Her Crime? Sex Work in New Orleans
By Jordan Flaherty
With police charging sex workers as sex offenders—the majority of them Black women—activists hope the city’s mayoral elections next month will pave the way for fighting the law.
January 13, 2010
Tabitha has been working as a prostitute in New Orleans since she was 13. Now 30 years old, she can often be found working on a corner just outside of the French Quarter. A small and slight white woman, she has battled both drug addiction and illness and struggles every day to find a meal or a place to stay for the night.
These days, Tabitha, who asked that her real name not be used in this story, has yet another burden: a stamp printed on her driver’s license labels her a sex offender. Her crime? Sex work.
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 law impacts sex workers in both small and large ways.
Tabitha has to register an address in the sex offender database, and because she doesn’t have a permanent home, she has registered the address of a nonprofit organization that is helping her. She also has to purchase and mail postcards with her picture to everyone in the neighborhood informing them of her conviction. If she needs to evacuate to a shelter during a hurricane, she must evacuate to a special shelter for sex offenders, and this shelter has no separate safe spaces for women. She is even prohibited from very ordinary activities in New Orleans like wearing a costume at Mardi Gras.
“This law completely disconnects our community members from what remains of a social safety net,” said Deon Haywood, director of Women With A Vision, an organization that promotes wellness and disease prevention for women who live in poverty. Haywood’s group has formed a new coalition of New Orleans activists and health workers who are organizing to fight the way police are abusing the 1805 law.
Activists like Haywood believe that using the law in this way is part of an overall policy by the New Orleans Police Department to go after petty offenses. According to a report from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, New Orleans police arrest more than 58,000 people every year. Of those arrested, nearly 50 percent are for traffic and municipal offenses, and only 5 percent are for violent crimes.
“What this is really about is over-incarcerating poor and of-color communities,” said Rosana Cruz of VOTE-NOLA, a prison reform organization that is also a part of the new coalition.
Haywood, Cruz and other activists believe they have an opportunity with the mayoral and city council elections next month to change the system. With all of the candidates attempting to distance themselves from Mayor Nagin, who is prevented by term limits from running again, the new mayor is likely to be open to making changes. This includes hiring a new police chief, as all the candidates have pledged to do. Advocates are hoping this is an opportunity to shift the department’s focus. “When there's a new police chief, we can educate them,” said Haywood.
Many of the women Haywood’s group works with are at the most high-risk tier of sex work. They meet customers on the street and in bars, Haywood said. Most women are dealing with addiction and homelessness, and many cannot get food stamps or other public assistance because of felony convictions on their record.
“I’m hoping that the situation will look different because of this coalition,” Haywood said. “I can’t tell you how overwhelmed we’ve been from the needs of this population.”
Miss Jackie is one of those women. A Black woman in her 50s, she was arrested for sex work in 1999 and charged as a sex offender. Her real name, which she declined to give for this story, was added to the registry for 10 years. Miss Jackie says that when the registration period was almost over she was arrested for possession of crack. She says the arresting officer didn’t find any drugs on her person, but the judge ruled that she needed to continue to register as a sex offender for another 15 years (the new federal requirement for sex offenders) because her arrest was a violation of her registration period.
"Where is the justice?” she asked, speaking through tears. “How do they expect me to straighten out my life?” Struggling with basic needs like housing, Miss Jackie added: “I feel condemned."
Advocates and former defendants claim that the decision over who is charged under which penalty is made arbitrarily, at the discretion of police and the district attorney’s office, and that the law disproportionately affects Black people, as well as transgender women. When asked about the allegations of abusing the crime against nature statue, New Orleans Police Department spokesman Bob Young responded: “Persons are charged according to the crime they commit.”
Wendi Cooper’s story, however, paints a different picture.
In 1999, Cooper had recently come out as transgender. A Black transwoman, she tried prostitution a few times and quickly discovered it wasn’t for her. But before she quit, she was arrested. At the time, Cooper was happy to take a plea that allowed her to get out of jail and didn’t think much about what the “crime against nature” conviction would mean on her record. As she got older and began work as a healthcare professional, the weight of the sex offender label began to upset her more and more. “This is not me,” she said. “I’m not that person who the state labeled me as…it slanders me.”
Cooper appealed to the state to have her record expunged and talked to lawyers about other options, but she still must register for at least another five years and potentially longer. “I feel like I was manipulated, you know, pleading guilty to this crime…And it’s hard, knowing that you are called something that you’re not,” she said. She is also afraid now that the conviction will prevent her from getting her license as a registered nurse or from being hired.
Although some women have tried to fight the sex offender charges in court, they’ve had little success. The penalties they face became even harsher in 2006 when Congress passed the Adam Walsh act, requiring tier-1 (the least serious) sex offenders to stay in the public registry for 15 years. There’s also an added danger to fighting the charges, according to Josh Perry, a former attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders office.
“The way Louisiana’s habitual offender law works, if you challenge your sentence in court and lose, and it’s a third offense, the mandatory minimum is 20 years. The maximum is life,” he explained.
Perry estimates that on an average day two or three people are arrested for prostitution in New Orleans, and about half of them are charged under the crime against nature statute. “Right now, there are 39 people being held at Orleans Parish Prison [for] crimes against nature,” Perry told a gathering of advocates last August. “And another 15 to 20 people…charged with failure to register as a sex offender.”
Sex workers accused as sex offenders face discrimination in every aspect of the system. In most cases, they cannot get released on bond, because they are seen as a higher risk of flight than people charged with violent crimes. “This is the level of stigma and dysfunction that we’re talking about here,” said Perry. “Realistically, they’re not getting out.”
Advocates have said the ideal solution would be to get state lawmakers to change the law, but they feel there’s little hope of positive reforms from the current legislature. For now, organizers want to put pressure on police and the district attorney’s office to stop charging sex workers under the crime against nature statute.
There is a great deal of work that needs to be done. Haywood is working with lawyers and national allies to develop a legal strategy, as well as a broad local coalition that includes criminal justice reform organizations like VOTE-NOLA and activist groups like the New Orleans chapters of Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.
“We’re trying to organize, but we’re also working on the human rights side of how it’s affecting their lives,” she said. “This is a population that works in crisis mode all the time.”
Jennifer, a 23-year-old white woman who asked that her real name not be used in this story, has been working as a prostitute since she was a teenager, and also works as a stripper at a club on Bourbon Street. She recently broke free of an eight-year heroin addiction. Unless the law changes, she will have the words “sex offender” on her driver’s license until she is 48 years old.
Haywood said that stories like this show that the law has the effect of forcing women to continue with sex work. “When you charge young women with this—when you label them as a sex offender—this is what they are for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Jennifer said it’s affected her job options. “I’m not sure what they think, but a lot of places wont hire sex offenders,” she said.
Haywood said the women she sees have few options. Many of them are homeless. They are sleeping in abandoned houses or on the street, or they are trading sex for a place to stay. “The women we work with, they don't call it sex work,” she said. “They don't know what that means. They don’t even call it prostitution. They call it survival.”
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and audiences around the world have seen the television reports he’s produced for Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, GritTV, and Democracy Now. His post-Katrina reporting for ColorLines shared an award from New America Media for best Katrina-related reporting in ethnic press. Haymarket Press will release his new book, FLOODLINES: Stories of Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, in 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org