Documentary filmmaker, professor of filmmaking at Hunter College, activist, and self-proclaimed child of the ’60s Tami Gold is exploring the decriminalization of sex work in a new film currently in production, Policing Our Bodies. The 60- to 70-minute film will explore the Decrim NY coalition, a group dedicated to (according to their website) “decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize sex workers in New York City and State.” The film tackles many issues that transgender and cisgender sex workers face, and it debunks many misconceptions about being a sex worker, including what it means to choose sex work, the legal challenges, and sex worker health.
“The idea for the film actually came out of a book,” Gold said. “The book is called The End of Policing, and it’s by Alex Vitale. It really is a book about abolition, that we do not need the force of policing to solve social problems, or to even be identifying social problems.” After Gold and Vitale got together and decided to work on a film, they focused in on the chapter about sex work. “We decided to focus primarily on policing our bodies, because that deals so much with one aspect of policing. There’s nothing they [the police] should do inside sex work, or the sex trade, or the sex industry. There’s absolutely no reason for policing to take place.”
Starting with this point of view, Gold met with TS Candii, a sex worker, activist, and member of the Decrim NY coalition, and got her on board as a lead performer in the film as well as producer. “The Decrim NY coalition is a fairly new coalition, barely two years old,” Candii said. “We just got the name and logo and some funding. It’s mainly made up and led by Black and Brown sex workers, including immigrants. I’m the lead organizer, the voice, the face, the facilitator [in the group] for the Black and Brown transgender individuals.”
“The film means to bring the compassionate argument that sex work is work. That a blow job is a job,” Gold said, “and that that is different than [human] trafficking and all the rhetoric coming out of our government and of a lot of nonprofit organizations.” Gold says that many institutions claim that there is no such thing as sex work, that it is prostitution, all wrapped around the notion of violence against women. “We are saying no, that’s not the case.” Gold continued, “They are two distinct issues.”
“I started selling sex when I was 13 years of age,” Candii said. She grew up in rural Tennessee in a conservative, religious household and was thrown out of her home by her parents for not conforming to heteronormative standards. “I was faced with the streets, and the only thing I could do was … well, I needed to put clothes on my back, I needed a place to live, and I needed to eat. I needed to survive,” Candii said, “so the only thing I could do was sell sex. Sex work saved my life.” Throughout her life, Candii has had so-called legitimate work but has come back to sex work, because she’s experienced racial discrimination and transphobia at those workplaces, causing her to return to her survival job.
“One of the reasons I’m so excited about this film is that it shows all of the organizing being conducted in order to fight against the policies and the laws in order to reclaim justice and own our own bodies,” Candii said.
“Yes,” Gold agreed, “one of the things about the film is that it can humanize [sex workers] and open a discussion. With sex work, we are conditioned [by society] to have a negative response. Or to be a savior, you know, to save the women. Women have agency. Sex workers have agency. We are trying to use the film to dismantle that understanding of sex work.” She also explained that policing sex work reinforces the negative views people have of sex workers. “The policing of sex work is actually impacting how the larger community sees it.” She pointed out that in the history of sex work, there is always greater violence when police are involved, there’s greater disease, there’s more killing. “When there’s policing, the sex work goes underground,” she said.
“That’s right,” Candii agreed, “and you know, sex workers are the healthiest people on Earth! The sex worker is getting themselves checked out at the clinic more than the average person is at the clinic. We don’t want to be sick,” she continued, “we want to just do our work and stay healthy.” Making sure sex workers have access to staying healthy through condom use and regular doctor visits contributes to stopping the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Candii went on to say that often the police will profile a transgender person as a sex worker using a law that allows police to see if people have an excess of condoms on them. “The police use condoms as evidence, so some [sex workers] don’t carry them,” she said. “They take away what we use to keep ourselves healthy, to keep ourselves safe!”
In some places, the law has changed, and condoms are not enough evidence to hold or charge someone with prostitution, but this is just one example of the injustices sex workers endure for providing their services. Another common way police can arrest the accused is for “loitering for the purpose of selling sex,” or basically, standing.
Besides TS Candii, the film will feature Kate Zen, a cisgender Chinese immigrant activist and former sex worker. Zen has been instrumental in organizing workers in Flushing, Queens, where there’s been a focus by the vice squad to raid massage parlors. Both women work as activists and organizers, bringing sex workers together to advocate for decriminalization.
“Organizing sex workers is not new,” Gold said. “This has been going on for decades, where sex workers in this country and in other parts of the world have been organizing for their rights.” The film features other sex workers in the movement, as well as lawmakers and supporters.
“It’s a delicate issue, and we’re going to get a lot of pushback, and it’s not just pushback because of the difficulties or because of the discrimination around the job itself [sex work], but also because there is a divide among the feminist movement,” Gold said. There are some in the feminist movement who mistakenly don’t identify transgender women as women, and there are some who don’t believe that sex work is work. “They believe it is violence against women, and they refuse, some of them, to call it sex work. They only call it prostitution. And they may want to decriminalize the sex workers, but they want the johns to still be criminalized, which keeps the police still involved in the work. And that’s not what we want.”
Policing Our Bodies continues in production with a goal of being released on Feb. 25, 2021. The film is also beginning to start crowdfunding and building community through social media. You can find more information on the documentary and how to lend support on the Policing Our Bodies Facebook page.