“Writing is a form of social justice, and writing can be a powerful vehicle for social change. We hope that giving sex workers the skills to tell their own stories will have the longer term effect of reducing stigma attached to people who do transactional sex.” — Melissa Petro, former sex worker and workshop instructor at The Red Umbrella Project
Audacia “Dacia” Ray has quite the stacked resume. Former sex worker, one-time executive editor of $pread magazine, author of books illuminating the culture of sexual commerce (such as 2007’s Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration), and activist for sex worker rights (among other issues of sexuality), Ray’s most noteworthy accomplishment is perhaps her 2010 founding of NYC’s The Red Umbrella Project, which merged with the Sex Work Awareness organization in 2011.
Driven by a mission that first aims to provide a safe space for sex workers to share their real stories, in the face of denial and erasure in mainstream media, The Red Umbrella Project incorporates a monthly storytelling series called “The Red Umbrella Diaries” in New York where people (either currently or formerly involved in the sex industry) recount their personal experiences — for better or for worse. A weekly podcast collects the stories of everyone who agrees to have their stories documented and is available on multiple outlets for free.
Free eight-week long creative nonfiction writing courses and improv storytelling workshops are also available for individuals with experience in the sex trade and The Red Umbrella Project publishes a literary journal entitled “Pros(e)” with the writings produced in these classes.
Pursuant to The Project’s secondary goal of harm-reduction, they also provide training in advocacy and media messaging and have produced a 50-plus page training manual accessible free to the public on how sex workers can engage with the press to raise awareness for the issues that affect their community.
One recent and substantial such matter is NYC’s “Condoms as Evidence” law, under which police and prosecutors can collect condoms during a problematic and highly-biased “stop and frisk” and either confiscate them or use them as evidence of prostitution-related offenses in court (often leading sex workers to eschew the use of protection altogether).
Ray and her Red Umbrella Project deserve recognition both for their passionate and unapologetically controversial work, but also for their place in history for what will become undoubtedly a significant part of intersectional feminism in the coming decades.
“Getting Away With Hating It: Consent in the Context of Sex Work” by Charlotte Shane. (A fascinating discussion on how the concept of “enthusiastic consent” fails sex workers)