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

With KK de la Vida, Elene Lam, Elena Shih, Chanelle Gallant, and Kate Zen
Moderated by Yin Q, introduced by Mae Ngai

December 2, 7-9PM
Jerome Greene Hall Room 701 (Case Lounge)
Law School, Columbia University
435 West 116th Street New York, NY 10027

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.

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.”

Based on research and organizing in China, Hong Kong, 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.

  • Khokhoi de la Vida is a member of Pilipinx shifterhood collective Walang Hiya (NYC), and works between New York City and the Visayas. 
  • Elene Lam is the founder of Zi Teng,  a non-governmental organisation that provides assistance and community to women from Hong Kong and China who work as sex workers.
  • Chanelle Gallant is a co-founder of Migrant Sex Workers Project, a grassroots group of migrants, sex workers, and allies who demand safety and dignity for all sex workers regardless of immigration status based in Canada. 
  • Kate Zen is a founder of Red Canary Song, a grassroots organization advocating and providing resources for Asian Migrant Massage Parlor Workers based in Flushing, Queens. 
  • Elena Shih researches human trafficking, labor migration and sex work in East and Southeast Asian borderlands, and the author of the forthcoming Manufacturing Freedom: Rescue, Rehabilitation, and the Slave Free Good, a global ethnography of the transnational social movement to combat human trafficking in China and Thailand.

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