Is 2016 the year prostitution goes mainstream in California?

Sacramento escort (and mom) would emerge from the shadows if court overturns anti-sex work laws

“Kimberlee Cline” has been a professional escort for a dozen years and doesn’t intend to stop. Now 35, the Sacramento resident’s fate is wrapped up in a federal civil rights lawsuit that seeks to overturn California’s anti-prostitution law.

“Kimberlee Cline” has been a professional escort for a dozen years and doesn’t intend to stop. Now 35, the Sacramento resident’s fate is wrapped up in a federal civil rights lawsuit that seeks to overturn California’s anti-prostitution law.

Photos by lisa baetz

Kimberlee Cline recounts an awkward moment with her son’s preschool teacher. To say thanks for helping organize an event at the school, the teacher asked Cline for a short bio to include in a message to faculty and parents.

“First, she texted me,” recalls Cline, snacking on dates inside of her cozy downtown walk-up. “She was like, ‘Hey, can you send me one sentence?'” But 25 minutes later, Cline received another message. “'Never mind. I Googled.'”

Cline laughs: “I wonder what she thinks of all of that.”

The “all that” to which Cline refers is her decade-spanning career as an escort and sex workers’ rights activist.

“Kimberlee Cline” is her professional name, not her legal one. But there’s not much else that insulates the 35-year-old Sacramento resident from “proper society” and all of its potential perils—legal, moral and otherwise.

“The identity of being a sex worker goes a lot deeper than just having it listed as an occupation,” she explained. “We have to decide if it’s safe to tell this person what we really do. … Do I have anything to risk? Like, I have all these interests and perspectives that have nothing to do with my work, and yet the way that I move within the world and interact with other people is totally shaded by my work in some way.”

Mother. Traveler. Activist. And, in the eyes of the law, a career criminal who’s one encounter away from arrest and exposure.

In that respect, she’s represented by interest, if not name, in a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn California’s anti-prostitution law on constitutional grounds. Filed March 2015 in San Francisco, the audacious civil rights complaint comes at an intriguing time for the sex worker movement.

This past year, Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and Human Rights Watch all called for an end to the criminalization of sex work between consenting adults. They’ve since been joined by a trio of female lawmakers in New Hampshire, who introduced a bipartisan bill proposing to do the same.

Meanwhile, the recent data breach at Ashley Madison and the emergence of the website SeekingArrangement, which facilitates escort-lite arrangements between “sugar daddies” and “babies,” reveal the large demand for morality-blurring companionship services, primarily among millions of paying men. (See “Pour some sugar,” page 16.)

The courtroom drama here in California pits sex workers and their advocates against more than a century of morality-minded prohibition laws. An up-or-down ruling has the potential to reverberate throughout the country.

So is this the year that sex work goes mainstream?

Challenging state law

It began with a failure.

In 2008, 59 percent of San Francisco voters rejected a local measure that would have effectively legalized prostitution, four years after voters did the same thing in Berkeley. It was a bruising setback for sex workers and their advocates, especially in the progressive Bay Area. So how did they respond?

They set their sights higher.

Maxine Doogan, director of the Erotic Service Provider Legal Education & Research Project, or ESPLERP, recalled getting the push from an ally to sue the state just days after the vote. “The only thing I know about court is getting arrested,” she laughed.

That’s not to say there isn’t a precedent for this kind of thing.

In 1976, the sex workers’ rights group COYOTE filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Rhode Island’s anti-prostitution laws. The argument was that authorities were only prosecuting the state’s mostly female workforce, not its mostly male clientele, and resulted in a quiet out-of-court settlement that relaxed the ban on indoor prostitution, though that’s been rolled back in the years since.

“That’s how we got the idea to sue,” Doogan said. “It’s total momentum at this point. … We’re in it to win it.”

Instead of arguing gender discrimination, however, the California suit is based on more recent rulings that have upheld the right to sexual privacy, including the dismissal of anti-sodomy laws and the ban on gay marriage.

