Indoors To Underground: The Criminalization of Indoor Prostitution in Rhode Island

by by Maggie Lange

On Tuesday, Governor Don Carcieri confirmed a bill to criminalize indoor prostitution in the Ocean State after both chambers of the state Congress passed the bill last week. Rhode Island is the only state in which prostitution isn’t illegal. The emergence of “spas” and “massage parlors” has received growing attention in the past few years, and a movement emerged to fix the
law that allowed these indoor brothels to exist.

The strongest argument in favor of the bill concerned legal technicalities. Legislators indicated that they were not passing a new policy; rather, they were correcting a 29-year-old mistake in the state’s prostitution law. This legal loophole allowed prostitution to exist indoors, because it did not specifically cite it as illegal.

The bill criminalizes indoor prostitution, but treats prostitution differently from other nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, as it gives judges the discretion to clear convicted prostitutes’ records after one year. The bill offers no provision to expunge the record of johns, who will be fined more harshly under the bill. Punishment for prostitutes includes fines of $250 to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Johns will face fines of $500 to $1,000, up to a year in prison, or both. Landlords who knowingly house sex work would receive fines of $2,000 to $5,000 and up to five years in jail.

The approved legislation represents a compromise between the House and the Senate, after the two chambers failed to agree in May. The bill was passed to the governor after the state Senate cleared it last Thursday night by a 36-2 vote. The House overwhelmingly approved it the night before, 58-9. Neither the House nor the Senate particularly liked the bill, but there was a vehement sense of urgency to correct a problem that has gone relatively unnoticed for nearly 30
years. On the floor, the Senate bill’s sponsor, Senator Paul Jabour (D- Providence) said that the bill was “not perfect…it needs more work, but right now we need a bill.”


There is strong evidence that prostitution is only legal indoors in Providence by mistake. On October 27, Governor Carcieri, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, and State Police Superintendent Colonel Brenden Doherty signed a letter to the state Congress supporting the bill, and arguing that “the legislative intent, more than two decades ago, was to tighten the penalties on prostitution… not to drive prostitutes, their johns and pimps indoors, or to create a safe haven for
this industry.”

Senator John McBurney III is the only member of the current General Assembly who served in 1980 when the original prostitution bill was passed. He explained to the Providence Journal, “We probably vote on 500 bills a year...they didn’t know what they were voting for.” Legislators now argue that they are simply voting to help the law fulfill its original intent. However, McBurney’s testimony represents the easy trap of heedlessness that lawmakers can fall into when ap-
proaching complex legal language.

Rhode Island is the only state to have statewide legal prostitution; Nevada allows prostitution in certain counties, and heavily regulates these brothels. Because it is the result of a legal loophole, sex work in Rhode Island receives no state supervision or regulation.


It remains to be seen whether the bill, Bill S-596 Sub B, will make headway in ridding Rhode Island of prostitution. Even Representative Joanne Giannini, who drafted the House bill, answered to a question on the floor about whether the bill would stop sex work, “of course not…but will mean police will no longer be powerless,” reported the Providence Journal. Giannini failed to respond to phone calls or emails, from either the Providence Journal or the Independent.

Bill opponents worry that the law would drive prostitution further into a shadow economy. Rachel West, a representative of the US Prostitutes Collective in San Francisco, works to represent the
approximately 70,000 women in the American sex industry. West explained, “It will undermine women’s safety which we see every time this criminalization happens. It’s much safer [for the sex worker] to work inside, and most of this work is done inside independently with no force or coercion. Now, more women will be forced onto streets because they will be arrested for working inside.”

In August, a group of 50 academics from across the nation opposed Rhode Island’s ban on indoor prostitution in an open letter, arguing that sex workers who operate legally behind closed doors are less likely to suffer from physical abuse, drug abuse, have STDs, or disrupt the neighborhood. The letter explained, “Rhode Island’s current system of treating indoor and street prostitution differently is a step in the right direction. Criminalizing indoor sexual services is not
the answer.”

