(Decriminalizing) Sex in The City

By Taeghan M. Duncan

Debauchery is to New Orleans, as God is to the church.  “…there’s just some type of liberation that people get when they’re here and you know, they feel that they can express themselves ,” to quote Rebecca Poole, a Historical Research Specialist at the National World War II Museum. Since the foundation of New Orleans, when prostitutes and pirates, criminals and crooks, were shipped to the swampy infancy of the city, there seems to have always been an assumed connection to the socially illicit. Recently, though, there has been a push for the decriminalization of the oldest trade in the books in Louisiana, as sex workers try to legitimize their work and guarantee themselves protection. New Orleans, having a long connection to sex work, and therefore many varying opinions on sex work, provides historical and modern examples of the injustice in targeting sex workers, and refusing them protection.

New Orleans, most recently, made national news for the “Trick or Treat” raids on Bourbon street.  In 2015 the Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC)  infiltrated clubs in couples or groups disguised as bachelor bands, in a “Trick or Treat” operation to uncover trafficking. The ATC led the operation only after failed attempts to cooperate with the NOPD. According to  Casey Quinlan of Think Progress, Beau Tidewell, a police spokesman in 2015, stated, “Due to lack of information, lack of video surveillance, lack of witnesses, and limited information in the redacted ATC report [no arrests have been made].” The public took issue with this operation because of the disturbance to operations and clubs without any actual arrests having been made, or trafficking being shut down. Then again in 2018, the NOPD raided eight strip clubs over the course of two weeks in the Quarter and made no arrests. Outrage again ensued, but this time protests actually manifested. Sex workers and activists for decriminalizing sex work marched down Bourbon Street in September of the same year. Speaking out, sex workers and activists pushed the importance of the decriminalization of prostitution. Poole pointed me to Women With a Vision, a non-profit that seeks to better marginalized women and their families, who have been active in the decriminalization effort. In a mission statement summary, the importance of decriminalization, and the agenda of the protestors, are described: 

“Decriminalizing sex work will decrease disenfranchisement, poverty, risk of violence and vulnerability to sex trafficking. Individuals who are hyper-policed and arrested for sex work related offenses live at the intersection of multiple oppressions and often engage in sex work as a means of survival…By removing criminal penalties from offenses related to consensual sex work, individuals facing employment discrimination or those who are unable to earn a living wage in traditional economies, for any reason, will have access to self-employment and income…Sex workers, like any other worker, deserve the right to labor free of violence and with equal protections under the law.”

Lauren Hind commented on the fallout in the sex worker community after the Trick Or Treat raids: “Do I have to find something else to do? How do I do this more, in a way that’s less illegal? We really like, got together and brainstormed. So it was a little crazy, but it got pretty clear that what I love about sex work is there’s like deep healing happens, um, from the clients that I serve. And I didn’t want that to stop.” 

The jarring and polarizing raids in the late 2010s might feel out of left-field, but only if you’re unfamiliar with the historic brothels and red-light districts that New Orleans has previously offered to the public. Less publicized than Bourbon Street, but just as popular, the Canal Street Brothel was a multi-state prostitution ring run from 1999 to 2003. An ABC News story covered the brothel: It was run by Jeanette Maier, her mother, Tommie Taylor, and her daughter. Maier was in her 40s at the time she started the brothel. Supposedly, right before the bust, the brothel was booked six months in advance for some of the sex workers employed by Maier. The U.S. Attorney’s office originally thought the brothel was a cover for something much more sinister like mob activity or heroin smuggling, which is why a tap in 2001 was allowed to be placed on Maier’s phone. The bust then came in 2003, and the FBI informed Maier and her family that their main informant was a man who had spent 350,000 dollars at the brothel in one year: Dr. Howard Lippton. Ultimately, the case ended with no jail time for Maier, but with heavy fines, community service, and probationary action. The sex workers who worked for Maier suffered some of the same penalties. The men who participated as willing customers? None were ever charged. None were fined. And none were arrested. This lack of repercussions for the “johns” has been the same since the 1900s. 

