Advocates of decriminalizing prostitution say that keeping the practice illegal just pushes it further underground, and thus makes sex workers less safe.

Williams hasn't exactly endorsed that position, but she wants the legislature to consider it by commissioning a study.

"It's a conversation that needs to be had," Williams told a House committee. "By talking about it, by presenting the facts, by looking at the issue face-on ... we will be able to come up with sound solutions."

Opponents of decriminalizing prostitution say it wouldn't do much to combat human trafficking. In fact, some studies suggest that allowing sex work increases trafficking, because condoning the practice sometimes increases demand.

Another bill before the statehouse would beef up standards on massage therapists. In the past months more than a dozen people have been arrested in raids at massage parlors in Providence and Pawtucket, in connection with prostitution. State Sen. Josh Miller, one of the bill's sponsors, says he wants consumers to be able to differentiate between above-board massage therapists and "those who do something else."