A New Movement to Legalize Prostitution Faces a Fight With Kamala Harris

A New Movement to Legalize Prostitution Faces a Fight With Kamala Harris
File photo by Jake Guild/Flickr

A sex workers' rights organization wants to legalize prostitution in California via a federal court challenge to the state's sex solicitation law.

The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit. She has argued in the past that prostitution laws protect sex workers from human trafficking and violence. She has said that the sex trade "compromises the quality of life in a community."

The group that filed the suit, the San Francisco–based Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) has until June 8 to respond to the motion to dismiss. State justice attorneys have until June 23 to give the people's rebuttal.

If the suit passes that test, it could be heard in United States District Court in Oakland on Aug. 7.

ESPLERP's suit argues that California's prostitution statute violates both our right to privacy and our freedom of speech. It names Harris and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, a former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief who has also been critical of efforts to decriminalize the sex trade.

Maxine Doogan, president of the sex workers' organization, says the law violates the sanctity of the bedroom while denying people the freedom to associate with one another.

Interestingly, the one exception to the Golden State's prostitution law allows the exchange of money for sex when the activity is being filmed and has some artistic value. Court precedent deems that porn is legal in California because it's a matter of freedom of expression.

"There's a bunch of double standards" with the prostitution law, Doogan says.

Doogan argues that while public officials claim they're saving sex workers from the brutality of the streets, the law ultimately punishes them worse than if prostitution were decriminalized.

Workers still get in trouble for carrying life-saving condoms around and, more often than not, end up in jail, she says. If they're victims in the eyes of Harris and Gascon, she asks, why are they still being locked up?

Doogan wants sex workers to be able to unionize and meet regularly, but even that could be against the law. It could, Doogan said, be seen as a criminal conspiracy because multiple people are discussing the finer points of an illicit business.

She admits the fight is a long shot.

"I have tons of people who say to me privately, 'I agree with everything, but how is a politician going to come out on your side publicly,'" she said.

Hers is a pariah of an issue. Having gun-toting police intervene in the most primal, private and storied of human acts can seem counter to the tenets of civilization. But the specter of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence against prostitutes is just as inhumane.

Doogan says the organization's crowdfunding effort on GoFundMe to raise cash for the legal challenge reached the $30,000 mark before the campaign was nixed by the website for violating terms of use.

"Our class of workers is being discriminated against," Doogan says.

She's unfazed, however, and vows that ESPLERP is in it for the long run.

"If we don't prevail," Doogan says, "we'll come back to the state court level. We're not done by any means"

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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