PROVIDENCE, R.I.—We were happy to learn, just a few months ago, that prostitution was legal in Rhode Island as long as it was practiced indoors, but now comes the interesting news that 16- and 17-year-olds can legally work in strip clubs ... but that no one can photograph the underage strippers doing so.
Basically, Title 11, Sec. 11-9-1 of Rhode Island's Criminal Code makes it an offense to "exhibit, use, or employ, or shall in any manner or under pretense sell, give away, let out or otherwise dispose of any child under the age of sixteen (16) years ... in any illegal, obscene, indecent, or immoral purpose, exhibition, or vocation, injurious to the health or morals or dangerous to the life or limb of the child," and anyone who has custody or control of the under-16 minor who cause[s], procure[s] or encourage[s]" the child to do so faces one year in prison and/or a $250 fine, plus loses custody of the child.
That same section suggests that a 16- or 17-year-old could also engage in prostitution on his/her own as long as he/she didn't solicit customers in public—but an adult procuring the 16/17-year-old to do so ("pimping") would run afoul of the same law.
Of course, most states would prohibit anyone under 18 years old from engaging in the above-listed activities, and indeed, section (b) of the same law prohibits anyone under 18 from being "used in any book, magazine, pamphlet, or other publication, or in any motion picture film, photograph or pictorial representation, in a setting which taken as a whole suggests to the average person that the child has engaged in, or is about to engage in any sexual act, which shall include, but not be limited to, sodomy, oral copulation, sexual intercourse, masturbation, or bestiality"—and allowing an under-18 to do so can net the perp 10 years in the slam and a $10,000 fine for the first offense.
Apparently, the application of the law to the youths hinges on whether stripping is considered "indecent" or "immoral," and since there are plenty of legally operating strip clubs in the state, the terms don't prevent underage strippers from working there.
Of course, this discovery has caused some consternation among politicians and law enforcement officials.
"I've been doing this a long time," youth services Sgt. Carl Weston told the Providence Journal, "and I can’t find anything that says it's illegal for a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old to take her top off and dance. ... You can't serve alcohol if you’re under 18, but you can be the target of a man's groping hands at age 16."
"Allowing children to be exploited is reprehensible," stated Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts in a press release. "I recently spent time with my 17-year-old daughter jumping through bureaucratic hoops so she could work as a camp counselor this summer, and even in this capacity, she is limited in her scope of work. To think that any minor could just as easily be employed as a stripper is mind-boggling. This must come to an end immediately."
On Tuesday, Rep. Joanne Giannini (D-Providence) said she was working on a bill to criminalize stripping by anyone under 18, but considering the difficulty that the state legislature has had in revamping its prostitution laws, when or even if such a bill will find its way to the governor's desk for signature is anybody's guess.