Audacia Ray is a woman I’ve admired from afar for a few years now. The writer, activist, and sex worker rights advocate first caught my attention with her top-notch book, Naked On The Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In On Internet Sexploration, which explored women using the internet as a sexual space. I finally worked up the courage to speak to her, as well as attend her monthly storytelling series, The Red Umbrella Diaries, where “people who’ve tangled with the sex industry tell personal stories about the complications that arise when you mix sex and money.” A former editor at $pread Magazine, as well as the program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition, Audacia now runs the Red Umbrella Project, aiming to make the voices of current and former sex workers heard. It’s a humbling privilege to have been able to interview her. Persephone Magazine, please welcome Audacia Ray.
Persephone Magazine: Most people might know you from The Red Umbrella Project, a site dedicated to stories of people who’ve done sex work or are still doing sex work. How did you get started doing the Red Umbrella Project, and why is a space like this needed?
Audacia Ray: The Red Umbrella Project is more than just a website. The website has become, actually, one of the smaller pieces of it, which is interesting because my work started very much online. And now I am much more interested in relating to people face-to-face. Who knew? So the Red Umbrella Project’s (RedUP) mission is to amplify the voices of people in the sex industry. And we do that through several different programs including a monthly storytelling series, the Red Umbrella Diaries, which is here in New York, on the Lower East Side at the Happy Ending Lounge. And I’ve been doing that for a little more than two years.
In that time I’ve had about 100 different storytellers come and tell true stories about their lives. And I document the events with podcasts that are available for free on iTunes and on redumbrelladiaries.com. RedUP also does media and legislative advocacy trainings. I do an annual weekend-long media training intensive with people who are presently or formerly in the sex industry and want to learn how to deal with the media and speak out boldly about their experiences ““ because we are, after all, experts on our own experiences but we aren’t often treated as such. The legislative training is New York-specific right now. And it’s to help people learn how to talk to their elected representatives about issues that affect them. In 2012 we’re also hoping to help organize a lobbying trip to Albany to get attention on the No Condoms As Evidence legislation that some groups have been working on over the past few years.
The sex worker population is, let’s say, very underrepresented in the halls of government. So it sort of surprises our elected officials when we walk into their offices and talk about our experiences and our political viewpoint – to say the least. But I think it’s a really valuable thing to start doing that, building that kind of advocacy. So that’s what Red Umbrella Project has evolved into. And it’s basically rooted in the work that I’ve been doing for almost the past decade around sex worker voices and stories. In my mid-20s, when I first started doing sex work, I was keeping a personal blog about it (some of the archive of which you can read at WakingVixen.com) and writing about sex work and my own ridiculous relationships and stuff like that. I wanted an outlet – a place to tell my story and come to terms with what was happening in my life. I was kind of lonely, and I didn’t know, really, any other sex workers. I saw a post on an email list calling for submissions to the first issue of $pread Magazine, which became a magazine by and for sex workers. And I was really excited about it, mostly because I wanted to meet other sex workers and not so much because I wanted to learn to make a magazine.
I started sending them lots of emails and showed up at their events and pretty quickly became an editor. The magazine launched in March of 2005 and shut down this year. I was an executive editor for three years, along with a couple of other editors, many of whom are still friends and collaborators today. The storytelling and media production stuff began online and moved to $pread. One of the things that started happening at $pread is that we were getting requests from people. We got media requests to represent sex workers in media and I said yes to all of them, and really had no idea what I was doing. I went through the wringer with several scary media cycles.Then other sex workers started asking us for advice about how to deal with media, so I started teaching a 1-hour media training for sex workers and it just got bigger and bigger. The media training became a separate thing from $pread, another project entirely. I left $pread in January 2008 and started focusing on doing that media training ““ which is now called Speak Up! – because for where I was at in my life, it was more manageable than producing a quarterly magazine – to do a once-a-year training.
So that’s sort of how it all the pieces of the Red Umbrella Project began to germinate. About two years ago, a friend of mine who was doing a reading series at Happy Ending said that they had an opening in their schedule for a monthly series. And I thought, sure, I’ll give that a go. That seems like a good idea. So that’s how the storytelling part of it started to come together.
PM: It’s been interesting because it’s a combination of doing personal storytelling and media advocacy, which can be very different work, but I think it is all very much related to $pread. That really sucks that $pread is shutting down.
