RI: Sex workers testify at Senate hearing on prostitution bill

10:23 AM EDT on Monday, June 22, 2009

By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — An Asian woman who said she works in a “spa” took the witness stand in a Senate hearing room Thursday night and asked why lawmakers want to outlaw indoor prostitution.

The woman, who identified herself only as “Jul,” wore jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt. Her long, highlighted hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She said she is 31 and is supporting two children and a sister. The money she earns serving men –– construction workers, judges, lawyers –– who are “depressed or who just can’t meet girls” is more than the $7 an hour she could earn, she says, with no education working a “normal job.”

“You guys think people are forcing us?” she said, not waiting for a response. “I want to make money!”

Her testimony –– along with that of another spa employee ––came as a surprise midway through a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing was on a bill (S-5496) introduced by Sen. Paul V. Jabour, D-Providence, to make prostitution a crime, regardless of where it occurs.

It’s one of two bills to outlaw indoor prostitution that are pending in the General Assembly. The other bill, (H-5044 Sub A) introduced by Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, D-Providence, in May, passed the House by a vote of 62 to 8. It has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.

The Senate committee hearing had been in progress for more than an hour when a half-dozen Asian women and a translator walked into the room and took seats at the back. The women were recruited to testify by Tara Hurley, a documentary filmmaker whose film, Happy Endings?, follows the lives of three Asian women who work in spas.

By then, only 4 of the initial 10 committee members remained in the room; the others, including the chairman, Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey, had already left.

A parade of witnesses –– among them a retired judge, a state police officer, the legislative liaison for the state attorney general’s office, a businessman who works next door to a spa –– had all testified in favor of criminalizing indoor prostitution. So had a number of those opposed to the legislation, among them advocates for stronger laws against human trafficking.

Donna M. Hughes, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who has done extensive research on global human trafficking, said that 10 new Asian brothels had opened since the beginning of this year — among the “30 documented” brothels in the state. “Tolerating these establishments,” she said, “is tolerating organized crime.”

Nick Horton, of the Family Life Center, and Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, were among those speaking out against the prostitution bill. If it passes, Brown said, it will mean more women prostitutes behind bars and more poor women losing their property because of a forfeiture clause in the law.

There are laws on the books to prosecute sex-trafficking, Brown said. “The problem is that the laws on the books are not being enforced.”

Rhode Island is the only place in the country, except for certain counties in Nevada, which has no law banning indoor prostitution.

“Since the loophole in the law was discovered, the number of spas has more than tripled in this city,” said Providence police Lt. Michael E. Correia. “Prostitution in all its forms — inside and outside … is detrimental to the city of Providence, particularly people who live in the neighborhood.”

The first spa worker who testified said she worked as a receptionist in a spa. She said her name is Jeannie Kwang and she is 53.

The women who work at the spas “can come and go as they please,” she said through a translator. “It’s the girls’ choice to work there.”

Most of the women who work there, she said, are single mothers who are supporting families. It would be wrong to criminalize it, she said.

The spas are “clean and discreet” places, she said. Hearing the complaint of a neighbor who worked near a spa, she said, made her think there’s “a lot of stigma” attached to this type of business.

Rep. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, who has opposed the prostitution bill, asked the woman if her description of the work environment was “unique to one spa or brothel.”

“She’s been to three or more different brothels,” the translator said, “and to her knowledge none of these girls have been coerced.”

The Senate committee also heard testimony from a man who said his late wife used to run a brothel. Robert Helegran said that lawmakers wouldn’t be able to stop prostitutes from working. The law would “take them out of the safety of spas,” he said, “so they’re the next victim of craigslist.”

The testimony ended shortly after 8 p.m. with the committee–– which did not have a quorum with only four members present –– taking no action on the bill.

larditi@projo.com

Original at Providence Journal

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