New Orleans has been a site of sex worker uprisings, crackdowns, and community efforts since all the way back when the Quarter was the city. Sex workers have a specific legacy of organizing, from the days of Storyville to the more recent overtly infantilizing “baby stripper laws” and strip club raids of 2018 against which Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE) fought. Loyal readers of this publication will recall our two stripper and sex worker columnists, Lyn Archer and Saint Agatha, whose writing demolishes the stereotype of the silent, exploited victim.
New Orleans owes so much of its brand, and thus its economy, to sex workers. Yet, as is the American way, they have been mostly punished for just existing. That dissonance was palpable for me as I joined strippers, bouncers, sex workers, and allies for marches in the Quarter three years ago. We were protesting for their basic right to earn a living without being strip-searched in their dressing rooms by cops armed with assault rifles. The Disneyfication of the Quarter, that profit-driven sanitization, that thinly-veiled land grab, was the obvious motive underlying those raids (which produced no trafficking victims, just victimized workers). Tourists watched and cheered as we danced down the streets, and I realized that even by protesting the raids we were the entertainment that creates the brand that generates the profit that barely trickles down to these workers. And I felt despair in that moment—even among the throng of furiously twerking militant babes—at the immediate absorption of resistance into capital.
So you can perhaps imagine the electric shock to my pessimism when Deep South Decrim burst into my awareness this year. Women With A Vision (WWAV) approached State Representative Mandie Landry (whose district includes parts of the Irish Channel, Uptown, Central City, and Hollygrove) with a proposal to decriminalize sex work, which grew into a coalition, a campaign, and a bill to decriminalize all crimes related to “prostitution” for anyone over 18 in Louisiana.
To learn more about HB67, the coalition leading this campaign, and why it is so important, I spoke with State Rep. Landry, WWAV Program Director Christine Breland Lobre, New Orleans Democratic Socialists of America Councilmember-at-Large Nadia Eskildsen, Sex Worker Advisory Committee (SWAC) member and current sex worker Jack Rabbit, and former sex worker Carolina X.
The following is an extended version of our print edition.
What’s your relationship to the issue of sex work decriminalization?
Christine Breland Lobre: My focus as program director at WWAV is anti-criminalization and I’m an abolitionist, harm reductionist, and a former sex worker, so it’s personal and professional.
Mandie Landry: I’ve done work in the repro rights area for several years and knew a little about WWAV. I met with them very early after being elected and we discussed some ideas for legislation. They strongly suggested decrim. I personally was already in favor of decrim so it was an easy yes for me.
Jack Rabbit: Well, I am a sex worker.
Carolina X: I was a sex worker for a really long time. Most of my early 20s, I was a full service sex worker.
Nadia Eskildsen: I am a councilmember-at-large within the DSA. When WWAV initially reached out to us about this campaign, it dovetailed really nicely with the work that we have been doing in terms of harm reduction, but also as a labor issue. So it made a lot of sense. DSA is so grateful to WWAV for spearheading this campaign and being a beacon of this kind of work for so long.
How exactly did this coalition form? What’s working together like?
CBL: We met with Representative Landry to discuss legislative priorities and she was excited to sponsor full decrim. While WWAV works in the community with current and former sex workers—and Lakeesha Harris (WWAV’s Director of Reproductive Health and Justice and co-lead on this campaign) and I are former sex workers—we knew we would need a public education campaign, and it had to be led by [current] sex workers. We put out a call for current sex workers from Louisiana who had the capacity to devote significant time to building out a public education campaign in support of decrim, and that’s how the SWAC was formed.
JR: It’s really cool for people to actually listen when you have something to say, and to be validated. This is the first time I’ve had like a serious sense of community within the industry.
What are the biggest challenges you face or have faced as a sex worker? How would decriminalization address them?
CBL: I haven’t worked in the industry in a while, but the fear of being criminalized for me was the fear of being outed and how that would translate to stigmatization and blocked opportunities due to a resulting criminal conviction. I also feared having to detox in jail and losing housing and my belongings if I was jailed for more than a few days.
