As an independent escort, I learned a lot of what I needed to know about working and keeping safe via online sources. But as it became clear that I was going to spend several years of my life in the business, I began to wonder about the people behind the screen names, and especially the women behind the pictures and ads. As an independent worker I was spending a lot of time, well, independently – essentially by myself. In the first year or so that I was a provider, I met many more clients than providers. And so I started seeking out other providers. I’ll admit that this search was as much about being nosey as it was about wanting to connect with other women who were having similar experiences of the business. It’s that curiosity that has unfolded into the next stage of my career – running a small (but fierce!) organization, the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP), that supports providers in telling their own stories, making media, and doing advocacy that helps represent our interests in the world. RedUP evolved out of a few different projects that, in turn, grew out of the need I was seeing in our community.
In the fall of 2004, I saw a call for submissions for $pread, a magazine by and for people who work in all different aspects of the adult industry. I immediately sent the editors an email, more because I wanted to meet them than because I wanted to help run a magazine. Within six months, I was an editor. We published glossy issues four times a year and began to get a lot of attention for the work, winning an Utne Independent Press Award and recognition from our communities and beyond. But to most of our readers, $pread wasn’t just a magazine. Our readers and contributors were ecstatic that a space for their stories existed. And then we started getting requests for help with writing and for help with making other kinds of media, and especially help with interacting with mainstream media.
Along with one of the other editors of $pread, I led a workshop in 2006 called “Journalism for Sex Workers,” which then became our Speak Up! Media Training workshop by 2009. The training is now a weekend long intensive that we offer a few times a year in New York, during which we teach the workshops’ participants how to create strategic responses to media and public events. And in 2010, the Red Umbrella Project was officially born; since then, in addition to the trainings (which have expanded to include advocacy workshops), I’ve been hosting a monthly story telling event in New York, the Red Umbrella Diaries. You can listen to 60 stories from the events on our podcast.
Personally, this work has been important to me because I think it’s important that people in the adult business learn to speak for ourselves. Because we are so often misrepresented in media and because people outside our business make all kinds of weird and negative assumptions about who were are as people, its important for at least some of us to have the interest in and ability to talk about our experiences.
But let’s be real – there are many people in our business who hope to never be front and center in the media and don’t want to have to explain themselves in any public forum. Even for people who want to keep their lives private, spending some time writing in a journal or talking with other providers about experiences in the business can be very rewarding. Cultivating self awareness through reflection or creative work will only make us better at our jobs, and will keep us happier and better adjusted too. Plus, you just never know where a little creative expression might take you.
Audacia Ray is the Director of the Red Umbrella Project and the author of the book Naked on the Internet. She has been working in and around the adult industry for nearly a decade. She lives in Brooklyn with her dog.