When I was a child, a woman named Teresa* shared a close friend with my mother in our neighborhood, back when we lived in French public housing. Teresa was a sex worker. But she didn’t fit my imagined stereotype of a prostitute, which had already been shaped by the media at the tender age of nine. Unlike Pretty Woman, she was an African migrant in her mid to late thirties. Her clothing and makeup were not markedly raunchy or skimpy. At the get-together where we first met her, she had a boyfriend. She was friendly and nice to children. She resembled any other person I called “auntie.”
I never learned much about Teresa’s life other than three facts. The most important one is that she was undocumented. This proved to be a consequential handicap for her. Before coming to France, Teresa had lived in Switzerland, where she worked as a prostitute. Rumor had it that she had been banned from re-entering the country after the authorities caught her working. Given that the Swiss legalized prostitution in the early 1940s, her arrest and deportation almost certainly stemmed from lacking immigration papers. Somehow, Teresa made her way to the French southeast, where prostitution was legal in the late nineties.
The second thing I knew about Teresa was that she did not have French documents either. Unfortunately for her, the law in France also prohibited migrants who were present in the country illegally from prostituting. The third thing was that, despite this obstacle, she continued to make a living as a sex worker. The combination of these factors means that Teresa sold sex on the black market.
I wish I could tell you more about the trajectory of her life. Above all, I wish I could confirm that she never experienced violence while prostituting; that no one ever forced her to accept a customer she did not want; that she had a way to get help in such instances; or that she was comfortable reporting any harm to authorities, without the threat of deportation. In reality, I have no idea. We lost contact long ago. I can only hope that Teresa eventually obtained documented status, and that she performed sex work only for as long as she wished. In the best of all possible worlds, Teresa is happy now wherever she is working—a tall ask in a capitalist world where labor in all forms can find ways to crush our spirits.
What I do know is that sex work—a term I’m here using to designate the whole spectrum of erotic labor, including stripping and exotic dancing—is work. Period. Accordingly, people of all genders performing this labor must be treated with respect and dignity. These should not merely be feel-good terms. Too often, this allows their co-optation by factions who relish encroaching the autonomy and self-determination of sex workers. On the contrary, respect and dignity must translate into a categorical right to earn a living without stigma, harassment, violence, and criminalization. Above all, sex workers deserve the protections and benefits that workers in all other industries should come to expect from the state. Not only because this is the right thing to do, in a society where the majority of us must sell our labor just to survive, but also because the safety and wellbeing of sex workers depend on it.
As we enter Mardi Gras season, the city of New Orleans is ramping up measures to do precisely the opposite of that. Local workers and activists lament that the city council is pushing for the rapid gentrification of the French Quarter, which involves “cleaning up” this iconic part of town and making it more family-friendly. These measures have come at the expense of sex workers’ livelihoods and dignity, revealing that the city— far from being concerned for their welfare—views them as disposable.
The city’s approach has been twofold. First, the city council is pushing the planning commission to phase out the strip clubs on Bourbon Street through regulation. The members most eager about this measure have been relying on a Times-Picayune investigative series to stoke fears that strip clubs are hotbeds for trafficking. Since its publication, the piece has come under fire for being riddled with more holes than a New Orleans paved road. Importantly, its authors consistently equate exotic dancing and prostitution with “trafficking,” despite the fact that “trafficking, as defined by both Federal and Louisiana state law, entails the use of ‘force, fraud, or coercion’ to compel an individual to engage in labor, including sexual labor.” Moreover, the Times-Picayune denies actually having uncovered a pervasive trafficking problem, explaining in the first part of the series that “there has been no evidence that clubs knowingly employed dancers who were victims of human trafficking,” Instead, the paper’s gripe with the clubs appears entirely based on the premise that “[s]ome pimps are known to require women under their control to dance in clubs.” This in turn has emboldened the city government, and activist groups that oppose the recognition of sex work as a legitimate trade, to aggressively peddle the myth that Bourbon Street strip clubs have a severe sex trafficking problem.
Second, on the eve of one of biggest weeks for tourism, New Orleans’s police force teamed up with the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control to raid eight strip clubs in the French Quarter and suspend their liquor licenses. At the time of this piece, the city had restored half the liquor licenses and found no instances of trafficking (despite this being reported as their goal).
The immediate effect of New Orleans’s approach has been to deprive an all-women workforce of their ability to earn a living as they see fit, and as is explicitly authorized by local law. These measures have successfully created an artificial shortage of stripping platforms during what should be one of the busiest times of the year. With nowhere to perform, dancers are strapped for hours and, in some cases, cash. As women protesting the crackdown under the banner of the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE) have pointed out, the city’s posturing is placing the most economically vulnerable women dancers at risk. (In other words, the very women the city is purporting to be concerned about.)
