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Sex Workers in New Orleans Are Being Labeled Sex Offenders

New Orleans police are using a state law written in 1805 for child molesters to charge hundreds of sex workers as sex offenders.
 
 
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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? Offering sex for money.

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, declares 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.

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.

Impacts on Women's Lives

The law impacts sex workers in both small and large ways. Tabitha has to register an address in the sex offender database. Her driver's license has the label “sex offender” printed on it. 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 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 (Voice Of The Ex-offender), 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.