Get here soon if you want to enjoy the amenities. I think they finally mean it this time. R.I. prostitutes speak out against bill to close loophole
<H5 class=vitstorydate>07:36 AM EDT on Monday, October 26, 2009</H5>By Steve Peoples
Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — There is no pretending here.
The women gathered at this Providence community center are prostitutes. And they are here, early this Sunday morning, because they want to keep their jobs.
"No one here is under any force to be working in this field," said Sunyo Williams through an interpreter. "We are willing to answer one by one and testify that this is our own choice."
Williams sat in a circle of more than 30 Korean spa workers — most wearing hooded sweatshirts or winter jackets, jeans and designer sneakers — drawn to this plain room with cinderblock walls to learn how and why the General Assembly
may outlaw their source of income this week.
A large bowl of white rice sat on a table in the corner of the room. No one was eating. Some scribbled notes as the handful of state lawmakers in attendance outlined the situation.
"Prostitution will be criminalized," said a sympathetic state Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, who was joined by Providence Democrats Rep. David A. Segal and Rep. Edith H. Ajello at the meeting hosted by the advocacy group Direct Action for Rights and Equality. "And there will be fines for this behavior … and potential prison time. This needs to be known."
Indeed, while the details have yet to be finalized, the legislature this week plans to close a nearly 30-year-old loophole in the state prostitution laws that has made Rhode Island the only place in the country, except for certain counties in Nevada, where prostitution is legal as long as it occurs indoors.
The new law would target the men who pay for sex, landlords who "knowingly" allow prostitution, and women such as Williams, a 53-year-old single mother who uses money from prostitution to help finance her daughter's college education.
"I do not want anything to happen until she finishes school," Williams said of her 20-year-old daughter, a junior at the University of Rhode Island. "If I get arrested, my children get hurt."
Williams, who speaks broken English, moved to Rhode Island from Arkansas seven years ago because she heard "the schools were good here." A mother of two, with little education, she quickly found employment in a Pawtucket spa that offered sex for money.
It was only last year, she says, that she learned indoor prostitution was legal. "Everybody found out last year," she said. "Before, we don't know. We were very careful."
Williams works in the Pawtucket spa with three other women. She says that each has a separate tax identification number and pays taxes.
"My customers, they all come from Massachusetts," Williams said. "We're making money and spending it in Rhode Island."
Just a handful of the other women spoke or asked questions of the lawmakers, or representatives of advocacy groups such as the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, who attended Sunday's 8:30 a.m. meeting.
A woman who later identified herself only as Jasmine was among the most vocal.
Through a translator, she said she fell into prostitution three years ago after answering a newspaper ad.
"I was very hungry. That's why I started," said Jasmine, a petite woman of "older than 40" who wore a Ralph Lauren winter coat and now works at a Providence spa. "It's better than stealing, or breaking the law. This is a way of life. There are people dependent on this."
As Sunday's meeting progressed, a collective sense of fear and frustration grew as the women realized an unwelcome political reality.
Many had hoped for a compromise that would protect them from jail. Jasmine suggested increased taxes on spas.
"For reasons that are hard for me to understand, the legislation is more harsh than we would like for the women," Segal responded. "There's still a small chance that the severity could be lessened… But you need to understand that's a small chance."
Ajello chimed in: "This is a huge rock you are looking to push up a very steep hill," she said, encouraging the women to attend a State House committee hearing Tuesday at 4 p.m. where the prostitution bill could be amended. "I think you should try. The most positive thing would be to put a human face on the issue."
The women, however, were worried about being recorded at the televised hearing. Cameras weren't allowed in Sunday's gathering. Some suggested testifying while wearing large hats and sunglasses.
Williams wasn't sure whether she'd attend the hearing. If the law is changed, however, she said she'd have to leave the state.
"I need a little more time to help my daughter," she said.
Jasmine also said she'd probably leave Rhode Island if the Assembly closed the loophole. And she's frustrated.
"Honestly, after being in this world for three years, I've come to learn that it's all around the United States," she said through a translator. "Yeah, it's illegal. But it happens everywhere. It's not like you can stop it, even if this law gets passed." From one of the greatest thinkers of the past 100 years:
I don't understand why prostitution is illegal. Selling is legal. F*%king is legal. Why isn't sellin f&#king legal? You know, why should it be illegal to sell something that's perfectly legal to give away? I can't follow the logic on that one at all! Of all the things you can do, giving someone an orgasm is hardly the worst thing in the world. In the army they give you a medal for spraying napalm on people! In civilian life you go to jail for giving someone an orgasm!