In Greenwich Village this week, a sex workers pop-up exhibition is attracting attention. Bondage rope draped loosely from the ceiling along with objects like high heels, dildos, and leather belts represent sex workers’ collective memory and the ritual of letting go. Three rows of red umbrellas attached to the ceiling symbolize resistance to oppression and discrimination around the world. 

Over 50 pieces of artwork by 22 artists, 17 of whom are former or current sex workers, all convey a message, loud and clear: “sex work is work.” Daveen Trentman, co-curator of the exhibition, explained that the show aimed to humanize sex work. “The core of this exhibition is authentic storytelling. That matters so much because sex work is often misunderstood, misrepresented, and stigmatized.”

Advised by six sex worker activist groups from Scotland, South Africa, Australia, France, and the US, the show informs visitors about policies surrounding sex work around the world and advocates for full decriminalization, meaning neither buyers nor sellers of sex are punished. In New York City, a hub for immigrant sex workers who face stringent law enforcement, the demand for decriminalization is especially high.

Sex work is illegal in New York. Commercial sex activities often happen behind closed doors in many unlicensed Chinese massage parlors. Police crack down on illicit massage parlors in Chinese immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. 

From 2013 to 2018, there has been a continuous decrease in arrests in Flushing’s two police precincts of Asian-identified females on charges of prostitution, according to NYPD statistics available on NYC Open Data. However, a 2017 report by the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society found that between 2012 and 2016, there was an increase of 1,900 percent in arrests under Sections 6512 and 6513 of New York State Education Law.  These sections classify anyone who practices a profession without holding the requisite license as guilty of either a class A misdemeanor or a class E felony. The study showed that noncitizen Asian women make up 87 percent of arrests for unlicensed massage. Further, between 2012 and 2016, the total number of arrests of Asian people charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution rose from 12 to 336, an increase of 2,700 percent. 

According to Red Canary Song, an organization founded to provide legal services to Asian immigrant sex workers in New York, Chinese sex workers in Flushing massage parlors, many newly arrived in the U.S., live in isolation because they fear law enforcement, speak limited English or know little about their surroundings. The majority of them engage in the sex industry because it pays better than nail salon work and restaurant work, and they have large debt bondage to pay for transportation and paperwork to the country.

Samantha Majic, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies human trafficking and sex work, said that one of the biggest challenges the massage workers face is having access to labor protection and awareness of labor rights.

“With insecure immigration status, it’s hard for them to get jobs in the formal economy,” Majic said. “Immigrants working as sex workers tend to be independent contractors, rather than employees. A big portion of their earnings, they pay to their proprietor at the massage parlors.” The arrest records can also hinder them from getting formal jobs.

One popular location for immigrant sex workers in downtown Flushing is on 38th Avenue, a dim alley intersecting Main Street. Chinese women wander around the crossroad, near a storefront with a sign that reads “immigrant naturalization center” in Chinese characters. Whenever a man walks by, one of them may approach and whisper, “Massage?”

Several New York politicians have paid close attention to this vulnerable group and outwardly supported Red Canary Song’s effort to decriminalize sex work in New York. Four politicians including state senator Julia Salazar, Queens County District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, and assembly members Yuh-Line Niou and Ron Kim attended Red Canary Song’s fundraiser in November last year.

A year ago, Democratic lawmakers including Salazar and Jessica Ramos introduced a bill in the state legislature, the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, that proposed decriminalizing prostitution and eliminating prior criminal records related to sex work charges. This effort aims to stop raids of massage parlors, provide a safer working environment for sex workers, and lessen social stigmas related to this line of work.

“It’s harder for workers to tell an NGO that they have experienced a problem, because they might feel shame or guilt in the work that they are doing, or fear they will be reported or arrested,” Majic, the criminology professor, said. “By removing the penalty for sex work, they will have a safer working environment.”

Not everyone in the Flushing community sees the problem in the same light. In recent years, New York City council member Peter Koo’s office has been getting complaints from community members and business owners about an increased number of sex workers aggressively soliciting men on 40th Road, according to Scott Sieber, a spokesman for Koo. “When you have dozens of them, in a row on the street, monopolizing the entire block…it was getting out of control,” said Sieber.

In March last year, Koo went along with the NYPD as it conducted a crackdown on illicit massage parlors on 40th Road. According to Sieber, the police made no arrests, and Koo called to warn landlords in the area about potential law enforcement on illegal massage businesses. The main objective was to clean up 40th Road, support small businesses, reduce crime and promote Flushing as a family-friendly community and a destination for foodies. The police did not reply to requests for comment.

For the City Council, Sieber said, a bill that decriminalizes sex work would allow the chaos that has been happening in the neighborhood to continue on, attracting other criminal activities like assaults, rape and drug use. A cleaned-up 40th Road has no place for sex workers, he said. If a sex worker wants to look for “safer ways to make money,” according to Sieber, the City Council will refer them to Garden of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Queens that works with victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence.

Garden of Hope receives many clients through recommendations from government offices and out-of-state referrals. Most of its local clients are from human trafficking intervention courts in the New York boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. 

Yanyan, a Chinese sex worker who recently finished five court-mandated sessions at Garden of Hope and was unwilling to use her real name due to fear of being stigmatized, continued doing sex work from home. According to her, she had to send money to her family in China because they were mostly laid off from factory work. Her older sister suffered from breast cancer. “I’m just surviving day by day,” she said in Mandarin. “Not a single day goes by that I’m not afraid of the police or robbers coming to my home.”

Susan Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, has worked with 650 women since the organization launched its anti-trafficking program. She said they were women aged 30 to 40, and about 98 percent of them didn’t speak any English, and that one out of three admitted to being trafficking victims. The number could be higher, said Liu, because not all women liked to talk about their experiences of being trafficked.

However, assemblyman Ron Kim said that confusing sex work and sex trafficking has detrimental effects on sex workers, because not all of them are trafficked. He said that nonprofits are not the effective solution to the challenges sex workers face and that workers are forced to engage in the sex trade because of a failing economy that does not provide enough opportunities. Decriminalizing sex work, Kim said, will focus government resources on helping sex workers, rather than cracking down on the massage businesses.

“It’s easier to say everyone’s trafficked. Let’s go rescue them, and let’s pay some nonprofit to do some religious work to save their moralities,” said Kim. “They don’t want to be saved. They just want rights and opportunities to survive.”

Though widely recognized in local politics and in the press, Red Canary Song has had a hard time attracting Chinese immigrant sex workers because of its activist nature. These workers’ immediate concern is to have a safe working environment and earn enough to pay bills, so they refrain from getting noticed or challenging authority. 

In Chinese culture, sex work is heavily stigmatized. Chinese sex workers do not want to participate in activities where they have to be identified as sex workers, even though the activities may be potentially beneficial for them, said Kate Zen, the founder of Red Canary Song. The organization’s priority is to determine how to best align both their advocacy work and community outreach.

“Sex workers themselves are the best resource in any discussion of policy or programing or next step, because sex workers know their needs best,” Majic said. “Listening to what sex workers have to say in culturally competent, language-appropriate, and nonjudgmental ways is the key starting point for addressing this issue.”

One of the exhibitions at the pop-up show is a collection of photographs, sketches, calligraphies and ceremonial tributes from the vigil for Yang Song, a Chinese sex worker who worked at a massage parlor in Flushing and died in 2017 after falling from a building during a police raid. “Avenge Yang Song” was written on a red handkerchief beneath a bag of rice tribute.  

“Through this exhibition, we want to stay true to our ethos to make sure that sex workers themselves are still at the center of that,” said Sebastian Köhn, program director of Open Society Foundations. “We saw this as an opportunity to pull in a larger audience. We want people to come in and be challenged through the art to see that sex work is actually quite complex.”