Sex Sells

the fight to end prostitution in Rhode Island continues

by by Jonah Wolf

illustration by by Michelle Nguyen

On April 9, after complaints from neighbors led to the issue of a warrant, police raided Warwick's Asian Fantasy Escort Services. The company had placed an ad on Craigslist, offering "Warm Soothing Body Rubs / Relieve Stress / Total Body Relaxation / Lots of Excitement / Detailed and Attention / Fun & Satisfying." There, the police questioned three Korean women but made no arrests. Police major Joseph H. Tavares told the ProJo that he was investigating "the possible pimping of these women, and the potential for trafficking."


Tavares declined to use the word "prostitution," something he had no duty to investigate since, in Rhode Island, the act of selling sex of one's own volition is not a crime. While Nevada issues permits for its smaller counties outside of Las Vegas and Reno to operate brothels, Rhode Island is the only state in the country where prostitution is legal statewide; the only current restrictions are against street solicitation and pandering. This loophole has existed since 1980, when the national group COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics) petitioned the state. Since then, prostitution has flourished in as many as 32 brothels, many of which advertise as massage parlors on Craigslist and in the back pages of the Providence Phoenix, and which often employ Korean immigrants.

In 2006, Mayor Cicilline helped to found the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The following year, RICAHT helped to pass a specific resolution against sex-trafficking, which it defines as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act induced through force, fraud or coercion." But despite regular police raids on massage parlors and widespread suspicion of trafficking, as yet, no case has been prosecuted. Recently, 'spas' like Asian Fantasy have most often been charged with being unlicensed to provide massages.

Two days before the Warwick raid, representative Joanne Giannini and Senator Rhoda Perry reintroduced a bill to bring Rhode Island in line with the rest of the country by finally outlawing prostitution. First-time offenders would face six months in prison and a $250 fine; Giannini also proposed an equal penalty for johns. For the last two years, Giannini has annually introduced similar legislation, with minimal results. In the past, prostitution's biggest defender has been the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which fears possible jail sentences for women coerced into prostitution. This time around, Giannini has responded by proposing to exempt
such victims.

RICAHT, led by RISD professor Tammy Dudman, has no desire to close the infamous loophole, which Thomas Connell, spokesman for the US Attorney's Office, described to the ProJo as a hurdle against successful prosecutions. Federal officers often threaten arrests to coerce reticent prostitutes into identifying their traffickers. Last Tuesday, RICAHT filled the state house rotunda with supporters of S-605, an amendment to protect child victims of sex-trafficking who previously carried the burden of proving that they had been forced into prostitution. Perry, Giannini and Dudman were all in attendance; other speakers included Laura Pisaturo of the Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource Center, who detailed the conditions of a brothel she had visited, and Tina Frundt of Courtney's House, who described her own experience of being forced into prostitution as a teenage runaway. Reverend Don Anderson of the RI Council of Churches drew the event's biggest applause with his announcement that "Rhode Island will no longer be America's safe haven for human traffickers," before yielding the stage to folk singer Julie Jennings, who led the crowd in a sing-along of "Give Peace a Chance."

While the police have found no evidence that the women questioned in Warwick were victims of trafficking, they have found links between Asian Fantasy and two other 'spas,' one in Central Falls and one in Providence. Rhode Island's anti-trafficking crusaders are once again left waiting for progress.

JONAH WOLF B'12 recycles the Adult Section of the Providence Phoenix.