What happened when Rhode Island accidentally legalised prostitution?

The World Health Organisation has called for sex work to be decriminalisedVox presents some interesting evidence for why this might be a good idea. It comes from a rather embarrassing slip up by Rhode Island’s politicians:

The state’s legislature amended a law in 1980, believing that the law inadvertently outlawed some forms of consensual sex between adults. That amendment created a legal loophole — one that sat unnoticed until 2003, when a District Court judge interpreted it to mean that paying for consensual sex was not a criminal offense in Rhode Island, not if it took place privately indoors. It took the state until 2009 to close the loophole. The state’s little legal accident was a bit embarrassing. But it did have a silver lining: it could serve as a “natural experiment,” allowing researchers to estimate causal effects of decriminalizing sex work. In a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah look at the six years when residents knew prostitution in Rhode Island wasn’t a crime. And they show evidence that Rhode Island’s decriminalization caused a steep decline in both forcible rape offenses and the incidence of gonorrhea.

In the interests of fairness I should say that this post goes on to add some caveats, the most important of which is that we don’t know why decriminilisation resulted in a reduction in rape and gonorrhea. That said it is still a pretty striking. None of this of course means we have to like prostitution – I certainly don’t – but it does suggest that (like with drugs) criminalising it will not get rid of it but may well make it more dangerous.

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