What happens when you accidentally legalize prostitution?
July 18, 2014 6:30 AM   Subscribe

No wonder UNAIDS recommend decriminalization. If you look at the evidence on safety and rights, it's the only conclusion to come to. More punitive approaches are driven either by ideological misogyny or misguided attempts to help.
posted by imperium at 6:33 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Previously. RIP good social policy - it was criminalized again in 2009 after a really disgusting legislative battle.
posted by likeatoaster at 6:47 AM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm a little more curious about the sudden rise in rape starting in the late 1970s.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:48 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

likeatoaster: ...it was criminalized again in 2009 after a really disgusting legislative battle.

And when you do criminalize it again, you leave like half of the downtown storefronts vacant practically overnight.

It was like a post-apocolyptic movie: shop windows that had been filled with nothing more than a folding paper screen, a cheap plastic OPEN sign, and some artificial flowers were suddenly FOR RENT again in just a day or two. Some of them still haven't found new tenants (though the Sportsman's Hotel brothel over near the convention center recently re-opened as a boutique hotel).
posted by wenestvedt at 7:01 AM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

FYI, I'm one of the authors. I can answer specific questions.

IndigoJones - the specific answer is I think its possible the rise in reported rapes mirrors the rise in crimes more broadly starting around then. We see this for many crimes during the 1980s, as there was a large crime wave in the United States throughout the 80s.

For our estimation, though, we are using synthetic control to estimate the counterfactual ex post reported rapes and gonorrhea incidence. That estimator is explained here:


Essentially, if you read our original working paper (unpublished FYI), we explicitly match on covariates that are capable of reproducing approximately rhode islands pretreatment reported rapes (gonorrhea). This means therefore that reported rape (gonorrrhea) dynanmics unique to Rhode Island are being modeled by finding states that also exhibit those dynamics pretreatment. In laymans terms, our comparison control group is states that looked like Rhode Island for the decades prior to the 2003 decision.
posted by scunning at 7:12 AM on July 18, 2014 [61 favorites]

I think the rise in number of rapes may also have something to do with the de-stigmatization of rape that started in the 70s which led to higher rates of reporting of rape.
posted by mareli at 8:22 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

scunning: Is there more data about what happened after 2009? The graph in the linked article only goes up to 2010, and seems to show a small uptick, but it'd be very interesting to see if the incidence of rape went up after 2009. If that's the case, I think the argument for causation would be much stronger.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:47 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Joakim - Some but not all of the data is available. The rape and STD data is available, but our measures of the commercial sex market were only available through 2008. We are in the midst of collecting more data. We first have to see what the 2009 law did to the commercial sex markets before we can say whether it did or did not affect rapes or STDs.

Technically, though, I have been reluctant to conflate the 2003 and 2009 events. The 2003 event was a judicial decision that credibly exogenously reduced enforcement while simultaneously informing incumbents/defendants that (non-pandering forms of) prostitution was legal indoors. There was a decline in price consistent with a supply shock. We also show that incumbents immediately increased spending on advertising by taking out larger ads in the local newspapers. The 2003 decision, importantly, was not related to the potential outcomes -- it wasn't related to demographics, prostitution markets changing, rapes or STDs. It wasn't related to trafficking and any connection between trafficking and those outcomes. Bucci's 2003 decision was due to the fact the state didn't have a law prohibiting indoor sex work, but the police either didn't care about that fact or didn't know it.

The 2009 decision was endogenous by comparison. It was explicitly passed because of convincing testimony regarding sex trafficking in the state, and insofar as trafficking is related to these factors, we don't know how this confounds the analysis. And the 2009 decision shocked supply and demand simultaneously.

This is a long way of saying I think the 2009 event needs to be carefully thought through and studied, but it may not satisfy the same conditions that we use in our study.
posted by scunning at 10:26 AM on July 18, 2014 [12 favorites]

Wow, scunning. Those are some astonishing results.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:54 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

If anyone would mind, please email me if you have criticisms and comments. Things you think my coauthor and I need to do, or reconsider; or if there is some alternative specific hypotheses that you think are contaminating the analysis. Its scunning at gmail dot com. Or you can use my Baylor account which is scott underscore Cunningham at baylor dot edu.
posted by scunning at 12:25 PM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

I personally cannot see any solution to the sex trade that doesn't involve legalization, regulation (e.g. frequent STI testing, prostitutes' union, etc), and an onus on the clients to ask to see the card that says a given sex worker is in good standing with the union.

It's the world's oldest profession, next to politics, and it will NEVER go away. So regulate (for safety on all sides), tax (because all businesses are taxed), and place the onus on the clients to ensure they are visiting approved sex workers. Hire the services of a worker who isn't approved? You're contributing to trafficking and all sorts of other heinous bullshit. And you deserve to be pilloried for doing so.

But if your worker says "Here's my card, I'm in good standing, I am of legal age and this is the date of my last STI and HIV test," that is a win-fucking-win for EVERYONE involved.

I'm so sick to goddamn death of Western society pretending that sex is something incongruent with reality. People are going to pay for sex. Fact. Sex workers, when illegalized, are going to be at greater risk of assault and murder. Fact. FIX THOSE THINGS. You cannot stop people from paying for sex.

