Today, Sex Workers Outreach Project New Orleans (SWOP-NOLA) observes the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers with a second line parade through the French Quarter.
"We're going to meet at Canal and Bourbon (streets) for a second line to celebrate sex workers who were lost to violence this year," says Hellena*, director and founder of SWOP-NOLA. Participants will hand out safe sex supplies and brochures about the organization. The second line will conclude with a memorial service at Allways Lounge (2240 St. Claude Ave.), where there will be readings, refreshments and an open mic from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
"It's a day to … come together and recommit ourselves to the goal of making this issue visible, supporting each other and fighting the stigma that results in violence against sex workers and denying us our basic human rights," Hellena says.
Hellena started SWOP-NOLA in June 2012 because she was disturbed by semi-recent violence against sex workers like Jaren Lockhart and Angela Erin Ball. "And because as a full-service sex worker myself I wanted some support and a networking kind of thing," Hellena says. Although the national social justice group had other chapters in the country, there were none in the South. Hellena says this was partly because the solicitation of crimes against nature statute, which was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year, made potential members wary of joining.
"People in New Orleans were untrusting because historically, the stakes were higher for us when it came to legal consequences," Hellena says. "[The group's mission involves] activism, advocacy and support, so that we're not victims of violence. Our culture condones violence against sex workers. It's a joke to find a dead hooker in the trunk. It's funny to accuse a stripper of being molested by her father."
In addition to stigma that contributes to violence, sex workers in Louisiana contend with police intimidation tactics that fuel the spread of HIV, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. "Sex workers, transgender women and others at high risk of HIV infection told us that they were afraid to carry condoms
and that they sometimes had to engage in sex without protection out of fear of police harassment," the report says. Partly as a result of poor state policies and police intimidation of sex workers, HIV rates in New Orleans and Baton Rouge are among the nation's highest.
Part of SWOP-NOLA's mission is to help protect sex workers from risky situations with police and bad clients through information sharing and community outreach. The organization observes several events throughout the year, including International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Though this occasion is a somber one, Hellena says she hopes the second line will be a celebratory way to bring attention to SWOP-NOLA's mission. Participants are encouraged to wear red, and there will be red umbrellas and masks.
"We don't want to be downers," Hellena says. "It's mostly going to be like, 'Hey, we have rights, too. We're people.'"
*Name has been changed.