Sex Workers Telling Our Stories: From DIY Web Shorts to Feature Documentaries

[caption id="attachment_8127" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Anna Saini from The Red Umbrella Diaries Anna Saini from The Red Umbrella Diaries[/caption]


This guest post by Audacia Ray appears as part of our theme week on Representations of Sex Workers.

“I took you into my house and allowed you to shoot and you have laughed at us,” Anita’s subtitle reads as she looks directly into the camera in a 2010 Youtube video  produced by Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, the Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice). VAMP’s video garnered a little shy of 19,000 views against the nearly two million views of Prostitutes of God, a VICE documentary that inaccurately depicted sex workers in Sangli, India and reported one sex worker as being HIV positive when she was not. VAMP’s video response to the VICE documentary was swift, fierce, and supported by sex worker and human rights activists. VICE edited out the clip falsely identifying a woman as HIV positive, but otherwise did not respond.

Whether we make online videos that directly respond to terrible portrayals of us in the media, videos with the purpose of educating and doing advocacy, or produce feature films, sex workers who make media are constantly pressed up against all of our stereotypes. Over the last decade, I have dealt with documentary media about sex work as an audience member, a subject, and a producer. Whether we’re portrayed as villains or victims, pretty women or desperate girls, sex workers are a popular focus of documentary projects. But the only way to reach beyond simplistic narratives is for sex workers to be involved in the production of these projects.

In 2009, I led my first media spokesperson training for sex workers in New York. At that training, I shot a one-minute PSA video (and I added more footage in 2011) called “I Am A Sex Worker.” In the video, the participating sex workers say one mundane fact about themselves, followed with “and I’m a sex worker.” The purpose of the video was to speak to a general audience and humanize sex workers as people who are multifaceted. I have to admit that it is not a technically “good” video. It’s all people talking directly to the camera in front of an uninspiring background, and the lighting and sound leave a lot to be desired. This lack of technical filmmaking finesse is not uncommon in sex worker-made media. Figuring out how to make the videos ourselves is resourceful; it is preferable to make a video with content completely controlled by sex workers ourselves, instead of handing the power over to a filmmaker we might not trust. Furthermore, there’s something compelling and awesome about sex workers telling even a sliver of their own stories while making eye contact with the camera.

Some sex-worker-created advocacy-driven online videos have a much narrower audience than mine though. The subtitle of the 2010 video conceived, developed, and produced by Lusty Day and Beef Jerky, “Every Ho I Know Says So”  spells it out: “advice for partners, lovers, dates, and sweethearts of sex workers.” In this nine-minute video, shot mostly on handheld iPhone video and combining clips shot by many different people, 21 sex workers address the viewer as “you” and give advice about how best to treat a sex worker in a dating situation. The video is offered up as a resource for sex workers to show to their romantic partners and potential partners and for partners to find on their own.

Both of these videos feature the identifiable faces of sex workers, with a couple of exceptions where people’s identifying characteristics are concealed. But exposure can be risky for many sex workers. Whether a sex worker is doing legal or illegal work, exposure can mean loss of income (especially if the sex worker has another job or tries to transition into work outside the industry), loss of child custody or housing, or threats to their well-being from the local community. Showing people’s faces, of course, is an important part of establishing humanity and depth of character in any film project. But some sex workers have been successful in creating videos that don’t reveal their identities while revealing intimate details about their work and motivations.

