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.
This, of course, means a hugely disproportionate impact on women, especially minority women:
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.
“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.
Not every state includes prostitution as a sex offense that requires putting someone on the list. But for those that do, the result is simply undue cruelty. As if the life of a woman so desperate that she has to resort to street prostitution isn’t bad enough, we need to make them suffer even more? That’s barbaric.
Women and minorities better start paying attention to these sex offender banishment laws. They are coming after you !