AR: Yeah. I mean, the magazine that had a 5-year run, which is amazing for a project that was entirely run by volunteers. I was there for three years, and the all-volunteer team was run basically as a collective, and I had an overlap with Will Rockwell, who became the solo editor-in-chief for about a year. He was in that role for three years, and as he approached the end of his three years, he was saying, I need help; someone else needs to step up. And people just weren’t able to commit to it. So in a lot of ways, $pread was sustainable financially to print and ship the magazine, but we weren’t able to have a paid staff. And so, it just got to be too much. But even though $pread has shut down – I do really think that $pread was a major success. I don’t think it’s hubristic to say that we did shift something in the culture. And it is kind of amazing to see that, you know, now wherever I go, people have heard of $pread and are excited about it. So that’s really encouraging, to know that it made such an impact on sex worker communities.
PM: It was really cool. What did you cover or how did you go about doing media training? As far as working with people, what were sessions like and what are you emphasizing?
AR: In the media training sessions, we emphasize strategic engagement. It’s all about figuring out, why should I talk to this reporter? What can this media exposure do for me? What can it do for the movement, and what are the risks that I take in engaging with media in this way? It’s definitely a very personalized thing, and one of the things that we warn people about is that sometimes it’s horrible – you’re the only person who is willing to talk to the media and to be a sex worker representative in the media. You might end up saying “yes” to things because you’re afraid that the voices of sex workers will not be represented if you say “no.” But that’s not a good model for consent.
If you say “yes,” and something terrible happens as a result, like you lose your mainstream job or lose your kids or whatever, the sex worker community is probably not going to be able to help. There are a lot of very real risks to being out as a sex worker. One of the things that I see as a positive outcome of the Speak Up! trainings is when people come in really excited about doing media, and they leave thinking, “I’m never gonna do this.” I’d rather them go through that during the training than do media and have terrible things happen in their lives. So that’s the sort of like media harm reduction, giving people the skills and knowledge to negotiate and make the best choice of the options available to them.
We also talk a lot about messaging, because basically in media you have the story that the journalist wants to tell and think is the story, and then you have the story that you want to tell. And what happens should be somewhere in between, and that means learning how to supply your own messages and your own talking points ““ which is a really hard thing to do – and is a skill. We delve into the way journalism works and what the journalist’s job is, and the tricks they employ to get what they want. Like when you’re done with answering your question, they nod and they stay quiet. You feel compelled to keep talking, and can always trip yourself up by saying too much instead of too little. We talk about stuff like that, and we really help people come up with their own set of messages and talking points. The way we do that is that we have them do homework beforehand. So they break down their agenda, their message, and two or three talking points to support it. And then when they first arrive at the training, we focus on it and put them in front of a camera, and we’ve created a scenario for them. So we say, this is happening, you’re being interviewed, and you have one minute. And we just hammer away with challenging questions. And they get totally flustered, and they don’t match their talking points at all.
Then we spend the rest of the weekend working our way back to that interview and figuring out how to stick by your talking points even when the questions aren’t asking what you want to be answering. At the end we re-shoot the interview, and it’s really amazing to see the difference. I think it’s also ““ regardless of whether they ever participate in media ““ it’s definitely about developing your own voice, and developing your opinions and being regarded as someone who has opinions ““ and has strength in that respect ““ which I think is a really cool thing to see.
PM: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about journalists wanting to tell their own story. I was talking to Melissa Petro a few weeks ago, and she was sort of going through her story about how she was writing about her experiences and that once the shit hit the fan, it became sort of null and void in larger sort of scheme of things. It’s either in one of two extremes, being like this thing that’s really awful that no one should participate in ““ or this thing that’s totally fetishized. I guess what I’m curious about is with journalists, and feminist communities who don’t really know how to talk about sex work and how that can change. What would you advise for journalism being better about understanding sex work or understanding how to write about this so it’s not tokenizing or fetishizing or exploitive?
AR: There’s sort of two questions happening there. There’s what should journalists do about representing sex work? And what should feminist activists do about it? For feminist activists, many of whom are also journalists, they need to spend more time shutting up and listening. That’s just a really, really important piece of this that there’s no shortcut to that understanding ““ you just have to listen, especially when you’re dealing with sexuality and with sex work. Personal shit comes up when people confront this stuff.
It’s hard to filter out your personal stuff and really listen and accompany the person that you’re listening to through whatever they’re going through, rather than jumping in with either your solutions, or your ideas, or thinking about the ways that listening to this person’s story might be painful or triggering for you. And feminism has always been about people sharing their stories and all that kind of stuff. And that’s super-super important, but I think there is this thing that happens around sex work when people just don’t want to hear it- because this stuff is really hard, and like you said, there’s the fetishizing or the ““ oh, these poor women. And the truth is really somewhere in between ““ that it is just so much more complicated than empowerment or degradation. I feel like journalists especially want these answers to be small and simple. They’re asking questions based on assumptions, and they aren’t looking to rearrange their thoughts or their readers thoughts on the subject. But the answers aren’t simple.
