PROVIDENCE — A man stared at cars passing slowly on Cranston Street, as a woman with a pony tail and baggy sweat pants leaned into the driver’s side of a work van around the corner. Rows of tenements extended into darkness, where people without shelter would bed down outside. A few women meandered along the street, seemingly aimless and alone.
Rosa Lamontagne, a small, birdlike woman with a backpack over her long winter coat, turned to prostitution and drugs after she was kicked out of the house at 17. That was half her lifetime ago. She braced herself when she noticed a minivan following her onto a side street, and froze when someone got out.
A scare had stopped her from turning tricks two years ago, when she was picked up by a man who beat her, raped her, and burned her with cigarettes, she said. The police interrupted the attack, but she said they didn’t arrest the abuser. She heard the man later tortured another woman in his car in Roger Williams Park. “It’s very dangerous,” she said. “The tricks beat you up, they’ll choke you, they’ll take your money, they’ll throw you out of the car while it’s moving.”
She seemed relieved to recognize Robin Levasseur, who boomed out, “Hi, honey!” as she exited the minivan, carrying a bag filled with toiletries, new underwear, handmade jewelry, and a homemade brownie.
Levasseur, 61, had spent decades working in brothels and turning tricks in strip clubs, back when indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island. She was 18 and studying at Johnson & Wales University when she fell in love with an older man who turned out to be a pimp. He sold her for sex here and in cities across the country, beating her and taking her money, and igniting a drug addiction she’d need to maintain her daily life. She finally found her way out some years ago, got sober, went back to college, and now does outreach with the nonprofit Together With Love, offering help for addicts and street prostitutes.
“When you’re out here, you feel like nobody cares,” she says.
Out on the street, or behind closed doors, the life is hard, and violence is ever-present. Both women can tell stories for days. But when Levasseur tells Lamontagne that some politicians at the State House want to decriminalize all prostitution in Rhode Island and repeal laws against brothels, pimps, and the buyers, Lamontagne is shocked.
“I think that’s a bad idea, because it’s going to be more dangerous, more girls are going to die, more girls are going to be kept as slaves,” Lamontagne said. “It’s bad enough out here. You don’t need that. Girls are dying one by one out here, for all kinds of reasons.”
For 29 years, a loophole in state law inadvertently legalized indoor prostitution in Rhode Island, until the General Assembly voted in 2009 to prohibit it and later gave municipalities the authority to shut down brothels masquerading as “body works” spas. A series of investigations launched after the loophole was closed revealed how teenagers, adults, and immigrants were being forced into prostitution — and how much money the pimps and brothel-keepers were making.
Many of those who have survived the life, and others who are still on the streets, say Rhode Island was a hub for exploitation when prostitution was legal. But now some local politicians are pushing to not just decriminalize or legalize prostitution, but even ban police from investigating sex buyers, pimps, and the brothels and strip clubs where women and girls may be trafficked or abused.
Joanne Giannini, the former state representative from Providence who’d pushed to close the prostitution loophole in 2009, said she is alarmed by recent proposals.
“There has to be someone stronger than the sex workers behind it,” she said. “A lot of people, to put it bluntly, who were involved in trafficking and brothels lost a lot of money (when the law changed in 2009), and there is an effort to get all of the same kind of profit-making institutions back.”
The main person behind the efforts in Rhode Island is Robert Kampia, who succeeded in decriminalizing marijuana in several states and wants to do the same for prostitution. A co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Project, he was forced out of his own organization in 2017 after allegations of sexual assault and harassment. He has also acknowledged paying for sex, telling the Washington Post in 2020 that sex workers are less likely to talk about their encounters, so patronizing them is “safer” for him “politically.”
“I’m about the freedom of the mind and freedom of the body,” he told the Washington Post. “I am one of the only people in the U.S. who specializes in making illegal things legal.”
With his connections to libertarian investors, Kampia started several nonprofits to lobby state and local governments, build media campaigns, and influence public opinion. Decriminalize Sex Work, the Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work, and The Legalization Project, are all based out of the same office in Austin, Texas. Tax and state lobbying records show the groups spent money in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, New York, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii and Washington, D.C.
Decriminalize Sex Work says in its literature it is pursuing a state-by-state strategy, starting with Rhode Island and New Hampshire, to enact “model laws that can be replicated in other states.” The organization also states that it plans to lobby Congress to remove several federal laws: the Mann Act, which is used to prosecute suspects for transporting people across state lines for illegal sexual activity, and FOSTA-SESTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was intended to shut down websites that facilitate trafficking.
In Rhode Island in 2019, Decriminalize Sex Work reported spending $20,000 on lobbyists at the Bradford Group, and The Legalization Project spent $34,700 to organize a statewide coalition to “focus initially on creating a state-government commission to study the costs and benefits of decriminalizing consensual adult prostitution.”
