Edward Achorn: Enablers of modern slavery in R.I.

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

TO ITS ETERNAL GLORY, Rhode Island was one of the first states to abolish slavery. To its eternal shame, it is the only state that legally permits — via a loophole in state law — its modern version.

By refusing to pass a good law specifically banning indoor prostitution, Rhode Island is saying yes to the brutal exploitation of teenage girls and young women, many of them foreigners who are held in this strange land as virtual slaves. Their pimps are experts at preying on young women, with the help of drugs, coercion and “protection,” to keep them in slavery, miserably toiling in the fields of prostitution — serving perhaps a dozen men a day to help earn pimps hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

In my 30 years in the news business, I have become accustomed to politicians who work for special interests and resolutely refuse to consider the common good. But even I am shocked by the callousness that Rhode Island politicians display toward these young women.

Do these pols have no daughters? No sisters? No nieces or granddaughters?

I suspect that many of them simply don’t get it. They see prostitution as consensual sex, and consider those who would criminalize it as prudes and puritans who wish to prevent women from earning a good living.

But it should be obvious to all but the most obtuse that prostitution is not really about consensual sex or women’s empowerment. It is about cruelty and exploitation, often of minors.

Do our political representatives lack the literacy skills to read newspaper accounts of abducted and brutalized teenagers, in rare cases when the veil is lifted on this hidden world? Can they not put two and two together? Have they never seen mug shots of drugged, bruised and beaten prostitutes? Have they never heard of the deep, lifelong psychological scars that sexual and physical abuse inflicts on children, including teens?

How do they expect police to stop the worst predators without a strong prostitution law? Are they glad to see the underworld expanding business in Rhode Island, making money by spreading misery and defiling the dignity that should be the birthright of every human being, no matter how weak or easily exploited?

You have to wonder.

One representative who does care profoundly, Rep. Joanne Giannini (D.-Providence), has worked for four years to help free these young women from their enslavement by making indoor prostitution illegal in Rhode Island. With a good prostitution law, police would finally have the tools they need to crack down on pimps and thwart human trafficking. Federal enforcement would be stepped up too; federal agents cannot respond in states where a crime is not being committed.

Representative Giannini’s strong bill, H-5044A, which provided immunity for victims of trafficking, passed the House by a resounding margin of 62 to 8 on May 12. It was never given a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D.-Warwick).

Instead the Senate toyed with its own trafficking bill, weighing it down with so much garbage that it seems likely to sink from view: immunity for some “johns,” including college men who seek sex in local spas; and the creation of a new committee run by favored nonprofits, estimated to cost taxpayers some $215,000 a year, to dictate to police how they could investigate and prosecute prostitution cases. The Senate bill was so bad that State Police Supt. Brendan Doherty, an ardent supporter of closing the prostitution loophole, was forced last week to announce his opposition.

Maybe that was the Senate’s idea all along: to create an unpalatable bill and run out the clock.

Meanwhile, the number of “spas” — brothels — continues to proliferate in Rhode Island, bringing crime and misery with them: One opened in 2002; two opened in 2004; two in 2005; five in 2006; four in 2007; six in 2008; and ten in 2009, according to Donna M. Hughes, of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Rhode Island. And Rhode Island has become more of a laughingstock and national nuisance, a petri dish for organized crime.

We remember Moses Brown, the Rhode Island businessman who fought hard during the 18th Century to end the atrocity of chattel slavery, just as we remember the slave traders who fought against him. He considered African-Americans his brothers and sisters, and he refused to accept business as usual when the business entailed their brutal exploitation.

It is a fair question whether today’s august members of Senate — from President Teresa Paiva-Weed to Senators McCaffrey, Rhoda Perry and Charles Levesque — have a similar ability to show compassion for their fellow human beings, including Asian women, cruelly trapped in Rhode Island brothels. Otherwise, they would fight against this abuse.

Will their constituents and America’s national leaders against human trafficking continue to give them a free pass?

Will history?

Edward Achorn is The Journal’s deputy editorial-pages editor ( eachorn@projo.com).

Original on Providence Journal


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