I feel like I have more questions now than when I first came into this work 10 years ago – there’s so much of this that’s just heavy and hard to sit with and it’s not going to get fixed, and it is not going be a perfect little sound bite. That’s part of the problem that journalism faces, because journalism is often about manufacturing these tight little stories. That’s really, really hard to do with this subject. So sometimes it falls back on either going with those little sound bites that might not be representative or being descriptive about things that are challenging for people to hear. That’s just a really difficult line to walk, and I think that one of the things that journalists can do is listening but also trying to be more complex about their portrayals. I have experienced this oversimplification a lot in my own interviews with journalists. I’ve been asked a lot of times,”So, do you feel like you were empowered or exploited?”
And the answer is yes ““ definitely yes, and I can’t choose one because they’re both true at the same time. But that makes for a difficult story. And so all of that is why I’ve been so passionate about stories from the mouths of people who have lived them. Part of the mission of the Red Umbrella Project and especially the Red Umbrella Diaries ““ the storytelling series ““ is to just kind of present these stories. That I don’t try to explain that, I don’t offer commentary on them. They’re complicated, they’re ugly, they’re sometimes funny. And sometimes this thing happens where advocacy groups are like, oh, well maybe you have a good Red Umbrella story that we can use in this context. You know, using it in the service of doing advocacy work , the pieces are not useful that way, because they’re long. They’re 10, 15 minutes long, and they’re not little stories that show you why criminalization is bad ““ or you know, why decriminalization is the best approach. Because these are real people, and their shit is complex. And I like that ““ I like when people come in and they listen to the stories, and they’re like, “I thought I knew my opinions on this subject before, but now I really don’t.” And it’s like, “Cool, me neither! Keep listening and let me know if you figure it out.”
PM: On that note, how did you initially get involved in sex work and activism?
AR: The two were kind of connected. Basically, when I was in college I was really into gender and sexuality studies and wasn’t really sure what to do with it. It was mostly in researching mode and not so much the experiential mode, and then my senior year in college I got an internship at the Museum of Sex, which was a year before the museum opened. So this was 2001. And during the almost two years that I worked there, I interacted with a lot of interesting people, and then I also started experimenting in my own life. I had been dating the same person throughout college, and then we broke up after almost five years, and I was like, what to do? So I started experimenting with lots of different kinds of sex, but I had been sort of terrified of sex workers because I just didn’t understand how they could do that or what kind of people they were. And I started meeting a lot of sex workers through the museum and hanging out with them and also saw their humanity and saw they were regular people to some extent.
When I lost the job at the Museum of Sex, I was of two minds. I wanted to continue to work in museums and history and stuff like that, so I got a job at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum as a museum educator. And I also still wanted to do sex-related stuff, so I started doing public relations for a small porn company. So those two things sort of co-existed in my world, and I liked the museum work a lot. But as I delved deeper into the sex industry, I just liked the sense of freedom and that I could break the rules and kind of do what I wanted. I was very compelled by that, and I also started meeting more people in the business, and feeling like it was something that was possible for me. Initially I thought I could never do sex work because I’m not as pretty as people who get paid to be pretty and sexual. And in the porn industry I started seeing people’s bodies a lot on a daily basis, and that was really revolutionary for me. I’d always imagined porn people as people who were able to pose for photographs because they were gorgeous and perfect and so confident. And those things weren’t always true. So I started getting more curious about that.
I started out doing modeling and fetish work ““ and also started escorting. My motivation was definitely about money, but it was also hugely about curiosity, just seeing if I could. And it sort of rapidly developed into working other jobs in the sex industry, and I started to go to graduate school, so I had further motivation to make money and have flexible hours. I definitely had an overly simplistic approach to how the industry functions when I started out, and I cast myself in an empowerment narrative about what I was doing. The options available for ways for me to describe my experiences were either empowerment or exploitation, so I chose the one that looked better to the outside world and made me feel better about what I was doing. Even though it wasn’t strictly true that I felt empowered by the work. The reality was way more complex than I was able to grapple with at that point. But once I started meeting the folks at $pread, I started to see how these things could be much more complicated, and perhaps even more importantly I started to see that it’s necessary to make space to take about those complexities.
