Since 1805, Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature (CAN) statute criminalized the commission of “unnatural carnal copulation,” defined by Louisiana courts as oral or anal sex, regardless of gender, marital status or consent. Those charged faced penalties of up to $2,000 in fines and up to five years’ imprisonment. Louisiana is the first and only state to adopt a freestanding statute specifically criminalizing these acts.
In 1991, the Louisiana Legislature passed the Registration of Sex Offenders, Sexually Violent Predators and Child Predators law, providing for collection and public dissemination of information about those convicted. Drivers’ licenses are stamped and head shots printed on sex offender postcards, mailed to homes throughout their neighborhoods.
This ancient and outdated law selectively targets some sex workers, those in the LBGTQ community and women of color, marking them with a negative stereotype that limits employment and housing opportunities. Women with a Vision, a New Orleans nonprofit, local attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights collaborated to change the law. In 2013, a federal class action lawsuit removed the names of approximately 700 individuals who had been required to register.
A performance last weekend at the Newcomb Art Museum, “Postcards From Over the Edge,” traces the history of sex workers in New Orleans from legalized prostitution in the Storyville redlight district from 1897 until 1917 to the present. Alderman Sidney Story wrote legislation for a city ordinance that created a 38-block area, bounded by North Robertson, Iberville, Basin and St. Louis Streets, where prostitution would be tolerated and regulated.
“Postcards” director Richon May used non-traditional casting for the show, allowing each member to understand how another feels, but all of the players have experienced some type of retaliation.The goal of the play, written by India McDougle, Tela Love, Karel Sloan-Boekbinder, Valentine Pierce and Jasmine Davis, is to eliminate stereotypes and encourage the public to see individuals for who they are, not what they are.
Sexual favors were not always criminalized. In “Postcards,” Karel Sloane-Boekbinder plays a high-class prostitute once well compensated for her services, and given lavish gifts by admirers in a Storyville brothel. Lulu White, the Diamond Queen, played by Valentine Pierce, ran Mahogany Hall with 15 bedrooms and five parlors, and employing 40 prostitutes. When the city suddenly closed the district on Nov. 12, 1917, 300 women were evicted and made homeless overnight.
The actors had experienced many of the hardships they portrayed, particularly discrimination. They feel hunted in their neighborhoods. Teah Smith, who played Sgt. Helen Bell, was intolerant of working women, and they pointed out his inability to express compassion. Dairion Weber plays Ashley, a 14-year-old who was raped and now tries to survive on tips.
Tela Love, an artist, spirit healer and root worker, performed onstage for the first time (with her clothes on and not under the influence), she joked.
Despite recent amendments, anyone convicted of a second Crime Against Nature by Solicitation offense still must register as a sex offender. Oddly, convictions for prostitution do not require sex offender registration.
“Even though charges will be dropped (because of the ruling in 2013) a person can still be arrested on this charge. Someone in our cast knows someone that was arrested and charged with Crime Against Nature just in the past month,” Sloane-Boekbinder said. “This person, with legal counsel, had their charges dropped. During this process, they incurred legal fees and court costs. The ruling in 2013 was retrograde, meaning anyone on the Sex Offender Registry as a result of being convicted of CAN is able to have their record expunged.”
Women with a Vision is continuing to offer assistance.