I’m one voice from sex workers who were upset and surprised to see a red umbrella with the words “FLASH MOB” written under it, standing for the symbol of Atlanta’s V-Day Flash Mob: One Billion Rising to End Violence Against Women and Girls (http://www.onebillionrisingatlanta.net/). I am / we are frustrated not because we don’t want to be part of a movement that puts an end to violence for women and girls.
I am frustrated because it felt like the symbol had been benignly re-appropriated by a feminist movement (albeit a diverse, multi-dimensional and contradictory one) whose voices don’t all and always have our back, or ask us for our opinions in the matter. One person in our community was so confused by the use of the red umbrella that she thought it might be sinister—a deliberate act of appropriating our symbol in an attempt to take away our power.
I don’t personally agree that this is a conscious effort to take away the power of our movement—at least I hope it isn’t—I think this is, rather, just a case of meme and ignorance. In fact, it may be more depressing to say that I have a feeling a lot of young activists just don’t realize the history of the red umbrella, don’t realize that sex workers, too, are activists, feminists, and are fighting for visibility. Moreover, that sex workers’ symbol for solidarity has been the red umbrella since 2001 ( http://www.sexworkeurope.org/campaigns/red-umbrella-campaigns). Part of the reason that many people may not know the history is because sex work is such a taboo and socially stigmatized. Many sex workers are forced to work illegally and don’t feel safe being publicly out. Many sex workers don’t feel like they can claim or are given visible space within other activist movements, like Occupy, or COP, or even, feminist spaces like V-Day (especially since prostitution is illegal in Georgia).
I happened to notice the irony of the red umbrella for the first time, when I saw it “accidentally” appropriated, reading the coverage of the 2015 Climate Change Talks in Paris. On the last Saturday of COP21, activists protested the outcome of the conference, saying that the agreements hadn’t gone far enough. Protesters carried or created with their bodies a long red ribbon—red to symbolize that Earth is in an emergency situation. Many people wore red raincoats, carried red tulips, carried a red ribbon, held the sides of large red ribbons, or carried a red umbrella. When I first saw a photograph Online, my eyes locked onto this beautiful sea of red umbrellas, and I wondered what wonderful sex worker protest this could be. Then I realized seconds later that these weren’t sex workers at all. After all, this the New York Times—and this was coverage of the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/world/europe/climate-activists-gather-in-paris-to-protest-outcome-of-conference.html). And what does sex work have to do with climate change? Well. I’ll get to that.
At first I looked with mild amusement—some of these people, presumably unbeknownst to themselves, were carrying the signature of sex worker solidarity. At first I thought it was great. But then, I wasn’t so sure. It dawned on me that, maybe, not all of the people there cared about the rights of sex workers or believed in sex work as a legitimate and positive form of work. Maybe some wouldn’t be carrying a red umbrella if they knew it was a symbol of rights for sex workers, and that possibly some of the people there were working to support programs that actually hurt or disrespect sex workers in the long run. If they were all aware of the symbol and carrying it proudly, I would be happy. But given how divided the feminist community is over this topic, let alone the community at large, I had my doubts.
I believe that I know how this all got started. At the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014 (which I had the luck of being able to attend) protesters were carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from pepperspray and tear gas (http://mashable.com/2014/09/29/umbrella-revolution-protests-spread/#BQ2.fpciKZqs). It was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, and since that time, the umbrella has taken on a larger revolutionary significance. So when, at Paris, everyone had to join the sea of red, a red umbrella was perfect. And for a V-Day Flash mob—why not? An activist symbol paired with the Valentines Color and the Vulva / Vagina Color – perfect. I get it—umbrellas weren’t invented yesterday and no one owns the color red.
Still, I couldn’t help start to think about how sex workers are so often hidden from large movements like these. As a contingent, they usually aren’t invited to the table to speak. As a unit, they usually aren’t represented because it can be so dangerous for us to do so (personally and politically). Sex workers rights, too, are shielded from relevance. Its not that concerns about the bodies of women “in general” (if one could generalize), or the bodies of sex workers aren’t represented at protests like these—in critiques of neoliberalism or migration or war or global corporate takeover or free trade or any of those issues. It’s that normally sex work is looked at as the unfortunate byproduct of all those icky things, and sex work is often viewed as a choice no powerful person would make. Sex workers are read as victims—often, its assumed, of trafficking—to be saved. Their voices are often not invited to be heard. Their real needs are lost. And their real strengths are forgotten.
