Activist Spotlight: Audacia Ray, on Telling Stories and the Tricky Politics of Inclusion

by Caty Simon on March 20, 2013 · 2 comments

in Activism, Interviews

Audacia Ray, photo courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

Audacia Ray, photo courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

Audacia Ray is perhaps most renowned in the sex workers’ rights movement for her longtime editing of the now sadly defunct $pread magazine. But as a sex workers’ rights movement activist, Audacia has really been everywhere and done everything: blogging for years about her sex working experience as Waking Vixen; publishing her book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration; and working as an adjunct professor of Human Sexuality at Rutgers University as well as for the communications consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Amazingly enough, in 2010 she had time to found the Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led, community-based organization that “amplifies the voices of people who have done transactional sex, through media, storytelling, and advocacy programs.” RedUP is now where her creative, media, and advocacy energies lie. Tits and Sass asked her some questions about this project.

In the introduction to the Red Umbrella Project’s writing workshop’s literary journal, Pros(e), Melissa Petro theorizes that sex workers teaching each other the art of storytelling can increase agency because by writing our stories, we can better understand our choices. This kind of storytelling will also hopefully decrease stigma by increasing understanding (rather than bolstering whorephobia like the memoir pieces full of disdain for co-workers, like so many of the sex worker bios out there.)  How do you think telling our stories helps sex workers?

One of the Red Umbrella Project mantras is that we believe storytelling is the building block of social change. I think we need to be able to tell our stories and insist on making space for them in the world if we are ever going to make change for ourselves in the world. Our creative programs, especially the Red Umbrella Diaries events, are really the entry point for many people into the RedUP programs. It’s an easy thing to wander into, be curious about, and then hopefully we get sex workers into some of our programs, building their skills and community, while also getting potential allies to care and think more deeply about the many experiences in the sex trades. I think its important for creative expression to be individualized because there are just so many different kinds of experiences that people have doing sex work. It is also important to constantly look at the bigger picture – which sex workers’ stories are being represented and which are not? What experiences are being documented that indicate areas in which our rights are being denied and violated? And to me, the creative work cannot be an end point or a stand alone thing, it has to be linked to greater social change. I want to validate art for arts’ sake, but we’ve got a revolution to do here, and it’s important to link personal storytelling to cultural and policy change. That said, not everyone is an activist, and when sex workers show up at the Diaries or participate in one of our creative programs and feel awesome – that is enough.

How do you feel your years editing $pread magazine influences your work on the Red Umbrella Project?

Pretty much directly. RedUP is, for me, the evolution of my work with $pread. When I was working on $pread, we just had so many requests for other kinds of support that went way beyond the scope of the magazine – media training, writing workshops, advocacy training and support. I actually did my first media/writing training (“Journalism for Sex Workers”), along with my co-editor Eliyanna, at the Desiree Alliance conference in 2006. We $preadsters also tried to start a nonprofit offshoot of the mag that would do trainings and other programs, and that got folded into/became Red Umbrella Project in 2010. So, yes, RedUP was officially founded in 2010, but I feel like I’ve been doing the work that is now called Red Umbrella Project for the better part of ten years.

You’ve developed a Speak Up Media Training Intensive workshop and journalism guide for sex workers dealing the media. What do you think are the most important things a sex worker should remember when being interviewed by the mainstream media? On the site, you write that you developed the workshop after you and fellow $pread editor Eliyanna Kaiser  “found [y]ourselves answering lots of calls from journalists and constantly saying the wrong things.” Can you give us an example of these “wrong things”?

When I first started doing media as an out sex worker, I just got baited a lot into talking about what the reporter wanted to talk about and did a bad job getting my agenda across. I would literally answer their questions and at the end feel disappointed that they didn’t ask the questions I wanted to answer (hint: they never do, which is why you need to have prepared talking points and talk about what you want to talk about). I also didn’t take it seriously, and in one of my first interviews, when asked “What would you like to say to feminists?” I answered, “Bring it on, bitches!” Which actually is still funny. But I could’ve said something, uh, more advocacy oriented. What I know now is that a conversation with a reporter is not a conversation, it’s an interview. That interaction has very particular rules and you are there only to get your message across (or at least try), you are not there to make friends or please the reporter.  RedUP is actually set to release our 35-page media tools and tactics guide on March 26 – its free and provides people with info about how to deal with media in a strategic way.