That year, Providence state Representative Anastasia Williams sponsored a bill to establish such a commission, and progressive Providence City Councilors Katherine Kerwin and Rachel Miller introduced a resolution in support. But the bill never emerged from the House Judiciary Committee, and then-City Council president Sabina Matos, now the lieutenant governor, sent the resolution to a council committee that did not meet.
In 2020, Decriminalize Sex Work reported spending $430,640 nationwide to amplify its message through the news media, along with speeches and presentations. It spent $172,520 on conferences in attempts to build a national coalition, $110,000 in grants to the Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work (where Kampia is also the director) to lobby state governments. Other grants through Project Prosper of Florida rerouted money to local sex worker advocacy groups such as COYOTE RI, which is tied in with Brown University and lobbies and donates to local politicians.
In Rhode Island in 2020, Decriminalize Sex Work spent $71,469 to continue organizing a statewide coalition in favor of setting up the government commission. The group spent another $36,616 to lobby the state government, including $25,000 in grants, to change the laws. The Legalization Project spent $27,855 to assist with lobbying.
It worked. With no opposition, the Rhode Island House voted unanimously in 2021 to support Williams’ bill to create a special legislative commission described as a “study ensuring racial equity and optimizing health and safety laws affecting marginalized individuals.”
Despite the unwieldy name, the commission’s only task is to make recommendations on revising laws on commercial sex.
The commission, led by Williams and Representative Edith Ajello, both Democrats of Providence, is made up of people who are in favor of decriminalizing prostitution, including a representative from COYOTE RI and two people who are working on decriminalization in Vermont and are funded by Decriminalize Sex Work. It includes no members who are not in favor of decriminalizing prostitution, but does include representatives of a few public officials who are supposed to be neutral.
Decriminalize Sex Work reported total revenues of $1.28 million in 2021, the same a year it claimed legislative accomplishments in several states, including Rhode Island.
The commission will report its findings by May 31, 2023.
The cause has been championed by local progressives, with bills sponsored by members of the RI Political Cooperative, who say decriminalizing prostitution is about choice and stopping “state violence.”
In March, Providence Senator Tiara Mack introduced a bill for the second time to decriminalize prostitution, making it a civil penalty with fines akin to a traffic ticket for prostitutes and buyers. A second bill, sponsored by East Providence Senator Cynthia Mendes, who is running for lieutenant governor, aims to abolish laws prohibiting commercial sex, including laws against pimps, pandering, brothel-keeping, and buyers, remove it from racketeering investigations, and prevent forfeitures. Warwick Senator Jeanine Calkin, a co-chair of the RI Political Cooperative, is a sponsor of both.
Attorney General Peter Neronha doesn’t support the bills, because the current laws are used by prosecutors to charge traffickers and sex buyers, and not the workers, said spokesman Blake Collins. He pointed out that the laws have been used sparingly since 2020: 18 superior court cases of pandering, four cases of procuring sex for a fee, and no charges of prostitution against sex workers.
A spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told the Globe that, after hearing testimony from survivors, the senate president would not support the legislation. After questions from the Globe, a spokeswoman for Governor Dan McKee said his team is looking at whether to assemble the Council on Human Trafficking, which was established by law in 2017 but never enacted.
Sex-trafficking survivors and their advocates said they heard about the legislation just three days before a hearing at the Senate Judiciary in April.
They were horrified and frantically began to mobilize, said Rachel Foster, co-chair at World Without Exploitation, a national anti-trafficking coalition based in New York City with more than 200 organizations, many led by survivors.
What’s happening in Rhode Island is similar to what they’re seeing around the country: bills submitted quietly with innocuous “health and safety” titles, and legislators who don’t realize what they’re actually voting on, she said. For the first time, some of those who’d survived the sex trade in Rhode Island decided to speak up.
“It takes so much for them to testify, because it’s not safe to testify where you were trafficked,” Foster said.
They decided it was worth the risk. Mary Speta, chief impact officer at Amirah in Woburn, Mass., an organization that helps survivors of sexual exploitation, pointed out that decriminalizing prostitution in Rhode Island has a far-reaching impact.
“When you’re trafficked in New England, for a lot of the time, you are trafficked in multiple locations,” she said. “One tactic they use is moving you around a lot so you don’t get comfortable in any particular area. The majority of women we work with have been trafficked in two states.”
These survivor-led organizations support decriminalizing prostitution only for those who are bought and sold for sex, but not for the buyers, the brothels, or the pimps. They say they also wonder why some progressive politicians want to roll back prohibitions instead of addressing the factors that lead to people ending up in the life: substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and children aging out of the child welfare system who have nowhere to go but the streets.
