SEPTEMBER 5, 2009
By SIMMI AUJLA and JENNIFER LEVITZ
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has a long tradition of going its own way. Founded by religious outcasts, it was the last of the original 13 colonies to join the union and the state mascot, which sits atop the State House, is a bronze figure named the “Independent Man.”
But there is one distinction about which many in the state aren’t proud: Due to a legal loophole, prostitution is legal in Rhode Island as long as it happens indoors.
Now, Rhode Island lawmakers are pushing to criminalize indoor prostitution, saying it damages the state’s reputation, disturbs neighbors, encourages sex trafficking and puts women in potentially dangerous situations. Nevada is the only other state that permits prostitution, and even there it’s not legal in the three most populous counties.
A note on a building in Providence, R.I., that housed Down Town Acupressure informs customers of its closure in 2006 after federal authorities conducted a raid of businesses suspected of operating as brothels. Several women at the business were arrested on immigration charges and it moved to another location in the city.
Rhode Island’s legal quirk has its defenders, including the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and some academics, who say the businesses don’t bother anyone and provide a way for prostitutes, many of whom are Asian immigrants, to support their families. Fifty academics signed an open letter in August saying prostitutes who work indoors are less likely to be assaulted or raped and less likely to use drugs or disturb neighbors than those who solicit in public.
Police estimate the state has at least 40 brothels, often called spas, massage parlors, or health centers, and that the number is growing. Says Providence City Solicitor Joseph Fernandez: “Rhode Island is a great state with many wonderful things, but this is not one of them.”
All forms of prostitution were illegal in the state until 1980, when legislators — while amending the existing law to speed up prosecution — inadvertently deleted the section that addressed the actual act of prostitution. The result was that the only thing that remained illegal was street solicitation, since police mostly use anti-loitering laws to arrest streetwalkers.
This legal loophole went unnoticed and police weren’t thwarted until 2003, when Providence lawyer Michael Kiselica was representing sex workers in a case before the state district court here. He acknowledged to a Providence city prosecutor that the women had offered sex for money to undercover police but asserted no state law was broken. The case was dismissed.
State legislators have tried to restore the law for years, but fell short in the face of opposition by some lawmakers, civil libertarians and academics, who said that allowing the arrest of prostitutes could end up punishing victims of human trafficking.
This year, however, momentum to change the law has grown. Bills have passed both the Rhode Island House and Senate, and the two bodies are now meeting to craft a common piece of legislation to send to the governor.
The new momentum is partly a response to the so-called Craigslist killing. Medical student Philip Markoff was indicted in Massachusetts in June on charges of killing a woman at an upscale Boston hotel who had advertised on the “exotic services” section of Craigslist. Rhode Island officials also charged Mr. Markoff with assault and intent to commit robbery of a stripper he had arranged to meet at a hotel in the state.
Mr. Markoff has pleaded not guilty to the Massachusetts charges and has not yet appeared in Rhode Island to answer charges there. His attorney did not immediately respond Friday to a phone message seeking comment.
Opponents of the change argue that indoor prostitution is safer for women, among other things. Tara Hurley, a Rhode Island filmmaker who did a documentary on sex workers, this summer organized prostitutes who are opposed to the law change to testify at the State House. A reporter accompanied her on Thursday to a Providence spa that she says offers sex. The spa was on the second floor of a mostly vacant office building.
After ringing a buzzer, guests were admitted by an older woman. Ms. Hurley said most spas have an “Imo,” the Korean word for aunt, who cooks and cleans. In a den, off a dimly lit hallway, another woman who said she was an employee sat on a couch in pajamas, munching popcorn and watching a Korean movie.
The woman, who declined to give her name, said she is 41 and that she works at the spa for the money, some of which she sends back to her native Korea to help her family. She said she hopes the state law is not changed. “Nobody likes this work, but they are taking care of their families,” she said. Among those fighting the brothels are nearby businesses. In Middletown, R.I., near Newport, a local toy store relocated 40 minutes away in August after the owners grew frustrated with doing business near what they believed was a brothel.
Eric and Hema Bulmer, owners of Pow! Science! said when they stopped by their store at night, they would see the spa’s neon “open” sign lit and cars parked outside. During the day, men occasionally walked into the store and noticed that Mrs. Bulmer, who is a Nepalese immigrant, was a petite Asian woman. They immediately assumed the toy store was a front for a brothel, Mrs. Bulmer said.
“Guys look at you and think, this must be it,” Mrs. Bulmer said, calling the unwanted attention “humiliating.”
Write to Simmi Aujla at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jennifer Levitz at email@example.com
Link to original at Wall Street Journal