CX: Safety in all its forms, but physical safety, for sure. Not only in terms of clients, but in terms of the police, and you know, just living in the shadows, not being able to put my income down appropriately for applying for an apartment, not being able to get a bank account, being confused or worried about my taxes. How do I figure that out when my job itself is illegal? And perhaps if I’d had the opportunities to live in a way that I consider more safe, having a safe home, having a job that I could disclose to whoever, would’ve made a huge difference. I was living essentially homeless for years which was part of my lifestyle for sure, but also was just due to my inability to synthesize what I was doing to survive and how society perceived me.
JR: Challenges that I’ve faced have been like going to see health providers and things like that. And exposing my status as a sex worker and not receiving proper care because of the judgment. So I just don’t really go to the doctor anymore, even when I really need to.
Those barriers, that medical abuse and neglect is so brutal.
JR: Yeah. Especially for trans folks and Black folks. And it’s just a compounding intersectional thing.
People tend to think about identity as being this additive thing. Like you, for example, are Black plus gender non-conforming plus a sex worker. In reality, it’s not 1+1+1, it’s like orders of magnitude.
JR: Exactly! Yeah. And it’s not always overt things, you know?
Well, I’m a white girl, so I’m not going to claim to KNOW know.
JR: Yeah. Another challenge that I’m dealing with currently is I have a former client who is a law enforcement person and he’s been stalking and harassing me for the last year. And I can’t do anything about that. So just the harms that come to sex workers that they can’t even speak up on because, you know, criminalization, I don’t want to go to jail, or bring violence to myself.
When the police are stalking you, what do you do, report it to the police? What are you supposed to do?
JR: No, you just… move a lot. So, you asked how decriminalization would affect my life. I could seek health care safely and I’d be able to keep myself safe from abuse, honestly. But there are limitations. Laws can change in terms of decrim, but culture doesn’t—the law is not going to inherently change the culture. Our government is still corrupt regardless of whether or not we change the laws.
What other contemporary issues, movements, or struggles do you see the fight for decriminalization as connecting with, and how?
CBL: Decriminalization of sex work has parallels, of course, in the fight to decriminalize substances. The same populations are predatorily policed and prosecuted. The laws regarding sex work and drug possession (and possession with intent to distribute which disparately impacts Black and brown people due to the application of police discretion) are in place largely as a form of social control and as a means to give license to police to perform warrantless searches of people and property. There are also parallels with all “quality of life” offenses and criminalization of the unhoused. We know that outside vice stings are a significant waste of community resources often under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts; the majority of policing and arrests of sex work-related offenses are for people allegedly engaging in street-based sex work. These calls for service are mainly generated by people who are more comfortable calling police than engaging in conversations with their neighbors, those that prefer the “out of sight, out of mind” approach to community members living in poverty. There’s also the government control of the bodies and sexuality of women and femmes that draws parallels with anti-abortion legislation and limiting sexual health education and the criminalization of sex work… We know that all of these forms of criminalization create interlocking oppressions for the communities we work with and serve. The fight to decriminalize sex work is just a step towards liberation, not liberation itself. WWAV has been active in the fight to end the criminalization of people who are Black, women, transgender and gender non-comforming, queer, poor, unhoused, and those who use drugs since our founding in 1989. These issues intersect for us not just for what they criminalize, but for who they seek to criminalize.
ML: Louisiana workers are simply not protected as they should be, in any aspect. Wages are low, health care is still difficult for many to access, unemployment is horribly low. All labor has dignity, and we forget that in this state.
JR: I think decrim is a human rights issue… Like race, Black lives matter, Asian folks, immigrants, it’s definitely an LGBTQ rights issue. Housing, economic status, it connects with harm reduction in terms of mental health, drugs.
What is the coalition doing on a day-to-day basis?
