The Incredible, Edible, (MF) Akynos, She's A Bitch: On the gaze of sex workers in modern society and forming a #himtoo movement. 

Performed as part of the Sex Workers' Festival of Resistance at MoMA PS1's VW Sunday Sessions on March 4, 2018. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo by Derek Schultz.

sex workers threw a celebratory festival at moma ps1

They call for decriminalization and talk organizing orientation sessions for new sex workers and empowering blowjob workshops.

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Mar 6 2018, 7:21pm

The Incredible, Edible, (MF) Akynos, She's A Bitch: On the gaze of sex workers in modern society and forming a #himtoo movement. 

Performed as part of the Sex Workers' Festival of Resistance at MoMA PS1's VW Sunday Sessions on March 4, 2018. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo by Derek Schultz.

The opening performance at MoMA PS1’s Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance on Sunday featured artist and activist Jheanelle Garriques dancing in a bedazzled bodysuit, inspired by her professional work as a dominatrix and sugar baby. This celebration of sex work sought to erase the victimization that shows like Law and Order: SVU and Cold Justice: Sex Crimes spoon feed to America. The overarching thesis was this: Sex work is an occupation, not a crime. The event was a day-long series of panels, art performances, and film screenings focused on debating the professionalization of sex work, rejecting the label of “victim,” and calling for greater protections. As Red Umbrella Project member Jenna Torres — who has performed sex work since the age of 14 — said during a panel discussion, speaking on the mistreatment she’s faced from the justice system: “I am not a victim until I get caught by the police.”

The World Health Organization defines sex work as “...people who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, and who consciously define those services as income generating even if they do not consider sex work as their occupation.” This definition does not encompass the intersectional identities, strong bonds, and feelings of empowerment to be found in the sex worker community. At Sunday’s event, I talked to people who came from all walks of life and were overjoyed that a respected institution like MoMA PS1 wanted to share their stories — free of shame. They showed me how little studies, charts, and graphs can capture of a community.

Shirley McLaren is a trans escort who lives in Spain by way of Mexico. Her hair is dyed a shocking red and her shirt declares her to be a “Bad Puta.” Before her panel discussion, Shirley is trying to calm her nerves. “I have butterflies in my stomach,” she tells me. Her words start flowing once we start talking about the day-to-day realities of being a sex worker in Barcelona. “This is a job,” Shirley says. “And no matter what you do you need training.” Shirley says she and other Barcelona sex workers noticed women were entering the field without any adequate preparation. (“We were working indoors," she recalls, “isolated in our rooms with our laptops and our telephones.”) So they banded together and started the organization Aprosex five years ago as an attempt to provide better preparation. “We give training to new sex workers,” Shirley says of the group’s orientation sessions. “First, we tell them all the bad things about sex work. The stigma, some violence — not just from clients, but also from institutions. After that, we ask, ‘Are you still sure you want to do this?’ If they say yes, we say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to tell you what you need to know so this work is profitable and healthy for you.’”

Jheanelle Garriques, Queer Gaze. Performed as part of the Sex Workers' Festival of Resistance at MoMA PS1's VW Sunday Sessions on March 4, 2018. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo by Derek Schultz.

Aprosex places an emphasis on empowering all women, regardless of if they engage in sex work or not. One of the lighter moments in our conversation comes when Shirley talks about the organization’s “Saint and Whores” event. During it, members show women how to increase their sexual pleasure — something that, unfortunately, society does not really teach or encourage women to do. “We have a blowjob workshop,” Shirley says with a big smile, “and I’m — as a person with a penis — always the model!” She laughs big and loud and, for a moment, it seems like the butterflies in her stomach have disappeared.

A steady feeling of buoyancy ran throughout the day. During my conversation with Jheanelle Garriques, she was tapped on the shoulder by a stranger who wanted to tell Jheanelle how much she loved her dance performance. Jheanelle bounced with joy before dipping it low and performing some of her sensual moves again. “Thank you so much!” With her waist-length cotton candy-pink hair and diamond-encrusted choker, it was obvious Jheanelle did not feel like a victim because of her sex work. She seemed to have the confidence of Beyoncé.

