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.
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.
I know people who are constantly checking their local sex offender registry — they want to know how many child molesters are in their neighborhood* (why? so they can avoid that side of the street, I guess). But laws for what gets labeled as a sex crime are so varied and arbitrary that the registry’s purpose — to keep the government apprised of offenders’ whereabouts so that local police can protect citizens — is almost useless.
From a piece in the Economist in August:
How dangerous are the people on the registries? A state review of one sample in Georgia found that two-thirds of them posed little risk. For example, Janet Allison was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” because she let her 15-year-old daughter have sex with a boyfriend. The young couple later married. But Ms Allison will spend the rest of her life publicly branded as a sex offender.
Megan’s Law, which requires sex offenders make their location known to the government for a period of 10 years or more, is no longer serving its purpose if sex workers — who are more likely to be assaulted than most — are clogging up the registry. And the damage being done to the women who have to register gets even worse, because these women can’t live near anywhere children might be, which may pose a problem if some of them actually have children.
*But the Economist notes, “Public registers drive serious offenders underground, which makes them harder to track and more likely to reoffend. And registers give parents a false sense of security: most sex offenders are never even reported, let alone convicted.”