CBL: Living. I mean that honestly. This work has happened in the middle of a pandemic, with ongoing state violence and mass murders, with an increase in mental health crises and overdose, with the threat of multiple catastrophic weather events. We’ve had members step back because they’re dealing with court cases due to the criminalization of their labor, or their need to prioritize their mental health. So while navigating all of that and working to maintain a livelihood—we continued to build out the Deep South Decrim campaign.
JR: I’ve mainly been doing social media—my niche is in that and in writing. I haven’t been doing much honestly, because my mental health hasn’t been too good.
NE: DSA canvassed in Representative Joe Marino’s district two weekends in a row, talking to not only his constituents, but also his neighbors about this issue. And in Baton Rouge in Denise Marcelle’s district. We are really focusing on the representatives in the committee that will be voting on the bill, to give a voice to the people that voted them into office. Denise Marcelle has really positioned herself as a leader, both in Baton Rouge and in the state. So we think it’s really important for her to show up for the folks that are living in those regions, and really be representative of the issues that we care about.
Do any stories from canvassing stand out to you?
CBL: There are a lot of positive “aha!” moments when someone we’re in conversation with gets it or when we’ve gotten so mired down in the work and then someone says, “Hold up, we’re making history. We have a bill to decrim sex work in Louisiana. that’s revolutionary!” and we all get a moment to bask in how far we’ve come. Those moments stand out, but so do the conversations with people who claim to support us but continue to push for measures that hurt sex workers. It’s a roller coaster ride, but we just keep going because eventually we will change enough minds and continue to chip away at the carceral state.
NE: People have expressed surprise when we say that we’re volunteers. They had this expectation that we’re all being funded by George Soros or something. And it’s like, I am coming here as a stranger and knocking on your door because this issue is important to my life. It’s not something people pay me to talk about. A conversation I had with one of the very first folks that I canvassed for this campaign, I got through my intro of saying that I’m with DSA and he kind of interjected that he hated the Democrats and he hates Biden. And he’s a Trump supporter. To which I responded—yeah, I agree with you that the Democrats are ineffectual, that they are only supporting and promoting a system that is ultimately causing us pain. In addition to any political party, the whole system has a laser focus on suppressing us in order to produce capital. We found a commonality there to talk about people’s personal rights and to talk about autonomy, to talk about labor issues.
CX: I don’t want to have to sell my trauma in order to be of use. But people respond to personal stories, you know? So I will sacrifice my time, my health, my mental health, in order to continue this fight. Because it’s necessary. But in particular, like with Black women being the backs on which organizing and labor has been built… The answer is always: fuck it, I’ll do it. Because no one else will, no one else can, and no one else wants to. No one’s going to fight us the way we fight for us. And so if I die of hypertension in 10 years, and I don’t make it to Nancy Pelosi’s age, this is why. It’s epigenetic, it’s my current lived experience, this trauma that I have had, inability to access resources.
Well that’s literally the definition of racism. Your death of hypertension will have been a murder.
What has it been like working on this campaign as news about the white supremacist murders of Asian American massage parlor workers in Atlanta was coming out? And news about the ongoing violence against and murder of Black adults and children? Does it impact what you bring to this organizing?
JR: Yeah. It’s scary every day. Every day I walk outside, I feel like my life is threatened. It makes the work more exhausting because seeing these things all the time really messes with my mental health. I try and stay off of social media now, because I’ve seen enough Black death, like growing up. But also because of these things it’s more important to show everybody that we are communities working to help each other. And at the end of the day, we got us.
CBL: When the news of the murders in Atlanta broke we knew that we weren’t going to make any assumptions about the labor of the massage workers, like the person who took their lives did. We also knew that the press would either make the issue of sexual labor hyper-visible and attempt to justify the murders (sex addiction and removing temptation headlines) or they would invisibilize the workers and their labor. On our call that week with SWAC, while planning an altar to those who were murdered and harmed, we lifted up the lives that were lost as well as those who currently engage in sex work, knowing stigma and discrimination fueled by criminalization are catalysts for violence against sex workers. More heartbreaking is that some in our society think that it’s justified. WWAV is a Black-led organization focused on Black liberation. As a white co-conspirator in this work, my answer is based on conversations with staff members about their perspectives. The ongoing, state-sanctioned murder of and violence against Black people is not a new occurence but each one creates a new wound while compounding past traumas. It robs your energy but also spurs the work forward.
