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Sex Worker Mutual Aid Combats Persistent Exclusion of Migrant Massage Workers

International Whores Day NYC 2020
Illustration by Niko Flux. (@mistressniko)

By Prof Elena Shih, Kai Z. Cole, and Yin Q on behalf of Red Canary Song

Many Americans are currently dependent on unemployment and stimulus checks to support them through the COVID-19 shutdown, but significant numbers of particularly vulnerable populations are being shunned from government assistance, including immigrants and those who labor within the adult sex industry. Where the public safety net has left gaping holes, sex workers are stepping up to provide this essential assistance, again.

Sex worker mutual aid efforts are some of the only resources that sex workers, and immigrant sex workers especially, have been able to turn to during these difficult times. For the past three months, sex workers and allies from the organization Red Canary Song have been providing groceries, relief funds, and Chinese language legal and health guides to migrant workers in Flushing, New York.

Under Trump’s authority, the Department of Homeland Security’s new Public Charge rule, unveiled at the end of February, subjects immigrants to scrutiny for accessing social welfare benefits. Under this rule, immigrants who rely on food stamps, for instance, may be prevented from adjusting their immigration status, or sponsoring family members to immigrate to the U.S. For migrant sex workers, this new rule means that even those who are eligible for government assistance now self-select out of applying for unemployment and other forms of temporary relief, for fear that accepting help will jeopardize their immigration status.

The entire New York City population is exposed to greater public health risk when the most vulnerable among us become sick and fail to receive medical care.

The fears generated by the Public Charge rule have also led immigrant workers to refrain from reaching out for testing and medical care when they need it, due to the notion that seeking medical services may negatively impact their pathway to legal residency. These widely held fears surrounding seeking economic and medical assistance demonstrate that public efforts to provide aid are not sufficiently combatting the message of the Public Charge rule: that immigrants are not welcome to access federal benefits in the United States.

In order to combat the serious risk to public health that immigrants’ apprehension to seeking aid poses, the city ought to dispense financial relief and healthcare services in a culturally-sensitive and linguistically accessible way, reassuring immigrants that they will not be penalized for receiving the support that everyone deserves. New York must pass a financial relief package that covers all workers, regardless of immigration status. The entire New York City population is exposed to greater public health risk when the most vulnerable among us become sick and fail to receive medical care.

Migrant Asian service workers have endured a particularly difficult period, as ill-informed xenophobic customers began avoiding businesses in Flushing and Chinatown as early as January, three months prior to the official city-wide shut down due to fears that ethnically Asian populations carried the coronavirus. During this time, massage workers shared that their income had dropped significantly, amounting to merely $20-30 per day.

The challenges presented by Covid-19 intersect with existing struggles migrant sex workers have faced as the subjects of state violence and the anti-trafficking movement. In addition to this crippling economic blow, Asian massage workers also face increasingly vigilant policing of their work and constant interaction with the criminal justice system.

In 2017, a massage worker named Yang Song fell to her death during a police raid. She had suffered repeat harassment and incarceral trauma by the police, including pressure to become an informant on the women she worked alongside. Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of APIA sex workers and allies, thus formed to advocate for full decriminalization of sex work and protection of labor and human rights. The RCS outreach division, Migrant Worker Resource Network, focuses its efforts on supporting migrant massage workers who may or may not be involved with sexual services.

Many of these massage workers, referred to Red Canary Song by Legal Aid lawyers, have endured the court systems due to the criminalization of their livelihoods. While shelter in place regulations have limited access to public spaces, many have been able to turn to the internet as a virtual and thus safe site in order to continue conducting business and socializing with others. However, sex workers have been denied of this ability, since they are heavily surveillanced and banned from web platforms. Bills such as SESTA/FOSTA and the upcoming Earn It Act, created under the guise of fighting abuse and exploitation, actually drive perpetrators further underground, while leading to increased arrests and deportation of sex workers.

In these tumultuous times, where the most vulnerable among us lead increasingly precarious lives, organizations like Red Canary Song, G.L.I.T.S., Brooklyn SWOP,  Bronx SWOP, and numerous others continue to serve sex workers and shared NYC communities as best they can, and are calling for the decriminalization of sex work and immediate decarceration of sex workers. Equally, they demand the overturning of the Public Charge and the immediate consideration of undocumented people in federal COVID-19 relief efforts. These initiatives are necessary to protect the fundamental rights to health, safety, and shelter that we all share.

Along with other social justice orgs such as Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, DeCrimNY, and Make the Road NY, sex worker rights activists are rallying online on June 2nd for the 45th International Whores Day (IWD), a global event that started in Lyon, France in 1975 when over 100 sex workers protested the violence and police brutality targeting their livelihood.

Every year, sex workers around the world honor IWD by protesting the injustices they face, organizing community celebrations, and educating the public on the harmful policies affecting their survival. This year, sex worker rights activists plan to flood social media wearing RED, their color of protest and pride. This year’s global gathering pays particular attention to the common global struggles of sex workers and the need for the US to cater a more inclusive response to the migrant sex workers among us.


Elena Shih is the Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University where she directs a human trafficking research cluster through Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

Kai Z Cole is the Founder and co-Director of Red Canary Song and Executive Director of the NY State Assembly Asian Pacific American Taskforce.

Yin Q is the Founder of Kink Out and co-Director of Red Canary Song and the Director/Producer of Fly In Power.