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Safe space: sex workers in the South 

Desiree Alliance hosts its sixth annual conference in New Orleans, its first time in the South

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"Southerners get things done," Cris Sardina says.

  Sardina is director of the Desiree Alliance, an advocacy group made up of sex workers, health professionals, and other supporting networks committed to strengthening the sex workers rights movement and advocating for sex workers' human, labor, and civil rights — and it is holding its sixth annual convention in New Orleans this week, titled "Addressing Justice."

  The conference is a forum for sex workers and their allies, comprising panels, workshops and talks designed to empower and educate, foster political and legal strategy, business skills, artistic creation and solidarity through networking.

  This will be the first time the Desiree Alliance convenes in the South.

While sex workers rights activism and sex worker organizing goes back decades, the movement has gathered steam over the last 10 years. This is due in part to the organizing capacity and anonymity of the internet as well as growing awareness of sex work and calls for decriminalization.

  Organizers see the Desiree Alliance conference as vital to a region and city with social justice issues that pertain significantly to sex workers. Local escort Annie Calhoun, who volunteers for Sex Workers Outreach Project New Orleans (SWOP-NOLA), says, "I hope that sex workers of all types from the area are present, and that they see the amazing community of people who are on our side. Not every sex worker is an activist (yet!), but every sex worker can benefit from being in an environment where they're not shamed for their work. And I feel that, given the fact that criminalization discourages us from helping, trusting, or even communicating with each other (thereby isolating and endangering us), creating a community of people who reject the stigma surrounding this work is an act of rebellion in itself."

  Speaking out is just one factor. Landmark legal cases such as 2013's Bedford v. Canada — a ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court that struck down prostitution laws in that country, a primary goal of the sex workers rights movement — have brought widespread media attention to the cause. Amnesty International's recommendation in 2015 that sex work be decriminalized pushed those workers' rights into the mainstream. What has steadily driven sex workers' rights before the public eye, however, is the persistent efforts of sex workers to make their voices heard, their humanity acknowledged and their civil and labor rights honored.

  Calhoun believes some of the progress made is, ironically, a response to journalists like New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, "who have built careers on the idea that sex work can be reduced to the idea of big bad men exploiting poor women — a classic evil villain/innocent victim dichotomy."

  "Thinking about things in those terms helps no one," Calhoun says. "Furthermore, it encourages the public to support and push for laws that actually end up hurting the people they claim they want to help. We got tired of hearing that, and with the help of the internet, we're making our voices heard."

  New Orleans is recognized nationally for its HIV awareness organizations, LGBT and trans rights groups and grassroots harm reduction efforts. The best-known is Women With a Vision (WWAV), a harm reduction organization headed by Deon Haywood. It was founded in New Orleans in 1989 "by a grassroots collective of African-American women in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color," its website says. Now the organization addresses issues faced by women in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, including drug policy reform, HIV/AIDS harm reduction and sex workers' rights.

In 2005 the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) adopted the red umbrella as a symbol of resistance to discrimination.

Red is a color of beauty and an umbrella is the resistance to sky's and humans' attacks. It symbolizes protection from the abuse sex workers are subjected to by the police, pimps, customers, and an ignorant and biased society.

— S.W.A.N. (Sex Workers' Rights Advocacy Network)

  WWAV works with a large 'survival sex work' community, and Program Manager Christine Breland says, "Predatory policing is a big problem that hurts sex workers — sting operations that ensnare women who are below the poverty line, trying to sur- vive, to make money to have a place to stay, food to eat, to clothe themselves."

  Furthermore, while New Orleans is a tight-knit community in many ways, Breland says sex workers here often are isolated, especially compared to a place like Nevada, which has a "much stronger, almost unionized" community of sex workers.

  Among WWAV's successes is overturning a Louisiana law that would have labeled sex workers convicted of crimes against nature (a statute dating back to 1805 outlawing oral and anal, but not vaginal sex) as sex offenders. Critics said the law disproportionately targeted people of color and transgender women. In 2012, a federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional. In the wake of the decision, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of those sex workers who remained on the registry in spite of the change in law. In a settlement, the state agreed to remove hundreds of sex workers' names from the registry in 2013.

New Orleans has a LONG and conflicted history with sex work. Storyville was a regulated (and for white patrons only) district of legal prostitution on the skirts of the French Quarter that lasted from 1897 to 1917 and was intimately tied to the jazz scene and integral to the rich legacies of New Orleans culture. Though solicitating sex for money has been illegal since Storyville's demise, historians, publishers, owners of former brothels and bawdy houses and even a T-shirt store still profit from those 19th-century working women through tourist dollars, book sales and marketing local mystique.

