Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The slow slog to decriminalized sex work in Louisiana

The path to decriminalized sex work in Louisiana leads through racism, poverty, homophobia, and predatory policing.

Christine Breland Lobre Lakeesha Harris
24 January 2020, 8.00am
The Penthouse Club in New Orleans.
Billy Metcalf Photography/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Women With A Vision (WWAV) was formed in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1989 when a group of Black women working in public health and social services decided they were tired of marginalized communities being left out of the conversation because of white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. Following a meeting detailing HIV-related health promotion that left out one of the hardest hit populations, Black women, our founders decided to direct their own harm reduction efforts. They began doing outreach in areas where mere survival meant that you were blocked from accessing most resources. This outreach happened in housing projects, amongst street-based sex workers, and with folks who used drugs – all groups who were heavily targeted by racist policing.

We believe that divesting funds from law enforcement and reinvesting in communities that have been destabilized by predatory policing is the next logical step in the fight for decriminalization. For nearly a decade, Louisiana has not just led the nation but the world in incarceration rates at a rate of 1,052 per 100,000. These rates, of course, have glaring racial disparities: African Americans make up 66% of Louisiana’s incarcerated population but only 32% of the state’s total population. These numbers do not include those held under community-based supervision and burdened by unrealistic fines or probationary requirements. Exacerbating the situation is a near constant threat of arrest. Currently, one in seven adults in New Orleans has a warrant out for their arrest. These statistics are important when we discuss WWAV’s approach to sex worker advocacy and decriminalization efforts.

NO Justice

Louisiana’s blatantly racist, queerphobic and transphobic application of certain prostitution laws compelled us to launch the NO Justice campaign in 2008. We had realized that a majority of our clients who had or were engaging in survival sex work – clients who were predominantly poor, Black, and/or members of the LGBTQ community – were facing predatory policing and unequal prosecution and sentencing under the Crime Against Nature-Solicitation (CAN-S) law (now LA RS 14:89.2).

The CAN-S law prohibited the “solicitation by a human being of another with the intent to engage in any unnatural carnal copulation”, defined as anal or oral sex, for compensation. Apart from a felony conviction with the possibility of six months of incarceration and a fine of $500 for a first offense conviction, the harshest consequence of being caught in its net was to be placed on the sex offender registry for fifteen years to life. Once on the registry it was more difficult to access social services, acquire housing and employment, or even volunteer at a child’s school. The requirement essentially branded all registrants with the words SEX OFFENDER in bold, red letters across all identification.

CAN-S charges were overwhelmingly brought against poor, Black, and LGBTQ sex workers. We filed a federal civil rights suit to challenge the constitutionality of the law and remove the registry requirement in 2011 on the grounds that it furthered marginalization and discrimination. We then filed a civil lawsuit against the state with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Andrea J. Ritchie, Esq., and the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law to remove nearly 800 individuals charged with CAN-S from the sex offender registry. At the time, almost 40% of the entire sex offender registry was from CAN-S convictions, 75% of registrants were women, and 79% were Black. The flagrant disparity in the application of the law was undeniable. A year later our office was firebombed. There was little investigation by law enforcement.

Working with governmental and carceral systems is only ever an exercise of harm reduction.

The NO Justice campaign and its results were a product of how we at WWAV approach our work. We are led by those most impacted. And in a parish where the police department, sheriff’s office, and jail now operate under federal consent decree due to documented civil rights violations, working with governmental and carceral systems is only ever an exercise of harm reduction. For example, we successfully worked with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) to draft a department-wide order regarding how citations for alleged sex work-related offenses are issued and recommending avoiding engagement when it is unnecessary to intervene. We have been making headway with the city council on bail reform, and are trying to stop the NOPD from using certain charges that unnecessarily send people to criminal court. That’s where our fight exists, with those who are most harmed.

Sex work and poverty in New Orleans

We know that decriminalizing sex work won’t decriminalize the folks engaged in street-based sex work. To do that we must also end the criminalization of poverty. Some context about how capitalism and white supremacy play out in our state and city specifically: Louisiana has the third-highest poverty rate in the country according to the Census Bureau. At the city level, approximately 27% of the population of New Orleans and 75% of its Black residents live at or below the poverty line. For a family of four that is only $25,750, far from what is needed to afford basic necessities. Census data furthermore shows that women between the ages of 25 and 34 are the highest group living in poverty, more than double their male counterparts. The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness has called New Orleans “the most blighted city in the nation”.

To understand the layers of oppression that further contribute to the marginalization of poor, Black and Brown sex workers, we also need to look at racial and class discrimination in higher end strip clubs. These clubs impose quotas to restrict the number of Black and Brown women who are able to work there. In most cases that quota is just one person of color. Until fairly recently there hasn’t been any real solidarity between performers at these clubs and the those who are engaging in sex work. However, following a movement by city officials and law enforcement to limit the number of these clubs in the tourist-heavy French Quarter, we saw many of the dancers speak out and push back against racist hiring practices and other discriminatory practices at their clubs. We supported their fight to not be harmed by their employers or our government, and in doing so we found allies amongst sex workers who used their power and unearned privilege to support those who are blocked from indoor job opportunities due to discrimination. While hiring practices have not changed, indoor sex workers have begun organizing and against the criminalization of those marginalized by racism, transphobia and capitalism.

We are constantly reminded that while many allies have good intentions, they often assume sex workers need to be saved.

We have also found unlikely allies in government officials, some members of the anti-trafficking movement, and even some law enforcement. Last year, on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we were happy to have our mayor, LaToya Cantrell, make a public statement in support of WWAV’s Sex Worker Week of Action. Cantrell proclaimed that all residents deserve equal protection under the law, free from violence and stigma. Advocates for sex workers’ rights agree. Criminalization puts those who engage in sex work, especially street-based sex work, at a heightened risk of physical and sexual violence from law enforcement, customers, and traffickers.

We appreciate our allies because they are necessary, but we are constantly reminded that while many allies have good intentions, they often assume sex workers need to be saved. Our method for working with entities that may support the criminalization of sex work is to identify which issues in support of decriminalization they respond to, whether it’s basic human rights, freedom from violence or access to a living wage, and work from there. Disappointingly, many supposed allies prefer voyeuristic approaches to change despite the wealth of well-documented stories that already exist. Often groups request to have individuals – especially current or former survival-based sex workers that have experienced trauma – tell their personal stories. We support folks who want to share their experience, but we do not support the exploitation of others’ trauma. We learned long ago to maintain clear and consistent boundaries when working with individuals and organizations that do not share our analysis.

In spite of allies that double as adversaries, we continue to chip away at carceral practices by building on local, national, and global efforts and wins. On a local level in Louisiana, there has been a concerted effort to reduce incarceration rates and to end police bias. We have been able to build on these reforms by citing the evidence-based policy recommendations that are being adopted in cities across the country. For example, WWAV was instrumental in passing Good Samaritan laws that protect individuals that use drugs from arrest and prosecution when seeking medical assistance. We are now working to extend the same protections to sex workers who experience or witness violent crimes, building off similar legislative and policy wins with the language of harm reduction. We also recognize that our messaging and advocacy efforts must be adaptable. Depending on the audience, our approach can vary from the need for human rights affirming, safe labor practices as a means to increase overall public health all the way to the deleterious effects of carceral systems that push individuals deeper into poverty thereby destabilizing families and communities.

The idea that we must save individuals who have been coerced into sex work by circumstances like poverty, or by outside forces such as traffickers or abusers, is wildly harmful. Individuals who have been coerced need their personal agency restored and access to resources that will allow them to make the choices they want to make. We believe that by advocating for the most criminalized we advocate for all.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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