Rejecting Respectability Politics: Sex Workers, Whorephobia, and the Sex Offender Registry

On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, writer Melissa Gira Grant noticed organizers of the upcoming national Women’s March quietly amended the pro-sex work portion of their Guiding Vision. Organizers removed their sentiments declaring “solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements,” even though sex workers had actively promoted and supported the March. As amended, the platform only offered support for “those exploited by labor and sex,” implying sex workers have no agency over their body.

Sex workers and advocates criticized the amendments to the Guiding Vision for their anti-sex worker implications. Janet Mock, transgender activist and March organizer, hearing of the edit, quickly published an essay decrying its whorephobia. In it, she proclaimed, “My work and my feminism rejects respectability politics, whorephobia, slut-shaming and the misconception that sex workers, or folks engaged in the sex trades by choice or circumstance, need to be saved, that they are colluding with the patriarchy by ‘selling their bodies’.” Organizers took notice, and reinstated the original pro-sex worker language by the end of Tuesday. The Guiding Vision once again offered “solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement.”

My feminism rejects respectability politics.

This widely discussed incident reflects mainstream feminism’s troubled relationship with sex work. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, many feminists, such as Catherine Mackinnon and Kathleen Barry, decried sex workers as “selling their bodies” and “colluding with the patriarchy.” Sex workers often challenged this, rejecting attempts to “rescue” them and noting that sex work is a legitimate form of work they frequently freely chose to partake in. As Mock, a former sex worker, wrote, “I reject the policing within and outside women’s movements that rejects, erases, and shuns sex workers.” The Women’s March and the fight for sex workers’ rights leads us into another feminist issue—sex offender registries, which currently restrict mobility, employment, housing, and educational opportunities for over 800,000 Americans due to “sex crimes,” ranging from child molestation to consensual sex between teenagers.

While Women’s March organizers debated sex worker rights they remained silent on sex offender registries, despite its failing to reduce rates of sexual violence against children and adults. To this point, prominent feminists, such as Erica Meiners point out, “National, visible feminist organizations…have not challenged the expansion of SOR’s (sex offender registries).”

This was a lost opportunity, especially given the March’s stated commitment to intersectionality, worker’s rights, and supporting those most marginalized by a homophobic and racist state control. Sex offender registries disproportionately harm LGBTQ people and sex workers— vulnerable communities intersectional feminists should be actively fighting for.

Sex offender registries have put hundreds of sex workers and their clients behind bars. Prior to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision, it was legal in fourteen states to arrest people for sodomy or the intent to perform it. Police disproportionately applied these “anti-sodomy laws” against LGBTQ people and people of color, particularly those engaging in “cruising,” or queer sex in public places such as parks and bathrooms.

Registries harm vulnerable communities intersectional feminists should be actively fighting for.

Lawrence v. Texas only addressed sodomy as a private, consensual sexual act between adults. As Justice Kennedy opined, the ruling did not apply to “minors…or prostitution.”  Anti-sodomy laws, therefore, could still be used against LGBTQ sex workers and minors engaging in consensual anal and oral sex.

Although no conclusive data exists documenting how often anti-sodomy laws were used against sex workers following Lawrence v. Texas, sex work remained illegal in 49 states following the ruling. As of 2014, 12 states use anti-sodomy laws to intimidate and arrest people, posing a particular threat to LGBTQ sex workers.

Currently, at least four states—Alabama, Michigan, Oregon, and New York—require registration for adult prostitution-related offenses, such as soliciting a sex worker or running a brothel. In 2014, West Virginia and Tennessee had similar laws, which were recently overturned.

Sex workers have vocally opposed the criminalization of their clients, as this forces street-based sex workers to move to areas less visible to law enforcement where they face heightened risk of physical and sexual violence. For example, after Scotland criminalized solicitation in 2007, sexual assaults against sex workers doubled.  Furthermore, laws criminalizing sex workers’ clients often rely on logic framing sex workers as feminine victims and their clients as masculine exploiters—a framework sex workers reject as queerphobic for implying that only men and women trade sex.   