How did you come to work with Ceyenne Doroshow on her memoir cookbook, Cooking In Heels? Can you tell us about the process of working with her and funding the book?

I was introduced to Ceyenne by her lawyers at the Sex Workers Project. She had been through the ringer: she got arrested for prostitution as part of an ongoing sting, and then her local newspaper splashed her face and address all over their pages, and she ended up serving time in prison, which is unusual for a first-time offense. She had told her lawyers that she really wanted to get her life together and had been thinking about doing a cookbook – they introduced us and we’ve been working together for about two years now. The first time we met she showed up with a pile of recipes that were handwritten on scraps of paper – in prison she had started writing down recipes as a means of self-care. Working through all the recipes was a lengthy process, and we also did several oral history style interviews that became the introduction to the book. Instead of going the traditional publication route, we decided to raise the money ourselves and publish it through RedUP. Though I always knew Ceyenne’s project would get attention, I had no idea how much the Kickstarter community would love her – we raised the funds for the book in four days, and ended up raising almost 160% of our goal. As a result we were able to do a great photo shoot of some of the dishes and produce the whole thing in color. Since the book  came out, we’ve been working on some community storytelling projects, and Ceyenne has been co-facilitating an improv storytelling workshop with a trans women’s group at Housing Works.

Courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

Courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

How has RedUP’s Advocacy Training Workshop aided the struggle to pass a NY bill which would prevent condoms being used as evidence against sex workers by the police?

Well, we’re still struggling! Hopefully this year is the year. One of the founders of the RedUP programs works in state government, and she’s been a major force in getting this aspect of RedUP moving forward. We found out about the no condoms as evidence bill  in 2009 after doing a search of existing legislation on “condoms” and “prostitution.” The bill has been introduced since at least 1999 but probably going back further (the online database only goes back that far) but sex workers and allies have only been organizing around it for the last few years. We’re getting some traction on this now – RedUP actually just released a video about our coalition’s 2012 trip to Albany to meet with legislators, and we’re doing another lobby day on April 23, 2013. In the meantime, our coalition is getting meetings with legislators and putting pressure on elected reps to support the bill.

The advocacy training teaches both sex workers and allies what the process is for bills to become law at the city and state levels, plus we talk about how to create talking points, and we do practice role plays of how to do meetings with elected representatives. Most people in our community have never walked into their local elected officials’ office and said, “Hi, I’m a sex worker, I live in your district, I vote, and here are some issues I’m concerned about.” But state and city governments may have the most significant impacts on our daily lives, so it is important to learn how to do this, and get allies interested in fighting this fight alongside us. Just this past week, we launched a campaign with comics that tell stories of the confiscation of condoms and harassment by police and New Yorkers can send postcards of the comics to their reps demanding support of the bill. Hopefully the combination of all those things, plus all the media coverage we’ve been getting, will make it possible to pass the bill this year.

Ten sex workers’ bodies were discovered in Long Island in December, suspected victims of a serial killer. Police asked that anyone involved in the sex industry with information on the case to speak up, but the possibility of prosecution made most too afraid to come forward. The Red Umbrella Project led a campaign calling for amnesty for all prostitution related offenses in Suffolk County until the killer is apprehended. Can you tell us a little more about this and update us on the project?

