By Lynn Arditi
Published May 31, 2009
It’s been nearly 30 years since Rhode Island granted a green light to indoor prostitution.
Asian spas now offer “body rubs” just blocks from Providence City Hall, and Internet sex sites rate Rhode Island as a destination spot. On weekend nights, out-of-state cars vie for parking spaces outside storefronts with drawn shades and signs that read “Spa.”
To understand how Rhode Island became the only state in America to decriminalize prostitution, you have to go back to the mid-1970s, when a powerful politician and devout Roman Catholic named Matty Smith helped advance the cause of a former prostitute named Margo St. James.
Though few recall the details of this chapter in history, three decades later lawmakers are still coping with the consequences.
St. James, founder of the sex workers’ rights group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics), was traveling the country and Europe to deliver her message about keeping government out of the sex business. During a stop in Rhode Island, she met the owner of a downtown Providence strip club. The police, he told her, were on his back for letting prostitutes hang out at his bar. He offered her a tour of his club. Then, he introduced her to his lawyer.
It was 1976 –– the year that The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality became a bestseller and Lorretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” climbed the pop charts –– when St. James’ group challenged the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s prostitution law. In a federal lawsuit, the group argued that the statute was so broad that it could prohibit sex between unmarried adults.
Back then, prostitution in Rhode Island was a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Yet, despite well-publicized reports of prostitution going on in places such as the Civic View Inn, just down the street from the police station, only a handful of arrests there resulted in convictions, mostly involving small fines and probation.
In the city’s West End, residents complained that streetwalkers flagged down cars night and day, and their customers cruised the neighborhood with their windows down, soliciting wives on their way to work and girls waiting for the school bus.
The neighborhood had a powerful ally in Matthew J. “Matty” Smith, then speaker of the House of Representatives. Smith had built his power base by getting things done for his constituents. If a voter said a fallen tree had cracked the sidewalk, he’d call public works. A social conservative, he protested abortion with a lapel pin that depicted a fetus’s tiny feet. And he told a Journal reporter he was worried that Roger Williams Park, where his father had once mowed the grass, was becoming a hangout for gays. The West End was part of Smith’s district, and he called the prostitution there “sickening and despicable.”
BY 1979, as neighborhood groups pressed the police to step up patrols, the trial opened in the civil-rights lawsuit filed by St. James’ group. St. James flew from San Francisco to Rhode Island to testify before U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Pettine.
At issue was how much power the state should have to control the sexual activity of its citizens.
Ralph J. Gonnella, the Providence lawyer whom St. James met through a downtown strip club owner, argued that the prostitution law was so broad –– it failed to even mention money – it could make sexual relations between unmarried adults a crime punishable by a $10 fine. And the person who initiated the offer of sex, he argued, could be charged with soliciting and face up to five years in prison. The state, he said, had no right or duty to regulate such private activity between consenting adults.
The lawsuit also alleged discrimination in how the law was being applied, citing data that showed the Providence police were arresting female prostitutes far more often than their male customers.
In September 1979, after four hours of testimony from witnesses, including a prostitute identified only as Jane Doe, each side rested its case.
Back in the West End, the police, on orders from then-Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., stepped up their offensive against prostitution. But the system worked like a giant revolving door. Police would round up prostitutes only to see them pay bail and hit the streets again.
As the 1980 General Assembly session opened, Smith said he’d make it his priority to get legislation passed to help rid the neighborhood of prostitution. His ally, state District Court Chief Judge Henry J. Laliberte, spoke up at a meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The judge was a former city councilman who, like Smith, the House speaker, had grown up on Providence’s South Side.
The way to get prostitutes off the streets, the judge told the residents, was to change the law – make prostitution a misdemeanor crime instead of a felony –– to speed prosecution in the courts.
Judge Pettine was still working on his decision in the lawsuit when the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill introduced by Smith to amend the prostitution statute.
ON ITS FACE, the amended law, drafted by Judge Laliberte, achieved its supporters’ objectives: It reduced prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor, allowing cases to move through the courts more quickly. And it added the phrase “for pecuniary gain” in the section on “harboring prostitution.” But in rewriting the law, the drafters deleted a section that addressed committing the act of prostitution.
The changes, Judge Pettine and the lawyers agreed, had rendered the lawsuit’s claims moot. The judge dismissed the case.
The next year, ruling on Gonnella’s request for attorneys’ fees, Pettine wrote that the omission “appear[ed] to have decriminalized the sexual act itself, even when undertaken for remuneration.” The judge puzzled over why the passage had been deleted, but to him, its effect was clear. And his analysis would prove significant in years to come.
For more than two decades, the omission went largely unnoticed.
Then, in 2003, as brothels posing as massage parlors opened around the city amid reports that Asian women were being forced into prostitution, the Providence police raided four of these “spas.” They arrested seven women and one man and seized $9,300 in what they called “Operation Rubdown.” The police said the women, all Korean, had come to Rhode Island from New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Oregon to work as prostitutes. In addition to charges of performing massages without a license, four of the women were charged with soliciting for prostitution.
