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Decriminalization and Liberation: Panel On Organizing Asian Migrant Sex Workers

Today in NOT breaking news: badass Asian women continue to blow my mind!! Ahhh!

On Monday, December 2, I went to a panel presentation in the law building named From Criminalization to Liberation: Organizing Migrant Asian Sex Workers across Oceans. This was a conversation organized by Red Canary Song, a community group focused on migrant and Asian sex worker rights. Prof. Mae Ngai, Columbia’s own historian on immigration and citizenship issues, gave an introduction. The speakers were Red Canary Song members Yin Q, KK de la Vida, and Kate Zen, as well as Brown University professor Elene Shih, Migrant Sex Workers Project’s Chanelle Gallant, and Butterfly’s Elene Lam (read more about the panelists here). 

Since I came to this school (which was just a few months ago oops) I have gone to a lot of random talks and events, but I dare say this was one where I learned the most. The panelists are activists and educators who engage with theories and practices of organizing migrant Asian sex workers in not only the U.S., but also Canada, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Their presentations had so much substance, weaving together academic and legal analysis and personal stories. 

The push to decriminalize sex work has had a long history. Decriminalization is seen as a step towards freeing sex workers from police harassment, social stigma, and the financial and legal burden of arrests and fines in a flawed and traumatizing criminal justice system. I knew about the movement by virtue of Decrim NY, a New York organization that advocates for decriminalization and highlights how trans-Latinx sex workers are disproportionately affected. I also knew about the story of Song Yang, a Chinese sex worker who fell to her death during a police raid in Flushing. However, this event was the first time I learned about decriminalization efforts focused on lifting up Asian migrant women. 

All of the panelists talked about the harmful consequences of the current “anti-sex trafficking” approach towards sex work. Police and law enforcement in different countries take women away from sex work by arbitrarily identifying them as human trafficking victims in need of intervention. However, as Prof. Shih points out, most sex workers do not see themselves as victims and are worse off when forced to engage in programs or forms of labor deemed to be “dignified”. Panelists also mentioned the clear racism underneath these “rescue” operations, as the criteria for identifying a sex-trafficking victim are ignorant and nothing short of racial profiling. 

The panelists also called out the morally hypocritical and manipulative nature of current “savior” attempts to stop the sex work industry. Kate Zen used the term “charitable whorephobia”. Prof. Shih gave examples of businesses marketing products manufactured by sex workers as “slave-free labor”, generating profit from their ignorant and oppressive vision. As well, she pointed out that the narrative of sex work as “modern slavery” is anti-black and the fetishization of an abolitionist past. 

Kate Zen gave a historical parallel to these problematic “savior” complexes. She talked about white women who posed as “angels” or saviors of Chinatown, and made up stories about rescuing Chinese women from prostitution. She says that it is essentially “justice fantasy roleplay”.

The talk really highlighted the white supremacy and colonialism behind attempts to criminalize and control sex workers. I learned that there are so-called anti-trafficking organizations making stereotypical claims blaming Chinese culture, and providing training for police in racial profiling. Information from social media (Tinder and basically everything!), border control, facial recognition, and criminal record data is shared internationally amongst bodies of law enforcement. Chanelle Gallant shares her research findings that although sex work is legalized in certain places, migrant sex work is criminalized under every jurisdiction on Earth. In Canada, legislation on sex work has always been bound to pieces of racist legislation such as The Indian Act. She posits that criminalizing migrant sex work is essentially a way of surveilling women of color and their movement.

So basically, I learned that the basis of criminalizing sex work is ALL of your favorite problematic concepts intertwined: white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, and a bit of that good old patriarchy. Elene Lam points out that for many women, sex work is actually their chosen way of resistance against capitalism, oppression, and racism. So what’s the goal that these women are working towards? KK de la Vida proposes a shift in understanding from sex work as exploitative and shameful to sex work as embodied/touch therapy and community care. 

Gallant told the audience that decriminalization of sex work is arguably the most intersectional cause today, as it is related to LGBTQ rights, drug use, housing, immigration and much more. Yet because of social and legal stigma, it is very hard for these grassroots organizations doing amazing work to get funding. Currently, they rely on “Robin whore-ding” money from clients, giving circles amongst sex workers themselves, and campaigning.

So one way to be a good ally would be to donate to these orgs! Some of the ones I wrote down are Red Canary Song, WALANG HIYA NYC, Kink Out, Lysistrata, and Butterfly. Red Canary Song is also looking for Chinese speakers to engage in work around language justice, translation and shifting the Chinese vocabulary around sex work. The work towards liberating migrant Asian sex workers, towards liberating all sex workers, and towards achieving “anti-colonial feminism”, as one of the panelists called it, is the most arduous because it is a vision that is multiply-suppressed. But the least we can do is educate ourselves and those around us.  

 artwork by Niko Flux via Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute

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