CX: The violence that we have seen—and I do want to point out it’s not just in the past year, it’s not just in Atlanta—sex workers are getting murdered and having violence inflicted on them both by the State, as well as people in the community. With the era of social media and of faster and faster mass communication, these issues—which heretofore have always been known in my community—are being amplified in a larger societal context, which has provided more support, I think, for the fight. I think people are realizing that this is not just a story happening somewhere else, but that this is happening to their friends, to their loved ones in their communities, in their neighborhoods. At the same time I know that this isn’t a sprint, this is a marathon. And I know that because this is my life.
Sex workers have lost a lot of online tools for self-promotion, being in community with each other, and spreading the word about bad dates (e.g. clients who are abusive, rip you off, or are cops). Craigslist and Backpage are in the rearview mirror. Certain payment platforms freeze your funds. Having an OnlyFans may disqualify you from life insurance. This internet censorship and regulation predates and extends past SESTA/FOSTA, which has gotten mainstream awareness because the implications for internet freedom for all have become apparent.
NE: Since forever, marginalized communities have been the canary in the coal mine in terms of the loss of freedoms and the loss of rights. And so with SESTA/FOSTA and the push for freedom online, this was merely highlighting the encroachment of the government, the encroachment of corporations in our lives and in our ability to survive and just exist as people. That is one—very telling, and two—brings it home that it’s not just impacting one group, it impacts us all.
CBL: The issue has been urgent. The majority [of] folks that WWAV works with and has built community with have often already faced criminalization and are engaging in street-based, survival sex work. I think the pandemic led to more people who were not sex workers prior turning to online sex work and pushing out sex workers with less access. I think even street-based sex work took a hit because tourism was almost non-existent, and the risk of criminalization and coercion was heightened because of less people being out, making street-based sex workers more visible.
JR: I personally don’t go into places where I know that there is street-based work going on, because I was a street-based worker, and I just don’t feel safe in those spaces. But other people I’ve seen, they just don’t screen clients. I won’t speak more on street-based workers issues because I’m not a street-based worker.
A community altar is erected for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17, 2020 (photo courtesy Women With A Vision)
People often use “decriminalization” and “legalization” interchangeably, when in reality they are very different—not semantically, but materially. Why are you fighting for decriminalization instead of legalization?
JR: So, legalization allows for more regulations and policing of sex workers. Decrim just allows workers to do their job without regulation.
CBL: Short answer: legalization just lets the government take the position of pimp while still criminalizing many of the same people who face criminalization now. Long answer: Much like we’ve seen with the legalization of cannabis, those who have been criminalized and pushed to the margins will meet the same or worse fate under legalization. Licensure fees, limited numbers of licenses available, barriers to obtaining licensure and employment, exploitation by managers, and loss of income and bargaining power due to house fees and rules will create more underground markets with diminished safety for workers. All systems of regulation are already in place for sex work to be carried out lawfully by simply removing criminal penalties. There are already financial systems in place for the reporting of earnings. Laws prohibiting wage theft and extortion exist to provide labor protections. We need solutions that match the problems, and current and former sex workers have told us time and time again that full decrim is the answer.
NE: When you look at government involvement in how people choose to survive, things like legalization provide the opportunity for capitalism to flourish and people to make money, without taking into consideration people’s lives. Whereas decriminalization allows folks to make decisions for themselves and the best ways to support themselves and their families. I think most people can understand this conversation when you frame it as a labor issue. And the fact is, we’re not just individuals on an island; sex work and a lot of other service industry jobs are a two-way street. It is a symbiotic relationship of the client and the person providing the service. And in order for us to have an open and honest relationship, whether it’s for the exchange of goods and services and money, or whether it’s just as people living in a society and communities side by side with each other, you get into what I think capitalism is really good at, which is isolating us, giving us this worldview that we are unto ourselves and it’s each person for themselves, when that’s simply not the case.