As the case awaited trial, Michael J. Kiselica, a lawyer who was representing the owners of the Midori and Oriental Garden Spas, and city prosecutor Steven L. Catalano agreed to a statement of facts: Three Korean women working at the Midori and Oriental Garden Spas had offered sex for money to undercover police. The prosecutor argued in a written motion that state law prohibits soliciting for prostitution.
But Kiselica, quoting Judge Pettine’s analysis of the state’s prostitution law, asserted that regardless of what his clients had done, no law was violated. In addition, he said, the state Supreme Court in 1998 ruled in State v. DeMagistris that Rhode Island’s law against soliciting was “primarily to bar prostitutes from hawking their wares in public” and could not be applied to convict someone for activity that takes place in private.
State District Court Judge Elaine T. Bucci ruled in favor of the defense and dismissed the case.
Police still tried to shut down brothels over the next couple of years by charging the women with performing a massage without a license or the building owners with violating the criminal-nuisance ordinance. But the prostitution charges went nowhere.
Kiselica has won dismissals of criminal charges against about 15 of his clients who were arrested in spa raids, discouraging police and prosecutors from going after prostitution indoors.
And the number of spas multiplied. Groups that monitor the spa industry have documented more than 30 spas throughout the state, most of them in Providence.
“These are real businesses,” said Kiselica, whose clients now include about a half-dozen spa owners. “They pay the taxes that the business owes. They operate within the bounds of the law.”
NEARLY 30 YEARS after lawmakers rewrote the prostitution statute, few can recall why it happened.
“We probably vote on 500 bills a year,” Sen. John F. McBurney III, the only member of the General Assembly who served in 1980, said recently. McBurney says he can think of only one explanation for why a bill that decriminalized prostitution would win unanimous approval by the General Assembly: “They didn’t know what they were voting for.”
John C. Revens Jr., a former Senate Majority leader and a lawyer who served in the General Assembly for nearly four decades, agrees.
“They would never sponsor a bill decriminalizing prostitution if they knew what it was,” Revens said. “No way. Not in a million years.”
(Smith, the former House speaker who got caught in a 1993 court scandal that drove him out of public life, did not respond to phone messages seeking an interview.)
This year, as they have for the last three years, several state lawmakers are pushing to rewrite the 1980 law. A bill that passed the House earlier this month clearly states that anyone who engages in sex for money is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Margo St. James, the former prostitute who challenged the prostitution law in the 1970s, hopes Rhode Island keeps the law the way it is.
Now 72, she lives in a family cabin on Orcas Island in Washington with her cat, Lovey Dovey. She moved there from San Francisco with her husband, a newspaper reporter, who died in 2000. Gardening and family visits take up most of her time these days. Last week, she was in San Francisco to attend the annual Sex Worker Film, Art & Music Festival. She’ll be speaking at a fundraiser for the St. James Infirmary, which she helped start a decade ago to provide health care to sex workers. Even now, she’s proud of the change she helped bring about in Rhode Island.
“We tried Massachusetts. California. Hawaii. Florida,” she recalls. “Most of them didn’t get anywhere.”
Twists and turns
1976: COYOTE, a national sex-workers’ rights group, sues Rhode Island in federal court, alleging the state’s prostitution law is overly broad and violates the constitutional right to privacy.
1980: The General Assembly amends the prostitution law, reducing solicitation from a felony to a misdemeanor and deleting a reference to prostitution as a crime. The COYOTE lawsuit is dismissed.
1981: U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Pettine, ruling on legal fees, says the change in Rhode Island law decriminalized sex for money.
1998: State Supreme Court rules in State v. DeMagistris that the law against soliciting for prostitution was “primarily to bar prostitutes from hawking their wares in public.”
2003: Prostitution charges against four women arrested at two Providence spas are dismissed after attorney Michael J. Kiselica, citing Pettine and the Supreme Court ruling, successfully argues that Rhode Island has no law against indoor prostitution.
2005: Bill to make prostitution illegal, wherever it occurs, dies in the General Assembly; similar bills fail in subsequent years.
2009: On May 13, the House overwhelmingly passes bill to criminalize all prostitution. Bill now pending in the Senate.
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San Francisco Chronicle John O’Hara
Margo St. James, prostitution-rights advocate, disparages a cheap peep show in San Francisco in 1980. St. James played a role in Rhode Island’s decriminalization of prostitution. “We tried Massachusetts. California. Hawaii. Florida,” she recalls. “Most of them didn’t get anywhere.”
Providence Journal File
Prostitution at Portland and Pine Streets in South Providence in 1979.
By 1979, as neighborhood groups pressed the police to step up patrols, the trial opened in the civil-rights lawsuit filed by St. James’ group. In 1979, St. James flew from San Francisco to Rhode Island to testify in a case that would test the state’s power to control the sexual activity of its residents.
The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch
On May 13, the Rhode Island House voted on and passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Joanne Giannini (D-Providence), above, that would make indoor prostitution illegal, reversing a change in the law made 29 years ago. The bill is pending in the state Senate.
The Providence Journal / Steve Szydlowski
Providence lawyer Michael J. Kiselica was the first to successfully challenge the state prostitution law. Kiselica, representing the owners of two Providence brothels that had been raided, persuaded a judge to dismiss the charges on the grounds there is no law against prostitution that occurs in private.
Matthew J. Smith