“OPERATION RUBDOWN”: How Rhode Island Accidentally Legalized Prostitution



OPERATION RUBDOWN. Depending on how sexually repressed you are, maybe you interpreted that title differently from your peers.

To Rhode Island, Operation Rubdown isn’t a XXX flick (See, I knew that’s where your head was at). Instead, it was part of a legal gaffe that left eggs on the faces of lawmakers when they accidently turned their state into the Red Light District of America.

But even though some state legislators were made to look like fools, no one could have predicted the positive side effects of their blunder.

In the late 1970’s, organizations looking to reform prostitution laws sued Rhode Island, claiming its state statute criminalizing “lewd and indecent acts” infringed on a person’s First Amendment freedoms.

After realizing the contested statue was overly restrictive and could outlaw some forms of consensual sex between adults, state lawmakers rushed to revise it. But while they were in a hurry to create their ideal law, they also unintentionally removed language in it that referred to “indoor prostitution” as a crime.

Indoor prostitution refers to services provided by escorts or independent call girls in venues such as bars, massage parlors, brothels or your home. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Conversely, “Outdoor Prostitution” (A.K.A. Hookin’ it Out on Street Corners) remained illegal.

The loophole went largely unnoticed until 2003, when the Providence Police Department conducted an undercover sting, called “Operation Rubdown”, on two massage parlors that offered a few supplementary services not listed on the main menu. But during the legal proceedings, defense lawyers for the prostitutes exploited the omitted language within the amended law to beat their client’s cases.

Side Note: Whoever came up with the name “Operation Rubdown” deserves a medal.

It took Rhode Island’s government six more years to close the loophole, which technically made indoor prostitution legal for almost 30 years, although the majority of the public was only aware of its legalization beginning in 2003.

During the time prostitution was decriminalized, the law also gave birth to an unintended consequence – the state’s crime rate plummeted.

A report, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the decriminalization of prostitution resulted in a decline of crime and STI infection. From 2003 to 2009, there was a 31% decrease in reported rapes and a 39% decrease in female gonorrhea reports – that amounts to 824 fewer reported rapes and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea.

Many researchers speculate that the decline in sexual assault cases happened because rapists swapped out rape for prostitution – all of the abuse, none of the criminal consequences. The decline in STI infections is most likely because indoor prostitutes require their Johns to use condoms, which is a common practice for prostitutes in almost all places that have health and safety standards for legalized prostitution.

Finally, in 2009 Rhode Island’s governor signed a bill that outlawed the practice. Prostitution in the state may not have experienced the happy ending it had wished for, but if you look on the bright side – at least its customers did!


About Eric Bates

Eric received his B.S. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from Santa Clara University in 2012. Upon graduating, he traveled and worked for a non-profit in Central America. He is a religious viewer of Conan O’Brien and also loves traveling. Eric is attending San Jose State University's graduate school program to receive a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. He can be reached at ebates0@gmail.com.
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