A few years ago, researchers at UCLA and Baylor University made a stunning find: When the Rhode Island legislature inadvertently decriminalized indoor prostitution for a number of years, that state saw a 31 percent decline in reported rapes and a similar decline in cases of gonorrhea.
Now comes a new Dutch study that finds much the same causal relationship between decriminalizing prostitution and reducing crime. Researchers at a public research institute in the Netherlands discovered that when major cities in that country opened tippelzones, or areas where street prostitutes could work legally, reports of rape and sexual abuse declined by as much as 30 to 40 percent in the first two years after the zones were opened. In cities that licensed the prostitutes permitted to work in these tippelzones, rapes and sexual abuse dropped by as much as 40 percent, while the reductions in sexual violence were slightly lower in zones that did not enforce the licensing of sex workers.
While the researchers were unable to pinpoint exactly which women were spared by the opening of the tippelzones, the researchers concluded that legalizing prostitution in these areas led “to a decrease in sexual violence on women more generally by providing an anonymous, appealing and easily accessible outlet for sex to otherwise violent individuals.”
This, of course, is what I argued in my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, and what sex work advocates have been saying for years. When prostitution is decriminalized and regulated to some extent, as it is in the Dutch tippelzones, sexual predators are less likely to strike at random women. And because police monitoring is higher in tippelzones than in other areas of the city, predators who pay for sex tend to rein in their more violent behaviors.
As Maddy, a Washington, D.C. escort I interviewed for my book, says, ““Sex work can be real preventative of sexual abuse — clients can indulge their fantasies with us rather than with other women or children.”
Elle St. Claire, a sex worker from Massachusetts, put it another way: [Sex work] is a healthy release for people who don’t feel comfortable getting help any other way,” she says. “This is why you have sexual predators and stalkers. Unhealthy sexuality manifests itself in all of those crimes.”
The Dutch researchers, whose findings will be published in the American Economic Journal, also found significant reductions in drug-related crime. In cities with both a tippelzone and a licensing requirement, for instance, they found a 25 percent reduction in drug-related crimes within two years. As the researchers note:
In general, the results on registered and perceived drug crime in cities which enforced licensed tippelzones suggest that local governments successfully achieved their goal of reducing drug crime overall in the city.
Unfortunately, a number of major Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, have since closed their tippelzones, which may explain why the initial gains in reducing sexual violence found in this study have largely dissipated. As sex work advocates note, when legal venues for prostitution are closed, sex workers simply move to other areas of the city and both prostitution and crime become less manageable.
Indeed, as the Dutch researchers note,“95 percent of the interviewed prostitutes report feeling safer within the tippelzone.”
Hat tip to the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource, which first reported this groundbreaking study.