 New Orleans, during World War I, had one of the most infamous red light districts in the United States. A popular stop for soldiers and sailors alike was Storyville, a 38-block area in the city behind the French Quarter and bounded by Basin Street, Canal Street and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Storyville operated from 1897 to 1917 until the United States Military made an example of it for the rest of the sex work industry in the States, shutting it down permanently due to an increase in venereal disease in military populations. Poole comments on her experience of digging into individual veterans for families and finding files that contain peculiar information: “ …Sometimes we’ll get a file back and there’s really not much we could write on it besides this guy got an STD, so it’ll be like 60 pages of  this veteran, you know, getting, um, an STD.” Poole was kind enough to share her research with me on sex work in the city.

While the fear of venereal disease was a very real one, the war on sex work in New Orleans through Storyville was anything but fair. The sex workers in Storyville were arrested on charges of intoxication, or disturbing the peace: Charges that any participating New Orleanian during Mardi Gras could be faced with. Poole states that when the New Orleans police weren’t as cooperative in the effort to rid the city of sex workers, for fear of losing tourism and revenue, the military got involved and,  “They just arrested all of these, these women and these girls for no reason at all.” 

While Storyville, and the sex workers who occupied the infamous area, was shut down in 1917, that didn’t stop New Orleans sex workers from existing all together. During the World War II in the early 1940s, the ports and bases close to New Orleans saw more action, and sex work was on the rise. In response, New Orleans went so far as to ban soldiers from brothels in 1942, New Orleans cracked down on the sex work in the city. Undefinable by a carved out red-light area, “ladies of the night” would even rent out taxis as a place to work. Clothing rentals would pop up so active military could change into civilian clothes to sneak around. 

Post World War II, in the 60s, Jim Garrison as the District Attorney for New Orleans used his VICE project to perpetuate “gendered violence, and crack down on sex work”, according to Poole. Poole commented about the corruption and Garrison’s dichotomous actions, as both an active participant in sex work, and being shamelessly vindictive towards sex workers. Poole cites Suzanne Robinson, a famous victim of Garrison’s corruption: “I found that there was this one woman named Suzanne Robinson…Jim Garrison was out to take revenge on her because she didn’t like him and so she would refuse him when he approached her. One night when she was going on stage, in khakis, fully clothed, Jim Garrison and his goonies pulled her aside and said, ‘Oh no, you’re coming with me.’ And she got it. For obscenity.” 

Poole comments, “Johns always got away scott-free. They still do.” (An image of the Canal Street Brothel injustice should be called to mind.) 

Sex workers are not afforded the immunity their patrons are. Lauren Hind, “[someone who identifies as] a sex worker, a certified sexological body worker and somatic sex educator,” spoke to me about their experience in sex work in New Orleans today. As of the passing of FOSTA-CESTA under the Trump administration in 2018, Hind explained that, “Sex work was coupled with trafficking charges, which further criminalized it.” Hind further explained that often people think, “That all sex work is survival work…but just like any other job there are variables,” and that, “There is a difference between elective sex work and being trafficked.” 

Hind shared their experience with me during the FOSTA-CESTA crackdown and how sex workers in New Orleans were made to rethink how to function in their daily occupation: “It was kind of crazy because even before it was supposed to go into action…some of the main websites that we used for advertising, were immediately taken down…I kinda describe it as like if you were gonna go to work one day and you showed up to where you work and the entire building was gone, and there was no one you could talk to, or find out how to, like, get in touch with your boss, or how you’re gonna get paid.” Hind feels that FOSTA-CESTA has detrimentally, but unevenly, impacted the sex worker community, and that the police raids do anything but help: “[FOSTA-CESTA] really choked out people who didn’t already have access to resource of the internet…and who were doing client-to-client work [in person]… [the workers impacted the most] are often just at the helm of like already existing oppression, like racism.” 

Hind believes that decriminalizing sex work is important in order to help eliminate the aforementioned underlying disparity in sex work, and is “…Really grateful for [the push to decriminalize], but [Louisiana also needs] deeper education, cultural education [on sex work], which is kind of where I’m hoping to fill in.” Hind spoke to me about their desire to one day have sex work be as, “normal as getting your nails done,” while they were on their way to get a fresh set. 

The biggest argument against the decriminalization of sex work is that people fear it could enable the presence, or ease of which sex trafficking can function. Hind comments, “Sex workers could  help the police find, and weed through, the trafficking [versus] elective sex work…Especially if they weren’t scared to face consequences.” Hind made the point that if decriminalization happened then police would more easily be able to identify who was operating legally, and who was operating illegally. Poole, a little more unfamiliar with modern prostitution in the city, commented, “…I just think something has to be done. It’s unfair how justice is served.” 

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