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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.

The Racism of Decriminalization

“Place of Power.” (Painting by author from her finite gestures series)

Since I began writing this piece, both Scarlet Alliance and SWOP NSW have issued an apology to migrant sex workers for their part in the SEXHUM research. This is an unprecedented move in the right direction for peer organizations. I hope that there will be more attempts in the future to empower migrants and POC, including Aboriginal sex workers, toward self-advocacy. I also hope that in the future, such a statement and its denunciation of non-peer-led research will be initiated by organizations without the need for heavy internal and external pressure from migrant sex workers first. Indeed, I hope that no statements like this are necessary in the future because this complicity with typically unethical outsider-led research will cease to occur in the first place.

As sex worker activists we love pointing fingers at the anti-trafficking industry, whorephobic art and media, and researchers with save-the-whore complexes. Yet, the sex worker activist movement itself is similarly stigmatizing towards migrant POC sex workers. Our movement has promoted the New Zealand decriminalization model for decades without being critical of New Zealand’s criminalization of migrant workers. The global sex workers’ rights movement heralds decriminalization at all costs, while often overlooking the racism involved in its partial implementation. The argument is that decriminalization of sex work will end stigma and benefit all workers equally. However, POC migrant sex workers (PMSW) still experience stigma, raids, and racism within the purported decriminalized sex worker heavens of New South Wales, Australia and New Zealand.

How To Start A Post-SESTA Emergency Organizing Group

Maxine Holloway and Arabelle Raphael, co-founders of BAPS (photo by Light Theif, via BAPS)

This post was jointly written by Maxine Holloway and Arabelle Raphael, co-founders of BAPS.

On the morning after the Senate passed FOSTA we texted each other about whether we should remove our ads from our social media accounts. We weren’t exactly sure what to do and knew that many other people were in the same situation. FOSTA had not yet been signed into law, and sex workers all over the country already had difficult decisions about our livelihoods and safety to make. Mercurial legal and cyber information and advice were flying around Twitter, online forums, text threads, and worker Facebook groups like wildfire.

We decided to host an emergency meeting for Bay Area sex workers that very weekend. We hoped we would gather a few people in Maxine’s small Oakland living room to share information, and figure out the best ways to move forward. Our small meeting quickly turned into 60-plus concerned workers RSVPing for the gathering. Because of the gravity of this situation the event promptly developed into a comprehensive cybersecurity and risk analysis training; an overview of current advertising platform options; and strategic action planning around local sex worker safety, media advocacy, and policy work.

But the most crucial thing that came from our meeting that we were able to come together to support each other. We didn’t all know each other, but so many of us were able to share and somewhat sooth the fear, sadness, and anxiety that FOSTA created. This worker-to-worker support and solidarity didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

After our first meeting, we knew we realized how much work there was to be done to keep our communities safer, connected, informed, and empowered. We decided to create an organization to centralize the work needed to advocate for the health, safety & livelihoods of sex workers post-FOSTA/SESTA legislation: Bay Area Pros Support (BAPS).

An integral part of BAPS is to recognize the diverse and intersecting identities that make up our larger sex worker communities and to center the needs of sex workers who have been hit the hardest by FOSTA and experience the most criminalization. It is important to our organization leverage the power and privilege in our communities to create support for workers with fewer resources. One of the most critical subcommittees we have is our Outreach Committee, created to reach workers that are not online, and work with them to connect them with support.

The purpose of this article is to share the information and resources that BAPS has gathered thus far—on cybersecurity, general FOSTA/SESTA information, and post-FOSTA-SESTA organizing. Below are detailed notes and action plans for our meetings. One of the biggest lessons we have learned is that having community support through this process has been crucial. We hope that the creation of BAPS will encourage other sex workers who wish to organize in their communities as well.

When reading this guide, please keep in mind that everyone is making decisions that are incredibly hard, and only you can know what’s right for you. We tried to gather as much information to share as possible to empower people to make the best decisions for themselves. There is no one or “right” way to navigate this complicated situation.

Four Easy Tips For Doing Street Outreach


After the 2016 election I thought I would die if I didn’t do something now, immediately, something tangible where I walked away knowing that both I and the other person were better off after interacting: them with something concrete—whether it was a sandwich or hot coffee or condoms or whatever—and me feeling like I had made something better for someone. I needed that to keep on going.

If you’re at that point now, street outreach can be that something. Something solid to focus your energy on, and a tangible human interaction to keep you going. Something that requires planning and focus but something that your whole life doesn’t depend on, unlike making rent, which is a nice change of pace!

How do you start doing street outreach? Good question! Luckily I am here and you can benefit from all the mistakes I made.

International Whores’ Day (And Lobby Day!) Link Roundup

International Whores’ Day at the Eastern Market Metro Station in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Francis Chung via Twitter)

What a week it’s been for sex worker organizing! The first sex worker Lobby Day on June 1st was followed by nationwide sex worker action on International Whores’ Day on June 2nd. Post-SESTA, this annual day of organizing picked up more momentum than ever. Here’s our attempt at curating the coverage of this week’s news for you:

The crown has honored New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective founder Catherine Healy with the title of Dame. Whether you’re excited about this or think it’s more of the colonialist same, it’s certainly news to note.

