Hughes, Donna [faculty advisor, Department of Women's Studies]




prostitution; Rhode Island; crime; sex trafficking; brothels


Rhode Island is the only state in the United States where prostitution is decriminalized indoors. Since decriminalization in 1980, the sex industry has expanded and Rhode Island has become a destination for commercial sex in New England. Rhode Island is one of only three states that have not had a human trafficking prosecution. Rhode Island has had no prosecutions of sex trafficking since the state anti-trafficking law was passed in 2007. The goal of this project was to research the history of decriminalization, gather information on Asian massage parlor brothels, and determine if sex trafficking is occurring in these establishments. Research on Asian massage parlor brothels and sex trafficking was carried out by observation of brothels, content analysis of writings by “johns” in online forums, newspaper stories, analysis of federal, state, and local statutes, analysis of known prostitution and sex trafficking cases, and advertisements by Asian massage parlor brothels. Asian massage parlors were the focus of the research since they advertise publicly, making them easier to research than other brothels in Rhode Island. The massage parlor advertisements and the reported experiences of “johns” were monitored for indications of sex trafficking. Interviews about massage parlor brothels and sex trafficking were conducted with public officials, law enforcement personnel, social justice groups, faith-based organizations, and victim service providers. To research the history of decriminalization, the trial transcripts, affidavits, motions, and briefs of the federal case were analyzed. Lawyers, officials, and other people knowledgeable about the decriminalization case were interviewed. Results of the research identified thirty-three Asian massage parlor brothels. Indicators of sex trafficking were found, such as barred windows and sealed exit doors, and the use of surveillance video cameras. Indications of women’s restricted freedom and limited mobility were identified, such as living on the premises and being rotated through a circuit of massage parlors. Content analysis of “johns’” reports of buying sex revealed examples of women’s resistance to engage in sex acts, indicating they may not have been acting freely. Research into the history of prostitution and massage parlor raids found evidence of sex trafficking. In 2006, a federal multi-state sex trafficking case included a Providence massage parlor. Decriminalization of prostitution indoors resulted from a confluence of factors. In the late 1970s, citizens demanded police action against street prostitution in their neighborhoods. The existing prostitution laws made criminal procedures slow, and since prostitutes remained on the streets awaiting jury trials, it was ineffective to reduce prostitution. In addition, a prostitutes’ rights group filed a federal sex discrimination against the state of Rhode Island because more women than men were being arrested for soliciting sex even though the statute was gender-neutral. Decriminalized prostitution has factored in the expansion of the commercial sex industry and the absence of any federal or state sex trafficking cases. Decriminalization of prostitution also makes it difficult to use existing statutes for organizing and controlling prostitution. Decriminalization of prostitution also interferes with the ability to identify and assist victims of sex trafficking.