On some level, the lawmakers pushing for the changes to the French Quarter must clearly expect that the economic effects of gentrification will eventually make up for the revenue the city will lose from closing the strip clubs. I have no doubt that profit ranks high on the list of excuses driving this community facelift. But there’s a moralistic and paternalistic element to this scheme as well. The lawmakers in charge appear unable to fathom that sex workers, and women in particular, could ever have the agency to want to provide erotic services for a fee. Indeed, a whole category of people believes that all sex transactions are by nature coercive, which leads them to conclude that the best remedy is to eradicate all sex work. These are probably the same people who encouraged and cheered raising the legal age to strip in New Orleans from 18 to 21.
I find this view repulsive because it completely discounts the sex worker’s ability to make informed decisions about what makes the most economic sense for them, in light of their individual set of circumstances. It arbitrarily distinguishes sex work from all other physical or supposedly degrading work, such as clearing unidentified fluids from the French Quarter in the morning hours after a Saints win. Of course, there is no use pretending that everyone enters the sex industry because they love the work. But this isn’t unique to sex work. Lawyers are well known for being a miserable lot, which has a lot to do with the reported higher rates of depression and substance abuse in the profession. I have yet to see anyone formally try to save lawyers from themselves by banning the profession altogether.
It also is unfair to change the rules as though there is something inherently unmanageable about sex. Some women may derive pleasure from certain kinds of sex work, but not all kinds. Others may find that their feelings about it depend on the day you ask them. Tellingly, lawmakers only seek to extend their chivalrous protection to individuals who dare commodify sex, not to all people who engage in unconventional or arguably unequal sexual relations. None of the people who favor banning stripping by adults under 21 would ever seriously propose banning 18- to 20-year-old women from dating men thrice their age for free—and even “dating” can rely on dynamics that include monetary exchanges. The age of consent is apparently a safe cutoff for unpaid sex of any kind, but somehow, an 18-year-old sex worker lacks the maturity to receive actual wages for their labor.
As Ronald Weitzer—a sociologist who specializes in the sex industry—explains, we must be careful to avoid the black-and-white perspectives taken by the “exploitation” camp (adamant that all sex work is oppression) and the “empowerment” camp (equally adamant that all sex work is empowering). Reality is much more nuanced. Weitzer proposes that we instead consider what he calls a polymorphous paradigm, which is to say the possibility:
“…that there is a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations, and worker experiences. Unlike the other two perspectives, polymorphism is sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping the uneven distribution of agency, subordination, and workers’ control . . . . Victimization, exploitation, choice, job satisfaction, self-esteem, and other dimensions should be treated as variables (not constants) that differ between types of sex work, geographical locations, and other structural and organizational conditions.”
Still, I maintain that the “oppressive” end of the spectrum on this issue is far more misguided than the “empowerment” view. Adherents to the oppressive view—for instance, former councilmember Kristin Palmer—push for these draconian measures under the pretense that they will protect women. To see just how well this is working out for the sex workers themselves, though, one need only look at testimonies by strippers who experienced this latest round of raids. The behavior they reported from the officers is appalling. Speaking to BARE, two women explained:
“In all honesty, it [was] the most degrading experience of my adult life, and I’m a dancer … After it was over, I witnessed women weeping until they vomited. We gathered together and held each other after the raid, as some were profoundly shaken by the events of the evening.”
“To have grown men watch me dress and undress without my consent, to photograph me half-naked on their personal cellphones, to laugh in our faces as we wept, and to corral us, like cattle, in areas with no cameras present is completely dehumanizing.”
Another report by the anarchist collective It’s Going Down provided more gruesome details:
During Friday’s raids, strippers and wait-staff described being detained and isolated from one another and their possessions while having their IDs run for prior arrests and outstanding warrants and their photographs taken without consent in their work attire. Those who resisted were handcuffed and many described being ridiculed, degraded, and molested by cops. In response to stripper’s protests of the conduct of all-male officers during the raids, they laughed and replied “You lost your right to decency when you became a stripper.”
Although the head of the New Orleans Police Department denies all this, I confess to believing the word of the dancers a thousand times over his. You’ll recall that the so-called “crime” under investigation was an issue with the establishment’s liquor license—not even the actual labor of stripping. And even if the police department was being truthful when it claimed that the whole operation was actually a covert trafficking sting, it’s impossible to imagine how this gratuitous layer of harassment and humiliation from the police was supposed to make the supposed trafficking victims feel safe to come forward. (As it turned out, the dancers on the premises were all over 21 and working voluntarily.)
