Free Fall

When sex-work decriminalization will never be enough, we have to find other ways to keep each other alive

“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and
to care for yourself. . . . To protect each other, to enact and
practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality,
a politics of care.”

—Johanna Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory

—Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council flyer for a rally
in the 60th Precinct on October 17, 2017, in response to the rape
of an 18-year-old by two plainclothes detectives the previous month

Yang Song died on November 26, 2017, after falling four stories during a vice raid on the massage parlor at which she worked. The parlor had been targeted for offering illegal sexual services. Song, entrapped and facing arrest, was recorded by interior and exterior surveillance cameras in the seconds just before and during her fall, though the actual moment she left the balcony wasn’t caught. In June 2018, the NYPD officially ruled her death a suicide or accident, absolving their officers of culpability. Their report describes her and the events of her death as follows:

At approximately 9:00 p.m., the injured woman was positively identified as JD [Jane Doe] Ponytail, who IMOS-UC1 had engaged in a conversation related to the exchange of $80 for sexual intercourse inside of the subject location and followed into the subject apartment, based upon his description given of a “female Asian, approximately 5’5, 125lbs, 35 years old, black hair, light skin tone, black outer jacket and red scarf.” At that time, the hospitalized subject’s status was listed as “arrested” for violating, NYPL § 230.00 Prostitution, under arrest no. Q17652546.

That Song died under arrest—or more specifically was categorized as “arrested” while she was dying in a hospital—when one can imagine that she jumped precisely to avoid this fate, is chilling. No actual sex need take place for someone to be arrested for prostitution, only an offer or agreement to exchange sex for money. This law allows for the tactic of cops impersonating clients: If actual sexual contact needed to take place, surveillance would be the only option for law enforcement, as permitting officers to follow through and have sex with workers only to arrest them after the act would pose a public-relations nightmare. Nonetheless, the practice of police impersonating clients facilitates exactly that: coerced sexual contact between police and sex workers. Once cops are given a legal reason—or, even further, a command—to solicit sex from sex workers, it’s awfully easy to imagine them simply . . . following through.

In the year before her death, Song herself was assaulted by someone claiming to be a police officer. He flashed his badge at her, pulled out his gun, and demanded sexual services. There is no way to know whether her assaulter was an actual officer or an impersonator. As reported by journalists Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford for The Appeal, Song’s lawyer said she filed a report with the NYPD and picked out an assailant from a lineup but “never received any follow-up,” while the NYPD denied that she filed such a complaint in the first place. The incident nonetheless demonstrates the vulnerability of sex workers entrapped by police, or even those claiming to be police. The close proximity of vice police to workers is a demand of the job, ensuring sex becomes not just an abstract offer to be used as proof later in court but a material bargaining chip. The competing dominant views of sex workers—as helpless, traumatized victims or greedy, morally bankrupt gold diggers—each further their dehumanization in the eyes of police and society, creating different inroads to their positions of precarity. In the first view, they are simply powerless, and in the second, they are deserving of whatever ill fate befalls them. For sex workers, to face officers is to face at best sexual coercion and at worst incarceration or death.

The first time I covered a shift for a friend at an erotic massage parlor, the events of the day were mostly mundane. Clients expected a massage and a happy ending; anything else I chose to do was up to my own discretion, as was its price. This was an establishment run by young white women, operating out of a residential apartment in an expensive neighborhood in Manhattan, with client inquiries arriving by phone or email. The likelihood of it being raided seemed extremely low, and the likelihood of a client being a cop was minimal as well. The girl who showed me the ropes said most of the men who frequented the business were pretty risk-averse as far as sex buyers went, seeking relaxation and company on their lunch hours but too either fearful, hesitant, or frugal to hire a full-service escort. Two people worked at once, so if anything did go wrong, one could always shout to the other in the next room. The walls were thin.

A client arrived and I saw him walk right by the door through the electronic peephole. He lingered out of sight in the hallway, which gave me pause. He finally returned and knocked. He was clean-cut, somewhat handsome, and seemed normal. He said he hadn’t brought any cash, another red flag. You can’t pay for most illicit services with a credit card. When I explained this, he said he would go to an ATM. In the five minutes he was gone, I considered that he could be a cop. Nothing about his demeanor necessarily insinuated he was, except that any strange behavior from a client requires vigilance toward this possibility. I inexplicably strained my ears for sirens. I went back over, in my head, what I’d said, ensuring I hadn’t incriminated myself. There had been no negotiation of services beyond a standard back rub. Still, I wondered what might happen, what I’d do. I ran through all the possible scenarios. I wondered if I shouldn’t let him back in. I did, though, and the appointment proceeded unremarkably. He wasn’t a cop—or if he was, he didn’t try to arrest me. That’s another thing—cops see sex workers as clients, too. And not as undercovers in a sting, I mean, just as regular clients.

