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Prostitution in the state was made illegal in 2009 after three decades of decriminalization.

Less than two months after the iconic Rhode Island strip club known as the Foxy Lady was shut down after nearly four decades when three dancers there were arrested on prostitution charges, as reported at the time, a longtime member of the state’s House of Representatives is leading a push to decriminalize sex work in Rhode Island—again.

This time, however, if the effort succeeds, prostitution would be decriminalized on purpose. 

Starting in 1980, acts of trading sexual services for money were essentially legalized in Rhode Island, though by accident. According to a retrospective in The Providence Journal, prostitution had been a serious felony in the country’s smallest state until a reform movement led by prostitute-turned-activist Margo St. James resulted in the state legislature rewriting the law to reduce prostitution offenses from felony to misdemeanor status.

Until then, the state’s anti-prostitution laws were so vague and broad that even acts of consensual sex between any unmarried adults could, at least in theory, be charged as crimes, St. James argued, and state lawmakers were convinced. 

But somehow, in redrafting the legislation, lawmakers omitted a clause that made acts of prostitution illegal at all, essentially legalizing sex-for-money in Rhode Island, as long as the acts took place indoors.  The “loophole” led to a proliferation of massage “spas,” with an estimated 30 of them eventually operating in the state of about one million people.

Saying that laws against sex work disproportionately target “women, transgender people and people of color,” Williams has introduced a bill that would establish a special state commission to study the effects of decriminalization on the state. Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing Williams’ bill, to decide whether to bring it to the full House for a vote. 

The measure is also endorsed by COYOTE, aka Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the same sex worker rights group founded in 1973 by Margo St. James.