Tara Hurley, a filmmaker whose documentary film Happy Endings? depicted the life of a massage parlor worker and owner, said, “Once passed, the bill will be enforced, and mostly women will be
going to be put into the [prison] system.” She mentioned that most of the legislators that voted for the bill “do not believe it is the right solution, but they say it is all they have. I don’t know why they have to rush this law into existence. Are we in that much of a rush to put women in prison?  It will be interesting to see how much this costs the state in revenue in addition to the increased expense for investigations, trial, and prison.” West, from the US Prostitutes Collective, explained that many prostitutes are mothers, and jail sentences will break up their families.

Historically, the criminalization of sex work has been ineffective. The policy does not attempt to curb demand, and instead just serves to place the workers in a more precarious legal position. Usually, it has been detrimental, not to the johns seeking sex, but to the sex workers. Although the johns are prosecuted, it is the prostitutes who will bear the economic burden because this is their livelihood.


During the week of state Senate and House testimonies, supporters of the bill testified that Bill S-596 Sub B would allow police to fight pimps and sex-traffickers who enslave women and children. The bill’s supporters included representatives of the Governor’s Office, the State Police, the Attorney General’s Office, and the State Association of Police Chiefs, who all insisted that prostitution be considered a crime.

The legal counsel for the Department of Public Safety and the Rhode Island State Police, Lisa Holley, told the providence Journal, “We didn’t want anything resembling a ‘parking ticket’… That was a deal breaker for us.” When the legislation was in its formative stages, multiple options existed to regulate prostitution—including simple fines. However, representatives of the police department demanded an increase in power to systematically go after brothels.

The desire from police for a harsh crackdown on brothels comes after a September scandal in which police knowingly solicited donations from Providence “spas.” In a fundraising effort, the Fraternal Order of Police in Rhode Island sought money from spas, who paid for advertisements in
the official publication of the non-profit Rhode Island State Police Association—“The Rhode Island Trooper.” As a token of their contribution, and a type of protection against raids, the spas then affixed conspicuous stickers and police logos to their doors and windows.

The bill’s opponents included a variety of human rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Day One, Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and Direct Action Against Rights and Equality (DARE), as well as spa owners and workers.

The opposition testified that the link between human trafficking and sex work is dubious at best and this bill would just push prostitution underground. Rachel West explained human trafficking concerns are “really an agenda of immigration control. Politicians and so-called feminists get together and decide that women are trafficked into prostitution and therefore there should be more laws and more criminalization.”

Hurley testified before the state Congress. She said prostitution “will always exist because it provides an outlet for a basic human need. Making it completely illegal will only move it underground and make it more dangerous.” The opposition also argued it would cost the already financially burdened state more money by sending more citizens to prison.


The law will shut down about two dozen massage parlors in the state, according to Hurley. To protest the coming bills, over 30 women from spas around Rhode Island gathered at the Providence Community Center on October 25 to assert that they were not trafficked, forced, or victimized. They argued that they pay taxes and bring money into the state.

Hurley, who worked extensively researching and documenting spas all over Providence, testified before State Congress, “This is not a fun job. This is not a career these women got into because they thought it was going to be cool, and let’s not be confused by the propaganda; these women
are not girls, they are all over 30. This is a job they do to make money.”

A receptionist at a spa in downtown Providence agreed to an anonymous interview and explained that most of her clients are from out of state: “That’s why people come here, using money. That’s why [it’s] good for Providence, right?”

The interviewee, who works with two other women at the spa, added, “I think it’s very, very bad. We are working, but we cannot stay in this area—new law is very tough. I’m not mad, just worried about my life.” Now, her business will have to shut down or operate illegally.

Because the bill will go into effect immediately, the spa receptionist explained that she hasn’t had time to think about where they will go. The three women are from Korea and came to the US three years ago; all three have green cards. She said that they came to America to seek employment—“everybody who works here has kids and family.”