People often gesture at the Nordic Model, drawing on vague notions of how sex work is handled in idealized white European countries.
CBL: It’s been really interesting especially having certain journalists mansplain to us how we’re confused and our campaign is actually calling for legalization and not decriminalization. We know that under legalization the same people who are criminalized for sex work-related offenses will continue to be criminalized, while increasing risk of exploitation and related harms. We’ve incorporated a detailed explanation of the different forms of regulation and why full decriminalization is the only acceptable option in our toolkit… What’s more disappointing is the number of carceral feminists that claim to support sex workers that try to convince us that the Nordic or End Demand Model is the answer. The cognitive dissonance of saying you support sex workers but you think clients are inherently harmful and should be surveilled and criminalized is ludicrous. For one, you’re saying you know better than the people doing the actual work what is best for them; and two, you’re increasing risk of violence and coercion of the very people you claim you support. Sadly, we’ve seen this a lot in conversations with some sexual assault service providers, and yet they wonder why sex workers are unable to access services from them.
NE: Additional restrictions or laws like legalization or the Nordic Model are only going to continue to suppress people. So does the criminalization of folks seeking out sex work, whether they are clients of full-service sex workers, whether they are just watching porn on the internet—all of that consumer-side criminalization intensifies the stigma of this industry. There should be no shame in being a sex worker. There should also be no shame in consuming sex work. Anyone that watches porn is consuming sex work on a regular basis. And I think it still forces the industry at large to remain in the shadows, when you have half the people that are engaging in this as consumers unable to freely express or pursue that.
JR: Thinking about places like Nevada and places in Europe where sex work is legal, a lot of the workers there are working under licensure, right? So they’re getting screened, tested, vetted even in order to do sex work.
What you just described is increased surveillance and increased contact with the State, which sounds a lot like being treated like a criminal.
JR: Yeah, and there will still be racial discrimination, gender discrimination.
And criminalizing the consumption, criminalizing clients, how does that help?
JR: It makes it more unsafe for workers at that point.
I think it reinforces the manipulative and downright inaccurate equating of sex work to human trafficking, meaning a situation where someone is held against their will, like kidnapped, abused, raped. All of which are already crimes that nobody is advocating to decriminalize, and there’s not data backing up that legitimately trafficked people are primarily working in the sex trade. If the customer’s the Bad Guy, that implies the sex worker has no agency.
JR: Right. I’ve dealt with that a lot. I’m still in this space where I’m trying to figure out if the work that I did while I was underage was trafficking, if I had no “pimp.” I didn’t feel that what I was doing was wrong or that I was a victim in any way, but when I was living in local shelters in New Orleans, they would put me with victims of “trafficking” or victims of sexual abuse. And like, I’m not that, just let me go and make my money because now I make enough to support myself.
CX: The rising tide of fascism, the pressure to survive in this society, as well as adhere to societal norms, forces people to make decisions that they might not otherwise make in terms of their own safety or in terms of working conditions. However, I don’t really want to push the narrative that people are forced into sex work.
Setting aside the legal definition of trafficking, it’s not black and white when it comes to whether or not your work is coercion. All work is coercion in that we’re all forced to work to survive. People really seem to need to see sex workers as either victims or as being empowered by the work. And it’s just not a binary.
CX: Nobody asks people that work out in the oil fields if they find their work empowering. However, when you talk about selling your body, both sex workers and people that work in oil fields are utilizing their body to earn income—and, I think more importantly to the system, to generate profit. So I’m not really clear why this is a question of empowerment for sex workers when we’re not asking other people who have different jobs. And if people were to ask that question, it would cause, I think, a deeper conversation about how we view labor, how we view our relationship to capitalism, and what autonomy truly is.
