Last Christmas, a police operation shut down the Foxy Lady on prostitution charges, but it was only a short decade ago that sex work was effectively decriminalized in RI. In a confluence of events that truly was peak Rhode Island, sometime in the early 2000s, a federal judge discovered a legal loophole going back to 1980 — the General Assembly had unknowingly legalized indoor prostitution. Lawmakers back then were focused on decreasing street prostitution, and its specific wording failed to mention prostitution not on the street.
Sex work is a local issue in many ways; different kinds of sex work come with different penalties that can vary state by state or even city by city. Most definitions of sex work encompass traditional prostitution, cam girls, strippers, escorts — anyone who sells their sexual labor. Sex workers face stigma — social, legal or otherwise — and they’ve faced waves of moralizing anti-trafficking legislation that doesn’t always help the sex worker or devote effective police resources to trafficking.
“Stigma creates violence,” says Bella Robinson, found and executive director of COYOTE RI. Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) RI restarted in 2009 after re-criminalization. They’re an organization of sex workers, former sex workers, allies and trafficking victims who advocate for policies that promote the health and safety of people in the sex industry.
Sex workers rely on each other to increase their safety, health and mental well-being. They share bad client lists, which helps them screen out physically ill or dangerous clients, and provide direct support networks. Increased police surveillance negatively impacts these safe practices as everyone gets caught up in the dragnet.
Some interesting statistics on public health came out during Rhody’s unique stretch of decriminalized prostitution that proved the effectiveness of these informal support networks when police aren’t around. The most startling statistic that came from police records and the CDC is that reports of rape went down 30% and incidents of gonorrhea went down 40%. All from a mere handful of years of decriminalized sex work.
COYOTE RI is starting small, with harm reduction measures as one of the first priorities. They’re seeking legislative support for a bill that would make it illegal for a police officer to have sex with someone in their custody. Yes reader, that’s not already illegal.
National organizations also are taking note. “We’re hoping to start with Rhode Island because they’ve already done it,” says Kaytlin Bailey. Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) is a new nationwide organization that’s tackling sex worker rights on a state-by-state basis. While the ultimate goal is ending the prohibition, they’re starting small. DSW (not the shoe store) will lobby for a study commission so state lawmakers can see the positive effects of decriminalization.
“We’ve been focused on criminalization for a long time,” said Bailey. “And we have a simple question: Does that work?” DSW believes it hasn’t, and there are studies and data to back it up. “If you want to crack down on trafficking, if you want to crack down on rape, if you want to crack down on homicide against women, we believe decriminalization is the best way to do that.”