1805 Law Used to Label Women of Colour and Trans Sex Workers as Sex Offenders in New Orleans

At Harlot’s Parlour, Douglas Fox reminds us of the situation for sex workers in Louisiana, where women of colour and trans workers seem to be preferred targets of a backwards, draconian law that ruins lives:

“In many of the highlighted cases in New Orleans it is especially sex workers who are also the most vulnerable people in that society who appear to be the targets of this disgraceful policy. Placing people on sex offender’s registers that will affect their lives for years is not only disgraceful but wrong.”

That’s right, the end result of this policy is that women are put onto the sex offender registry.  The law that enables this is a centuries-old statute that criminalizes “unnatural copulation.”  The sickening irony is that a legal tool meant to help protect children from predators is being used primarily to marginalize and impoverish women.  And I probably don’t need to say it, but the law has been and continues to be applied selectively.  From Louisiana Weekly:

“New Orleans city police and the district attorney’s office are using a state law written for child molesters to charge hundreds of sex workers like Tabitha as sex offenders. The law, which dates back to 1805, makes it a crime against nature to engage in “unnatural copulation”-a term New Orleans cops and the district attorney’s office have interpreted to mean anal or oral sex. Sex workers convicted of breaking this law are charged with felonies, issued longer jail sentences and forced to register as sex offenders. They must also carry a driver’s license with the label “sex offender” printed on it.

Of the 861 sex offenders currently registered in New Orleans, 483 were convicted of a crime against nature, according to Doug Cain, a spokesperson with the Louisiana State Police. And of those convicted of a crime against nature, 78 percent are Black and almost all are women.”

The LW article examines the issue in shocking detail (if that link goes out of date, it’s also at Colorlines and Monthly Review).  Because of a revision in 2006, the least serious offenses require a minimum of 15 years listed in the sex offender registry.  The consequences of being charged with “unnatural copulation” and being added to the registry can include:

  • Having to purchase and mail postcards with one’s photo on them to everyone in their neighborhood to notify them of one’s conviction,
  • Inability to get released on bail, because they’re seen as a greater risk for flight than most violent offenders,
  • Inability to get food stamps or public assistance because of a felony on record,
  • If one challenges ones sentence in court and loses, it becomes an automatic third offense, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years,
  • Limited job and housing options, ensuring that one remains in poverty and the cycle is further self-perpetuated,
  • A mere arrest on probation (conviction not required) results in an extension of time on the registry.

(I’ve not been able to confirm this, but it’s also been said that online chat can also get one added to the sex offender registry in New Orleans.)

According to NPR (which conflates human trafficking internationally with domestic sex work to reinforce the inaccurate meme that sex workers here are predominantly forced into prostitution), the johns are typically not similarly charged.

Change.org cites a public defender as saying that about half of all arrests for prostitution in New Orleans get tried in this way.

Lawrence v. Texas would seem to make this all unconstitutional.  But as Hunter of Justice notes regarding sex workers:

Lawrence… specifically excluded commercial sexual encounters from the ambit of constitutional protection that it recognized for consensual sexual acts between adults. And the Louisiana statute specifically criminalizes solicitation for sodomy for payment. As a result, the state can argue that this portion of the law is not affected by Lawrence.”

While I tend to be skeptical of the use of online petitions, there is one initiated at Petition Online and it does at least serve to promote valuable awareness.  Meanwhile, Women With A Vision, VOTE-NOLA, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance and others have formed a coalition to try to fight the legislation and its application.  They could use our support.

(also offered to Daily Kos)

  1. Although the term “sex worker” sounds like an intentional euphemism (e.g., like “oldest profession”) it is important to think in terms of who the real criminals are. Law enforcement’s highest priority when combatting the sex trafficking industry should probably be to focus on those who are engaged in coercing, tricking, seducing, drugging, programming (e.g., via torture and presexualization), or through other means RECRUITING children to enter the profession.

    • dentedbluemercedes
    • June 25th, 2011

    I’m in agreement with that. Unfortunately, the status quo is that sex work (not a euphemism — that’s what it is) is increasingly being conflated with human trafficking, so that legislators and ideologues can take the empathy for women and children who are truly trafficked, and exploit that in order to “crack down on prostitution” as though it would solve the problem.

    But it doesn’t. The laws typically used (including those struck down recently in Canada) serve to drive sex work underground, where women feel a need to stay “protected,” are unable to communicate in a way that will help ensure their safety — and if they’re trafficked, to get help. The laws are typically used to punish women more than anything else, and traffickers remain relatively untouched.

    Far more could be accomplished by focusing on border examination, immigration, the creation of safe havens, targeted education posters in multiple languages in areas likely to be accessed by trafficked women — and actually empowering sex workers, who could be valuable allies in combating human trafficking if they didn’t feel so targeted by the authorities they should be talking to.

    I get into this subject further in the Sex Work and Human Trafficking in Canada series linked along the right column.

  1. March 3rd, 2010

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