The basic question of why is sex work different than other work in terms like of choice and what work entails—this question actually just lays bare the fact that all work is selling our bodies and time, and fundamentally, what is life itself if not our bodies and our time?
CX: Yeah. And being able to set my own schedule, being able to decide how I want to work and when I want to work and for whom, I think, provides me with more freedom than, say, an office worker or a janitor, folks that might have more ability to move through society freely. However, they are beholden to the people signing their paychecks.
JR: It’s really gray. Sometimes I feel empowered by my work and other times I don’t. It’s work.
I know sex workers who feel they were trafficked at one point and working for themselves at other points, or unsure about where survival sex falls in all of that. Seems like the only thing that makes it cut-and-dry is when the police decide it’s a crime and then arrest you after telling you you’re the victim.
JR: That’s another reason why decrim is so important, so that people who want to get out of the industry can, basically, and with the autonomy to do that.
And there’s a whole range of ways that sex can be transactional outside of explicit sex work, too, which reminds me of what I consider to be the most legendary tweet of all time (it ought to be preserved in the Library of Congress), which is: “‘Eww she fuck the weed man for weed’ – a bitch that’s fucking the Text man for Texts.”
So given all that, how has the moral panic about “human trafficking” shaped responses to this specific campaign? Wacktivist crusaders like Nick Kristof have essentially built an entire brand—really an entire industry—off of this utter misrepresentation. He’s eating off of the lies that keep sex workers down.
CBL: What’s difficult is having a conversation with anti-trafficking advocates who ignore research conducted by internationally recognized public health and human rights organizations, as well as the lived experience of actual sex workers. What anti-trafficking/anti-sex work advocates seem to overlook is that survivors of sex trafficking—the ones that don’t present as the “perfect victim” or aren’t comfortable accessing services that don’t serve their needs or include law enforcement due to past criminalization or violence at the hands of law enforcement—have been and continue to be criminalized for sex work-related offenses rather than being offered resources that are trauma-informed and culturally affirming. There are also proponents of anti-trafficking efforts that are aware and see arrest and incarceration as a necessary tactic to “save” survivors that don’t access their services. To them, “I have to arrest you, traumatize you, take you away from your family and loved ones, make it more difficult for you to find employment and housing due to criminal records, make you dependent on me to receive safety, clothing food and shelter” is somehow different from what a trafficker does, but I don’t really see the difference.
NE: If you care so much about sex trafficking victims, then you should put your political voice where it counts and look towards the larger communities that these issues are impacting. Undocumented workers, whether they’re sex workers or any other kind of laborer in Louisiana and in this country, are so stigmatized. They’re not given a platform. So don’t come at me and talk about sex trafficking if you don’t support progressive immigration reform.
Right. For everyone, capitalism makes this world a prison and borders make this country a prison. And if you’re against human trafficking, then you have to be against borders because borders create the conditions under which human trafficking is even a possibility, since restriction of movement, seizure of documents, exploitation of documentation status, and fear of deportation (if they seek help) are the primary weapons abusers wield against trafficking victims. Like, for everyone out there who’s so concerned about trafficked women, oppose sex worker autonomy, and have got the free market’s dick all the way down their throat, what does your marketplace of ideas say about the fact that if there’s no borders, there’s no human trafficking?
ML: My understanding is that the vast majority of trafficked people are involved in, it’s all labor trafficking you know, farm workers under various terrible working conditions… But sex trafficking is always the comment that comes back. And it’s generally from white women.
You’re referring to the conversations you’re having with colleagues in Baton Rouge?
