Sex Work in New Orleans: Where Vice and Shame are Inseparable

By Jeanette McKellar

“I think that New Orleans, still to this day, continues in a vein of having a tourist oriented reputation for being lawless, and being a permissionless city when it suits their interests. Storyville is part of that,” said an anonymous sex worker in New Orleans, Jane Doe.  

Devised by municipal lawmakers in 1897, Storyville was a legalized red-light district that stretched from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to Canal Street. 

In Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, Gary Krist poses that “Storyville was an attempt, at least, to forge a compromise between human ideals and human nature, to rationalize the inevitable and alleviate the harm of activities that realistically could not be abolished.” 

Participants in Storyville’s sexual playground could plan their evening activities using Blue Books, guides which consisted of descriptions, ads, and photos of each of the “high class” sex workers and brothels contained within the 18-blocks of Storyville. Sex workers and brothels were organized in the guide by “race-c” for colored, “w” for white, and “oct.” for octoroon. 

According to Krist, “To own a Blue Book was to have the District at one’s fingertips.” 

In some ways, Storyville was progressive for its time. The 18 blocks were conceivably the most racially unified space in the South. Additionally, while sex work had formerly been considered a low-class profession equated with factory work or domestic services, Storyville proffered women the opportunity to make real wages for themselves without violating the law. 

Josie Arlington, for example, hosted an opulent, spacious brothel at 225 Basin Street which featured 16 bedrooms attended by a full listing of attractive women. As reported by the Blue Book in Krist’s documentation of Storyville, Josie Arlington’s brothel was “absolutely and unquestionably the most decorative and costly fitted-out sporting palace ever placed before the American public.” The profit brought in by the 16 bedrooms totalled a significant amount. 

At the same time that Storyville empowered sex workers financially, Krist noted that there was “rampant drunkenness and violence, the dissipation, the corruption of underage girls (and sometimes boys) forced into a way of life they cannot have chosen freely.” An article in The Independent featuring an archeological dig of Storyville, performed by David Keys, revealed plungers for vaginal cleansing nozzles,self-administering venereal disease medication, and unopened venereal disease medicine containers—as venereal disease was a looming concern for the women of Storyville. 

In 1917, the Selective Service Act authorized the Secretary of War to close down red-light districts out of concern for the health of sailors and soldiers.

Storyville had been a locale where vice was the watchword, and where pursuit of vice fueled the economy. In the words of Krist, “Vice had always been lucrative in New Orleans, but in this new era of official tolerance, the profits to be made were growing.” 

Where there was vice, there was also shame. In Krist’s portrait of Storyville, he attributes words such as “disreputable,” “degrading,” and “sin” to its character and the activities that coalesced within its blocks. 

To this day, many individuals ascribe a rhetoric of shame to the sex work industry in New Orleans. One sex worker I spoke with who operates in New Orleans commented, “A lot of glamorization and co-optation of sex work culture is alive in New Orleans and in the general public, but we’re so sluggish to have any meaningful change for the industry.” 

Jane Doe’s friend, who also is involved in the industry said, “We live in a society that represses and shames us.” Doe’s friend additionally wanted to remain anonymous due to the illegal nature of sex work. We will refer to her as Mary Jane. 

Sex work, which the CDC defined in 2014 as “the use of sexual activity for income or employment or for non-monetary items,” is alive and present in New Orleans, whether it manifests in pro-dom work, street-based sex work in the French Quarter, stripping, pro massage, or “indoor” sex work. But it also is an industry which has faced continuous threats. 

In 1935, Louisiana outlawed prostitution, establishing it as “the practice by a female of indiscriminate sexual intercourse with males for compensation” (Deep South Decrim). In 2005, the first fatality of the Jeff Davis 8, Loretta Lynn Chaisson Lewis, was found in the Grand Marais Canal. Seven more sex workers would be found dead in the next several years. In 2018, an anti-trafficking police force raided Bourbon Street’s adult clubs in the guise of “liberating” trafficking victims. While hundreds of workers were arrested and harassed, no cases of trafficking ensued. In April  2018, the U.S. Congress passed SESTA/FOSTA, which made it illegal to support, assist, or facilitate sex trafficking deliberately, permitting law enforcement to outlaw and judge sexual speech. In 2021, the Louisiana House Bill 366 which revoked specific statutes that assigned criminal penalties for consensual sexual activities was pigeonholed.  

One of the sex workers that I spoke with cited SESTA/FOSTA as a catalyst for organizing sex workers together; the bill affirmed that sex workers needed to find ways to support each other. 

One organization which has been actively organizing in response to SESTA/FOSTA, Women with a Vision, began in 1989 as a response to the effect of HIV/AIDS in Black communities. Today, Women with a Vision engages grassroots organizing and policy advocacy concerning racial, gender, and reproductive justice. Women with a Vision is the only LGBTQ+ Black women-led organization in New Orleans and is a prominent leader in sex workers’ rights. 

