Due to a change to the state law related to street solicitation in 1980 that accidently made prostitution a legal act in Rhode Island as long as it was being performed indoors, economists Scott Cunningham from Baylor University and Manisha Shah from the University California, Los Angeles were able to study the effects of decriminalized prostitution on crime and public health. A recent case report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that a loophole created by the change of state law in 1980 may have resulted in fewer rape and gonorrhea cases.

“The results suggest that decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large — not just sex market participants,” Cunningham and Shah wrote in what they titled a working paper. “Decriminalization decreased prostitute arrests, increased indoor prostitution advertising and expanded the size of the indoor prostitution market itself.”

The research duo noticed a significant decrease in rapes in addition to a reduction in reported gonorrhea cases among men and women in Rhode Island after 2003, the year a court decision exposed the prostitution loophole left by the 1980 law change. Cunningham and Shah used several economic analysis models to understand the effect decriminalization and other possible factors may have played in this sudden decrease in rape and gonorrhea cases, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Researchers estimated that per-capita rape offenses had decreased by 31 percent and per-capita female gonorrhea cases by 39 percent following the decriminalization of indoor prostitution. They speculated the drop in rape cases may have been attributed to possible sexual offenders turning to indoor prostitution instead of sexual assault. The decrease in gonorrhea cases may have been the result of safer sex practiced by prostitutes who choose to work indoor rather than out on the street.

“Indoor prostitution was ultimately re-criminalized in 2009, but from 2003 to 2009, Rhode Island was the only state in the U.S. with unbridled decriminalized indoor prostitution and prohibited street prostitution with the decision being made in such a significant and unanticipated way,” Cunningham and Shah added.

Source: Cunningham S, Shah M. Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health. National Bureau of Economic Research. 2014.