Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual violence and abuses against sex workers
Last week, Jordan Flaherty wrote an article at Colorlines about how sex workers are being punished under an archaic and punitive law that specifically targets those who are convicted of selling oral or anal sex (as opposed to vaginal sex). The law makes these sex workers open to being labeled as felons by police and prosecutors, and worst of all, forces them to register as sex offenders.
Eve, who asked that we not reveal her real name or age, spent two years in prison. During her time behind bars she was raped and contracted HIV. Upon release, she was forced to register in the state’s sex offender database. The words “sex offender” now appear on her driver’s license. “I have tried desperately to change my life,” she says, but her status as a sex offender stands in the way of housing and other programs. “When I present my ID for anything,” she says, “the assumption is that you’re a child molester or a rapist. The discrimination is just ongoing and ongoing.”
Eve was penalized under Louisiana’s 205-year-old Crime Against Nature statute, a blatantly discriminatory law that legislators have maneuvered to keep on the state’s books for the purpose of turning sex workers into felons. As enforced, the law specifically singles out oral and anal sex for greater punishment for those arrested for prostitution, including requiring those convicted to register as sex offenders in a public database. Advocates say the law has further isolated poor women of color in particular, including those who are forced to trade sex for food or a place to sleep at night.
In 2003, the Supreme Court outlawed sodomy laws with its decision in Lawrence v. Texas. That ruling should have invalidated Louisiana’s law entirely. Instead, the state has chosen to only enforce the portion of the law that concerns “solicitation” of a crime against nature. The decision on whether to charge accused sex workers with a felony instead of Louisiana’s misdemeanor prostitution law is left entirely in the hands of police and prosecutors.
Prior to the lawsuit, Colorlines was covering the issue over a year ago. Melissa Gira Grant wrote about the suit at Third Wave right after it was filed last month, and the INCITE! Blog was on it both last year and earlier this month. You should definitely go check those articles out, as there’s no doubt that I’m behind. But I still think the issue is worth writing about and getting further attention.
As noted by Flaherty, Louisiana is the only U.S. state that requires people who have been convicted of crimes that do not involve minors or violence outside the sexual violence itself to register as sex offenders. Meghan’s Law, which created sex offender registries, was clearly intended to target rapists. Louisiana has actively made the choice to abuse the registry to further shame, punish, and vilify sex workers who have not committed any violence. Women are by far the primary target of these efforts, though gay and bisexual men are also incredibly vulnerable. Of the women targeted by the state, women who are non-white, trans, and/or poor are most open to attack.
People convicted under the Louisiana law must carry a state ID with the words “sex offender” printed below their name. If they have to evacuate because of a hurricane, they must stay in a special shelter for sex offenders that has no separate facilities for men and women. They have to pay a $60 annual registration fee, in addition to $250 to $750 to print and mail postcards to their neighbors every time they move. The post cards must show their names and addresses, and often they are required to include a photo. Failing to register and pay the fees, a separate crime, can carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
Women and men on the registry will also find their names, addresses, and convictions printed in the newspaper and published in an online sex offender database. The same information is also displayed at public sites like schools and community centers. Women—including one mother of three—have complained that because of their appearance on the registry, they have had men come to their homes demanding sex. A plaintiff in the suit had rocks thrown at her by neighbors. “This has forced me to live in poverty, be on food stamps and welfare,” explains a man who was on the list. “I’ve never done that before.”
In Orleans Parish, 292 people are on the registry for selling sex, versus 85 people convicted of forcible rape and 78 convicted of “indecent behavior with juveniles.” Almost 40 percent of those registered in Orleans Parish are there solely because they were accused of offering anal or oral sex for money. Seventy-five percent of those on the database for Crime Against Nature are women, and 80 percent are African American. Evidence gathered by advocates suggests a majority are poor or indigent.
There are several broad critiques to be made of sex offender registry programs. In addition to the racial profiling and discriminatory enforcement noted in the Colorlines article, there are also further questions regarding whether sex offender registries actually keep communities safer and/or lower recidivism rates. Support for sex offender registry programs generally, however, should not be viewed as in any way incompatible with thinking that the Louisiana system is being used as a means of violence and oppression against sex workers and must immediately be overturned.
This is not in any way about keeping communities safer. It is about further punishing and portraying as deviant those who have failed to comply with societal rules regarding sexuality, class, and womanhood. It’s not about making communities safer, it’s about specifically ensuring that these particular community members are as unsafe as possible. And in that sense, it’s certainly working.
Because of the way that sex workers are generally made vulnerable to violence, as well as the ways that prisoners face frequent sexual assault, the most callous part of this practice may be the fact that such large numbers of those forced to register as sex offenders for non-violent offenses are victims of sexual violence themselves. Most of the women and men profiled in these articles talk about having been raped, whether as adults or children, whether by clients or family members, by prison guards or fellow prisoners. They must register as sex offenders, be unable to find employment or residences, face harassment and assault, and bear scarlet letters on their identification while at the same time, probably all of their actual rapists do not have to do the same. They have not only been raped, but been given their rapists’ punishments. They have not only been raped, but told that they are like, or perhaps worse than, their actual rapists.
And while this form of punishment for an act that should not be illegal in the first place is not even remotely acceptable for those who do engage in sex work because it is their preferred profession, it is also worth noting that there are many sex workers who do sex work as a form of survival or have otherwise been coerced. These workers are already more likely to be in street-based economies, and therefore are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement and more likely to be singled out for felony instead of misdemeanor punishment as a result of judicial prejudice.
In other words, punishing people for what they choose to do with their own bodies, when those actions do not harm any other person, is unconscionable — as is punishing them specifically for selling forms of sex perceived as less acceptable by a cissexist, heterosexist, anti-sex society. But quite a few of those women and men who have been forced to register as sex offenders didn’t even necessarily have a choice. And for that, they have been branded by a racist, anti-trans, classist, anti-gay system.
It will be interesting to see how this case plays out, and whether the court will decide with power and oppression as usual, or with the people and justice.