ML: Yeah. Sort of like religious people, but not the religious people who are in my Stop Solitary Coalition, and not even the right to lifers per se… It tends to come from more white women and religious people: “Of course, no one would want to do this. So everyone who is engaged in sex work must be doing it against their will. And so we need to rescue them.” There’s this one very strong advocate up here who does a lot in the sexual assault world. She’s shining a light on laws and procedures that definitely need improvement. But she said something to the effect one day of like… “Some of the women are essentially brainwashed into thinking they’re engaging in consensual behavior, but they’re really being trafficked”—and of course we know it’s more than women doing sex work—she said they only are rescued from their trafficked situation once they’re arrested! And I was like, “Seriously, your answer to helping people in need is to arrest them?”
That’s like the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, all of the pseudoscience, invention of repressed memories. Invoking pathology or psychology is a very effective and manipulative way to make the argument that certain people are not reliable narrators of their own experience.
ML: It’s so retro. It’s like second wave feminists who also were very much racist and basically want separate but equal. It’s kind of that same idea that women have a place, it just has to be a nice place.
You know, if they want to go second wave, go all the way second wave, just go full blown Andrea Dworkin and say that all heterosexual sex is rape. Lean all the way in! Own it!
NE: I think the topic of human trafficking is a red herring. None of the prostitution-based laws that would be repealed by this bill are going to open any avenues for sex traffickers to thrive. There are still laws in place against trafficking, against sexual violence, against sexual assault. I have found that people are receptive to those conversations. But it’s not something that fits in a soundbite.
Yes! Do only organizers understand that? That the messiness of the conversation, what it births is this beautiful thing that is… not something you can summarize. You just use the harm reduction principle of meeting people where they’re at, and you have these conversations that are singular and can’t necessarily even be described because you’re connecting with a stranger on a level that’s both intimate and theoretical.
CX: I just want to pause right there because your description of organizing is very similar to the description I would use for sex work.
I know, right? Sensing, empathy, being able to read people, literally the skillset of sex work. People don’t understand how, first of all, there’s no such thing as unskilled labor, but people do not understand the skills are not about what that pussy can do!
CX: That’s so secondary. And it’s skills that are transferable, being a sex worker trained me to be a barista, being a barista, trained me to work in [career redacted to protect identity].
What does a win look like to you?
NE: The win is the removal of oppressive and repressive prostitution laws that are based in morality and not based in facts or the support network that we should be providing to all people that are working class and are laboring to survive. And I think the only way we will achieve that is with decriminalization.
CBL: Just getting this bill introduced is a win. Having conversations with people who have never considered the harms of criminalizing sex work is a win. Changing people’s minds about criminalization is a win. Yes, we want full decrim and we will get there. Will it happen this session? I’m a realist, so probably not. We’re in a legislative session with multiple anti-trans bills and bills to criminalize STIs, criminalize overdose response, and raise the age of consent for commercial sexual activity to 21 are also being heard, so we know what we’re up against as far as who our state legislators are and what they endorse. We’re in a state that leads the world in incarceration rates and leads the country in poverty, income inequality, and poor health outcomes.
ML: Getting this out of committee would be huge. [If this bill doesn’t succeed] I don’t think we would just bring the same thing back immediately… the next step might be to try some more mild alternatives… once you’ve gotten people talking and thinking about it, then kind of push them a little. I mean, I hate incremental approach things, but I think you’re hitting people over the head with this first and then it’s a better negotiation strategy anyway, by saying: this is what I want at the end of the day.
So basically what you’re saying is that your strategy is a combination of not compromising before you get to the table and shifting the Overton window.
ML: Oh my God. The Overton window. I’m like Team Overton window in the legislature. Team of one. Just me calling them and dragging them over, which is sad because there’s another dozen or so Democrats who vote very similarly… but they represent different districts… But that’s what Democrats in the legislature should be in general. We should be the left flank, which allows the governor to kind of be the moderate middle. And we just haven’t done a good job of doing that because of this difficult state. People who represent places like New Orleans, we can be left, we can be Democrats, we can be stronger ones. And that’s what I ran on.
What’s one thing you wish every reader who isn’t a sex worker would understand or do?
JR: I want you to understand that sex work is work. We are all selling our bodies in some way—that’s a little hard to digest, a hard-to-swallow pill.
