Welcome to Louisiana, where women who are old enough to vote and join the military have just been declared children under the state law, at least when it comes to sex and certain forms of employment.
Why? Ostensibly, it has to do with sex trafficking. Under the new law, "sex trafficking victims" ages 18-20 cannot be convicted of prostitution. Sounds reasonable, right? But Louisiana law already declares that sex-trafficking victims—of any age—are to be excluded from prostitution charges ("No victim of trafficking … shall be prosecuted for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked"). What the new law actually does is declare all 18- to 20-year-old sex workers as de facto trafficking victims, even if they're workin 100 percent willingly and independenty. No matter if there's no "trafficker" exerting force or coercion, Louisiana law considers them victims, rather than perpetrators, of a crime.
So Louisiana just effectively decriminalized prostitution for 18-to-20 year olds? That's the positive spin we can put on it.
Conversely, however, the state has made anyone who works with or helps young-adult sex workers—a friend who gives them a ride, escort agency owners, other sex workers, and their clients—into folks guilty of the crime of human trafficking. And not knowing the age of the "victim" is no defense.
Those convicted must register as sex offenders and spend a minimum of 15 years in prison. The law, which takes effect August 1, allows for a maximum sentence of up to 50 years. So a 20-year-old woman working in the sex trade independently—posting her own ads online, running her own website, arranging appointments with clients, keeping any money she makes—cannot be charged with prostitution, but anyone who books an appointment with her could face a lifetime on the sex-offender registery and a mandatory minimum prison sentence of over a decade.
The age of consent in Louisiana, by the way, is 17-years-old. Fourteen, 15, and 16-year-olds can legally consent to sex with someone up to age 17. But if a 17-year-old attempts to pay an 19-year-old for sex, they could spend 50 years behind bars.
The whole thing is obviously a disaster from a practical, criminal justice perspective. It's philisophical roots are also troubling. Here's how Louisiana's human trafficking law now reads (emphasis mine):
A. It shall be unlawful:
(1)(a) For anyperson to knowingly recruit, harbor, transport, provide, solicit, receive, isolate, entice, obtain, or maintain the use of another person through fraud, force, or coercion to provide services or labor
(b) For any person to knowingly recruit, harbor, transport, provide, solicit, sell, purchase, receive, isolate, entice, obtain, or maintain the use of a person under the age of twenty-one years for the purpose of engaging in commercial sexual activity regardless of whether the person was recruited, harbored, transported, provided, solicited, sold, purchased, received, isolated, enticed, obtained, or maintained through fraud, force, or coercion. It shall not be a defense to prosecution for a violation of the provisions of this Subparagraph that the person did not know the age of the victim or that the victim consented to the prohibited activity.
The state has rendered consent—the thing on which all modern rape and sexual-violence policies are supposed to turn—into an utterly meaningless concept. Consent is supposedly so crucial that we're supposed to obtain enthusiastic, ongoing, affirmative consent throughout any sexual encounter if we don't want to be rapists. But also, according to Louisiana legislators, consent is irrelevent. You could obtain someone's sexual consent and give them hundreds of dollars, or you could knock them unconscious, chain them to a bed, and make money charging people to rape them, and the state of Louisiana says you are guilty of the same crime.
The law not only declares young people's agency inauthentic and their consent null, it takes mens rea—the idea that a guilty mind must accompany a guilty act, and one of the foundational concepts in our legal system—and also declares it utterly meaningless. It doesn't matter if you have gotten explicit consent. It doesn't matter if the person you're paying is an adult woman. The state has decided that you are a human trafficker, and that's that.
In addition, a related new law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from working at a strip club. Again, the excuse lawmakers have provided has to do with sex trafficking. To make sure that no one under 18 is working at a strip club and then gets sex trafficked, officials reasoned that we must also prevent anyone who looks like they could be under 18, and the best way to do that is to raise the minimum age for strippers to 21 years old. Supporters also added that 18-year-old women are not mature enough to make their own employment decisions.