causes. They found “robust evidence across all models that decriminalization caused rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to decrease.” One model estimated a 31% decrease in per-capita rape offenses and a 39% decrease in per-capita female gonorrhea cases due to the decriminalization of indoor prostitution.
This sounds like a strong argument for decriminalizing prostitution.