No Return to Legal Brothels

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A hearing was held on by the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee on April 30, 2019 to address whether the prostitution laws should be changed. The resolution, H 5345 (House Resolution Creating a Special Legislative Commission to Study the Health and Safety Impact of Revising Commercial Sexual Activity Laws), is sponsored by Anastasia Williams, Edith Ajello, Camille Vella-Wilkins, Joseph Almeida, and Moira Walsh.

There are a number of additional measures that could be made to the prostitution and sex trafficking laws in Rhode Island, such as providing services to assist women to exit prostitution, and tougher penalties for perpetrators, such as sex buyers and pimps. These measures would strengthen existing laws, not weaken them.

However, the problem with this study group is the composition of its members. Representative Williams’ bill has already said she wants advocates of decriminalized prostitution to serve on the committee.

Decriminalization means removing all criminal penalties from pimping, owning and managing brothels, and buying sex, as well as from those who sell sex.

This model of full decriminalization of the sex industry should be strongly opposed. It will not make the community stronger if men can legally buy sex and pimps can recruit women into prostitution. The profiteers will be the strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors, advertisers, and all related sex trade businesses that will explode.

A number of Rhode Islanders, survivors, and experts sent their statements of opposition to H 5345 to the Judiciary Committee Chair, Robert Craven, and the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello.

Here are some excerpts from knowledgeable professionals who work in this field.

Mary Reilly is a Sister of Mercy and long-time social activist for peace and justice in Rhode Island.

I write in opposition to Bill 5354. Many of my years as a Sister of Mercy has been working with low income women and girls at Dorcas Place and at Sophia Academy.

 Never have I heard their aspiration to be a sex worker. Many of the women who came to Dorcas Place were functionally illiterate, living on welfare.  They desired an education so they could help their children and be employed. Some said they became involved in   prostitution on weekends as they couldn’t make ends meet on welfare.  This was not their hope to reenter that field again.

 The girls at Sophia Academy have dreams and aspirations which does not include being dehumanized by men. We have a Gender and Justice Seminar in the 8th grade where they study social policy through the lens of a woman. Some have been involved in looking at the issue of human trafficking.  There young girls are the change agents of the present and the future.

I could write so much more but I’m shocked that this legislation is being proposed by a woman.  

Marcia R. Lieberman is a former state organizer for Amnesty International.

I am writing to totally oppose H 5354. I cannot believe that in this present day, there is a proposal to bring back the sale of women's bodies. It is impossible to imagine that Rhode Island would give in to the multi-billion dollar "sex" industry.


Our state was once sullied by its participation in the slave trade -- a stain on our state's history. And now, a move is proposed to profit -- big time -- from the sale and exploitation of human beings. Overwhelming evidence proves beyond any doubt that decriminalization of so-called "sex work" is inseparable from the evil of human trafficking. Sex for sale trades in filth, horror, and shame. Is it possible that Rhode Island will smear our name and our reputation? 


Is our state legislature so rich that it would squander even one dollar on such a "study?"

Jodi L. Glass is a member of the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice & Bias and an expert on hate crimes

I am writing to totally oppose H 5354. I know I will find myself on the opposite side of many with whom I have worked for so many years, but I am sick of tired of this garbage not being called what it is. 

I do not believe in the right of men to buy women.

I do not believe in supporting pimps of any gender to prostitute women for, predominantly, men.

I do not support the RIGHT for people to run brothels while marginalized women “live” in them and are bought by men.

I do not support the term “sex work”- it is not “sex” or “work”.

And I CERTAINLY don’t support setting up a task force wasting time and money to STUDY something that has been studied by MANY very intelligent activists and scholars.

Darlene Pawlik is a survivor of sex trafficking from New Hampshire.

My name is Darlene. I am a juvenile sex trafficking survivor. I’m begging you to oppose H 5354 - the bill to establish a committee to study the health and safety impact of revising commercial sexual exploitation laws.


Commodifying human beings is a terrible idea. They are not selling a service; the bodies of the people being sold for sex are the product. The damage is not immediate and apparent initially. The standards for safety cannot be met when exchanging body fluids with multiple people, multiple times per day! 


The safety issues of violence cannot be understated. I was raped multiple times, in homes, businesses, and cars. I was lured into all kinds of situations, including being held against my will in a college dorm for hours as one young man after another used my body, tossing me around like a rag doll, while two of them held my ankles. I am a member of the National Survivors Network and other prostitution-survivor coalitions and the same kinds of stories abound. Buyers are often violent.


It will be no better in legal brothels. Germany, where prostitution and brothels are legal, is rife with stories similar to mine. I’ve read of women being raped twenty or thirty times a day, used up and warn out, diseased and damaged. 


Then what? What will happen to those damaged people after their experience has inflicted so much devastation? The mental and physical impact of prostitution cannot be ignored. Suicide, homelessness, and the inability to keep a job because of the emotional trauma are common among survivors of prostitution. 


People are not products.

Lisa Thompson is the Vice President of Research and Advocacy at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation

               Today the Rhode Island state legislature is holding a hearing on H 5354, a bill that would establish a commission to “study”                    the impacts of revising Rhode Island’s prostitution laws.

  I write asking that you vigorously oppose this bill.


As someone who has been working to combat commercial sexual exploitation for twenty years, this bill is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to lay the ground work for full decriminalization of prostitution in Rhode Island.


As a legal framework—or lack thereof—decriminalization of prostitution attempts to “disappear” the egregious harms of prostitution under a whitewash that authorizes profiteering from sexual violence and accedes to a right of men to buy others (mostly women and children) for sex, and turns women into public sexual commodities.


Those who support this measure seek an unregulated sex trade which, if approved, will morph sexual predators into “clients,” and grant impunity to pimps/sex traffickers by redefining them as business “entrepreneurs.” This system in no way rectifies the conditions of inequality, racism, abuse, violence, and dehumanization which animate all forms of prostitution. It assents to them.


As you consider this matter, I request that you read the research report by Dr. Donna M Hughes and Melanie Shapiro entitled “Decriminalized Prostitution: Impunity for Violence and Exploitation” which examines the failed system of decriminalized indoor prostitution which existed in Rhode Island from 1980-2009. As you’ll see from their compelling report, during the time Rhode Island had decriminalized indoor prostitution, prostitution and sex trafficking flourished, countless individuals were harmed, and law enforcement was virtually powerless to do anything about it.


Does Rhode Island want to travel down this path again? Do Rhode Island legislators think that monikers like the “Red-Light District of New England” enhance its national reputation? Is prostitution the “career” that Rhode Island legislators want to promote to its young girls?


Here, also, is a link to a powerful series of articles exposing the harms associated with legalized prostitution in Germany:


Join us in the fight for a world where no one is bought and sold for sex, a world without sexual exploitation: oppose H 5354 and send pimps and sex buyers the message, “There is no price tag on Rhode Island’s women and children!”

Lastly, this short video presents many of the problems associated with full decriminalized prostitution: 

I hope these impassioned messages were heard by the members of the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee. I am including them so the general public will get the message about the dangerous proposal to decriminalize prostitution that is trying to get its foot in the door in Rhode Island.
Donna M Hughes
Professor & Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies
University of Rhode Island


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