NO JUSTICE!: When Sex Work Brands You as a “Sex Offender” in New Orleans

by Deon Haywood and Laura McTighe

From PHN Issue 10, Spring 2011

Since our founding in 1991, Women With A Vision, Inc (WWAV) has been standing with the women of New Orleans, no questions asked. We have been trusted with stories that few others hear. But little could have prepared us for that day when ‘J’ pulled out her photo identification card, which read ‘SEX OFFENDER’ in block orange letters. As she explained how she had gotten picked up during a Mardi Gras round up and charged with a crime against nature, she was filled with anger and pain that marked this as the latest instance in a long history of exploitation. She is only 23 years old, one month clean from an 8 1⁄2 year heroin addiction. The ‘sex offender’ label will remain on her ID until she turns 48.

Why NO JUSTICE?

Stories like these are what drive WWAV’s holistic approach to harm reduction, social justice and self-care. Laws criminalizing sex work have gotten worse with increasing lack of access to services, violence, and lack of respect for health in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This law completely disconnects our women from what remains of a social safety net, making it impossible for them to recognize and develop their goals, dreams and desires. That is why our women are calling it ‘NO JUSTICE.’ And it is their words that we take as our organizing call.

The Crime Against Nature Statute

Statute 14:89 defines crime against nature as “any unnatural carnal copulation,” including for compensation. If convicted of a Solicitation Crime Against Nature (SCAN), people face a mandatory 15-year registration as sex offenders, longer if they have multiple charges. Along with having to send out cards to all the local schools and agencies wherever they move, anyone with a SCAN charge also faces a minimum $2,000 fine, with threat of incarceration for failure to pay. Plus, after a third SCAN conviction, a person is considered an ‘aggravated’ offender, which mandates a lifetime of registration on the sex offender list.

Post-Katrina Enforcement

The SCAN statute has been on the books for over 206 years, but enforcement around sex work is a relatively recent phenomenon made possible through the resources that the city received post-Katrina to bring so-called violent offenders into custody. It was one of those classic turns of bias in New Orleans – where sex work is legal so long as you are in dance clubs and bringing in money, but illegal if you are on the streets and engaged in sex to survive. Women on the streets are disproportionately poor women of color. Most of these women are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. With the support of the Department of Justice, they are now being rounded up en-mass by the New Orleans police.

Prosecution under this statute and enforcement of the sex offender registration requirement involves all arms of the criminal justice system – from police surveillance (and, at times, entrapment), to the district attorney’s unwillingness to plead down charges, to the judge’s discretion in convicting and sentencing, to parole and probation’s role in enforcing the prescribed sentence.

In the Lives of Women

When we try to explain to people outside of New Orleans the weight of a SCAN charge, we ask people to think about how many times each day they have to show their ID. Now imagine if every time you were showing your ID, it did not just prove your name or your age, but also marked you as a ‘sex offender.’ When our women apply for jobs, they are facing a barrage of questions about whether or not they are rapists. Most carry stacks of court paperwork with them, in an attempt to prove to a potential employer or to someone selling them cigarettes, that they are not a threat to society.

Getting Justice in NOLA

NO JUSTICE aims to heal the deep fractures in our communities by ensuring that the women prosecuted under this statute are at the center of our organizing. Working together, we know that we can begin to provide immediate the relief to those most at-risk in our communities, and  fight for the wellness and justice our communities need.

On February 16, 2011, we filed a federal civil rights suit to challenge the continuing use of the SCAN statute to brand people who solicit oral and anal sex as sex offenders, while a conviction under Louisiana’s prostitution statute triggers no such requirement. Daily, we are finding new ways to engage agencies across the city in providing a safety net for women who have a SCAN charge, be they service providers, parole officers or judges. And at every step, we are providing safe spaces for our women to grieve and, again, find their voices.

To overturn the SCAN statute, public opinion is critical. And that means that all of you reading this article are needed in organizing towards a time when none of our women feel like they are getting ‘NO JUSTICE.’ There is a long fight ahead of us, to be sure. But if we can, in concert, find some lasting transformation to the structures that allow the lives of our women to be criminalized, then, perhaps, we can say that justice will be done.

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