This week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed Senate Bill 381. The law, by Sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans, signals an effort to change Louisiana's "Crime Against Nature" law, which has been used as a tool to further stigmatize and victimize indigent sex workers. However, advocates say that the changes are mostly cosmetic.
The Crime Against Nature statute, which dates back to 1805, criminalizes "unnatural copulation" -- a term New Orleans police and the district attorney's office have interpreted to mean soliciting for anal or oral sex. Those who are convicted under this law are 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.
As of last December, of the 861 sex offenders currently registered in New Orleans, 483 were convicted of a crime against nature. And of those convicted of a crime against nature, 78 percent are Black and almost all are women.
A local coalition convened by the organization Women With A Vision has been working to change this law, as well as to support the women who have felt its effects.
According to the Times-Picayune, Senator Morrell's bill "Puts the penalty for a first conviction for soliciting a crime against nature on the same footing as soliciting for prostitution: up to six months in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both. It changes the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. But a second offense for soliciting a crime against nature would be a felony punishable by up to five years in jail, a maximum fine of $2,000 or both. If the initial conviction is solicitation of a youth under 17, the harsher penalties will apply. The offender must register with police as a sex offender if he or she has been convicted of soliciting a minor on a first offense or after a second conviction of soliciting a crime against nature of an adult. The new law takes effect Aug. 15."
According Deon Haywood, director of Women With A Vision, this reform does little to address the problems created by the original statute. "It does nothing for the people we know have been charged," she says. In fact, "now it makes them a bigger target, because after the first arrest the police think they got away with something and then they will go after these women even more."
Aside from the fact that the law still treats sex workers like child molesters (just on the second arrest instead of the first offense), it does nothing to address the several hundred women who are already forced to register as sex offenders, and the way this has further isolated them. The law also fails to address the fundamental unfairness of the city policy of putting resources into the isolation and criminalization of already vulnerable communities like indigent sex workers.
"Think about all the people who have been affected by this," explains Haywood. "How does this law help? Is there any program to help women who are facing addiction or living on the street? This city does nothing for women in this situation."
Photo by Abdul Aziz.