“Sex worker activism is always based in anti-police, anti-prison activism.”
October 29, 2020
Amid a global pandemic that has reshaped the sex industry, activists Kate Zen, cofounder of Red Light Reader and Red Canary Song, an organization that serves Asian and migrant sex workers, and SX Noir, vice president of Women of Sex Tech and a leader of the Black Sex Worker Liberation march, met up on Zoom to debrief their work and unpack solidarity between Black and Asian sex workers. The conversation that ensued covered topics of race and immigration, sex work history and present-day issues, organizing across difference, and the powerful force of friendship within movements.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SX Noir (SN)
I am SX Noir, the self-proclaimed “thot leader” of sex technology. I am the current vice president of the Women of Sex Tech and the host of a podcast called Thot Leader Pod where we navigate empathy, digital space, and sex technology. I am a sex worker rights activist and advocate, a Black woman, and a founder of the Black Sex Worker Liberation march and vigil, and soon to be organization. I’m the daughter of a formerly incarcerated person, so I am deeply interested in prison abolition and, as a treat, police abolition.
I’m happy to be here talking about Black and Asian sex worker solidarity, and talking to someone that I really love, Kate Zen. We’ve been on this journey since the beginning, at least since my introduction to the activism world. Kate has been someone who’s just always been there and has been a constant figure within the organizing work I do.
Kate Zen (KZ)
I’ve learned so much from working with you, SX, and it’s been an amazing privilege to do different events with you over this past summer from the sex work decrim teach-in with TS Candii, to the Black Sex Worker Liberation march, to being part of the work with the Women of Sex Tech.
In sex work activism, I go by Kate Zen. I’ve always been kind of in and out of sex worker activism, alongside or separate from other activism that I do in immigrant rights and tech spaces, where I use my legal name. Sometimes these aspects of my activism combine, like at Tactical Tech in Berlin, an organization that does privacy rights training. I’ve worked on developing digital privacy trainings for Chinese journalists and human rights activists, as well as a digital privacy toolkit for sex workers. I met Mistress Blunt and Dale, and participated in Hacking//Hustling, and I’m part of Women of Sex Tech with SX. I’m thinking about different ways sex workers are piloting our own alternative spaces—like Sinnamon Love, who is working as a diversity consultant for a platform that is like OnlyFans but with a higher payout for sex workers—and how Black sex workers have been the leaders of a lot of these spaces, especially all the work that you’re doing, SX!
I think my activism with sex worker rights has been really shaped by Black activists, in particular Andrea Ritchie. I interned with her when I was in school, when she was in the first few years of building up Streetwise and Safe. We did outreach at shelters and built a cohort of LGBTQ Black and brown youth under the age of 24 that were engaged in street economies. Working with Andrea gave me my political framework for sex worker activism, which is always based in anti-police, anti-prison activism—looking at how like broken windows policing is like incredibly racist and how the entire prison system comes out of the institution of slavery in the United States. Ritchie has been so instrumental in reshaping what has been a more white-dominated sex worker activist rhetoric in the U.S. that focused more on pleasure activism, and less on the harms of criminalization and informal labor, or on sexual labor that has been forced, because of poverty, exploitative low-wage jobs in formal labor sectors, and immigration laws. So much of what I’ve learned in sex worker activism, I’ve learned from amazing Black women activists.
You brought up a really interesting point. One of the things I quote you on from the teach-in—when we were all dancing around and having so much enjoyment in our lives in that moment—you said, “It’s okay to have personal interest within your activism.” And for me, I had to really think deeply about how I came to sex work activism, and it truly came from witnessing and navigating the many intersections with criminalization and the prison system in America. But it takes a special person with a particular self-interest to get out there to fight for civil liberties.
Solidarity means being able to articulate a personal stake in the work, and working alongside others to fight against shared oppression.
I definitely appreciate you and the work that you’ve done—you have been employed within sectors that do civil rights work, right?
Yeah, I worked as an organizer with the Street Vendor Project and learned how to talk to strangers and get people to come to meetings. I think a lot of the skill sets from organizing I learned from working with other immigrant groups, non-sex workers—first with street vendors and then working with domestic workers. There are certain parallels that are definitely applicable to immigrant sex worker outreach, although, oh my God, sex worker outreach is so much harder, because there’s just so much more stigma, and people don’t want to talk to you. And there’s a lot more competitiveness, too. I think the space is harder because we face more oppression. Working with other groups gives a foundation, but it also makes me really aware that sex worker organizing also needs to come out of our own space. And it may not look like traditional labor organizing or even organizing with other informal workers, and to be open to what that might need to look like.
Absolutely, and I think it’s very interesting, the specific needs of sex workers. My introduction into the sex tech industry came from seeing a lot of discrimination and deletion and ultimately violence happening for sex workers in digital spaces. I was aware of all of these physical elements—street-based workers, poverty-based work, and labor violations—but in the digital space, I’m thinking to myself: ‘Why do we not talk about this even more?’ And so this personal interest and this personal navigation of the world definitely impacts how you navigate activism and how you step up and what groups and organizations you work for and support.
Like when I think about Black and Asian solidarity, I think about when you invited me to a counter-protest in Flushing, Queens earlier this year. I remember there were a number of right-wing protests that were happening in Flushing, right?
Yeah, this one was on July 3rd, a little over a week after another one on June 22nd that we were kind of reacting against. The first one caught us by surprise, like whoa, all of these real estate people were pro-NYPD and using really anti-Black language. So I wanted to be on-point for the next one, which we planned within 24 hours. It was a few folks from Queens DSA that were aware of it. SX, you very graciously came out to speak, and really led this action. Afterwards, I had some reservations—I felt bad for putting you in front of the racism there… I don’t know if we can maybe talk about it. I worry about how that was actually a hurtful space for you to be in, to see all these…
Oh my God, no. Honestly, when we talk about what kind of power dynamics exist within the Black and Asian communities, I find it incredibly interesting. Growing up in Missouri, my best friend’s Vietnamese. I was very close to him, and we often navigated a lot of these parallels. Something that you brought to my attention as well is that Asians can be assumed to assimilate to white or Black American culture, and this assimilation can result in different political views. So I felt very strong solidarity with the Asian community in general, because I felt politically aligned for the most part with a lot of the things that hinder us. And we know that there’s these tropes of the model minority with Asian Americans that are simply untrue, but it’s interesting how it plays out when it comes to policing and police brutality.
And so when I went to Flushing—first of all, it was my first time in Flushing—and I was overwhelmed with how much energy there was and how much bustle there was. I was late and came with one of my friends. When we walk up, we just see this whole wall of people screaming, “NYPD! We love the NYPD,” with all these handmade signs. I’m thinking to myself, “Holy shit. This is fucking crazy.” Chinatown, New York City, where I live, is an incredibly liberal area; you don’t see Trump signs or pro-NYPD signs. So for me to see the faces behind the signs, it was absolutely shocking.
Part of the scariness of it, too, there was about maybe ten or so people who were very adamantly yelling at us, and they were very very upset.
And they were spitting at us in the middle of a pandemic.
One guy yelled at us, “Go back to your country.” That was the moment for me that shifted everything. Because in my mind, I wanted to go, “What do you mean go back to my country? You go back to your country!” But I had to take a step back and go: That’s not what I’m doing here at all. That’s not the energy that I should be coming to this situation with, because that’s not what we’re doing today. I approach things with empathy and with thoughtfulness. I’m here in solidarity with my other community members, and we’re here to educate and inform. We are not here to pass blame. We are not here to judge.
And I felt so happy to see other Asian Americans in solidarity with us. There was this woman who came near the end, and she was chanting at one of the protesters…
She cursed them out [laughs].
She was dope. But I don’t have any reservations about it. This is what I do. This is part of it—facing the people who completely disagree with you and who see the world differently, and that’s part of life. That was such a great learning moment and experience for me to have. A little bit scary, but, you know, life is scary.
I’m so grateful you came out. You took such leadership. I was a little embarrassed, I think, as an Asian American who grew in the U.S., with parents who maybe disagree with some of these values in our activism, or maybe don’t feel included in them. I’m sorry that you had to be faced with that kind of anger and energy. But I’m glad you handled it with so much grace.
As a young Black woman, I get upset with my elders. I was on the phone with my aunt the other day, and she basically said that it’s okay for police to have weapons, because if a civilian has a weapon, a policeman has the right to shoot them. That’s what my literal Black auntie said. So there’s work to be done that is not exclusive to the immigrant community—these layers of trauma run deep, so we do have that in common.
In terms of organizing for the Black Sex Worker Liberation March and going forward, what are ways that you feel that Asian sex workers can be more supportive? Red Canary members, from the June Kink Out rally and the march in Times Square, we’ve always wanted to find concrete ways to advocate together in solidarity. I wonder, going forward, what are ways that we can help or just be side-by-side going forward?
I think that’s the answer, being side-by-side. I feel like there needs to be deep support on both levels. There was a Korean person who spoke at the Flushing counter-protest and acknowledged the fact that so much of American culture is stemmed from Black Americans. And that was moving to me, because I had never seen anybody of Asian descent ever acknowledge that Black Americans are the culture in America.