[caption id="attachment_8128" align="aligncenter" width="214"]Live Nude Girls Unite! poster Live Nude Girls Unite! poster[/caption]


The Amsterdam-based organization Voices of Women Media (VOW) works with marginalized women to develop media skills so that they can tell their own stories. In a video documentary collaboration with two women who are sex workers in Amsterdam, VOW supported a woman named Chantal as well as an anonymous woman to script, produce, and shoot documentary shorts based on their lives. The resulting pair of 2010 videos, “Drowning” and “Los Caminos,” are portraits of women that are intimate, showing the interior of their work spaces behind the famed Amsterdam red light district windows, but also protect the identities of the women. As more stylistic elements are introduced, like b roll, staging, music, and with them, more complex editing, more skills are needed to create films like these. Collaborations like the Voices of Women Media project can work well if the stories and skill development of sex workers are centered, and if creative control remains with the sex workers and isn’t handed over to someone who will reshape the story for what they perceive as a better narrative. Authenticity is important, though it certainly takes longer to do a project this way. Authenticity, by the way, is not what happens when two young filmmakers decide to “pose as strippers” for two weeks (aka briefly become strippers while also looking down on actual women who strip for a living) and make videos about it, as an upcoming series on VICE touts.

It’s a big leap from DIY web videos to feature documentaries in terms of skill and of course fundraising; there have not been too many feature films about sex workers told from our perspective. The first one I saw was Live Nude Girls Unite, a documentary released in 2000 about the unionization process of the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco. There is a lot of hand-held camera work in the film as Julia Query, the producer, co-director, and a character in the film, takes the viewer through the club. In the film, we meet the dancers, attend their meetings, and even get to sit in on Julia’s coming-out to her mother. The dancers create a union, and a historical moment in sex worker labor organizing is documented.

More recently the 2013 feature film American Courtesans, produced by Kristen DiAngelo, an escort who also serves as the interviewer in the film, has played the festival circuit and won critical acclaim. The film features 11 cisgender women from around the United States who Kristen found through her personal networks. There isn’t a narrative structure; instead the film is a series of spotlight shoots of the women, who do sit-down interviews with Kristen and tell their life stories. The film strives to create empathy for the experiences of escorts as both workers and people. Though it doesn’t gloss over the challenges the women have faced in their lives–there are tears on camera more than once in the film–ultimately the filmmakers’ intent is to portray escorting as a legitimate and positive career choice for the women in the film.

After many years of working to produce media with sex workers and create spaces for sex workers to individual stories about our experiences, in the past year I’ve set out to produce my own feature-length documentary, The Red Umbrella Diaries. The film will tell the story of seven LGBTQ sex workers (myself included) as we prepare to tell our stories on stage at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in NYC. I’ve learned that my previous experience shooting web shorts as well as directing and producing a feature-length porn film, The Bi Apple (which won a Feminist Porn Award in 2007), has not really prepared me for this process. I’m grateful that I have been able to step aside and not be the filmmaker–instead I’m leaving that to the professionals, an Emmy-award winning crew–but I’d be lying if I said that its been easy. I have said no to many filmmakers who approached me over the years because I don’t trust just anyone to tell my story, and now I’m not signing away my right to review the final product – I’m doing the opposite actually. As an adult model and in other media situations, I have signed those releases, and I know how it feels to see myself represented in a way I dislike and not being able to do much about it.

Now I’m working with a crew I trust, guys who attended the storytelling events I produce for almost two years before showing up with a camera. We are currently working on our rough cut of the film. I’ve learned that having creative control over the final product still means that I need to trust the filmmakers I’m collaborating with. For me, there is definitely such a thing as being too close to the subject matter. I forget that there are elements of the lingo around my former profession that need to be defined, and that if this film is going to be accessible to a general audience, we do have to take the time to spell out things that I think are basic. But I know, and the filmmakers agree, that sex workers are experts on our own experiences, so there won’t be any professors or other experts explaining things on camera. Just us. I feel certain that we’re contributing something positive to documentary film, and I’m excited to prove that a collaboration where the “subjects” of a film have the final say over the content can be a rich and interesting project with complex storytelling.


Audacia Ray is a former sex worker who is the founder and executive director of the Red Umbrella Project, a small organization based in Brooklyn. She is the editor of the literary journal Prose & Lore: Memoir Stories About Sex Work and the executive producer of The Red Umbrella Diaries, a feature documentary with a targeted premiere of spring 2015., @audaciaray on Twitter/Tumblr/Instagram.