Sex Workers’ Rights

Will California Legalize Prostitution Next? Inside the Crowd-Sourced Fundraising

In 2008, San Francisco’s decriminalization drive went down in flames over donors’ fears of being outed. So proponents formed a nonprofit—and took their new lawsuit funding drive online.

Laura Rauch/AP Photo

Maxine Doogan is a sex worker whose kids are well aware of—and support—her work, she says. “It’s fun work,” she tells The Daily Beast, “and it has allowed me to provide for myself and my children.”

Doogan is thoughtful, and she’s an activist: Her nonprofit, Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project, is seeking to decriminalize prostitution in California with a lawsuit over sex workers’ constitutional rights.

Doogan founded ESPLERP “because we needed another instrument to be able to raise money to afford campaigns to free the prostitute nation.” As a proponent of San Francisco’s 2008 prostitution decriminalization attempt, Proposition K, she realized “we didn’t prevail because we didn’t raise enough money.” People were reluctant to donate, she says, because campaign finance laws required recording donors’ name and pertinent details. Potential donors, says Doogan, were afraid they would be discriminated against if their support for decriminalizing prostitution became public.

So ESPLERP was set up as a nonprofit, and the group raised $30,000 on GoFundMe last year to fund its lawsuit, filed March 4 in U.S. District Court, “challenging California’s current anti-prostitution law.”

According to their brief, California’s prostitution laws:

  • deprive individuals of the fundamental right to engage in consensual, private sexual activity;
  • deny individuals the right to choose for themselves how to earn a living and who to enter a contract with;
  • limit how and with whom and individual can associate in private;
  • discourage safe sex because the possession of condoms is used as evidence by prosecutors.

The lawsuit names California Attorney General Kamala Harris, along with other district attorneys, including those from San Francisco and Sonoma counties.

“We hope to advance sexual privacy rights for everyone,” says Doogan. “It’s important. It’s a fundamental right that we have to recognize.”

Asked about concerns some might have about sex trafficking, Doogan says, “People who have those concerns don’t care about us, and they don’t care about subjecting sex-traffic victims to the violence of the arrest for prostitution.” If the ESPLERP lawsuit is successful, she says, then “sex-trafficking victims aren’t arrested anymore for prostitution.”

Veronica Monet, a relationship counselor in Northern California who spent 15 years as a high-end escort, echoes that sentiment. “People who claim to have concerns about human sex trafficking, most of their motivation is moralistic and has very little to do with the health and safety of sex workers,” she says. “One official [recently] asked, ‘How do you tell the difference between someone who is [a sex worker] by choice and one who isn’t?’ That’s where we are at. They’re not differentiating between the two. When it comes to prostitution, we’ve made it illegal across the board. Paid sex is supposed to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It’s a huge step backwards for women’s rights.”

Just as women should have the right to choice, Monet says, women should have the right to choose their profession.

“We are being treated like we are unable to make decisions about what’s best for ourselves,” Monet adds. “For those who are concerned with sex trafficking, we need to be able to have a conversation with sex workers.” Monet says that when she was a sex worker, she was raped. She wanted to report it, she says, but couldn’t because she would have been arrested for prostitution rather than have her deposition taken.

“When we prohibit a behavior, we tend to pull the industry underground. We’re not able to get reports from people in the industry,” she says.

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“It sets up antagonism between law enforcement and women who want to run their own lives, or women who are in it for survival. To criminalize them and their families is to criminalize poverty,” she continues, noting that developing a dialogue with sex workers can be beneficial so that they can report, for example, serial rapists, underage women working, or an abusive pimp.

Yet the decriminalization drive has not been without challenges. Just two days after ESPLERP filed its case and posted a new GoFundMe campaign—identical to last year’s successful one—GoFundMe took its page down, saying it had violated the company’s new terms and conditions.

GoFundMe declined to identify which term and/or condition ESPLERP violated, directing The Daily Beast only to its terms and conditions page, which leads us to speculate: Is ESPLERP promoting “certain sexually oriented materials or services”? Or perhaps GoFundMe considers the campaign one “in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts.” (GoFundMe has permitted campaigns for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Ferguson’s Michael Brown.)

“We have a Constitution, and the Constitution guarantees certain rights, of which our class is [denied],” says Doogan. GoFundMe’s denial of the ESPLERP campaign, she says, is just another example of the discrimination sex workers face. The Constitution “applied to us until they started criminalization in 1961,” she says, when prostitution was outlawed in California.

A representative for GoFundMe declined to comment, saying the site could only discuss the reason the campaign was pulled with the campaign organizer.

That’s “bullshit,” says Doogan. “That’s not true. They are arbitrarily making decisions and discriminating against us. This is part of the reason we’re calling for broad based anti-discrimination legislation.” Doogan says GoFundMe has not told her specifically why the campaign was pulled.

Doogan rattles off a list of sex workers and adult performers whose bank accounts were closed by Chase. Sex workers, she says, are “discriminated [against] in housing and child custody issues,” as well.

“We are, once again, treating women like we own them,” says Monet. “We can trust their decisions. We might not always like them. But we don’t have the right to reprogram them.”

Monet continues: “The only thing that degrades a woman is taking her voice and her choice away from her.”

Read ESPLERP’s full complaint here. ESPLERP now has a crowdfunding site up here: