In Their Own Words, Sex Workers Shatter the Stereotypes About Their Profession
In the green room of Joe's Pub, a group of friends prepare to go onstage. Ceyenne Doroshow, a trans woman of color, activist and author of the cookbook Cooking in Heels, takes the stage to share a tale of the time she spent in prison, sharing her recipes with other inmates. As she puts it, she may suck dick for a living, but that's only one part of who she is.
Doroshow is one of seven LGBTQ New Yorkers with stories from various areas of the sex trade in The Red Umbrella Diaries, a documentary about people from various areas of the sex trade who participated in an ongoing storytelling series at Joe's Pub. The stories are raw and emotional, touching on themes ranging from coming out to parents to cheap clients with incest fantasies.
Is sex work empowering or exploitative? The film is produced by Audacia Ray, a sex worker advocate and founder of the Red Umbrella Project who also stars in the film. A founder of the now-defunct sex worker publication $pread magazine, Ray went public with her sex work experience a decade ago. It's a decision that caused her a great deal of personal turmoil, but recognized she was coming from a certain position of privilege.
"For me as a white cis lady from a middle class background with a master's degree, I can run my mouth," she told Mic. "I have lost a lot by being out and being outed, but it's also a risk [I can take] because I have a lot of privilege. We need broader representation of sex workers."
The film sought to provide that representation by giving sex workers a stage to share their stories, as well as debunk stereotypes and myths about the work they do. For instance, there's a stereotype that all sex workers are poor, uneducated, drug-addicted sex fiends that are victims of vicious pimps. As Ray explained to Mic, the reality of sex work is not nearly as black and white as that.
"When people ask 'Are sex workers empowered or exploited?' My answer is 'yes,' [to both]," she said.
Part of Red Umbrella Diaries' mission is to shed light on this stereotype and many others, such as the idea that all sex workers are inherently interested in sex. Former sex worker and current law student Anna Saini, one of documentary's seven stars, said this myth has infiltrated every aspect of her dating life.
"I personally come up against this a lot, as a single person who dates men: the idea that if you are a sex worker or you engage in sex work, you like having sex — a lot," Saini told Mic. "That can be true for me at times, and it can be true for [others], but I actually find, if I had to generalize, that I would absolutely say the opposite. Sex workers, by nature of their work, become very intentional about when and under what circumstances we have sex. So a lot of sex workers actually err towards the other side [by having sex less frequently]."
Saini added that one of the most offensive stereotypes she encounters is that sex work is not a legitimate form of labor.
"When I was working as a sex worker, I did everything to own my own business. So everything that you do as a business owner I was doing, I was taking care of advertising, client relations, budgeting, bookings, all of that stuff," said Saini.
Tigger Taylor (link NSFW), a trans male sex worker who is not featured in the film, agreed. "I have a customer service background, and that's a huge part of it," he told Mic. "Closing the sale, I have to use strategies to get my clients to commit sometimes. You're selling a product; I'm selling myself. I'm selling my body and I love that."
"You're selling a product; I'm selling myself. I'm selling my body and I love that."
The film also aimed to expose the stereotype that anyone who opts to do sex work does so because they have no other choice, or because they're poor and uneducated. As the cast of Red Umbrella Diaries proves, that is simply not the case. Ray, for instance, has a bachelor's degree in cultural studies from the Eugene Lang College at The New School, as well as a master's degree from Columbia University.
But Ray said that even though she knows many well-educated sex workers, it's important to recognize that not all sex workers have had access to education. "Some of the unintended consequences of the work I've done is that there is this larger and larger group of college-educated sex workers who speak about their experience to the exclusion of others who don't have that experience. And that's a problem," said Ray.
The stars of the film also wanted to note that sex work isn't always a positive experience. "It can be a really shitty job. It takes an emotional and physical toll on you," said Saini. "A lot of people get driven into sex work because we're low income, because we're people of color, because we're queer, and there's just not as many job opportunities for us. So it's a very complicated relationship a lot of us have with sex work."
"It's a very complicated relationship a lot of us have with sex work."
There's also a common misconception that all sex workers are victims of sex trafficking and not doing the work of their own volition. But while sex trafficking is indeed an issue, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime speculating that nearly 140,000 people are trafficked in the European sex trade at any given time, sex trafficking should not be (though it often is) conflated with consensual sex work.
Nowhere was the conflation between the two more evident than during the Q&A portion of the film's New York City premiere, when an audience member asked Ray why victims of sex trafficking were not featured in the film.
According to Ray, not including narratives of sex workers who were victims of violence was a conscious creative decision.
"Early in the process of making this film we did talk about, 'Do we need to have a story about experiences of violence?'" Ray said. "[But] if we had a story like that it would mean that every time the film gets shown whoever told that story would have to revisit that and have a conversation about it, and that is very traumatic. Part of us being able to reclaim our voices and what happens to us means we can say no to telling the tragedy stories."
Discussing the absence of sex trafficking narratives in the film allowed Ray to bust another myth society often has about sex workers and violence: that it's usually committed by pimps or johns.
"People have this perception that the violence sex workers experience is from clients," Ray told Mic. "And actually, most violence that sex workers experience comes from police, health care workers, and their intimate partners. So the definition of what violence is needs to be expanded and talked about." In fact, a 2002 study conducted in Chicago found that "30% of exotic dancers and 24 % of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist."
While Ray said that violence was indeed part of some cast members' backgrounds, she didn't want the vulnerability of sex workers to be the takeaway of the film. Instead, she wanted the audience to leave with a broader and more cohesive understanding of what it means to be a sex worker, as well as the knowledge that no single narrative is representative of the sex worker experience.
"We bring together people that are so different in terms of class background. There are just so many different pathways to becoming involved in the sex industry," said Saini.