Storyville: Sex Worker Empowerment and Activism in Postbellum New Orleans to Today
New Orleans, Louisiana
This project links contemporary relief and intra-community relief efforts of sex workers in New Orlean following Hurricane Ida, and establishes a 100+ year link of sex workers supporting one another through aid and activism.
It begins with tales of the empowerment of sex workers, especially women of color, in post-Civil War New Orleans (1898 – 1917) within the establishment of Storyville — arguably the country’s most publicized, sensationalized, legal and regulated red light district. Against this backdrop it was possible for workers and madams to rise to positions of incredible economic power and prestige unlike any other place in New Orleans (and arguably all of U.S. society).
They achieved a degree of influence and autonomy unknown even to white women of privilege elsewhere in the country at that time. Most importantly, they fought back against attempts to segregate and thus deprive people of color their residential and property rights and livelihoods during the rise of Jim Crow in the South — successfully defeating those discriminatory efforts in court and maintaining their livelihoods until the dissolution of Storyville at the hands of the U.S. Dept. of the Navy on the eve of the First World War.
Biographies of these past courageous sex workers will come alive though historically accurate, creative non-fictional stories, hopefully narrated by contemporary sex workers of color from New Orleans (dependent on availability post-Ida). Workers from these communities —e specially trans women of color—are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by law enforcement and legislation, notably the CANS (Crimes Against Nature by Solicitation) statute passed in 1982, which punishes sex work with up to five years in prison on a first offense. Additionally, in 1991, the Louisiana legislature drafted the state’s first set of rules governing the registration of sex offenders and became to this day the only state where people convicted of prostitution are required to register as sex offenders.
By demonstrating the history of resistance, activism, and community-based care amongst sex workers due to barriers to access in both historical and contemporary New Orleans, we hope to galvanize further advocacy to overturn these absurd and discriminatory policies in the Crescent City and the State of Louisiana. This aspect of the project will come forth through on-the-ground, post-hurricane interviews with consenting participants, who will speak to their personal experiences in sex work and how decriminalization would positively affect their lives and communities in both this time of recovery and beyond.
Trea Grace (they/them pronouns) is a birth worker, somatic sex educator, and former sex worker living on unceded territories of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (colonially known as Bend, OR). They are an experienced poet and spoken word artist, and has midwifed people through both death and birth. When not holding space for the healing of others, Trea delights in being outdoors, cooking new cuisine, and occasionally performing queer burlesque.
Avery Bravery Grace (they/them, she/her gender pronouns) is a queer and trans, sex worker poet, writer, and co-parent of three, currently living on the unceded lands of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs–otherwise known as Bend, Oregon, and formerly of New Orleans. Their work is thus far featured in: Non-Binary: An Anthology of Gender and Identity, with Columbia University Press (2019), and All of Me: Stories of Love, Anger, and the Female Body, by PM Press (2019). They recently completed a debut, semi-autobiographical play highlighting trans sex worker experience.
You can find more of their work under the “Offerings” menu tab of averybraverygrace.com, or on Instagram @averybraverygrace. When not writing, Avery delights in ecstatic Sufi music known as Qawwali, dancing until their bones hurt as a form of divine and erotic expression, and playing the tablas and baritone ukulele.