Probably once a week, somewhere on Instagram, I see that popular meme of Tweety Bird holding a gun, wearing a bandanna and a white muscle tank, with the words “OK BITCH CALL THE COPS / I’LL HAVE SEX WITH THEM” emblazoned above and below. I’ve long known that offering or relinquishing sex is a successful tactic for leaving a situation otherwise unscathed; I think most women do. I don’t want to erase what can be the scathing effects of having unwanted sex but to highlight the reality that there are many worse fates. Going to jail, for example, or being killed. Having any kind of sex in the context of work inevitably changes one’s relationship to sex, consent, and desire; boundaries both expand and contract.

What I mean to say is, I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m willing to do for money, but I’ve also become acutely aware of what I will not do, even for money. What I wouldn’t do strictly for money, though, is not the same as what I wouldn’t do under threat of certain losses or violations. Would I fuck a client-cum-cop if the alternative were arrest or exposure? Probably. I hope I never have to find out. Sex is a lot of things that we like to pretend it isn’t, and one of those things is a tool. Whether in jest, casual disaster-fantasy conversation, or earnestly, most of us have thought about what we might trade sex for, given the constant social discourse surrounding what, exactly, it is that makes a woman a whore. I would guess, too, that a lot of us have told ourselves we wouldn’t trade sex for anything, unless forced at gunpoint, or under similar duress. But sometimes I think sex workers have merely collapsed the flawed logic that keeps modes of coercion so radically distinct in the minds of so many people. The capacity to imagine trading sex to preserve life or freedom in a threatening instant isn’t actually so removed from the capacity to imagine trading sex to preserve life or freedom on a larger scale—to support oneself financially under the unrelenting pressures of global capitalism.

The night Yang Song died she didn’t have even the lesser-evil option of sexual negotiation with an officer. Her workplace was surrounded by a 10-member outfit of the Queens North Vice Enforcement Squad, complete with three vehicles, one of which was already designated for prisoner transport. Arrest was certain, and if she jumped we can imagine she did so out of fear of this foregone conclusion. Her fear was founded; she’d been arrested before. This time she tried to escape. Her leap was fatal. As “evidence of criminality” the official NYPD documentation cites “Yang Song’s conduct of removing IMOS-UC1 from the apartment when he would not remove his clothing as well as her subsequent response of pacing back and forth and observing the DVR monitor which provided a live feed of the field team approaching her apartment; and . . . Yang Song’s criminal history which included previous arrests for prostitution at the same subject location.” Once a person is deemed criminally suspect by the police, due to race, gender presentation, perceived sexual deviance, or immigration status, all of their subsequent behaviors are read as criminal. I read the NYPD’s description not as evidence of criminality but rather as evidence of terror. Following queer theorist José Muñoz, I find, “The work of queer critique is often to read outside official documentation.” For Song, arrest was not an option, and so she chose the only other available path: out. Speaking to The Appeal after Song’s death, Susan Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, a nonprofit that supports massage-parlor workers in Flushing, said, “There are people who we talked to on the street and they are saying they would rather jump than be arrested.”

Muñoz’s characterization of queer critique comes from his seminal 2009 work Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. In the chapter titled “A Jeté Out the Window,” he asserts the necessity of reading outside of official documentation with respect to the suicide of Judson dancer, Warhol star, downtown legend, and speed freak Fred Herko. More than fifty years ago, Herko fell to his death as Song fell to hers, though his is remembered as a performance, a possibly premeditated flight down five stories on a fall night in the West Village. Herko allegedly danced naked for his friend Johnny Dodd in Dodd’s apartment before fatally leaping. In Muñoz’s queer utopian analysis of the dancer’s final performance, he is careful to note that he is pulling from legend. Facts remain unknown, as both subject and witness are dead. Nonetheless, he chooses to interpret Herko’s act as “the artist striving for another way, leaping away from the here and now of a stultifying straight time and attempting to reach another time and place, a not-here and a not-now that is utopian.”

On the risk of romanticizing Herko’s death, Muñoz acknowledges, “Suicide is often the end of hope.” And yet, in the same chapter, he discusses Giorgio Agamben’s concept of gesture, which he describes as “utopian in that it resists the goal-oriented tautological present.” In the gesture’s “incompleteness, [it] promises another time and place.” Perhaps we can think of Song’s death as this sort of gesture, as the end of hope, in one sense, but also a hopeful refusal of the tautological present, in another. Song refuses arrest, even as her gesture is incomplete. Muñoz’s words rang true in her moment of decision: “The here and now is a prison house.” A prison house that she would not submit to. I do not want to romanticize her death, either, but I want to find a shred of hope in her absolute refusal to acquiesce. Her impulse to risk everything rather than allow seizure by the state. No person should ever be made to make this choice—the fact that she had to is pure evil.