  While sex workers may be ostracized, criminalized and persecuted, the allure of what they do makes for perennial mainstream entertainment and adds to New Orleans' touted love of debauchery, misfits and raunchy entertainment. HBO is developing a television show based on Gary Krist's 2015 bestseller about Storyville, Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans.

  The nostalgic affection for yesteryear's working women doesn't translate into affection for present-day sex workers in New Orleans, especially those of color or non-conforming gender identity.

  The bulk of issues faced by New Orleans sex workers are shared by their compatriots nationally: stigma, criminalization, police harassment and violence. Still, there are challenges particular to workers in New Orleans and Louisiana. Most recent is the New Orleans City Planning Commission's proposed cap on the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter. Claims of human trafficking in strip clubs drove the Louisiana Legislature to adopt a law requiring all strippers in the state to be 21 to perform in a club, legislation many dancers and activists call unnecessary.

'Creating a community of people who reject the stigma surrounding this work is an act of rebellion in itself.'

— local escort and SWOP-NOLA volunteer Annie Calhoun

  "Anti-trafficking laws are just horrible — they're really harming," says Sardina, citing fabricated numbers, exaggerated statistics, and conflation of trafficking and consensual sex work. Melinda Chateauvert, a New Orleans resident and author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement From Stonewall to Slutwalk, also sees anti-trafficking rhetoric as harmful and says sex workers must resist "the narrative being put out by local anti-trafficking groups of who exactly is the sex industry in Louisiana."

  "The most pressing issues for sex workers (in my opinion) are working toward decriminalization and combating stigma," Calhoun says, "as these are the two biggest factors that facilitate violence against sex workers. I believe that working to dispel the myths perpetuated by prostitution prohibitionists (especially those working in anti-trafficking) is a big part of reaching both of those goals."

These concerns are reflected in the Desiree Alliance conference programming, with presentations such as "Trafficking Laws: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "Uncovering the Truth About Trafficking in the U.S." and a meeting of the Anti-Trafficking Caucus.

  In addition, sex workers in New Orleans and Louisiana sometimes encounter racist and transphobic attitudes, while LGBT individuals and people of color often are profiled as sex workers. Conference co-hosts WWAV and BreakOUT! address sex workers' rights among a host of intersecting issues, acknowledging the complicated ways in which social injustices overlap. BreakOUT!, a local organization dedicated to ending criminalization and persecution of LGBT youth in the city, recognizes the significance of the conference to LGBT youth and people of color in the city.

  Co-director Wesley Ware says BreakOUT! found people of color and trans individuals were being disproportionately stopped by police who assumed they were trading sex for money. In response, the organization launched a campaign that resulted in Policy 402, which governs the way New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers handle LGBT individuals and people of color, ensuring that race and gender identity do not constitute reasonable suspicion. Ware says BreakOUT!'s participation in the Desiree Alliance conference stems from the organization's commitment to people targeted by law enforcement, including those who "trade sex to survive in a city that doesn't offer many opportunities in terms of employment or housing, especially for young trans people of color."

  "WWAV and BreakOUT! are two organizations that work diligently to end victimization of sex workers," Breland says. "It's important to represent sex workers in the South."

  "We do things differently in the South," Chateauvert agrees. "And it's not just the racial politics, though they are front and center. I also think there's a tendency when you walk down the street, you say hello to people." Chateauvert says that reflects "a sense of community" that ensures "people are going to fight."

  Mistress Genevieve, a New Orleans professional dominatrix, says she's happy locals will see that "sex workers get serious." Furthermore, attendees from across the globe will benefit from the collective knowledge and experience of New Orleans workers and activists.

  Setting the conference in New Orleans makes a host of issues visible to attendees, but also introduces them to the vibrancy of local organizing and activism, Calhoun says.

  "I think this part of the U.S. is often left out of the discussion, which is a shame because the movement faces unique obstacles down here,"she says. "This part of the country is different. The Gulf Coast, especially NOLA, has a different culture, and the average person from this area has had different opportunities and faced different challenges than what may be common in the majority of the U.S. and I think our experiences as sex workers are worth knowing about as well."

  For Calhoun, the conference offers an opportunity to hear voices that are often left out or misunderstood, while the region is assumed to be populated by "backwards idiots stuck in the past." In reality, she says, "New Orleans is pretty damn inspiring."

  Sardina concurs, adding that activists "have everything to learn from New Orleans," including a get-it-done attitude she admires in Southern organizers and simply figuring out "how to get from point A to point Z." She says conference attendees can learn from the energized, engaged and intersectional approaches taken by the workers and activists of New Orleans.

For more information, visit www.desireealliance.org

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