A new push to legalize prostitution in California could have far-reaching effects. Last week, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowed a lawsuit to proceed that seeks to overturn the Golden State's 145-year-old ban on prostitution. The suit was brought by three ex-prostitutes, a would-be client and the ESPLER (Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research) Project.
Proponents of the effort to legalize prostitution say the goal is to eventually overturn bans in as many states as possible. "This is a Constitutional challenge to these laws," says Scott Schoettes with the group Lambda Legal. "So, because the Constitution applies all across the country, if it was successful, I think that (the laws) by extension would be overturned in other places."
The basic argument of the lawsuit is that prostitution bans violate the right of consenting adults to engage in sexual activity. "It is a fundamental human right to control your own body, and why should the state be involved in selling something when there is no crime in giving that same something away," says Kamy Akhavan with the group ProCon.org. He adds that proponents of the lawsuit also have a public health argument. "This practice is happening anyway, and by legalizing and regulating it, we can create conditions that make it significantly safer and healthier for women and for their customers."
Nevertheless, opponents of the legalization effort point out that prostitution leads to increases in sexually transmitted diseases and human trafficking. But Schoettes claims just the opposite is true. "In fact, when it comes to something like HIV, the (anti-prostitution) laws actually hinder our ability to access these sex workers with healthcare and HIV prevention," he says.
There's no timetable for the next step in the lawsuit, although the state could appeal the 9th Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.