NE: It’s not a matter of personal opinions or morality. It’s about allowing everyone in your community the right to exist, survive and thrive in this world, free from violence, free from stigma. Do you want to live in a world where people are safe? Do you want to live in a world where your family, your mothers, brothers, sisters can exist and you don’t have to worry about them doing whatever they have to do to continue on and provide for themselves and their families? No one thinks that they’re the villain. No one thinks that they’re the bad guy. And so ask yourself what your ultimate goals are. And if those goals align with freedom for everyone, then this makes sense: Decriminalize sex work.
CBL: Sex workers know what they’re doing and they can be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves. It’s so wild how sex workers are both demonized and infantilized. At the end of the day all labor is exploitative; as adults we get to decide what labor we’re willing to do. Why are sex workers treated differently?
CX: I don’t need you to speak for me. I need you to get the fuck out of the way so I can speak for myself.
CBL: Educate yourself on why criminalization is inherently harmful. Have conversations with your friends, neighbors and family members and educate them. Talk about how stigma and discrimination lead to violence and death for something as benign as chosen labor. Realize how you may contribute to that either passively or actively and work to change that.
JR: I ask that people read our toolkit, it’s in English and Spanish. On the website you can sign on in support of HB67, as an individual or as a business. Go on our Instagrams and boost us in the algorithm, share, share, share. And give your representatives a call. And find mutual aid efforts, donating to them even if it’s just pocket change, to sex worker funds, trans funds (if you have it) to support people who don’t have shit right now. If you follow our social media you will see those fundraisers.
What comes next—what keeps the momentum moving in the direction you want? Do you see the coalition that comes out of this as having potential to build or strengthen existing resources here?
NE: I think this has far-reaching potential to provide resources, support, and a microphone to working class folks in Louisiana. It doesn’t matter what your industry is. You should have the ability and the right to organize for safer working conditions, to organize for yourself and your community.
CBL: The people whose lives and livelihoods that are impacted by criminalization are the ones who chart the direction of the fight and sex workers and sex worker allies have been and will continue to call for full decrim. BARE NOLA gave their social media platforms over to SWAC, passing the baton in a way, and SWAC members have talked about the work that will come after the legislative session. They’ve shifted their name from the Sex Worker Advisory Committee to Sex Workers Against Criminalization, and that broadens their focus and their member base. WWAV will continue doing the work it’s been doing for decades, and that’s centering the voices of those with lived experiences that have been impacted by unjust laws and systems.
JR: There’s already been planning and I’ve been on the receiving end of mutual aid from SWAC itself, when my mental health is too bad to be super proactive and work. There’s always gonna be mutual aid efforts here for sex workers and for trans folks and for young people coming from WWAV and coming from SWAC. And the question that we asked when we first formed was, what do sex workers need and how can we fulfill those needs?
CX: Ultimately this campaign will do a lot to improve those lived conditions of sex workers in Louisiana. But the end goal for me is to exist outside of capitalism. The State should not exist. The system should not exist. This economic narrative that you have to work for your survival is something that is outdated, outmoded, and only works to suppress people while the rich get richer. It’s not a matter of legislative wins being the end goal. It’s a matter of being in the here and now, being able to survive in this moment, being able to have a voice so that we can continue the struggle.
HB67 is expected to be heard in the House Criminal Justice Committee on May 4. At that point, people—like sex workers and sex worker advocates—can come testify, and committee members can ask questions. Then, if the committee approves it (or no one opposes it) the bill will go to the State House of Representatives, where Rep. Landry will present the bill for discussion, amendments, and ultimately a vote. For the bill to make it to the State Senate, it needs 53 votes. At the Senate, it undergoes a similar process. If it were to pass in the Senate, the governor would either sign it, veto it, or let it expire on his desk. If he signs it, it will become an Act.
Transcription by Leijia Hanrahan; Deep South Decrim logo courtesy of Deep South Decrim; “Sex Worker Giving Circle” by JB Brager.