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A Lawsuit Pushes To Make Prostitution Legal In California

Sheri's Ranch
Larry & Teddy Page/Flickr

Sheri's Ranch in Nye County is just one of several brothels operating legally in Nevada. A lawsuit in California seeks to make prostitution legal in that state as well.

When it comes to legal prostitution, Nevada has welcomed brothels in certain counties and in exchange has taxed the industry and demanded strict medical testing for prostitutes to protect both the sex workers and their clients.

Even an attempt by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to have lawmakers in Carson City outlaw the “oldest profession in the world” in Nevada in 2011 failed. It’s an industry in Nevada, just like gaming, mining or tech.

So while prostitution still remains legal in most of Nevada, it is illegal just over the border in California.

But, an unusual lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco seeks to overturn California’s law banning prostitution. The suit is being brought by a nonprofit organization that says its First Amendment rights are violated by the ban.

The organization, Erotic Service Provider Legal, Education and Research Project, ESPLER, also argues the state’s prohibition on sex work violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

In their complaint, ESPELR argues that anti-prostitution and solicitation laws impinge upon the substantive due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and invoke the liberty interests in one’s private sexual relationship.

The lawsuit names California Attorney General Kamala Harris and four other bay area district attorneys.

Prostitution, simply defined, means to engage in a sexual act in exchange for money or other consideration. California law currently prohibits engaging in the act of prostitution, and offering, also known as solicitation, or agreeing to engage in the act of prostitution.

“This law also significantly hinders, if not deprives, many individuals from their ability and right to engage in sexual intimacy,” according to the 15-page complaint.

Despite the effort, Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA Law School, told KNPR's State of Nevada the lawsuit has a slim chance at success. 

He said the strongest argument is that of privacy. He notes the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right to sexual privacy and since people pay in other cases involving a constitutional right, like the right for freedom of speech, then it could hold up in court.

“It’s a plausible argument. It’s just not going to win,” Volokh said.

He believes the biggest hurdle is simply the history of the ban on prostituion, which has been around for hundreds of years in several states.

In 2008, San Francisco voters defeated an initiative decriminalizing prostitution. But, supporters believe medical marijuana laws and same-sex marriage mean times have changed and now is time to challenge the law.

"We believe it is time to revisit the ciminalization of prostitution and put the state to the test," said ESPLER attorney D. Gill Sperlein in a statement. "Social science clearly demosntrates that the criminalization of prostitution puts sex workers at risk of abuse because it discourages them from reaching out to law enforcement."

Former high-end escort and relationship coach Veronica Monet has been fighting for decriminalization for 25 years. She said the ban on prostitution is a moral judgment codified in law.

"To often, what is going on in the United States is we’re taking moral and religious viewpoints and legislating them," Monet said.

She pointed to New Zealand as an example of where legalizing prostitution has worked. 

But not everyone is supportive of ESPLER's efforts. Emily Murase with the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women called prostitution modern-day slavery. She told KGO-TV there are women in the sex trade against their will and "we need to do everything to liberate them."

Eugene Volokh, law professor at UCLA Law School;  Veronica Monet, former high-end escort and relationship coach

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