The alleged behavior from these officers only scratches the surface of the humiliation and violence to which the state subjects sex workers the moment their work is coded as potentially illegal. All the harassment described above happened in broad daylight! Imagine what sex workers in illegal trades must have to endure, when the only other witness is the officer conducting the arrest, and the dash cam is experiencing a mysterious malfunction. The threat of a hostile police force is just one of the many dangers sex workers can look forward to when the state criminalizes the provision or solicitation of sex work.
People who believe in the “oppressive” model tend to believe that prostitution is inherently violent. They also often adhere to the “abolitionist” solution, which advocates for criminalizing demand by prosecuting buyers. I find the abolitionist approach to be internally inconsistent. For example, the abolitionists don’t seem to spend much time advocating for the prosecution anyone who purchases tickets to enjoy other activities with potentially violent outcomes, like hockey or American football. Again, sex is singled out for moral reasons that abolitionists believe they can rightfully project onto another person. A singular focus on sex work also ignores the reality that, as the #metoo movement has forced us to confront together, the threat of violence is also a possibility in many jobs. Beyond the fact that “I wouldn’t do this, so neither should you” is an obnoxious way to design policy, the criminalization of sex workers, customers, and transaction venues only pushes these workers to operate in the dark. This too is a harmful consequence.
Weitzer suggests that the risk of violent victimization differs across various lines of sex work, with the highest risk falling to street prostitutes and the lowest to massage parlor workers and illegal brothel workers. This risk level is also likely influenced by the root conditions that dictate how much a sex worker charges, what venue they work in, and how much of their pay they actually keep for themselves. For example, coming from a more vulnerable population—e.g., minors, undocumented persons, transgender persons, individuals experiencing homelessness or drug-dependency, or persons with criminal records—may narrow a sex worker’s options to the most high-risk sex labor.
For those who are concerned about reducing the violence experienced by sex workers, why not look to what sex workers themselves have to say about what they actually need to keep themselves safe? Researchers who write in this field identify “interpersonal violence against sex workers, violence against community order, and disease as violence” as the three types of harms that are typically of concern to prostitutes and to brothel owners (although these could easily apply to other sex workers). Interpersonal violence refers to harm at the hands of anyone while on the job. Violence against community order is less literal, and refers to “policies that see commercial sex as evidence of generalized social disorder and that seek not to eliminate but to control and hide prostitutes from public life.” You could see how much of this fear animates the policy changes in the French Quarter. And lastly, disease as violence refers to the fear of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI), which is not only a threat to the worker’s health, but also to their immediate income, if it prevents them from working.
Criminalization pushes the sex trade into a less visible world, which does not make sex workers safer. On the contrary, the prospect of being subjected to physical violence or threats is even more terrifying on the black market. Criminalization encourages sex workers to operate without the protection of labor laws or formalized employment contract, on premises that may be difficult to locate and inspect, with clients whom they may not be able to report to anyone, and particularly not to a criminal justice system complicit in creating unsafe conditions.
As would be true for most of us, a felony or sex offender record is also bound to compound whatever difficult circumstances a sex worker may be experiencing. Sex workers convicted under Louisiana’s now-defunct “1805 law” not only received a felony on their records, but also had to register as sex offenders for ten to fifteen years. Felonies and sex offense crimes carry heavy collateral consequences, which create barriers to the very services that could alleviate the hardships that make the sex worker more vulnerable than other workers. You can also see how allowing employers and even the permitted sex economy (e.g., strip clubs) to exclude everyone with a felony could prevent sex workers trying to exit the sex trade from doing so. These grim conditions are what the city of New Orleans will help proliferate in shutting down legal places of erotic work.
One piece explained the excruciating effects of this practice:
“Tabitha has to register an address in the sex offender database, and because she doesn’t have a permanent home, she has registered the address of a nonprofit organization that is helping her. She also has to purchase and mail postcards with her picture to everyone in the neighborhood informing them of her conviction. If she needs to evacuate to a shelter during a hurricane, she must evacuate to a special shelter for sex offenders, and this shelter has no separate safe spaces for women. She is even prohibited from very ordinary activities in New Orleans like wearing a costume at Mardi Gras.”
Instead of potentially pushing sex labor towards a potentially dangerous black market, New Orleans should reverse its plans to phase out strip clubs on Bourbon Street. More than that, it should help lead the country towards a return to legalization of sex work. This does not have to be a pipe dream. Several countries in the European Union have experimented with the spectrum of legalization. And even though the United States is prudish about sex work now, a review of its history reveals various periods during which prostitution was allowed—including in New Orleans’s Storyville.