There is a clear link between immigration and prostitution–most of the spas in Providence advertise themselves as Asian and the women that work there are recent immigrants to the United States. Mimi Budnik, from DARE in Providence, explained this connection through economics:
“prostitution ends up being one of the few choices available to people that are marginalized from employment and other resources. So whether that’s poor people in general or people that lack education or people that lack opportunities to seek other forms of employment—across the board in those categories, immigrants are disproportionately affected.”

When the raids began in the past few years on brothels in Providence, a disproportionate number were on Asian massage parlors. Hurley believes this was a form of immigration control. In the early 2000s, only crimes of “moral turpitude” could change immigration status. Only two things qualify as a crime of “moral turpitude”—murder and prostitution.

Hurley explained, “The police would go into these massage parlors and they would take all the women and charge them with prostitution, and the women would say ‘oh okay, I’ll just plead guilty,’ even though there was no law, and then they would ruin their immigration status.”

These raids prompted a maelstrom of media and politicians claiming these women were trafficked. However, the numerous police reports, political speeches, and newspaper articles failed to speak to the women who may or may not have been trafficked. Hurley says the police didn’t use translators—and there was no way they could have communicated to these women. She says, “I was the first person to find out what the real story was going on. The politicians didn’t even take that step to pay for translators.”

Rachel West explained that Rhode Island and other states have a “focus on sex work that hides other kinds of exploitation. Agricultural work is never investigated—and it’s illegal indoors and outdoors.” West says that sex trafficking does not exist in a statistically significant way compared to other forms of human trafficking; she went on to posit that perhaps these groups focus on sex trafficking over other industries because prostitution is already a shadow economy, whereas if laborers in agriculture or factory industries were exposed, then tax-paying industries would bear a burden.

West said that the tie between human trafficking and prostitution is unfounded: “It’s based on absolutely distorted and wildly exaggerated figures of trafficking; there was an investigation in the UK recently, the biggest investigation ever done in sex trafficking, they went after sex workers. There were 822 raids on brothels, apartments, massage parlors and not one single person was found to be trafficked. The inquiry failed to find a single trafficker, and failed to find anyone forced into prostitution.”

Both Hurley and West said that when these women are actually interviewed, they usually explain that they have willingly entered into prostitution for economic purposes.

Although human trafficking and prostitution remain inextricably tied in political discourse and public imagination, the discourse may change. Along with the criminalization of prostitution and harsher age restrictions on strip club employees, both the Senate and the House unanimously passed legislation to strengthen laws to combat human trafficking, and created a provision to start a task force to determine whether or to what extent human trafficking for commercial sex exists in the state.


These recent laws passed with no provision for sex workers’ future paths besides incarceration. Representative Diver, one of the three dissenting votes at the House Committee Meeting, encouraged providing these women with victims’ services and job training, but his suggestion was not met. There was an ignored measure to postpone enforcement until July 2010 to allow prostitutes and their landlords more time to prepare for the enforcing of the law.

Both opponents of the bill and members of the Rhode Island Congress who signed it grieved that this was a hastily created bill and that it fails to think beyond the first step of criminalization. Hurley and other human rights spokespeople believed that the votes did not reflect what many state Congress-people actually believed—and they voted for Bill S-596 Sub B because supporting prostitution is a third rail.

Hurley explains, “Rhode Island had the chance to deal with this issue in a compassionate way. It is unfortunate that this issue has become so politicized; now we will be rushed into a human and civil rights disaster.”

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt in the state that the 1980 law resulted from a legal loophole and a legislative mistake. Yet, a Providence Journal poll of nearly 2,000 readers shows that two-thirds of respondents believe prostitution should remain decriminalized, and the state should “tax and regulate” rather than “incarcerate and re-incarcerate.” Although the original law resulted from a mistake, Rhode Islanders agree it’s one worth keeping.

MAGGIE LANGE B’11 just wanted a manicure.