“It’s now time to recognize that this is a personal choice. Clearly, morality shouldn’t be a determining factor in what is illegal,” said plaintiff attorney H. Louis Sirkin, who successfully challenged obscenity laws in other states, including one that made it illegal to purchase sex toys in Texas. “The more you put it underground, the more dangerous you make it for the workers.”

Because people can be charged for making overt statements about their intent to participate in acts of prostitution, Sirkin claims the California penal statute defining prostitution also violates the First Amendment. Additionally, he contends that enforcing anti-prostitution laws imperils public health by making workers less likely to carry or use prophylactics. “Defendants use the fact of condom possession as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. By doing so, the Defendants discourage condom use and thwart safe sex practices,” his complaint asserts.

Records obtained by SN&R show that the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department cited the possession of condoms as contributing factors in 11 out of 22 prostitution arrests made during a three-day operation this past October.

In an earlier interview, sheriff’s Lt. Jason Ramos explained that the number of condoms someone possesses might be mentioned in a report to argue the sum totality of circumstances that lead to their arrest, but isn’t itself cause for that arrest. But harm-reduction specialists say sex workers don’t pay attention to those nuances; they just know condoms put them behind bars.

“You would rather [contract a disease] than go to jail,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a sex worker-turned-activist. “Especially if they’re supporting children. [Illness is] not even on their Richter scale.”

Aside from ESPLERP, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs include four unnamed individuals who want to participate in commercial sex work, including a disabled man who wants to procure the services of an erotic service provider.

The defendants are the state of California and the district attorneys of Alameda, Marin, San Francisco and Sonoma counties. The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris is representing them, and argues there is no right—free speech or otherwise—to engage in sex for hire.

“No court has recognized prostitution or its solicitation as a fundamental right or liberty that is ’objectively,’ ’deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,’ [as the plaintiffs argue],” the government contends. “To the contrary, prostitution has been a crime in California since at least 1872.”

Cline, also an activist, expects to tell her son of her profession when he reaches a certain age. “He’s just going to have the opportunity to love people for being different more than, you know, hating them for being different,” she says.

Back then, the law targeted a person’s status, not his or her conduct, and considered anyone living “in and about houses of ill-fame” or any “common prostitute” as violating the law, and subject to up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. That remained the case for most of the next century, until 1961, when the penal statute was revised to consider acts and “unambiguous and unequivocal” statements.

But Doogan believes the public has grown more accepting of sex workers since then, thanks to the work of Margo St. James, the ’70s-era feminist who founded COYOTE and was famous for sex-positive bon mots like, “A blow job is better than no job.” (St. James was also the one who suggested Doogan sue the state.)

The political conditions are also right, Doogan believes. “The momentum is to roll back high penalties and fees and reclassify felonies as misdemeanors,” she said, referring to bipartisan calls for federal sentencing reform and California’s passage of Proposition 47, which reclassified low-level “wobbler” felonies as misdemeanors.

“I think it’s just a matter of this country growing up,” Sirkin added. “It wouldn’t be the fall of Rome if it was legalized.”

Possible trends notwithstanding, the government has one more argument up its sleeve: human trafficking.

“The federal government recognizes that there is a link between prostitution and trafficking in women and children,” the government’s motion asserts.

But that link appears tenuous at best, and that’s according to one of the government’s own exhibits.

In 2011, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics audited 17 months’ worth of human trafficking probes to learn what became of them once the news media stopped paying attention. Of the 869 sex trafficking investigations that took place during the period ending in June 2009, only 32 percent were confirmed to involve sex trafficking. The rest either involved no trafficking at all (35 percent) or couldn’t be determined one way or another a year later.

Of the debunked investigations, most involved straight prostitution offenses.

The sex worker community contends that law enforcement agencies deliberately pad their human trafficking stats with low-level prostitution busts so they can justify the continuance of lucrative federal grants that are intended to go after traffickers. And even those who side with the government’s view that prostitution should remain illegal think authorities should be more transparent about their enforcement efforts.