Now that I’ve been out of the business for a couple of years, I also see how I really needed that empowerment narrative at the time because I just didn’t know how to make sense of what I was going through. And it was a defense mechanism in a lot of ways to be like, “I’m liberated! Look, this is empowering.” Instead of the reality, which was: sometimes my clients were weird and abusive, I didn’t like myself a lot of the time, I was isolating myself and being secretive with a lot of people in my life. And that was all really, really hard ““ but at the same time, I had a certain amount of guilt because I had chosen this. I could have done something else.
PM: You were also talking about how you’re organizing a neighborhood watch just for ““ for anyone reading this who might not be aware ““ but in South Brooklyn, we’ve had more than a dozen rapes and sexual assaults since about March 2011. And so, a lot of people in Brooklyn are organizing together to provide safe walks home, but you were talking about your new project, which is working in your neighborhood, Windsor Terrace. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
AR: I’ve lived in Windsor Terrace for almost nine years and very much consider it my home and a place that I feel safe in. And when these assaults started happening, I started seeing these signs around the neighborhood with a police sketch and language that essential says, “beware!” And the precincts have also been posting these along with tips for how to stay safe, which made me feel uneasy and annoyed. And then, I met the folks who were organizing Safe Slope. Back in August, they started broadcasting that they were trying to organize around creating a safer community, which I thought was really awesome. So I connected with them, and they had a rally in mid-September that I attended and spoke at. And it’s interesting because I feel like so much of my activism has been out in the world, focused on New York City at large or national or global goals. It’s been weird to be in this hyperlocal space as someone who’s an assault survivor and as someone who’s a former sex worker, and to talk about these things with my neighbors and people who I am friendly with and people who I see in the coffee shop.
When Safe Slope announced that they were going to start doing their safe walks Thursday through Sunday nights where you could call and someone would be dispatched to meet with you and walk you to your destination ““ I got excited about that and said I’d love to be a volunteer, but they weren’t covering my exact neighborhood. So I connected with three other women on our neighborhood email list, and we started to talk about what we could do in our area. We started doing kind of a needs assessment of our neighbors to see what would work. And people didn’t think that the dispatch would work because we just don’t have as much foot traffic in our neighborhood.
But we came up with the idea of working with dog walkers and people who own dogs who were already out at night walking with their dogs to build their awareness of about what’s going on and make them more visible in the neighborhood to create sort of a neighborhood watch. So the group is called K9WaTch, and we launched in mid-November. Our volunteers covered the Fort Hamilton Parkway and Church Avenue subway stops on the F and G. We’re working with both dog owners and non-dog-owners to provide community visibility and a sense of security. We have these awesome bright yellow bandanas, and the dogs are adorable and their owners are enthusiastic about making the neighborhood safer. But the organizing process also has reminded me how much easier it is to get press for something like this, which involves cisgender women, a cute Brooklyn neighborhood, and adorable dogs, while it’s much harder to get folks to care about sex workers.
But of course, this kind of organizing has its problems, too. There is very much a racial dynamic to the whole thing where the guys in the police sketches are mostly Latino men. So I’m, unfortunately, kind of expecting that this could create an environment where people are fearful of just any average brown skinned man and perhaps calling police on Latino men when they should not be doing that ““ when guys are not actually being threatening. So I’m watching that aspect of the organizing. I’m also prepared to keep talking to my fellow neighborhood white people about the budding racism in this organizing effort, and the ways in which we need to make sure that we are not protecting the bodily autonomy of white cisgender ladies at the expense of the bodily autonomy and human rights of everyone else.
PM: So what’s next?
AR: A million things, as always. I’m working really hard on turning Red Umbrella Project into a full-fledged nonprofit, or at least a fiscally sponsored one, because after ten years of doing this activism, I feel like it needs some structure and hopefully some funding. And also, I feel like I personally know a whole lot of stuff, and I want to create a structure for getting other people to know the stuff ““ which ultimately will look like me putting myself out of a job ““ which I really, really want to do. The media training, storytelling projects, and advocacy workshops – all that stuff driven by the need to get more people doing this work so that it doesn’t fall to me. I’d love to be able to do my job well enough that in the next five or so years people won’t know who I am because there will be so many more people stepping forward and taking leadership.
Because I just really don’t want be one of those big-name feminists who is grabbing onto all the power and just hanging onto it forever. Power exists in the world, and I want to figure out how to better share and distribute it. I want to get out of the way. And so, I hope the Red Umbrella Project will make way for new voices, and give people the skills and support they need to be awesome in the world and make the world better for people involved in the sex industry.
To find out more on Audacia and her work, you can check out her website, Audaciaray.com , as well as The Red Umbrella Project. To check out the best five years of $pread magazine, visit their website at $preadMagazine.org.