A Rhode Island lawmaker believes the state’s laws governing sex work are too punitive and she wants to create a 12-member commission to review possible changes.
“Certainly, it needs to be talked about simply because – and not only because – women are getting a bum rap and are unfairly being targeted and punished when realistically it shouldn’t be,” said Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence).
Prostitution has remained a staple in Rhode Island news, even after a loophole allowing indoor prostitution was eliminated in 2009.
The iconic Foxy Lady strip bar was briefly closed after police charged two women working there with prostitution. More recently, two Rhode Island women were charged with stealing a Boston police officer’s gun after a sexual liaison in the Ocean State.
Critics say vulnerable women are the ones who suffer most from the criminalization of the sex trade.
According to a bill introduced by Williams, H5354, “Criminalization of prostitution disproportionately impacts women, transgender individuals and people of color.” Her legislation points to findings showing that decriminalizing prostitution can improve public safety and public health.
If Williams' envisioned legislative commission moves ahead, it would face a February 2020 deadline for reporting its findings.
But former Rep. Joanne Giannini, who spearheaded the 2009 law that outlawed indoor prostitution, said she fears relaxing laws governing sex work would have a negative effect.
Speaking of her 2009 bill, Giannini said, “It did what it was intended to do -- give the police a tool,” to go after sex traffickers and johns. “And you need to have a tool. You can’t let everything run rampant.”
There were more than 30 “spas” – thinly veiled houses of prostitution --in the Providence area before Giannini’s bill became law and many of those appear to have faded from view.
The 2009 law backed by Giannini carried maximum penalties of six months in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both, for first-time offenders convicted of buying or selling sex.
But the former lawmaker acknowledges that prostitution continues in Rhode Island.
Giannini noted that Williams, as House Labor Committee chairwoman, is part of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team – a juxtaposition that shows, she said, that the envisioned legislative commission is a fait accompli.
“Absolutely not,” responded Williams. “My legislation, just like everybody else’s legislation in the chamber gets a fair chance on its merit. It’s not because of being in or out.”
Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said the speaker has not yet reviewed Williams’ bill.
The idea of decriminalizing sex work has been championed by progressives and liberals. In Rhode Island, Williams’ bill is supported by groups including the local chapter of COYOTE and the ACLU
“The ACLU was strongly opposed to the legislation that passed a number of years ago strengthening the state’s anti-prostitution laws,” said Steve Brown, executive director of the chapter. “We think that time has only shown that it has harmed and continues to harm women, often who have lots of other issues that the government should be helping them with instead of punishing them.”
Rhode Island lawmakers never intended to make indoor prostitution legal.
Back in 1980, the General Assembly passed a law meant to speed the prosecution of street walkers. But lawmakers unwittingly created a loophole decriminalization indoor prostitution.
The oversight didn’t attract much attention for years, until a 2003 court case made it clear that sex workers were free from prosecution if they performed their trade indoors.