“To a large extent, you’re preaching to the choir,” said Ian Kitterman, policy director for Demand Abolition, which believes in targeting the buyers of commercial sex work and trafficking. “I’ve been harping on the FBI” to provide comprehensive data, like differentiating between pimps and traffickers, something they haven’t done. “We should call it like it is,” he added.

The government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is waiting on a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White. There is no timetable for his decision, Sirkin says, but there’s much at stake, in that the debate reflects a fissure between two camps that claim to represent the interests of sex workers—but disagree sharply about what that means.

In one camp are abolitionists, closely aligned with law enforcement, who believe all commercial sexual activity is exploitative and should be eradicated. In the other camp are those who say decades of enforcement have only made sex work riskier and harder to leave.

“Once you’ve been publicly branded by the criminal injustice system, you’ve basically been sentenced to a life of prostitution,” said Doogan, a longtime sex worker herself. “That’s what’s really wrong with prostitution laws.”

For Cline and women like her, the lawsuit represents the possibility to emerge from the shadows and become protected members of society.

“I haven’t finished college, so my [employment] options are different than they are for some, but I know plenty of women with college degrees who are in this business because their degrees are not affording them living wage jobs,” she said. “I think everyone knows a sex worker, but whether they know that or not is up to them.”

Rejection of the ‘whore-archy’

Cline has this idea for a television show. In it, a handful of sex workers split the rent on an apartment that they use for in-call appointments, allowing the characters to intersect with each other like passing ships.

She could write it from experience.

A middle-class kid from a good family, she nonetheless felt miscast in her country club high school and bolted after graduation. She moved to Hawaii, ostensibly to attend college. But her real desire was to strip.

She danced for a few years, but grew burnt out on the scene shortly after returning to California, where the rules are more restrictive. “I’m not really good at having a manager,” she said.

Still, she hadn’t considered sex work. “In the strip clubs, we always looked down on girls who did prostitution, which is typical whore-archy and classism,” she said.

Until one shift at the last club she worked, in San Francisco. A doctor hinted at seeing her outside of work. She was intrigued, but too nervous to pull the trigger and told him so. A month later, the doctor texted an invitation to join him for a two-night business trip in Orlando, Fla. She tossed out a price and he agreed. She made $2,000 that weekend, minus airfare.

“The money is unparalleled,” she said. “I’ve tried to have other jobs here and there, and $10 an hour doesn’t add up to real income … let alone trying to have an actual life.”

Cline says most of her regulars are businessmen of a certain age—lawyers are a staple—but she also counts couples, the kink community and disabled people among her clients. To Cline, sex work at its best is a healing art, not unlike midwifery or physical therapy. And it has afforded her the stability to raise her son and pursue other interests, like political activism and travel.

“That right there is why this business has always been attractive to me, because I had wanderlust and needed to see the world,” she said. “And this was the only way I could do it.”

Cline has also served as an advocate for sex workers’ rights by co-founding the Sex Worker Outreach Project in 2003. While she’s been arrested for civil disobedience and marijuana possession, she’s never been busted for her work. She and Doogan, both white, say prostitution laws are disproportionately enforced against women of color, making this an equal rights issue as well as a sexual privacy one.

Of the 13 women booked into Sacramento County Jail on prostitution charges from January 24 through February 16, six were black, one was Latina and six were white.

In her personal life, Cline has used her advocacy role as a vehicle to test-drive coming out as an escort to those closest to her. Just about everyone in her life knows, including her parents.

“I have a pretty thin veil between my two identities,” she said. “Now it’s new concerns. Now it’s like, ’OK, how many of the other parents at [my son’s preschool] have figured this out?’”

She’s also wondering when, not if, the time will be right to tell her 5-year-old son.

“I think I got lucky to have a co-parent who is on the same page with me about how not problematic my work is,” she said. “Because there’s not going to be someone here saying derisive things about sex workers in general, about me as a sex worker. I think that’s very hard for kids. But in our household, we revere sex workers.”