Solid ways to show up again is at your dinner table, talking to your elders, talking to your family, talking to your community. That’s a huge thing. And constantly working on ourselves, doing the readings, doing the shadow work, the work that’s on the inside. It starts with teach-ins, and it starts with a conversation like today’s. Solidarity means showing up and also attempting to understand and not take up too much space or center yourself in the conversation.
I feel like Asian and Black communities can feel like they’re on different ends of the spectrum of the American experience and isolate themselves from each other a lot. There are a lot more intersections in our worlds than meets the eye. I feel like Black sex workers and Asian sex workers have a lot of parallels of stigmas within the sex work industry. There are migrant workers, who are also Black sex workers, and there’s this idea that they should get paid a lot less than white sex workers. It creates a lot of in-fighting and scapegoating with both of our communities.
What are some things the Asian American community need and some actions that we can take now?
Historically, sex negativity has been used to exclude Asians from the country. From the passing of the Page Act to the Chinese Exclusion Act—Chinese woman’s “proclivity” for doing sex work was used to pass laws to bar all Chinese people from entering the country. These kinds of stereotypes and persistent cultural ideas definitely still impact the community. I think in the past people have only addressed the stigma of prostitution on Asian women in a way that looked at media representation, yellow fever, and white fetishization, and as a result blamed sex workers for that negative stereotype. And now I think people are becoming more critical of how complex it is to have economic violence be exerted against you and for people to survive economic violence through sexuality, and how different ideas of prostitution in different countries have such different impact on people’s [outcomes].
There are so many women in China that are mistresses. In the book, Leftover in China, the author wrote that an estimated 80 percent of businesses started by young women may actually be started by mistresses who are supported by older men. There’s a stereotype in China that older men, if they reach a certain degree of success, especially in government, have to take on mistresses. It’s almost expected, and even their wives expect them to. People both accept it as a reality, and at the same time they support sex work criminalization in the form of re-education camps, where sex workers have been put into labor camps for two years without trial. People go missing. There’s a weird hypocrisy both in China and the U.S. that accepts that prostitution and mistresses exist, and yet if anyone is explicit about that reality, they will be penalized for it, because it’s the sort of thing that we have to keep hidden and underground.
Women are certainly not given the same opportunities as men, and sexuality is a weapon that [immigrant] women wield to empower themselves and get capital in a new country. People engage in sex work in the immigrant community because there are no business loans available to immigrants. A lot of women start businesses in laundromats or bakeries or whatever by working as a sex worker for a while. This is an access to capital issue. Being upfront that this is so common among a lot of new immigrants is something that we need to do culturally, and that’s a separate sphere from politics or legislation—just having conversations, being honest about how sex work is so freaking prevalent right now. That’s something that would help make lives better in a very gradual but everyday way.
I feel like you touched on something really important, which is the need to survive under capitalism in America and how it brings you to sex work. We talk about this within the sex trade, about choice, coercion, and circumstance—and a lot of people are navigating sex work in America under circumstance.
I love that you brought up the historical connections. There’s a difference between Asian Americans having a history [rooted] in immigration and Black Americans having a history [rooted] in slavery. Historically Black women have been used not only for labor but to breed the labor force that is the wealth of America today. This involves sex, so Black women were seen as objects and were often raped, abused, and treated as if they were cattle. Sex work as a Black women is an incredibly radical act, any attempt of upward mobility under capitalism.
My personal navigation through the sex trade was one of surviving under capitalism. Black women in America are highly fetishized and hyper-sexualized. Sex work for Black women is the ultimate form of reparations in my eyes; the redistribution of wealth to me begins with sex workers. That’s what I was actively seeing and why I was so drawn to the sex trade, because it was these white men who felt guilty about the excess of wealth they had, and they’re having this exchange of services and redistributing that wealth.
So when we think about this pipeline of the American “justice” system that criminalizes sex work and feeds people into systems of forced labor, Black sex workers see it all. We come from a history of forced labor, and our future is one of forced labor. Sex workers attempt to break that cycle and redistribute wealth. I think it’s beautiful, but I also think that there’s a long way to go before sex work is an active choice for most women and is an empowering thing.
It’s interesting you brought up the history of Black women’s bodies being used to reproduce slavery, and how within slavery, all women’s bodies were forced into sex work. In contrast, a lot of Chinese women were engaging in sex work, because immigration laws kept families separated. The men were imported to work on the railroad or to do other labor, but it was very clear that they were supposed to leave—that white America did not want any Asians to permanently settle. Asian women were brought in to keep the labor happy while they were here, but they were encouraged not to have families and to leave the country. So the presence of Asian women in sex work was for the opposite reason of reproducing the labor force; rather, it was to keep reproduction from happening, and to placate the male labor force.
