From Criminalization to Liberation: Organizing Migrant Asian Sex Workers Across Oceans

From Criminalization to Liberation
Monday, December 2, 2019 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM

KK de la Vida • Chanelle Gallant • Elene Lam • Elena Shih • Kate Zen in conversation
moderated by Yin Q • introduced by Mae Ngai

How might treating migrant sex work as labor rather than as a problem change policies, transform communities and create new futures?

This conversation centers theories and practices that emerge from organizing with Asian sex worker communities embedded in complex migration networks that span East Asia, Southeast Asia, and North America. The dominant anti-trafficking discourse in relation to migrant sex work reinforces policing and surveillance networks, stigmatizes sex workers, and isolates migrants, with the result that it often harms those who it is meant to “save.”

Although multiple models of policing sex work, including global anti-trafficking effortas full criminalization (in the US), buyer criminalization (the Swedish model), legalization (in the Netherlands), and full decriminalization (as in New Zealand), currently compete in activist, governmental, and policy-making circles, they all disproportionately affect migrant sex workers. Understanding these policies, discourses and their power within contemporary governance also requires revisiting racialized and gendered histories that must be traced back to Cold War geopolitics and earlier.

Based on research and organizing in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Canada, and the United States, the speakers here insist that we think of sex work alongside rather than in contrast to other forms of work, shifting from criminal to labor law frameworks. The implications of migrant sex work organizing go beyond policy, suggesting new ways for transnational communities, arranged by differences of privilege based on language, education, immigration and citizenship status, race, gender, sexuality, and forms of sex work, to imagine futures beyond criminalization and toward liberation. This panel will be followed by a Q & A and then a series of small breakout group discussions.

Special thanks to our sponsors, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.

Thanks to our co-sponsors, the Department of History, the Department of Sociology, the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Studies, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and the Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy.