Interview with Producer Maniko Barthelemy: The Unlikely Sex Offenders

SCP's Stacie Rumenap sat down with New Orleans writer and film producer, Maniko Barthelemy, who spoke candidly about her latest project on the nearly 350 Louisiana women registered as sex offenders. Barthelemy discovered that these women didn't touch children, and they aren't violent. They've been found guilty of prostitution and are now required to register as sex offenders even though their crime involved two consenting adults.

In her documentary, "The Unlikely Sex Offenders," Barthelemy talks to women who have been convicted of violating Louisiana's 1805 "crime against nature solicitation" law. These women explain how they live with the shame, stigma and isolation that comes with their conviction and required registration as sex offenders. Barthelemy uncovers the history of the law and reports on current efforts to amend it. The film will debut on Thursday, April 28, at 6 p.m. at the Katzen Center at American University. The screening is in conjunction with the American University Center for Social Media and the Obama Administration's 2011 Human Rights Conference. Admission is free.

Ms. Barthelemy spoke further about why she thinks prostitutes and other non-violent sex offenders shouldn't be required to register as sex offenders.

"I thought the story needed to be told," said Ms. Barthelemy, after reading an article in "Louisiana Times" about a prostitute being required to register as a sex offender for life. Including non-violent criminals on the sex offender registry dilutes the usefulness of the registry, she said.

So she wrote letters to 50 women on the sex offender registry, all of whom were convicted of soliciting another adult for oral and/or anal sex, which is considered a "crime against nature" under Louisiana law, requiring those convicted to register. While ten agreed to talk to her, only two ultimately agreed to tell their stories on camera.

"I was just trying to make some money but they treat us like we're a child molester or a rapist," said 54-year-old Christina Shank, one of the women interviewed in the film.

In Louisiana, prostitutes have to register as sex offenders if they are charged more than once with having oral or anal sex, even when the act involves consenting adults. Registration is for at least 15 years and can be for life. Prostitutes caught soliciting other sex acts aren't required to register as a sex offender. Barthelemy is trying to change the penalties by calling attention to the discrepancy.

Some lawmakers agree with Barthelemy's position. Senator J.P. Morrell says state law is uneven because it distinguishes some sex acts between consenting adults as more illegal than others. He introduced a bill that would equalize penalties for prostitution, no longer making the distinction between "crimes against nature" and other sex acts. Under his proposal, prostitution of any kind would be a misdemeanor, and would not require any prostitutes to register as sex offenders.

Not all lawmakers agree, however. Senator A.G. Crowe voted against the measure, having told Barthelemy he supports stronger penalties for prostitution.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's "crimes against nature by solicitation" law. Barthelemy says she plans to watch for the court's decision and is grateful to the two women who shared their experiences in hopes that other women can avoid the same stigma.

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