GUEST OPINION: Lobbyists advocate for prostitution in Rhode Island

Legislation opening door for immunity for sex traffickers and sex buyers?


Last Tuesday, June 4, the RI House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill (H 7165A) that’s a step toward decriminalizing prostitution.

Lobbyists for decriminalized prostitution have targeted Rhode Island to reverse the hard-won victory of 2009 that criminalized human trafficking and prostitution and gave law enforcement the laws needed to end rampant sex trafficking.

There’s a great deal of money to be made exploiting women, girls and other vulnerable people. When the pimps, brothel operators, and publishers of prostitution advertising were forced to end operations, they lost a lot of money. They want to return to the good old days. 

In 2018, an admitted sex buyer, Robert Kampia, announced that he was heading up a state-by-state lobbying campaign to decriminalize prostitution. In 2019, the Washington Examiner said Decriminalize Sex Work raised $1 million. However, Kampia is so well-known for his predatory and sexist bad behavior that the sex worker rights groups condemn him. Following a campaign to decriminalize prostitution in Washington, D.C. in 2019 (which failed), a D.C.-based sex worker advocates coalition released a statement saying they refused to work with Kampia’s Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work. 

The bills introduced in this session are part of a years-long strategy. Pro-prostitution lobbyists know that bold bills to fully decriminalize prostitution continually fail, so they have shifted to a strategy of introducing friendly-sounding bills that have language in them that they can use later to weaken law enforcement action.

The bill at issue is called an “immunity” bill to prevent “witnesses” from being prosecuted if they report seeing a crime. Are people who report prostitution or sex trafficking crimes being arrested? The 2009 law already has legal language that prevents victims from being prosecuted. However, the bill that passed House Judiciary doesn’t limit the immunity to “victims,” it covers “witnesses.” Can perpetrators themselves be “witnesses” against the crimes of other perpetrators … and avoid accountability?

COYOTE RI, Rhode Island’s sex worker rights group, came out against the bill because it doesn’t explicitly give immunity to their clients. They want full decriminalization.

Former state Rep. Joanne Giannini, who sponsored the bills to end sex trafficking and prostitution in 2009 said, “The bill has more loopholes than Swiss cheese.” And that’s the point. The lobbyists for decriminalization introduced a bill that on the face of it sounds like a good bill that will help victims, then they include a lot of confusing language that will allow legal action down the road to help perpetrators slip through the justice system.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a leading organization that works against all forms of sexual exploitation, warns that the bill contains a loophole that could be used to protect pimps, sex traffickers, and sex buyers.

In a June 4 statement, the center’s general counsel, Benjamin Bull, explained that H 7165A’s confusing language would “allow a pimp or trafficker to claim he became aware that a person in prostitution became the victim of a crime — and get off the hook for engaging in trafficking,” Bull wrote. “In short,” he said, that language “gives bad actors a ‘get out of jail free card’ for no good purpose.”

Immunity from prosecution for victims already exists in the 2009 law. Bull said this new bill will provide immunity “from prosecution for clever or lawyered up traffickers.”

There are wolves in sheep’s clothes hiding behind the positive-sounding immunity bill. Legislators should wise up and citizens should contact their representatives and senators; tell them they don’t want new laws promoted by the nation’s most aggressive lobbyists for decriminalized prostitution.

EDITOR’S NOTE: South Kingstown resident Donna M Hughes, PhD., is a retired University of Rhode Island professor.


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