The problem of making sex work a sexual offense.

Just when you think that the human rights of sex workers aren’t violated enough, take a look at this centuries-old law that allows sex workers to be branded as sex offenders.

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 is one of the best articles I have seen that has brought an intersectional lens to this aspect of sex work. This article uses intersectionality to explore the plight of how members of our society who are already marginalized face additional discrimination by the criminal justice system as sex workers. Intersectionality is an important device in this piece because it allows for us to view the current marginalization of sex workers in the context WOC and transgender women live.


On many fronts, transgender women and WOC–whether they are sex workers or not–have their rights to sexual privacy contested. This can be seen in the incessant, inappropriate line of questioning transgender folks face about their sexuality or the way Black women’s sexuality has been demonized when black women have non-traditional paths to motherhood. All in all, violations against the sexual privacy of WOC and transgender women are countless.
As the writer tells the story of these women, she attempts to offer them redress by granting them some modicum of privacy that has been taken away by a punitive, unjust system. One example of this is the writer grants the sex workers’ request to not reveal their first and last names in an environment where the state has effectively revoked these women’s rights to privacy, and particularly sexual privacy, simply because they have engaged in sex work.
Time will tell whether next month’s Mayoral elections in New Orleans will yield an elected official that reappoints a police chief that views these “unnatural copulation” laws on the books as antiquated and therefore not worth enforcing. However, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a feminist favorite around these parts, has a partner that is running for mayor in New Orleans, James Perry. He vows to reduce crime by 40 percent. Ostensibly, this will involve some level of decriminalization. At this point, this issue is impossible to take a public position on as a candidate.
But, if I was a betting woman, I would guess his commitment to civil rights makes him the most likely to be sympathetic with the unfortunate plight of New Orleans’ sex workers.

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11 Comments

  1. Caitlyn
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    It is hard to imagine that the people who came up with this inane idea intended it to apply to everyone. Doesn’t this make it a priority to investigate whether David Vitter needs to register as a sex offender as a result of his experience with prostitution? It sounds like the law applies equally to both parties, and this might give it some much needed publicity with the shoe on the other foot.

  2. Cruella
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    What we have to accept here is that prostitution is not “work”. It’s not a normal, everyday job. It’s a form of abuse perpetrated on women by pimps and punters. We need to punish and criminalise those pimps and punters to prevent thousands more young women being targetted by them every day and brought into the “industry”.

  3. Toongrrl
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    But do you think prostitution should be safe for those who work in that area?

  4. April
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    While I think Cruella is right, I also think that this law is really, unbelievably nonsensical. Obviously it does more harm than good. The woman in the article has been a prostitute in New Orleans since she was 13. 13. This woman is no criminal; she is clearly a victim. More needs to be done to stop young girls and women from believing that sex work is ever something that they have to do, or their only only option. Sex work should only be done if it is 100% something that the person wants to engage in, period. This law does nothing to address that fact, none of us are doing much to address that fact, and meanwhile, ridiculous laws are being used to label victims as sex offenders.
    This reminds me of an episode of COPS I saw around the time I was just getting turned on to feminism. Cops pulled over a man and woman in a truck, turns out she was a sex worker and performing oral sex on him. She was arrested, and the “john” was literally treated like an ol’ pal by the cop. And LET GO. Somehow I doubt that this law will really care much about the male customers.

  5. konkonsn
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a lot of people in New Orleans are going to be branded sex offenders. I mean, your “crimes against nature” are basically stating that anyone who has sex any way other than sticking a penis in a vagina is a sex offender. I immediately though of the LGBT community upon reading this, but c’mon…how many straight couples engage in oral and anal on a regular or semi-regular basis?

  6. artdyke
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Um… I thought Lawrence v. Texas took care of this shit???

  7. jane brazen
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m really glad to see this post, thanks. And thanks for talking about intersectionality. As a sex worker, I think that’s a huge piece that’s missing on both sides of the debate. What’s going on in New Orleans is clearly an example of how the criminal justice system targets those most disadvantaged.

  8. bifemmefatale
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    So it’s perfectly ok to slap “sex offender” on those victimized women?

  9. makomk
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    If it helps protect nice, middle class women against the existence of dirty immoral prostitutes? Probably :-( . (Of course, maybe I’m just being cynical due to too much exposure to the anti-trafficking movement…)

  10. Melimalle
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Hold on. Some women make a decision to enter sex work on their own accord without it being related to abuse of any kind. I know this, because I am a sex worker who made this decision. Admittedly, I am privileged because I live in a country (NZ) where prostitution is decriminalised and therefore I do not face the same problems that those in America do. However to lump all sex work in together is not a positive step.

  11. Phenicks
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Actually sodomy laws were first challenged in Bowers v. Hardwick under the auspice that they violate the privacy rights of homosexual persons. This ruling denied a violation of the rights of homosexual persons because those privacy rights were only afforded to married couples.
    Lawrence v. Texas overturned that ruling again applying specifically to homosexual sex acts ruling that : “The Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct violates the Due Process Clause.”
    Unmarried heterosexual couples and sexual partners (however fleeting the sexual partnership) were all left vulnerable to sodomy laws.

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