Muñoz insists that utopia is a political and existential necessity, particularly for queers of color like himself who exist in a white-supremacist, heteropatriarchial society. He reclaims a queer futurity, offering to those whom the world treats as disposable the modality to imagine another world. Crucially, though, he locates the queer future in an “ecstatic and horizonal temporality,” so that glimpses of it can be seen in the here and now, can be captured by people who can’t actually bring themselves to imagine that another world is possible, or that they have a place in it. His futurity centers precisely those who don’t value the future, at least in what he terms “straight time,” in which “the only futurity promised is that of reproductive majoritarian heterosexuality, the spectacle of the state refurbishing its ranks through overt and subsidized acts of reproduction.” Many of his contemporaries in the field also rejected futurity as it exists in straight time, embracing failure and nihilism as the truly queer affects and affiliations. But Muñoz shows us another way out of straight time, out of a future that is only promised to those who have jobs, get married, have children, have healthcare, don’t do drugs, have safe sex, get enough sleep, and don’t want to die. His utopia on the horizon is for the junkies, the suicidal freaks, the punks, the whores, the cruisers, the ones who stay out all night picking up strangers in illegal clubs or sleep all day, unable to get out of bed without a hit of something.

To me, harm-reduction work is a praxis of Muñoz’s hope-as-methodology; it “permits us to conceptualize new worlds and realities that are not irrevocably constrained by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and institutionalized state homophobia.” To these constraints I would add institutionalized racism, whorephobia, transphobia, classism, and respectability politics. What I find the most politically hopeful—one of the only things I find politically hopeful—is work that rejects the state and its values entirely. As a framework, harm reduction is inherently opposed to the criminalization of so-called vices, like the drug trade and the sex trade. It operates with the understanding that criminalization never eradicates such trades but merely sends their participants further into the shadows. Defined by sets of practices that aim to reduce harm for people engaged in behaviors that might pose risks to their health, harm reduction employs strategies developed by people already engaged in these behaviors who want to help themselves and their loved ones stay alive.

Tits and Sass, a journalism site by and for sex workers, used to run an advice column called “Ask Ms. Harm Reduction.” It was astonishing in its frankness. It featured six questions: four on drug use, two on STI transmission. Ms. Harm Reduction instructed her readers on ways to minimize risks while taking drugs with johns (“Don’t allow the gentleman to control your consumption: ask him to set aside your portion when you start, and then measure out each dose yourself”); how to hide dopesickness from a client who wouldn’t approve (“Rub a bit of mentholated cream on the inside of your cute little nostrils”); and how to convince reticent clients to use protection (“Tell him that you thought about the topic and decided that condoms were necessary for your comfort, and would he rather you wear one, or should he? That gives him the illusion of control in the making of that choice”). It is not the advice itself that is remarkable so much as its tone, its existence. Implicit in this column is that the askers are deserving of answers, that they are no less deserving of safety and life than a person who eschews risky and stigmatized behaviors in the first place. Such work forms a politics of care, whereas the law, in all its rigid absurdity, is care-less. Harm reduction is friends; the law is cops. Harm reduction tells people that they matter just as they are. The world is cruel and harsh to survive in; it’s understandable to play fast and loose with one’s life. But tools exist to minimize all of our chosen risks, and they are beautiful when distributed by those who don’t believe we have to change our behaviors or values to be worthy of care.

Throughout the last few months, numerous mainstream publications have run articles on the decriminalization of sex work—GQ, NPR, Rolling Stone, Broadly, The Cut, the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, and Refinery29, among others. A recent iteration of this largely sympathetic but repetitive coverage was Teen Vogue’s “Sex Workers Want 2020 Democratic Candidates to Take Them Seriously.” Such a headline, though technically true, is almost laughable. People are dying now. They are being killed by cops, by overdoses, by their own hands, by the hands of intimate-partner violence, or being left to rot in prison. While Bernie Sanders doesn’t “have an answer” with respect to decriminalization, Kamala Harris claims to support it, though she defends the closure of Backpage and her entire prosecutorial history, and calls for the continued criminalization of clients, something sex-workers’-rights advocates say unequivocally will harm them.

