In 1980, prostitution inadvertently became legal in Rhode Island, the consequence of one of those boneheaded foul-ups for which the Ocean State’s legislature, the General Assembly, is justly famous. The state’s politicians made a lot of speeches decrying the shame of it, but for 29 years, they didn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t help but wonder why.
The hero of my crime novels, Liam Mulligan, wondered too. Being a cynical cuss, Mulligan, an investigative reporter for the dying Providence Dispatch, figured somebody was getting paid off. Mulligan’s investigation into the state’s sex trade in Cliff Walk, my new crime novel from Forge, is entirely fictional, of course, but the story that inspired it is as strange as any fiction.
The true story began in 1976, when COYOTE, a national “union” representing “sex workers,” sued the state in federal court, alleging its anti-prostitution law was so vague that it could be construed as making sex between man and wife a felony. The suit was dismissed after the General Assembly rewrote the law in 1980, clarifying what constituted the crime of prostitution and reclassifying it as a misdemeanor. But when the legislature voted, a key section of the new law was omitted, apparently by accident.
Oddly, eighteen years passed before anyone seemed to notice. Cops, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges went right on handling prostitution cases as if the law that the legislature had intended to pass was actually in effect.
That should have changed in 1998, when a defendant convicted of recruiting local women to work as prostitutes took his case to the state Supreme Court. The court examined the law, discovered the flaw in it, and threw out the conviction.
But hey, who reads Supreme Court decisions, right? For the next several years, cop, prosecutors, and hookers continued to behave as if prostitution in Rhode Island was a crime.
Then, in 2003, a lawyer representing four women arrested for prostitution at two Providence “spas,” did something extraordinary. He actually read the statute. What he found was that the only language in it that defined prostitution referred to the crime as “street walking.”
Therefore, your honor, he told the judge, sex for pay was legal in Rhode Island as long as the transaction occurred indoors.
When the courts reluctantly agreed, Rhode Island’s sex industry exploded. Online massage parlor ads gleefully promised “happy endings.” In the state’s many strip clubs, naked prostitutes hung from stripper poles to advertise their wares. Customer reviews on nightlife websites discussed the looks, skills, and prices of the women. Johns streamed in from all over the Northeast. At the height of the legal sex trade, at least 30 brothels operated openly in a state so small that you could throw a rock across it.
Over the years, several state legislators introduced bills to close the loophole, but opposition was fierce. An unlikely coalition of strippers, masseuses, and women’s rights organizations joined forces in a string of legislative hearings. Strippers and masseuses pleaded with the legislators not to take food out of their families’ mouths. Feminists argued that re-criminalizing prostitution would just drive the sex trade underground, threatening the health and safety of prostitutes and their customers.
It was during this time that I began writing Cliff Walk.
Because I didn’t know much about the state’s sex industry, I had to do some research. I spent many a dreary evening hanging out in sex clubs, discretely questioning bouncers, bartenders, and naked women who kept trying to crawl into my lap.
I learned some things that surprised me.
“How much are you paid to dance at the clubs?” I naively asked the women.
“They don’t pay us,” they told me. “We pay them.”
They shelled out anywhere from a hundred to several hundred dollars a night, depending on the club, for the right to appear on stage. Cavorting nude under the lights, they explained, was how they advertised themselves to the customers.
And at the end of each night, they told me, they were also expected to tip the bouncers–bruisers who protected them from customers with sadistic streaks and from pimps who lurked in hopes of getting a cut of the women’s earnings.
I also discovered that Rhode Island had built brothels to fit every wallet. The prices for sex ranged from several hundred dollars to as little as fifty, and the ambience varied from night-club chic to bus-station-bathroom repulsive.
But as I was putting the finishing touches on the novel, the General Assembly finally shrugged off the opposition and closed the loophole.
According to the Rhode Island newspapers, prostitution then came to an end in the state’s massage parlors and strip clubs. Proprietors warned the women that prostitution would no longer be tolerated. Those who ignored the warnings were thrown out. Strip clubs and massage parlors were just that, and nothing more, once again. Or so it was claimed.
Being as cynical as Mulligan, I had my doubts. So, I had to do more research. I revisited the some of the places and found that at a couple of them, sex-for-pay was still readily, though surreptitiously, available.
As a married man, my research could well have led to trouble at home. But I was lucky. My wife thought my research for Cliff Walk was flat-out hilarious.
This essay first appeared on Thenervousbreakdown.com, an arts, culture, and politics website I write for regularly. There’s lots of great stuff on it. Check it out here.