Yet again, harm reduction is the most rational response. Period.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:17 PM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have to say, I'm surprised to find myself somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that rape might be a rational act. Rape = an irrational response to an overpowering hormonal stimulus? Or, is it an overpowering hormonal stimulus that can be rationally transferred to a transactional act where each player is on more even footing? And, if so, why can't the overpowering hormonal stimulus be simply rationalized into inaction? So, an individual can have the wherewithal to choose to pay for a service to meet their needs or, if that service is illegal, take it by force. But the option of not taking it, for a statistically significant group of people, is not an option.

Yes, disturbing.

Of all the reasons I support decriminalizing prostitution, preventing rape was not one of them.
posted by amanda at 2:38 PM on July 24, 2014

Amanda - I appreciate the fact that you're struggling with the implications of the study, like me. Manisha and I pursued a variety of possible mechanisms by which the legalization could cause a reduction in sexual violence, and not all of them require the theory you're proposing. They are the following:

1. Police deterrence. One thing we know is that the 2003 decision caused police officers to reduce their arrests (to zero) of indoor sex workers. So to be concrete, let's say that prior to that, police spent 100 man hours allocated to arresting indoor sex workers. Then after 2003, some to all of the 100 man hours are available to police -- freed up by the decision. Legalization in other words has the effect of extending the budget of the police force because now they have more man hours to allocate to policing. Could some of those hours have been reallocated to policing sex crimes and in doing so, succeeded at deterring rapes? We know that there is a large amount of serial rape -- conditional on being a rapist, the number of rapes committed is more than one. (I'm on my phone otherwise I'd post links). So the deference theory is a possibility and if serial rape is deterred could explain the large declines in principle.

2. Externalities from Street crime displacement. Technically, the decision created a hybrid sex market. Outdoor prostituition was still illegal, but indoor sex work was legal. Thus, the decline in prices of indoor sex work that we document should have led to a substitution of male clients away from outdoor to indoor (at the margin). Now assume that street prostituition plays a supportive role in rape by helping support an ecology of dangerous outdoor conditions. If the outdoor markets decline, then its possible it could reduce those dangers by simply making those outdoor places emptier, and therefore less likely to be a place people walked anyway. This is assuming the rapes possibly were performed in such locations by strangers, which we unfoetunately cannot speak to using the uniform crime reports.

3. Improved bargaining for sex workers. This one should be obvious. If sex workers were raped but now are not as often due to the protections afforded them by working indoors, including personnel, locks on doors, security cameras and so forth, then legalization that funneled the work indoors while also removing barriers that caused sex workers to be unwilling to work with police, then legalization may reduce sexual violence.

4. Substitution theory. The 2003 decision caused a rightward shift in supply due to police being unable to successfully arrest and charge indoor workers with a loitering charge. This fall in arrest risk meant the cost of providing sex work indoors fell (as the likelihood a client is a police intending to arrest is now zero). This should increase supply, and lower prices. We find that it did increase supply, that the increase selected on the women with the characteristics of the defendants (ie massage parlor employees). We also find it lowered price. And we find that parlors began to spend more money on advertising. So ultimately, the two pieces of the substitution story would be (a) the advertising and (b) the fall in price. *If* a male is substituting, by definition it would be a male who is sensitive to price. Furthermore, if you think of a demand curve as not changing and a supply curve shifting, then rhe fall in price that occurs is selecting on clients who have the lower willingness to pay for sex work. Now perhaps that could because these men have low willingness to pay because they have some other relative inexpensive but not free alternative -- like coercive sex. Or if may simply speak to age. Younger males are going to have lower willingness to pay if only because they will have less income. Fwiw, we look at the age of males arrested for rape, and the declines that we are picking up were coming from young males.

Theories 1-3 are credible, but we cannot find evidence for them. People with whom we spoke in Rhode Island told us rape and prostitution were different divisions. And therefore it'd be unlikely for someone to be reallocated across divisions. The bargaining theory doesn't fit this either bc despite having high rape risks, sex workers have low reporting probabilities. So if they weren't likely reporting rapes pre 2003, then declines in rapes shouldn't impact reporting rapes.

Unfortunately that leaves the outdoor/indoor and substitution theories.

All we can really say right now is that rapes fell by 39% after legalization. The effect was large and doesn't have the appearance of being spurious. Why it may have fallen, I've presented some now. But its hard because we do not have a dataset on rapists and their spending. I don't think the data exists for getting any further down than this. So we have just done what we can do to rule out spurious correlation, and to implement various falsification exercises. The rape result is very large and should not be ignored.

To your point about the result making you uncomfortable and deterring rape *not* being a reason for legalization. I think the only think I can say to that is this: if legalizing prostituition caused 900 less rapes over six years period, I think you would want to know that, right? And if it did, perhaps all that it means is that we don't know nearly as much about different things that can impact rape as we thought. But if it does reduce rape, I think we are obligated to take it seriously, and incorporate that into our policy calculus regardless of his uncomfortable it makes us.

Ultimately science and the scientific method requires that we update our priors (in a particular way) when meaningful information comes to us. I think having worked on this to five years, I've come to believe that the quality of researh on policy and prostituition is weak, and this study IMHO is the single best study in the literature evaluation the effect of law and enforcement on public safety and healthy. Since we find such big effects, i think it should definitely be a part of ones consideration when debating legalization.
posted by scunning at 7:22 PM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thank you for your very considered and thoughtful reply, Scunning. I understand that the data is not there to draw additional conclusions but I appreciate the exploration of the possibilities.

I am in favor of decriminalization if only because I think the law is overly broad in this area without providing protection to the most vulnerable.

Thanks for doing this study — it's just the causal relationship does give one serious pause.
posted by amanda at 7:39 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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