Community organizer and cam and porn worker Anna Moone wrote for Vice’s Motherboard on sex worker Lobby Day in D.C. this Saturday. Organized by SWOP and Survivors Against SESTA, 40 sex workers found a surprisingly welcome reception in Capitol Hill from both staffers for reps who voted for SESTA and for those who voted against it:

I expected these meetings to be an uphill battle of fighting for our humanity, but we all left the meeting feeling surprisingly hopefully about our prospects for the day.

Even more surprisingly, the other two representatives whose staffers we met—Mark Takano (D-CA) and Don Beyer (D-VA)—both voted against SESTA. Instead of having to explain why SESTA is a harmful bill, we were able to spend our meetings strategizing on how to work together better moving forward. In addition to feeling that the law would hurt sex workers, both Takano and Beyer felt that this bill would make it harder to stop sex traffickers, and they both also had concerns that SESTA might expand mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They also gave us advice on what other staffers and representatives would make good allies for us to reach out to and build relationships with. Finally, they told us how important it was that we came to speak with them, because sex workers contacting our representatives about how bills will harm us gives them the information they need to use to justify opposing bills. ”

In Washington, Buzzfeed followed a sex worker named Jackie while she lobbied Congress.

“I need to earn a living, but I also have to be safe. So I have to make a really hard choice about what to do, whether I’m going to invite this person into my home. … I’m crippled by fear and anxiety. I was homeless when I was younger, and I just never want to go back there,” Jackie said.

Gizmodo’s staff talked to organizers in Manhattan, including Red from Support Ho(s)e and MF Akynos from the Black Sex Workers Collective.

Red says that sex workers’ anger highlighted and validated in the media “allows us to be fully formed human beings in the news.”

“And we deserve that,” Red continues, “because we are fully formed human beings that are just working and surviving and supporting ourselves and our families and our friends as best we can.”

The Daily Beast also covered the New York event, noting the diverse set of speakers that addressed the crowd, including trans sex worker leader Ceyenne Doroshow:

Ceyenne Doroshow, the Founder and Director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) shared, “I’ve buried so many children. I’ve seen so many girls get murdered…losing my sisters, losing my brothers. This is sick.”

Melissa Gira Grant wrote about the NYC rally at The Appeal, noting that a vital sex worker organizer was incarcerated that day:

As the rally occupied the space surrounding Washington Square Park’s arch, protestors learned that across the river in Brooklyn, one New York woman working to change anti-sex work laws sat in jail. Tiffaney Grissom said that the previous night she was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, and at about 4 a.m. she was arrested and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Grissom, who is Black and trans, is also a plaintiff on a class action suit challenging this law, charging it is unconstitutional and that the New York Police Department enforce it disproportionately against Black and Latinx women.

Sixteen hours later, Grissom was still waiting for her court appearance. When I met her in 2016, she told me she had engaged in sex work sometimes, but most of the time that she was charged with loitering she was just hanging out. “It’s a way to arrest a lot of people for nothing,” said Cynthia H. Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, who is involved in bringing the class action suit against the loitering law and who Grissom called after her Saturday arrest.  “It seemed like an easy arrest,” Grissom told The Appeal just outside the Brooklyn court where she was released just before 9 p.m. on Saturday. “I don’t need to have to prove myself as to why I’m outside, or defend myself for being outside.”

UPDATE: Emily Witt at the New Yorker published an in-depth longread on NYC IWD events and their leadup, starting from The Black Sex Workers Collective’s fundraiser a few days before, moving to Lobby Day, and then to the day itself. Akynos, Mariah Lopez from STARR (Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform), Red Schulte, Ceyenne Doroshow, Yin Q, Lorelei Lee, and other speakers and organizers are quoted at length. There’s a bit too much scandalized attention on what people were wearing, but Witt does goes into more detail on Tiffaney Grissom’s arrest and release, including the fact that another woman was also released from incarceration for a solicitation arrest that evening:

The arraignment took less than five minutes; Kings County refers low-level misdemeanor cases to a special court. The judge offered the defendants two possible dates, June 20th and June 27th—“Before Pride or after Pride,”[Mariah] Lopez said under her breath. (The New York City Gay Pride March and its attendant celebrations are June 24th.) Both defendants chose June 27th.

Their court dates set, and released from their handcuffs, Lopez led the two women out into the lobby. Lopez hugged Tatiana Hall, who was tearing up. “I was so scared,” she said. It was her first time getting arrested. We went outside and they told their stories. They had both been in Bushwick—“very up-and-coming and trendy,” Grissom said. The police arrested Grissom first, around 4 a.m., Hall later. Both said they were simply outside on the street. Hall had been talking to a man—a gay man, she added. Grissom said she was alone. “I’m not waving, I’m not being extra, I’m not throwing myself into cars, I’m not doing anything abstract, I’m just walking by looking pretty,” she said. “So it’s easy to recognize me, but when you see somebody and they’re not giving you a reason to arrest them, you have to try and figure out ways to get them.” Police officers are allowed to use their own discretion to determine a person’s intention to prostitute, criteria that might include the clothes a person is wearing. As Shekera had lamented, “You never had any rights. The Internet just made you have that false hope and you got comfortable and now the rug has been pulled out from underneath you.”