On September 23rd 2014, fourteen women were arrested in Baton Rouge following an undercover operation. After the operation, the names and photos of these women were posted online. The news article that was circulated on Facebook was soon filled with hateful comments ranging from threats of abuse, crude jokes and dehumanizing comments to a number of transphobic remarks. However, when I see these photos I don’t think of the stereotypes and stigmas that the commenters reached for. Instead, I see a diverse group of women, each with their own stories and struggles, as well as with their own set of motivations, skills and strengths. I don’t look down on these women for their profession and their means of survival. I look up to them as powerful women who are surviving intersecting systems that constantly try to keep them from accessing their basic human needs.
Many of these women are being given second or third charges. To me, this doesn’t demonize their moral character; it tells me that they were already denied the help they needed. With Louisiana shelters full, Medicaid expansion denied, and limited public transportation, it becomes increasingly difficult to access the services that do exist. When services are available many sex workers are met with gatekeepers and service providers who deem them less than human, giving them subpar service or flat out denying them access. When you acquire charges or have incarceration on your record, these barriers increase exponentially. Those scarlet letters on your record suddenly deem sex workers even more unworthy when applying for jobs, apartments, and any number of services.
The solution presented by local and federal officials is increased policing and harsher punishments, but the real solutions are to provide access to services and reduce barriers to the services that already exist. Incarcerating sex workers does nothing to improve their situations. In fact, it has the opposite effect of providing more roadblocks and fewer options. In order to overcome these barriers, we need to provide women the opportunity to safely access programs such as job training, drug treatment, mental health and trauma recovery services. Incarceration turns women into numbers and does not allow them the ability to rebuild their lives in their own image.
Women With A Visions EMERGE program was created with these goals and programs in mind, with the understanding that women have the capacity to envision the life they want and understand the support they need and the barriers they need to overcome. We asked ourselves, how we can educate service providers so that they treat sex workers as what they are, human? Why isn’t there a safe space for sex workers to envision what they want and need for their lives? Why isn’t there a stronger network to support these women?’ In fact, were not alone in this questioning. In partnership with Orleans Public Defender and through the efforts of the Racial Justice Improvement Taskforce, which consists of multiple pieces of the criminal justice system including the DAs and Judge Charbonnet, the Crossroads Diversion Program was born.
Crossroads (which is housed within WWAV’s EMERGE program) brings together all of that support. Through this program, WWAV does what it can to assist sex workers in navigating systems that have tried for so long to ignore or criminalize them. Crossroads has seen incredible success with its graduates. A single mother who recently completed the program stayed on with WWAV after her charges were dismissed to further help WWAV staff understand ways we can support sex workers in our community. ”I just wont to continue to help women who have been in my situation,” she said. In fact, nearly all of our graduates return to WWAV to receive further services or simply to drop in and be a part of the safe space that we work daily to create. ”Thank you for treating me like a human,” said one participant on her last day at the program. She understood the challenges of living in Louisiana because she lives them every day. With each new client, we hear stories of the unfair policing and the harassment that occurs from law enforcement, even when women quit the sex industry. We see too many women who can’t find stable shelter or adequate medical care, and women who go hungry so their children can eat. However, because our program exists as an alternative to incarceration for sex workers only in Orleans Parish, the faces you saw arrested in Baton Rouge won’t be given the opportunity to break down the barriers of an unforgiving system.
In Louisiana and across the nation, sex workers are being denied their basic needs and rights. They are not given enough options or support and their work is seen as problematic, but sex workers are not simply a population that needs to be fixed or a problem that needs to be solved. Sex workers are no different than any of us. They have the same wants, needs and dreams. Why then do we push them to the fringes of society? Instead of displaying them for the world to mock and shame as was recently done in Baton Rouge, we should listen to their stories and work to not only see their struggles but to understand their humanity. Sex worker rights are human rights. There is no way around it.
EMERGE : CrossRoads Program Manager
Women With A Vision, Inc.
Timothy Craft is a Masters of Social Work Candidate, the EMERGE and Crossroads program manager at Women With A Vision, and a sex worker rights advocate in the city of New Orleans
Categories: Sex Worker Rights