Another organization which mobilized in response to SESTA/FOSTA, The Sex Workers Advisory Committee, consists of former and current sex workers who are based in Louisiana. SWAC utilizes community support networks and campaign advocacy to gauge and respond to the needs of Louisiana-based sex workers. 

When asked what she wished more people knew about sex work, Mary Jane said that sex work “holds the potential to create meaningful and deep positive change for individuals who are engaged with it. And thus, it is an industry that is supportive to a world free of violence. We [sex workers] are incredibly skilled, proficient, adaptable, and extraordinarily crafty.” 

Jane Doe said that she wishes more people understood how hard sex work is. She said, “it requires so much of who you are. Some jobs people have, they can tune out a little bit. But sex work, it’s such a high demand job on your body and your spirit.” 

Both of the women I spoke with have witnessed great transformation in their clients. “I feel like most of my exchanges are one in which there is a lot of therapeutic work being done between us in order to confront issues of alienation and loneliness. Giving people a sense of belonging and desirability is really huge in this culture that is so isolating and so judgmental” (Mary Jane). 

Sex workers are additionally the bearers of a plethora of stories. One of the sex workers I spoke with said that “sex workers hold stories that are really deep that people don’t tell anyone they know. I’ve heard stories and things that most people don’t hear. And I think that takes a certain level of humanity, and compassion, but also the ability to psychically not lose yourself.” 

Although they themselves are often shamed by society, many sex workers put in great efforts to establish environments where their clients can shed feelings of shame. One of the sex workers I interviewed said that her favorite part of her job is “giving people a place where shame really can’t exist. I’ve seen it all. When people come to me with what they consider is really shameful, really scary, or a really dirty secret, I really love celebrating that.” 

Jane Doe noted that sex workers do a lot of work towards maintaining healthy boundaries with their clients. “For those of us whose full time career is sex work, we have some of the strongest boundaries and strongest capacity to hold big things.” 

For all of the work that they do perform, sex workers have to be covert about every aspect of their work under criminalization, especially after the passing of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018. 

Under criminalization and SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers are deterred from reporting instances of theft, rape, and sexual or physical harassment. An article from Vox entitled “The movement to decriminalize sex work, explained” chronicled a 2003 survey of street-based sex workers in New York City. Eighty percent reported that they had experienced violence or received threats. Most individuals reported that the police did not provide help, and 27% of respondents even reported experiencing violence from the police. 

One sex worker who spoke with Women With a Vision said,“The criminalization of my job is always at the forefront of my mind in and out of my work environment. While I am at work I know my clients can turn on me at any point from physical violence, to threats, to out[ting] me, to withholding payment without any fear of recourse on my part because they know I am legally powerless.” 

Another anonymous sex worker from Jefferson Parish said, “When I was still working I was raped by a police officer and pressed charges, but the investigator did not pursue it. I was robbed of justice due to my profession.” 

Deep South Decrim Toolkit also reports that violence encountered by sex workers unequally affects those with marginalized identities, who are poor, Black, LGBTQIIA+, gender non-conforming, people with mental illness, those addicted to drugs, and undocumented individuals. 

Orleans Public Defenders Office corroborates that “the criminalization of sex work is rife with discrimination, racism and sexism, and women of color remain disproportionately policed, stigmatized, and harmed.” 

In response to the increasing rates of crime experienced by sex workers, one of the women I interviewed said in 2018, “Mayor Cantrell made a statement for an amnesty bill that would protect sex workers from any legal recourse in the event of being a victim of a number of violent and nonviolent crimes.” 

Although Mayor Cantrell made the statement, she never pushed it to become a bill. 

Jane Doe said the only current legislation for amnesty from arrest when reporting a crime while engaged with sex work has passed in California and Vermont. 

“Some of us in the sex worker rights movement see that as a tiny step towards recognizing the humanity of people,” she said. 

Jane Doe and Mary Jane view decriminalization of sex work as the first stepping stone on the way to achieving greater protections for those working in the industry. 

Another sex worker in New Orleans that was interviewed by Women With a Vision said, “It [is] isolating to be a sex worker. Without decrim it is hard to have full access to community resources and networking. I fully believe sex workers are the most amazing people in the world and could create so much change if we were allowed the platform to do so.” 

Women With a Vision and Sex Workers Advisory Committee advocate for a decriminalization approach to sex work, which would manifest in the removal and repeal of municipal and criminal codes pertaining to the sex trade for buyers and workers. The Deep South Decrim Toolkit posits these measures to contribute to greater safety and bodily autonomy for sex workers, put a halt to sexual, physical, and verbal violence against sex workers by law enforcement, and contribute to more fair and just employment options. 

 “Decriminalization won’t solve everything,” an anonymous sex worker told me. “Confronting discrimination and social stigma is a much larger fight that has to do with addressing repression and fear based responses to sensuality, and sexuality as a culture.”

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