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The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft

Sonya, a representative from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, holds a memorial sign for Yang Song, a migrant parlor worker driven to jump out a window during a brutal police raid in 2017, after being pressured by the cops to serve as an informant. (Photo by Emma Whitford)

As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!

The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.

The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.

“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.

(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.

The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.

It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.

It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.

Unequal Desires by Siobhan Brooks (2010)

Unequal Desires is a long overdue work that (finally!) focuses on race as central in the lives of strippers. While some of the literature on stripping focuses on race as a footnote or tangent, for Brooks, race is the central concern. Everything from everyday micro-level issues (hiring decisions, shift availability, and stage sets) to the very large-scale (zoning laws, likelihood of arrest) are explored in this book, with the conclusion that stripping is deeply racialized. Brooks uses interviews with dancers and customers as well as her own observations to confirm what she began to suspect during her time at the Lusty Lady: The strip club is another site where the black female body’s inferior position is reinforced. Through everyday actions, customers, management, and strippers all participate in its systematic devaluation.

The strip club presents the black woman’s body in strangely contradictory terms. On the one hand she is thought of as readily available, sexually. Customers may prefer a “black” club or an individual black dancer because they assume they can get more sexual contact than with a non-black dancer. On the other hand, the black female body is systematically made invisibilize or rendered unattractive. Brooks analyzes the pictures on strip club websites as evidence of this invisibility.

Brooks does attend to the clubs that may be considered “black” clubs. She considers the various, complicated motivations that black dancers have for wanting, or perhaps being forced, to work at these clubs, and simultaneously considers the social capital a “high end” (implicitly, not black) club carries as well. For many of the black dancers, hiring practices prevent them from getting in the door at clubs where they are in the minority. If they make it through the hiring process, discriminatory practices prevent them from staying.

Prostitution Laws: Protecting Canada’s Crackers Since 1867

(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)
(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)

The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.

On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:

  • the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
  • the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
  • the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1

Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that  “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people.” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed.

Quote of the Week

We’re engaging in sex work, as a form of economic survival, but also as a form of validation. We have got to address this. We have got to talk about what it’s like getting up in the morning, catching the train or bus to school or work and that ride is tense because you’re the subject of giggles and whispers. […]

Or if you are passable, how you’re still not well received in your community. But then you have a sexual experience with Rahim from next door. He’s telling you you’re good enough and he’ll also pay. Suddenly you’re a commodity. You’re wanted.

Danielle King at Colorlines on being young, black, and trans in Washington DC.

Leave Cardi Alone

Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.

Full disclosure: I don’t actually care about Cardi B. Nothing that she does or creates is essential to my life and her behavior consistently irritates me. Yes, I’ve bopped along to Bickenhead (a certifiable summertime bop) and her verse on G-Eazy’s No Limit speaks to my shriveled hooker heart, but beyond the music, I don’t care about Cardi B. I didn’t watch her on Love and Hip-Hop (because I don’t acknowledge Mona Scott, unless it’s L&HH: Miami), I didn’t listen to her mixtapes, and I wasn’t actually aware of her existence until Bodak Yellow’s release became a massive cultural event. Since then, I’ve made note of particularly compelling moments in her career as they appear on twitter: past colorist and racist comments, blatant transphobia, defence of her then boyfriend Offset’s homophobia, mockery of a mother with a dead child, constant feuding with Nicki Minaj, etc. Now, I’ve written before about the prevalence of bigotry in the hood and how being “ghetto” is not an excuse for ignorance, so it would be disingenuous of me to defend her past behavior. I won’t do it. So, when I say “leave Cardi B alone”, it’s not about that. It’s about how local jagoffs on the internet took the issue of a sex worker operating on the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable to survive and turned it into a crusade against her which likened her to R.Kelly and Bill Cosby.

On Sunday, March 24, 2019, an old video of the rapper surfaced on twitter, where all discourse goes to die. In the video, Cardi can be heard responding to accusations that she doesn’t deserve her fame or success because she didn’t “work for it.” It’s a filthy lie that sex workers don’t work as hard as or harder than anyone else, and yet that lie lives on because of misogyny, whorephobia, and general stupidity. We don’t get days off. “Down time” is spent in the gym, coding websites, designing ads, engaging in advocacy, and freestyling. We function as surrogate spouses, therapists, and friends. We have to work on our bad days, our bloated days, and our heavy flow days. All we do is work, so kill that lie.

In the video, Cardi starts by saying, “Ni**as must have forgotten the shit that I did to motherfucking survive.” Now, Cardi has a thick accent, clearly influenced by her New York and Latinx roots, so some of the words are difficult to identify with 100% certainty. But it sounds like—and this is the story the internet has decided to run with—she goes on to say that men would approach her at work, ask her to (most likely) break club rules and have sex with them, and go home with her where she would drug them and then rob them. “Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.”

I firmly believe that robbing men is just taking reparations for the unending misogynistic and patriarchal bullshit we’re subjected to on a regular basis. I also believe that sex workers should be compensated for their time at all times if you’re asking them to provide labor of any kind. So I don’t care about her lightening the pockets of these men. If we’re being pedantic and dumb, we can acknowledge that drugging and robbing men, either as separate acts or in concert, is illegal. It’s “objectively” wrong. But I still don’t care. To quote MsGizelleMarie, “There’s no rules to survival sex work.” Encouraging clients to drink a little bit more or do another line, taking an extra $20 for cab fare when a john is in the bathroom, calling the police when a client gets too aggressive—we all do what we have to do to stay safe, pay rent, feed our kids, buy our meds, and take care of our parents. Cardi B became a stripper after the loss of her civilian job forced her to live with an abusive ex and drop out of college. That is survival sex work.

When your literal life is on the line, the boundaries between the available options and the acceptable options start to blur. If you have never had to choose between food and paying a bill, this is not the place for you to clutch your pearls. This conversation is not the place for you to make yourself heard at the expense of poor, survival sex workers. If you can leave sex work today and find employment tomorrow without having to explain the gaps in your CV because of your education or connections, this is not the time for you to talk about your anecdotal experiences. You don’t have the range or the right to derail this discussion. If you can call the police when a client gets out of line without worrying about being railroaded by ICE, I don’t care about your opinion. I don’t want to know what you women who can openly talk about your sex work careers without losing jobs, respect, or your lives would do in Cardi’s place. Because you have never been in Cardi’s place.