Attempts to mainstream decriminalization often employ the language of the state, because decriminalization is a legislative issue. It needs the state’s approval to succeed. If sex work were decriminalized, advocates say, sex workers would feel safer calling on police protection should they need to while working. But the police will never protect the most vulnerable among us. Sex workers will still be criminalized for being undocumented, or trans, or not white, or drug using, or HIV positive. Decriminalization efforts around the world have time and again thrown the most marginalized workers under the bus in favor of protections for some. The recent Tits and Sass article “The Racism of Decriminalization” explains the realities of decrim in New Zealand and New South Wales, where, respectively, migrant sex workers and street-based sex workers remain criminalized while their documented and indoor counterparts are not. Interviewed by Bitch magazine this past June about art and activism, filmmaker and artist Tourmaline said, “I think it’s really important to always name that it’s all of us or none of us. If it’s going to be all of us, we need to always center and demand the things that will affect the most vulnerable of us.”

Make no mistake: Sex work must be decriminalized, fully, for the safety of workers. Currently, not only the work itself is illegal; so too are efforts to work safely. SESTA/FOSTA, two bills passed a year ago, purportedly to stop online sex trafficking, led to the shutdown of not just online ad forums (which allow workers to find and screen clients before meeting and for many make the difference between working on the street and working indoors) but also forums where workers share safety tips and advice with one another. Under these laws, such information sharing could be construed as the facilitation of sex trafficking. Similarly, in many states, workers housing one another, screening clients for one another, or sharing funds with one another could be charged with pimping or trafficking. Cases that begin as rescue operations often end in prostitution charges, like the recently sensationalized Robert Kraft solicitation scandal. Of the hypocrisy of this investigation, writer Charlotte Shane, in an article for Sports Illustrated, implored, “Think critically about law enforcement’s tactics. Police installed hidden cameras in the Jupiter massage parlor Kraft visited by fabricating a bomb threat. Officers also visited the spas undercover as paying clients to receive massages from women who allegedly offered them more intimate contact. . . . [They] had no moral or ethical qualms about receiving massages from these ‘malnourished’ victims while undercover.” Though the investigation was initially deemed a “rescue operation” and “the tip of the iceberg” of human-trafficking operations, the assistant state attorney has since announced, “No one is being charged with human trafficking. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation.” And yet, on April 23rd, a 58-year-old woman captured on the hidden cameras performing a sex act on Kraft was charged with Offer to Commit Prostitution and Deriving Support from Prostitution, her bond set at $5,000. For all these reasons, criminalization of sex workers and their clients unilaterally harms workers (voluntary, trafficked, or anywhere in the middle of this gray spectrum). Decriminalization is absolutely vital; it is also not enough.

Vice raids and trafficking stings continue all over the country, including in the blocks surrounding the site of Yang Song’s death. Though the policing of vice and trafficking are technically distinct operations, they’re suspiciously difficult to tell apart. Queens City Councilman Peter Koo is currently leading a push to shut down illicit massage parlors in Flushing, because “parents complain about drug use and open sex solicitation in full view of people.” On March 29th, he cohosted a meeting with the NYPD to educate residents on how to identify human-trafficking victims (condoms were pointed to as a telltale sign); the lesson, as Melissa Gira Grant tweeted, was actually “mostly about spotting sex work.” Red Canary Song, a group formed to support the self-organizing of migrant massage workers, protested outside, along with members of DecrimNY, a largely sex-worker-led coalition spearheading the movement to decriminalize sex work in New York. Two weeks later, Red Canary Song published an essay on Tits and Sass explaining the ways in which labor laws in China and immigration laws in the U.S. cause a confluence of circumstances that render massage-parlor work a “platform for . . . survival” for a vast network of Chinese immigrants. Blockaded by Flushing police from the steps of the library in which the meeting took place, group members wouldn’t be deterred. They continued their teach-in, “passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passersby.”

Until my friend moved house a couple months ago, they had a massive banner taken home from a party we threw last spring and hung up in their bedroom. I loved to lie in their bed and stare at it. The banner was peach silk with red-brown letters painted on, reading, “WE’VE GOT TO KEEP EACH OTHER ALIVE ’CUS NO ONE ELSE IS GONNA DO IT.” The party raised money for a mutual-aid fund for marginalized sex workers struggling in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA. Our tagline was, “For fags, whores, and prisoners.” It was a divinely dirty affair, complete with a poppers booth, a spanking booth, needle play, cheap liquor in flimsy plastic cups, and lots of cigarettes being smoked indoors. We had drugs as well as Narcan. The banner quote was an adaptation of a line from Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions: “We gotta keep each other alive any way we can ’cause nobody else is goin’ do it.”

We keep each other alive. Every safe call, every pack of condoms stolen from the drugstore, every recording of cops harassing workers on the street, every fentanyl test strip, every teach-in, every shared client so a friend can pay rent. Our gestures are utopian. Our gestures outlive death.