“The humanitarian work I do is largely fueled by my sex work, both as a dominatrix and working as a sugar baby,” Jheanelle tells me. We’re sitting in a hallway on the tile floor — the interior of PS1 unchanged from when the space used to be an elementary school. Jheanelle calls herself “a poet and a storyteller,” and says her high-charged dance performance was the first she’s ever done (which would have been hard to tell). “When they asked me to do it, I had a little hesitation because sex workers really stigmatize themselves,” she says, her voice filled with emotion. “How do you negotiate within yourself the things you know are pure and well-intentioned against what everyone else will think?” Then she shifts back to the rambunctious, empowered diva from her performance. “But listen, yo, MoMA tells me they want me to come perform? Bitch, yes! What do you want me to do? So I just went for it.”

The tough realities of sex work were touched on too. The violence sex workers face — both at the hands of clients and police officers — was discussed, along with the fact workers are frequently underpaid. One short documentary featured sex workers in Rio de Janeiro speaking on the Summer 2016 Olympics, saying how the global spectacle did little to push their local government to increase protections for the sex worker community during the games. The interviews validated the feeling that the world’s eyes were turned on the troubled city of Rio de Janeiro for two weeks and then, once the Olympics were over, our concerns and attention fast dissipated.

Kent State professor Molly Merryman shot, produced, and edited the documentary Red Umbrella March, documenting San Francisco sex workers taking part in the spirited protest against stigmatization. (The annual international Red Umbrella March was first started in 2001 by writer and activist Audacia Ray in response to the discrimination sex workers experience from police.) To create the film, Molly had to work overtime to gain her subjects’ trust. “There’s a lot of manipulation and betrayal that happens at the hands of academics,” she says, speaking on the well-founded wariness the sex worker community has towards researchers like her. “We’re not immune to being unkind people. So there was a natural distrust. I expected that and I didn’t take it personally. I spent a year shooting and having connections made. Going to the events and telling people who I was and communicating with them to build that trust.” Mary decided to zoom in on the faces of her subjects for a very important reason. “When you reflect on the kind of documentary [about sex workers] you tend to see, they are typically in shadows or have their faces blurred. I didn’t want any disguises. I wanted people to see that sex workers are everyday people.”

The life experiences Jenna Torres shared during a panel discussion about sex work, trafficking, and migration in New York City also touched on institutions failing sex workers. Raised in foster care as a child, Jenna says she had to fight against a number of statistics to make sure she graduated high school and attended a four year college. She had her first child when she was fourteen, her second when she was fifteen, and her third when she was seventeen. “We didn’t really have a lot of resources as far as getting back and forth and buying books for school, so I did sex work in order to provide for my needs and my kids,” she said. At 17, Jenna was arrested for prostitution and sent to a human trafficking intervention court. “They told me to go to an alternative program and do ten sessions of yoga and therapy,” Jenna reflected, her and the audience both laughing at the sentence. But the court’s choice forced Jenna to make a very serious and painful decision. Attending the program and avoiding another arrest meant having to drop out of school.

These failures by the justice system — frequently preventing women of color and trans sex workers from being able to provide for themselves and advance in life — illuminate why sex work must be decriminalized. It has been found that violence against sex workers dramatically decreases when governments reduce penalties and fines towards the occupation. “I really hope it happens [in America] within the next five years,” performance artist The Incredible, Edible, (MF) Akynos tells me backstage as she prepares for her high-concept dance. “I might be dreaming, because people have been fighting for decriminalization for as long as I’ve been alive, and they’re still fighting for it. We’re getting recognition and we’re finally at a point where people are asking us to tell our stories, rather than pay other people to tell them.” She nods her head slowly, taking in her own dream. “That’s what I hope comes out of today.”