Decriminalizing prostitution sounds good in theory to some people of good will. It appeals to certain libertarians who imagine that without legal prohibitions, women will make “free choices” to sell themselves or not, just as they please. But the experience of Rhode Island exposes this as a tragic fantasy.

Without effective law enforcement, the sex industry is expanding rapidly, creating a haven for sex traffickers. Far from a libertarian utopia, decriminalizing prostitution has fostered coercion, exploitation, and abuse. In the early 1990s, Rhode Island had four strip clubs and one gay bathhouse. By 2005, there were nine “houses of prostitution,” according to the Providence Journal. The state has become a magnet for Asian-style spa-brothels, strip clubs, “gentlemen’s” clubs, gay bathhouses, and adult bookstores. There are now 40 known establishments offering prostitution, 12 of which have opened since January 2009, according to researcher Melanie Shapiro. Many more brothels have opened underground in residences and hotels.

Rhode Island police are stymied by the lack of laws enabling them to investigate effectively in order to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Prostitution was decriminalized in the state as a result of a lawsuit brought by a prostitutes’ rights group in 1980. Since then, Rhode Island has had no laws against prostitution so long as no solicitation occurs outdoors. Outdoor solicitation remains illegal as a form of loitering for indecent purposes.