You see this with militaries, where sex workers surround military encampments. In Flushing, you see immigrant workers who are mostly Latino day laborers who are sending money home to their families in Mexico or Central America, but they have a fling or make-believe girlfriend relationships with Asian massage workers to sort of bide the time, and it’s just enough. It’s because America doesn’t pay a family wage for immigrant workers, because they don’t want you to actually have a family here. They don’t want you to reproduce, or pay immigrant workers what citizens would be paid. They want you to do work that is exploitative, but worth a lot [with an exchange rate] when the money is sent home. When you’re tired, they want to ship you back home. Immigration policy is written to extract labor then ship people back, whether in seasonal farm work or domestic work. In this niche, immigrant sex workers are here not to reproduce the labor force but to keep the labor force from reproducing.
What you just said was so powerful, because it’s the truth. One thing I did want to touch on is that we as activists say “sex work,” which is what we’re talking about today, but there’s no such thing as forced sex work, right? That’s human trafficking and rape. And this is why we have conversations about the sex trade as a whole to incorporate concepts of criminalization, immigration, racist capitalism, etc.
Yes, though it’s a blurry line. All work is compelled under economic circumstances of some kind, and generally for most businesses workers are employed so as to make a profit for the owners of the business, the managers. Workers are purposefully paid less than the actual profit margins, so that the bulk of the profit can go to someone else.
What’s interesting when it comes to sex work is that sexual labor has always existed and it comes alongside unequal gender relations between men and women, where women have traditionally been sold with dowries for marriage and valued for their reproductive capacity. [We were] literally traded at market the same way as cattle and not given any kinds of voting rights or right to own property. For most of human history in almost every civilization, women have not had property rights, education, or any way of participating in governance. Women have always been doing sex work as a way to reproduce the family unit for men. And what does it mean when women come out of that? What does it mean to trade in a piecemeal way for a little bit of income? Sex work then can only be measured in terms of its labor value compared to marriage, right? You can’t understand sex work completely independently of a heteronormative family structure. Until we actually do have a free, queer, polyamorous society, where there is no expectation of women as reproductive units first and foremost, until every woman is actually paid equal to men, which is not the world we live in, I think the only way to compare sexual labor is to compare it to the historically unwaged work of marriage.
Absolutely, I think every woman has traded sex. That’s a controversial statement, but it’s the absolute truth. Did you enjoy the drinks and dinner that he bought you? Did you marry for upward mobility?
I’d love to touch on the role of friendship in solidarity and the movement. Kate, I would say that we’re growing our friendship, but we are friends, and we met through the activism world. How much do you think our friendship contributes to our activism in solidarity together?
I mean, I have so much respect and love for you as a person, and I want to see you thrive. I’m about 10 years older than you, and the sex worker activist world that I’ve seen has been one with so much conflict, and I just want to see you do well and thrive. You are such a natural leader. I guess I just want to make sure that you feel supported and safe within it and that it doesn’t eat away at you in a negative way.
You’re such a sweet person. You know, I do think that friendship leads to better solidarity in activism. You’re standing alongside these people that have the same ideas that you have, that have the same interest, and that means something. I quote Yin Q. all the time that “we must celebrate,” that that’s part of the revolution. We came to sex work [activism] because we’re fucking cool, and when you get together with other people who are also doing the work, it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the day where I do get to get to know you on a much more personal level.
I think that friendship is something that’s important within activism, because we truly care about one another. We don’t want our friends to be hurt, to be in pain, to be not welcome, to not be safe. I feel like a lot of the in-fighting can come from not seeking out friendship and solidarity and not being humble and vulnerable enough to let people see your true colors.
To wrap this up, I wanted to ask you: Where do you see the future of sex tech and sex work going?
What you said here is so important; it rings true. I don’t know a lot about sex tech, but there should be more companies led and run by sex workers. You see a few of them like Tryst popping up in other countries, but in the U.S. ecosystem, Eros takes up so much of the share. We could do better.
Absolutely, I love and support Tryst. They were sponsors of the Black Sex Worker Liberation. Kudos to Tryst and Switter. Love y’all.
I feel like sex workers are literally leading the culture and a lot of the economics online, and they deserve privacy and security. At Women of Sex Tech, we are actively inclusive of sex workers. It is sex worker-led—hello, me. It’s important to have this representation, to have a seat at the table, and to have tech equity for femmes and sex workers.
I wrote a manifesto recently for i-D mag as one of their revolutionary activists, where I call for the end of using Black femme bodies for profit in digital space. We are no longer your slaves. We are not here to make profit for you. My whole goal is “for us by us,” to have Black ownership and sex worker ownership and femme ownership within the digital space.
One of the things I brought up at the Black Sex Worker Liberation March is the demand of an acknowledgment of the Black sex worker impact on culture and having community show up for those who lead the world’s liberation. Sex workers lead the world’s liberation—this is facts.