I launched this campaign out of rage and sadness, but before I put it out into the world I did the research to figure out what the hell to do and how to speak to people in power about the situation. Though the Suffolk County Police Department was asking people to come forward with any information they might have about incidents involving men who could be the Long Island serial killer, they were totally not considering that sex workers might not want to talk to the police. I mean, sure they were saying that they want people to be safe, but between the fact that prostitution is criminalized and the suspicion that the killer himself might be current or former police – not exactly motivation to come forward. So the ask was for the SCPD to offer amnesty to sex workers while the killer remained at large, and the reference to the case in Ipswich was to show that this had been done successfully before. I was really surprised that when I launched the campaign the Police Commissioner and District Attorney’s office actually called me back and talked to me about it. They didn’t really know what to do with the fact that people were calling and emailing them and demanding justice and respect for sex workers. When they got in touch with me, they wanted more examples of precedent for amnesty. The lawyers at the Sex Workers’ Project helped a lot with this, and we came up with examples of amnesty offered to people who were in possession of illegal weapons, and a few others. It took the SCPD a long, long time to give us any kind of answer, but then last summer they said that they would offer amnesty not to all sex workers, but to people who came forward with information about the case. So, not fully what we wanted, but definitely something that shows they at least tried to listen to our concerns. But the killer still remains at large, and there have been very few recent developments in the case.

I’m an injection drug user. I wish that the sex workers’ rights movement and the anti-drug war and harm reduction movement would ally themselves more. Instead, I mostly see the sex workers’ rights movement diligently working to distance itself from drug use, because the stereotype is that sex workers are all desperate drug addicts. While I understand that impulse, it saddens me, and thus I was very heartened by RedUP’s 2010 campaign Sex Work and Harm Reduction, a short public service announcement video and a packet of materials to further dialogue among the sex workers’ rights movement and harm reduction organizations. What led you to begin this campaign, and what were its results?

Every time I teach the RedUP media workshop, when we are practicing talking points, someone always says, “I am a sex worker, but I am just like everyone else – I am not the stereotype of a drug addicted street worker!” The unintended message of that is, “I deserve rights, drug-addicted street workers don’t.” But, stereotype or no, there are sex workers who use drugs, there are sex workers who work on the street, there are sex workers who do lots of other things that many people wouldn’t consider respectable. And there are definitely some weird hang ups about respectability and class in the sex worker rights movement. As a community, we really have to examine our attitudes about these things and call people on it when they stigmatize or discriminate against other folks who do sex work.  Ok, off the soapbox a little. We created the harm reduction video and campaign in the 2010 media training workshop as a collaborative effort, which was a pretty cool thing. And its good content. However, one of the things we didn’t do in the campaign was make a real commitment to figuring out exactly who should see it, who should pitch it to them, what we’d want them to do with the information, and how to follow up. Without these elements of a campaign, a good idea and great content don’t do a whole lot. So, to be honest, I’ll have to say that the main result of the campaign was learning this lesson.

Not only is the RedUP inclusive of drug users, but you take particular care to be trans inclusive, as well. I feel like yours is one of the few orgs that pays more than lip service to building trans women’s leadership in our movement.  (Though, disclaimer here, my opinion as a cis woman doesn’t count for much.) Can you comment on that?

Making space for people to tell their stories and do advocacy about issues they are interested in is at the core of RedUP. Over the last few years, we have been working to center the voices of trans women, mostly by following their lead, listening, and drawing attention to their voices and experiences. This sounds kind of abstract, and it is – because shifting anything, and especially the idea of “building leadership” just takes a really long time. I personally have been trying to make sure I step back when there are other people who should be in the picture, and I think this is especially important because I’m no longer doing sex work myself. I think, also, I learned a lot from working with $pread magazine, which was initially not at all diverse in terms of gender and race or parenting status (though it was in terms of experiences in the industry) and we approached that problem with the declaration that “everyone” was welcome. We thought that all we needed to do to make people feel welcome was to say it, which is so deeply wrong. We also had the idea that we just needed to build a cool thing and then recruit the folks who weren’t being represented, which also is a totally fucked way of thinking. It turns out that actually, if the project doesn’t have diversity, it is very much a problem the producers created and one that speaks to the fact that the project isn’t useful to a broader spectrum of people.

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