Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health

54 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2014

See all articles by Scott Cunningham

Scott Cunningham

Baylor University

Manisha Shah

UCLA Department of Public Policy; NBER

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: July 17, 2014


Most governments in the world including the United States prohibit prostitution. 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 offenses, and sexually transmitted infection outcomes. Not surprisingly, we find that decriminalization increased the size of the indoor market. However, we also find that decriminalization caused both forcible rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to decline for the overall population. Our synthetic control model finds 824 fewer reported rape offenses (31 percent decrease) and 1,035 fewer cases of female gonorrhea (39 percent decrease) from 2004 to 2009.

Suggested Citation

Cunningham, Scott and Shah, Manisha, Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health (July 17, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Scott Cunningham (Contact Author)

Baylor University ( email )

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Manisha Shah

UCLA Department of Public Policy ( email )

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NBER ( email )

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