Want to Strike? Ask a Sex Worker for Advice.
Artist and activist Lena Chen explains how the sex workers’ rights movement is lifting up all workers
Out of the pandemic and protests, a new class consciousness has emerged. Leading the way in the labor rights movement is a group of workers who have for a long while gone unrecognized. Yet these workers are skilled in developing social bonds, creating engaging activism, and pointing out the ways in which the state seeks to oppress its citizens. Now able to work in the virtual space, sex workers are using their experience and well-honed skills to ignite awareness as well as action on crucial labor and feminist issues.
Lena Chen, organizer of South by Southwest panel "No Justice, No Booty: Sex Work, Art, & Activism" and a sex worker and artist herself, finds that sex worker art and activism intersect quite a bit. "It's really about how do you use creative approaches to activism," she says, citing last year's Haymarket Pole Collective stripper strikes in response to local clubs' racist hiring practices. During their protest marches, the activists wore their strip club work clothes and also performed pole work. "You have something that is recognizable as a protest," Chen explains, "because it's a march, there are people chanting, there's movement in a public space. But then, at the same time, there's this other element of performance happening, entertainment." The founder of the HPC, Cat Hollis, is also a participant on the panel and will speak on how the strikes connect not just with workers' rights but also the racial justice movement.
Another example of sex worker and labor union crossover is the group Cybertease, a virtual strip club organized by unionized workers. Their work has specifically blown up during the pandemic, when in-person club work is more precarious. Bringing the art of stripping online not only allows the group to continue to support themselves, but also to contribute to mutual aid funds of those most in need. Support from within the sex work community is crucial, Chen says, since sex work is often dangerously stigmatized, especially when undertaken by marginalized groups like people of color and queer people. "Those are the types of communities that have really fallen through the gaps, and haven't had access to [government benefits] like stimulus checks."
Chen points out that the long legacy of digital censorship of sex workers is something tackled by the creation of digital sex worker art archive "Body of Workers" by Veil Machine, an art collective with panelist MJ Tom as a member. The archive seeks to create "alternative platforms where [sex workers'] content can be shown without the threat of deplatforming." While in the past the relationship between the labor, feminist, and sex workers' rights movements has been strained, the seeming ubiquity of deplatforming has begun, Chen says, "impacting everyone's experience of the internet," rather than just sex workers. Because of this, more aisles have been crossed, and working together has become imperative for further progress.
"I think the sex worker movement is honestly one of the most innovative activist and artistic movements of this current moment," Chen says, adding that "so much that can be learned by the way that we adapt in response to censorship and lack of institutional access."
Working herself in a new art form, Chen is currently creating a video game called Only Bans (with collaborators Maggie Oates and Goofy Toof) that's meant to draw attention to restrictive Instagram-like terms and services and unpredictable algorithms. While these are obstacles sex workers know all too well, she hopes this game will educate people not as aware of censorship. Stuck at home, she says people are now receptive to their message, especially with restrictions coming down on who can and can't access art. "The art world has also been for the longest time so elitist, so exclusive, not very welcoming of people who are experimenting with media that can't be easily commodified and sold." Chen extrapolates that not having to use the physical gallery spaces brings down barriers for sex workers wanting to share their art. "There's so many amazing artists who have worked with sexuality," she says. "There's so many amazing sex workers who create creative work and haven't found the more institutional environment to be welcoming and accepting."
Overall, her intention with the SXSW panel is to make clear how sex workers are bringing innovation to the forefront in their movement, artistically and in their activism. "That adaptation is creating our own spaces, creating our own methods, our own format," Chen says, "that are actually ultimately not just inclusive of sex workers, but inclusive of a much more diverse audience as well."
No Justice, No Booty: Sex Work, Art, & Activism
Tuesday, March 16, 10:15am, On Demand