But then, the rights of women (any gendered person in fact) and the rights of bodies to chose labor and the rights of bodies to chose environments that are free of toxins, these things are all closely connected. And those bodies who have to make those choices actually have a lot to say. I just wish that someone at COP21 amidst the activists had said something, anything, about the rights of sex workers and the importance of having sex workers at the table. I wish that sex workers voices had been loud enough to say, I DO hope you know what that red umbrella stands for. And I wish that programs in the so-called interest of woman and girls really took better care to involved a diverse community of voices of women and girls, to decide for themselves what’s best for them.
Take for example the Rights not Rescue movement in Cambodia, where in the last several years, in the name of anti-trafficking, police have been arresting sex workers and forcing them into other, “more respectful” labor—any labor—because presumably its better “for them”. The reality of this has been that many sex workers have been forced into factory work, often at the hands of police who brutally arrest them while not hesitating to berate and insult them because of their labor.
“Sweatshop conditions” or not, factory work might not be the choice that many people would make when they could be working as independent sex workers (especially if their work weren’t stigmatized and they had safe and secure places to get health care and support). But even without those things – many people would still rather choose to be sex workers than work in a factory. We know this because so many factory workers have risen up in Cambodia in the past years to protest the abhorrent salaries and labor conditions—many of whom were former sex workers—and many continue to dodge the law to continue to work as sex workers, some of whom are represented in this fantastic documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZYMRHlzb9o).
There are really specific and important links between the global economy, mass-production, the bodies of people doing the labor, and the idea of choice when faced with different kinds of poverties. But the fact remains that the best way to discern whats best for a person is to talk to them directly and to understand who they are and what specific challenges they face. This is why its so important to invite people at all parts of the global economy to participate and be heard at COP, OCCUPY, and V-Days around the world. How to end violence against women and girls? Lets talk to women and girls who have been sex workers and understand what violence means for them.
But lets take this one step further. I would like to move beyond speaking defensively about sex work and start speaking affirmatively about sex work.
A sex worker who is empowered in their employment has a wonderful set of skills. They can speak through the energy of the body to other bodies to unlock places of discomfort, to bring pleasure to areas of the body that feel numb. These are all skills that are valued by physical therapists, counselors, body healers, masseurs, and doctors. Sex workers do the same. Some think that a sex worker comes into a room, gets pounded, and leaves. Maybe there is dinner ahead of time. But the reality is that sex workers see a variety of clients, bodies, people with different blocks, hangups, insecurities, have difference desires. Some are differently-abled, queer, or want to explore desires that fall outside of the heteronormative or otherwise restricting sexualities they are able to engage in within the confines of their relationships.
Sex workers know how to hold a stranger in their arms and sometimes, those clients want to be comforted and talked to softly. Sometimes they want their power to be renegotiated and played with. Skilled and supported sex workers are able to work with their clients to figure out how to help them feel good in their bodies. With a supportive work environment (and even despite it), sex workers learn to communicate across the borders of class and race and gender and all sorts of other differences—this work is almost always about bridging difference. I wouldn’t argue that every exchange is spiritual or “deep”–it’s true that, like in any capitalist exchange, sometimes a customer just wants a pack of cigs. But the potential for profound exchange is there, and its up to the bodies involved and the comfort they are afforded.
But lets take it even one step further. Sex workers have valuable knowledge about working with, touching, bringing pleasure to, differently bodied persons. Strangers. When we consider the vast amount of work we need to do—whether in the area of migration and integration, in the area of demilitarization, in the area of caring enough about the global community in order to think more sustainably about our local communities–their skills are invaluable. The connections that sex workers, and many other people who work closely one-on-one with other bodies—these are the kinds of personal-global connections we need to be making with each other in other to understand why questioning our own privilege is worth sacrificing for the future of the body of the world.
So please, lets remember the skills and voices of sex workers. Let’s remember what the red umbrella stands for and hold it proudly.