These days, prostitution remains legal in only a few rural counties in the state of Nevada. Nonetheless, the effects have been largely positive. County regulations impose routine testing for STIs and mandate the use of condoms during intercourse. One of the most thorough studies performed on the Nevadan legal prostitution market shows that prostitutes seemed happy to comply with both requirements, which made them feel safe. Norms in the brothel industry have also made commonplace the use of intercoms (permitting “the house” to listen in), panic buttons, and maids (employees charged with knocking on the door when time for the service is up). These safety measures have since become an expectation. The data on arrests in “prostitution counties,” along with testimonies from prostitutes, also suggest that the police are less likely to arrest prostitutes (even though they could choose to do so, on the suspicion that a prostitute might be working illegally or be out of compliance with regulations). Moreover, law enforcement appears more likely to take seriously their job of removing clients who may be harassing workers, rather than harassing the workers themselves.
Importantly, the Nevada brothel workers reported a culture in which they watched out for each other. This should be good news for states that claim to be interested in the safety of populations that it believes to be vulnerable to actual trafficking. After all, sex workers would likely be in the best condition to identify other sex workers who are working in unsafe conditions, or who are under the age of consent. This qualitative information suggests that advocates could have a friend in legal sex workers in their efforts to assist trafficking victims.
On the other hand, Nevada’s model should be a floor and not a ceiling. For instance, sexual health requirements too often place the burden of testing solely on the sex workers. This helps cultivate the pernicious idea that sex work is inherently “dirty,” which lays the rhetorical groundwork for places like New Orleans to “clean it up.” Instead, STI testing should be a two-way street. If safety is at a priority on everyone’s list, then customers should also be expected to present a bill of their sexual health before obtaining service. And, unlike workers in Nevada, the burden of paying for this testing should rest with the employer or a single-payer healthcare system, rather than the sex worker.
Prostitution and other erotic services should be legalized not just in non-urban areas, but throughout the entire state. This would prevent sex workers from facing risks at the hands of clients and the police, on the basis of arbitrary county boundaries. Additionally, now that a whole range of services are increasingly provided with the help of apps and technology, universal legalization can also provide sex workers with more avenues to provide services, solicit business, and screen clients using the internet, without fear of being shut down.
Most importantly, sex work cannot be criminalized under any circumstances. In particular, selective criminalization of undocumented or underage participants may drive such workers deeper into the black market, as they seek to evade arrest or are forced to live with the consequences of a criminal record. Undocumented sex workers like my neighbor Teresa are driven to work in less safe conditions, unable to avail themselves of the usual protections in a country where sex work is otherwise legal. This not only endangers the safety of unauthorized sex workers in the immediate term, but it also makes it harder to steer those seeking to exit the industry towards resources.
Sex workers must also be considered equal, if not prioritized, stakeholders in any conversation about the shape of their work. Workers like many of the New Orleans-based groups mentioned in this piece often are able to do this through coalitions and supporting nonprofits. But in a world where all sex work was legalized, workers would also have a viable way to unionize in order to make demands from both their employers and the state, tailored to the labor conditions and informed by their experiences. And if we care at all about ensuring that sex work is as fully removed from coercion as possible—frankly, a goal we should have for all labor— then a robust social safety net should be a no-brainer.
Legalization and regulation can only work if the state can promise ample support and resources to any and all sex workers who seek to leave the trade. This is not an ask unique to sex work. Few of us (thankfully) are born into the type of inherited wealth that permits us to opt out of work, which means capitalism applies a degree of coercion on us when it comes to waged work. Still, socioeconomic factors and dumb luck means that some of us inevitably have more choice than others in earning a living. The physical or emotional labor required also inevitably makes some professions more difficult than others. Sex work, for example, can be very physically and emotionally intensive but the same can be said of social work or the nursing profession.
The combination of these factors makes it hard to figure out just how much economic necessity pushes us to stay in hard jobs. At the same time, people can’t leave hard jobs they’d rather not do without better options and a social safety net to support their transition to these options. By strengthening people’s choices, a strong support system can help us figure out whether some work is so difficult or unpleasant that no one would perform it if that were an option. It is possible, for instance, that the sex industry would see a drastic drop in sex workers. Or we may learn that fewer people would continue to perform it, but that maximizing their safety and wellbeing on the job would require us to guarantee better regulations and higher wages. Again, this is true in some general way of all professions, but it’s especially true of professions where safety concerns are front and center.
Until we reach those lofty goals though, we should start with protecting New Orleans’s dancers.
To learn more information about the advocacy and organizing that sex workers are engaged in in New Orleans, I recommend you follow BARE, Women with a Vision, and the work of Melissa Gira Grant, including this helpful interview on The Dig.
*Teresa’s name has been changed to protect her identity.