Because of the risks associated with criminalizing their clients, sex workers’ advocates around the globe have agitated for the legalization of sex work and, in Germany and New Zealand, won. Following these victories, violence against sex workers and HIV rates decreased, as sex workers screened clients more easily and worked in safer areas free from police harassment. Unfortunately, sex offender registries actively hamper the admirable goal of decriminalization, driving sexual economies underground and labelling their participants as “deviant.”

Registries drive sexual economies underground.

Sex offender registries don’t just harm sex workers’ clients—they also directly criminalize sex workers. Louisiana provided a particularly egregious example of this. Prior to 2013, sex workers arrested for engaging in oral or anal sex, could be prosecuted for either violating Louisiana’s anti-prostitution law or “Crimes Against Nature” (CANS) statute. Only the CANS statute, adopted in 1805, outlawed oral and anal sex as a felony offense and required registration as a sex offender, while the anti-prostitution charge was a misdemeanor offense without the registration requirement. Registration for a sex offense in Louisiana not only results in difficulty obtaining housing and employment, and mobility restrictions, but also requires the words “sex offender” to be emblazoned in large red letters on state driver’s licenses.

The CANS statute led to numerous collateral consequences for hundreds of LGBTQ sex workers. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) reports many sex workers convicted under this law experienced physical violence and could not access employment, housing, and necessary medical care solely because of their status as a registrant. In the words of Ian Doe, a gay Louisiana registrant convicted under the CANS statute after turning to sex work at age thirteen to survive, “I don’t deserve to be punished like this…because of the judgment of one officer.” While no thirteen year old should be forced into sex work, they also shouldn’t be registered for sex crimes.

Unsurprisingly, police and prosecutors frequently and discriminatorily applied CANS charges, forcing LGBTQ sex workers and sex workers of color to register more frequently than their cisgender, heterosexual, and white counterparts. A Huffington Post article reported that the majority sentenced under the law were women of color and transgender women of color, revealing the racism, sexism, and transmisogyny underlying the enforcement of Louisiana’s CANS laws. Even more disturbingly, prosecutors regularly applied these laws—according to estimates from the Times-Picayune, 40% of registrants in New Orleans were registered for CANS convictions. In Louisiana, sex offender registries aided widespread discrimination against sex workers, people of color, and LGBTQ people.

We must dismantle archaic laws branding LGBTQ sex workers and their clients.

CCR, with the aid of Women With A Vision (a woman of color led community organization) filed a successful 2013 lawsuit aiming to dismantle CANS laws and acquit Louisiana residents convicted under CANS laws. After numerous court battles, every person convicted for CANS offense was removed from Louisiana’s sex offender registry and CANS laws were removed from the books.  Despite this victory, LGBTQ sex workers, particularly transgender women of color, remain at risk of being labeled as “sex offenders” through other legislation.

Although Louisiana removed everyone registered for a CANS offense from their registries, other states have not followed suit, leaving unknown numbers of LGBTQ sex workers on registries. A case weaving its way through Mississippi's court system alleges the anti-sodomy statute is unconstitutional. Four of the plaintiffs were registered in Louisiana for prostitution-related offenses, but then moved to Mississippi. Despite the fact that “prostitution was never a registerable offense in Mississippi,” the state registry still lists people convicted for these crimes. Sex workers join numerous LGBTQ youth, people living with HIV, and other queers often criminalized for their sexuality.

Feminists cannot continue to ignore sex workers and sex offender registries. After all, the Women’s March is about building the power of womanhood. Her body. Her choice. Criminalizing sex workers and labeling them as “sex offenders” excludes them from justice. Sex workers are rarely viewed as innocent by the criminal legal system when sexual violence occurs, and, consequently, are effectively silenced.

The CANS win in Louisiana highlights the collaborative effort across numerous stakeholders needed to seek justice for women negatively impacted by sex laws. If we want to build a truly inclusive feminism, then we must dismantle similar archaic laws branding LGBTQ sex workers and their clients, particularly those of color, as “sex offenders.” Only then can we imagine a world in which sex workers are safe, respected, and free. 

Special thanks to Kate D’Adamo for her contributions.