“The progressives are paying attention to those with power and access to legislators, while those recovering (from sexual exploitation) don’t have access and don’t have a voice,” said Nicole Bell, the founder of Living In Freedom Together, or LIFT, in Worcester, Mass. The progressive politicians “are listening to one side of this. (They) never come to us and talk to us about these bills, and why we don’t want buyers and traffickers to buy women’s bodies.”
Bell, who grew up near Stoughton, Mass., said she started being trafficked for sex when she was 16. The man she thought was her boyfriend at the time was 34. He had her turning tricks in hotels in Boston and in strip clubs in Providence, when indoor prostitution was legal, and “no one asked questions.”
“They think that if its behind closed doors, it’s consensual, adult sex work,” she said of those pushing to legalize prostitution. While those who are prostituted should not be criminalized, it’s not right to give a pass to the people who are buying them. “Never once did the men gaining access to brutalize my body ask if I was old enough to be doing this, which I was not. They didn’t ask, because they didn’t care, and neither did my trafficker, and they never will.”
When the hearing opened on April 5, there were more survivors in the room than people in favor of the bills. Some just wanted to be present. Many shared harrowing personal stories about being sold for sex and the trauma it caused.
Robin Levasseur, the survivor who now works with the nonprofit Together With Love, nervously held a copy of her 1979 yearbook photo from Classical High School. She’d wanted the senators to know the promise her life had held at 18, before she met a man she called “the devil.”
“You cannot pass this law,” Levasseur begged. “I have seen it first-hand. If it happened to me, it can happen to your daughter, your niece, your granddaughter.”
But Mack, the state senator who sponsored the decriminalization bill, said her legislation “would make communities more safe and regulate and protect this class of individuals.” In 2021, she called sex work “a victimless crime” that some rely on to survive.
Bella Robinson of COYOTE RI said that sex workers didn’t want trafficking. “I feel the pain many people have gone through, but criminalization didn’t stop what happened to them,” she said. She did not acknowledge that the trafficking described by those testifying against the bill occurred while indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island.
Mendes, whose Senate bill would abolish all laws prohibiting commercial sex, urged committee members to “watch out for fear mongering” and to focus on those who choose to engage in sex work voluntarily.
“Under criminalization, they’re all lumped together, which is dangerous,” she said. “The people who choose the consensual situation should have the right to do so.”
She blamed the current laws for the stories of exploitation and trauma shared by victims of human trafficking, because sex work “is in the shadows, it is shrouded in shame,” she said. “My intent — my deep, deep intent — is to be a vessel for those who choose this industry to have the right to participate in this industry.”
Republican Senator Jessica de la Cruz watched the survivors shaking their heads as Mendes spoke of the benefits of decriminalized prostitution. “This is not something that women choose,” de la Cruz told Mendes. “For the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of them, they are put into positions like this against their will.”
Mendes did not address the situations of those who were forced into prostitution, or who were underage or otherwise unable to consent to sex. She did not acknowledge that the trafficking described by those testifying occurred while indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island. Instead, she focused on potential but far-fetched upsides, like being able to negotiate wages. “Right now we are seeing an increase in labor unions across the country, and we could, with decriminalization, see those who choose to enter this industry, unionize, and have collective bargaining rights,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine what collective bargaining would look like on Cranston Street. There’s no way to negotiate with a needle or a fist.
Trisha Heeks has been out here, on and off, for three years. Her face is framed by lovely long blonde hair and betrays the trauma of her life on the streets. She was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years, but she got depressed and started using drugs, she explained. “I made some stupid choices,” she said. Her children now live with her mother.
“Honestly, I think you should be able to do what you want with your own body,” Heeks said of the decriminalization efforts. “I think you should have that choice. I don’t think it should be an illegal thing, go to jail.”
Still: It’s dangerous out here, she admitted. She said she’s adapted, “but I see some girls who come out here, and they get used and treated like s---,” she said. “I always say, get out while you can, because Cranston Street will eat you alive.”
She shivered, and Cindy Zulker, the executive director of Together With Love, shrugged off her own puff jacket and placed it over Heeks’ shoulders. Heeks glanced back at men watching from under the glare of a convenience store’s fluorescent lights. Levasseur handed her a card.
“You can call me, morning, noon, or night. If anyone tries to hurt you, if you’re trying to get away from someone who is using you to make money, to do something you don’t want to do, you call me and I’ll come get you,” Levasseur told her in a low voice.
Heeks tucked the card away and slipped her arms into Zulker’s coat. She thanked Levasseur for the brownie and bag of personal items. Then, she hurried back to where the men were waiting.