Decriminalizing Prostitution: Surprising Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health

Scott Cunningham, Manisha Shah (2013): Decriminalizing Prostitution: Surprising Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health

Full article available here. 


Most governments in the world including the United States prohibit prostitution due to moral repugnance, though disease and victimization risks associated with sex markets are salient policy concerns. Given these types of laws rarely change and are fairly uniform across regions, our knowledge about the impact of decriminalizing sex work is largely conjectural. We exploit the fact that a Rhode Island District Court judge unexpectedly decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003 to provide the first causal estimates of the impact of decriminalization on the composition of the sex market, rape off enses, and population sexually transmitted infection outcomes. Not surprisingly, we find that decriminalization increased the size of the indoor market. However, somewhat unexpectedly, we find that decriminalization caused both forcible rape off enses and gonorrhea incidence to decline for the overall population. Our synthetic control model finds 824 fewer reported rape off enses and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea from 2004 to 2009. The combined benefi ts of six years of decriminalization are estimated to be approximately 200 million USD. Decriminalization appears to benefi t the population at large, especially women|and not just sex workers.

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