Sex Workers’ Group Takes On Criminalisation in California

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North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent

Last week, the San Francisco-based sex workers’ advocacy group, Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project (ESPLERP) filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of the state of California and several District Attorneys charging that California’s current law against prostitution, Penal Code 647(b), is unconstitutional. The group’s attorney says that their case could potentially lead to the decriminalisation of prostitution in several states in the western United States.

The brief, posted at ESPLERP’s website states that the group has filed a complaint against California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris and the District Attorneys of the City and County of San Francisco; Marin, Alameda, and Sonoma counties on the following grounds:

  • • These laws deprive individuals of the fundamental right to engage in consensual, private sexual activity.
  • These laws deny individuals the right to choose for themselves how to earn a living and who to enter into a contract with.
  • These laws limit how and with whom an individual can associate in private.
  • Enforcement of these laws discourages safe sex because the possession of condoms is used as evidence by prosecutors.
  • California has failed to provide a legitimate rational to continue denying individuals the right of free speech, the right to earn a living, and the right to freely associate.
  • The Penal Code is so vaguely worded that it criminalises the mere discussion of paying for erotic services between consenting adults.

The plaintiffs include former sex workers who wish to continue in the business but fear criminalisation, as well one disabled client. According to a report at VICE, the plaintiffs started working on the suit in 2008, when Proposition K—which would have decriminalised prostitution in San Francisco—failed to pass.

Now that the case has been filed, VICE reports, “the state could make a motion to dismiss, or it could go to trial.” The plaintiffs’ attorney says the case “will inevitably be contested until it reaches the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. While that decision would ostensibly be tailored to California's prostitution law, it could be applied to other states' prostitution statutes through future cases under the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction, which also includes Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State.”

The funding for this lawsuit came from crowd source and Craigslist, states ESPLERP. The group had planned to raise further funds via the crowdfunding website GoFundMe but, says ESPLERP, the site later contacted them to say “they had just changed their terms of use and canceled our campaign which had raised over $520 towards our new goal of $30,000. We had raised $30,000 using this site last year, which helped us be able to file our constitutional legal challenge. Not only did they cancel our campaign to raise monies to support our court case, they deleted our account altogether!” You can visit their new crowdfunding page, Liberatetoemancipate, here.

It is not the first time crowdfunding platforms have discriminated against sex workers. Last year WePay cancelled a fundraising campaign for porn actress Eden Alexander’s medical bills following a near-fatal reaction to a prescription drug. WePay cancelled the campaign, reportedly on the basis that she would use the money to produce porn. As others pointed out at the time, WePay seemed happy to process campaigns for anti-abortion extremists. WePay responded days later acknowledging that Alexander’s campaign should not have been shut down.