New Documentary Aims to 'Complicate the Narrative' About Sex Workers

A still shot from the documentary
A still shot from the documentary
The Red Umbrella Diaries

People love talking about sex, but what about sex work? For years the conversation existed mostly in the underground, but more recently it has crept closer to the mainstream, thanks in part to a monthly storytelling event in Manhattan known as "The Red Umbrella Diaries." And now, sex workers are telling their stories to an even larger audience with the release of a new documentary of the same name.

Organized by the Red Umbrella Project, a sex worker advocacy group in Downtown Brooklyn, the original storytelling event launched in 2009 at the now-defunct Happy Ending lounge on the Lower East Side. It was a chance for sex workers to openly share the kinds of stories they had long kept to themselves: everything from client mishaps to the emotional trials of coming out to family and friends. The Red Umbrella Diaries was voted by the Voice as "the best way to meet sex workers (for free)" in 2010.

The documentary, along with comedian Margaret Cho's recent tweet about her past as a sex worker, points to a growing openness among current and former sex workers to vocalize their experiences. On October 29, Cho, who is in New York this week for the New York Comedy Festival, wrote to her followers: "Sex work is simply work. For me it was honest work. I was a sex worker when I was young. It was hard but well paid. There's no shame in it." The conversation is peaking just in time for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17. 

"The discourse around sex work has been developing," says Anna Saini, a law student and cast member in the Red Umbrella Diaries documentary. "We're coming together as a community of sex workers, collectively making it safer to come out, bringing this issue into the mainstream."

And New York is a particularly good place to do so.

"Sex work is very isolating inherently because it's so criminalized and stigmatized. It's really different to be a sex worker in New York as opposed to Middle of Nowhere, America," says Saini. "When I was in Detroit, Michigan, there were only a certain amount of times you could go to the same hotel before they notice you."

But through social media and blogs, sex workers have been able to come together and support each other. Saini says groups like the Red Umbrella Project are helping to create "structures that we need in the absence of the state protecting us and serving our needs."

Most media about sex work strives to be sexy, says Audacia Ray, producer of The Red Umbrella Diaries and founder of the original Red Umbrella project, but that's not what the film is about. "People are becoming more vocal," she says. "And together as a whole we tell a bigger story."

Ray says she hopes the documentary will "complicate" common notions about sex work. "A lot of the narrative right now is that sex work is empowering or exploitative — it's not that simple, it's both." Depending on race, economic class, gender identity, and sexual orientation, there is no one truth about sex work, she adds. It's a financial exchange — not something people do for fun or because they're highly sexualized. For many, it's a mode of survival.

"I never thought it was anything to be ashamed of," Cho tells the Voice. She says the support she received in response to her tweet (which, as this story went to press, had been retweeted more than 600 times and garnered 1,000 likes) was surprising. But the outpouring shows how much the conversation is shifting. "I hope [sex workers] feel that they're being listened to. I hope they feel that their lives are important," she says. "I don't think that sex workers should be considered criminals — if you legalize sex work, you can actually protect sex workers so much more."

Efforts to decriminalize sex work are in play but have been greeted with a great deal of criticism. In August, many celebrities spoke out against an effort by Amnesty International to enact a policy to protect sex workers and took a position advocating to decriminalize all aspects of sex between consenting adults. Many interpreted the proposal as supporting prostitution. 

"Collectively and individually, sex workers will only put up with being misunderstood and harassed and arrested, in some cases, for so long," says phone sex operator and performer Cameryn Moore. "There is something about these days of late capitalism, where more and more people are being transparent about what they have to do to get by and to thrive. We don't get to pretend anymore that forty years of the 9-to-5 is what most people can do." This reality, she adds, has allowed a more sex-positive culture to thrive.

"[The conversation around sex work] seems like it's peaking, in the past week or so. The tide is turning," says Siouxsie Q., creator of the sex industry podcast Whorecast. "I think as we move forward, the decriminalization of sex work in America is going to be on the agenda."

But coming out as a sex worker is not a privilege everyone can afford, Siouxsie Q. points out. "It's a risk," she says. "The people who can be out and proud are the ones who get to talk, but everyone should be able to talk about their experiences." 

Here is a trailer for The Red Umbrella Diaries, which premieres on November 16

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