Our country tends to treat sex workers like, for lack of a better term, trash. Because sex work is largely illegal in the United States (the one exception is a handful of counties in Nevada, where prostitution is highly regulated), women who sell sex are often arrested and subject to brutal treatment by cops, which forces them to conduct their business in the shadows and puts them at further risk of violence at the hands of pimps and clients. Furthermore, the legal system often disregards whether sex workers are forced to sell sex against their will or do so of their own volition, which leads to a cultural narrative that women who sell sex are desperate and in need of rescue. As a result, sex workers are usually either treated by the criminal justice system as outright criminals or as victims with no agency.
The Human Trafficking Intervention Court in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York, however, is different. Presided over by Judge Toko Serita, the court takes a revolutionary approach to sentencing women who are arrested on prostitution charges, offering women the option to have their charges dismissed and their records sealed in exchange for undergoing a counseling program. As depicted in the documentary Blowin’ Up (out in New York theaters April 5th), Serita’s court is an anomaly in the often rigid and uncompromising criminal justice system: instead of treating sex workers like criminals or helpless victims in need of salvation, she merely treats them like human beings.
Directed by Stephanie Wang-Breal, Blowin’ Up (the title is a nod to a slang term for leaving the Life, a colloquialism for prostitution) is the result of nearly 10 months of observing Serita’s courtroom, followed by two years of filming. The film is neither a condemnation nor a celebration of the sex industry and the women in it: instead, it offers a behind-the-scenes look at the players that make up the criminal justice system, as well as the women (primarily low-income women of color, many of whom are undocumented Asian massage parlor workers) who pass through the system. The result is a nuanced and highly intimate view of a world that is often shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding. “It’s just giving you a glimpse into [sex workers’] lives and the different narratives that represent the sex work spectrum,” Wang-Breal told Rolling Stone. “Because it isn’t just one story, it’s many different stories and many different lives and many different narratives are involved.”
Rolling Stone spoke to Wang-Breal about Blowin’ Up, the growing sex work decriminalization movement and the complicated truth about the lives of Asian massage parlor workers.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How did you learn about this court and Judge Toko Serita?
I learned about the court through this article published in the New York Times in 2014. I was at the tail end of finishing the festival circuit for my last film, Tough Love, about the child welfare system. And when I heard about this courtroom serving this population of domestic sex workers as well as undocumented Asian women, I thought this was serving two populations of women I had focused my work on in the past. The fact that it was led by an Asian female judge on top of that, my curiosity was immediately piqued. I forwarded the article to my producer and said, “We should go and check this place out.” So we hopped on the F train and started observing the courtroom in action.
Did you find it difficult to gain access?
Absolutely. We’re dealing with a subject matter full of shame, misrepresentation, fear of recrimination. There’s nothing easy about making a film about this subject matter. And every scene you see in the film was a conversation, a discussion, and every conversation was, “No, I don’t think that’s necessary” from everyone we were trying to film.
What makes this court unique in terms of how it treats sex workers?
I think what makes this court unique is the deep level of humanity from every single person. Every single person had a commitment to these women and they may not have been in agreement about how these women should be treated or where they were coming from or what their backstory was, but they were all deeply committed to helping these women in any way, shape or form and in whatever capacity they could, in any role they could. It was a roomful of female players who were doing their best, working within a really challenging system that is trying to push a one-size-fits-all model on these women.
Generally speaking, how does the judicial system treat sex workers?
The general judicial system just slaps you with a conviction, which leaves you with a record, which means that if you do want to choose to get out of the life and find another job, every time a potential employer does a background check, this will show up, which will hinder your ability to do something else if you so choose. This court is different in the sense that if you decide to take the classes — and you’re gonna take 5-10 classes depending on how many arrests you have — once you finish those classes with a culturally appropriate service provider or counselor or program, then your record is dismissed and sealed, which means there is no trace of this arrest on your record. So if you do choose to get out of the life one day and someone does a background check, this will not show up.
What do you mean by culturally appropriate?
As you can see in the film, what the [American-born sex workers] need in terms of services and in order to get out of the system, is very different than what the undocumented Asian women need. They’re here legally, so they don’t have that fear of being deported. They also speak English, so they can do other jobs easily. Asian women often have a story of debt bondage that has brought them here and holding them in place to do the massage parlor work, because there are few opportunities given to them because they can’t speak English.
How do they typically end up working at massage parlors?
They arrange to pay a smuggler a fee to come to this country under a visa, which is usually a tourist visa, and when they land in JFK, this smuggler has arranged for someone to come pick them up at the airport, and their fee is encompassing that. That fee can be $500, but they don’t know because they’re foreign and everything has been set up by the smuggler. They’re then taken to a Flushing-style motel room and in this motel room is other women who have made this similar journey and is also working in this massage parlor. When she arrives, she learns, “What can I do?” And everyone tells her to work at the massage parlor because you can make good money and she most likely didn’t have the funds she needed to pay her debt bondage fee and send money home. Those are her main priorities. She needs to do that to survive. And she ends up starting to work at a massage parlor thinking shes only gonna be doing massage, and then she finds out one day that she needs to do more than that. And she has to decide whether or not she wants to take that to the next level.
Sex work is obviously an emotionally charged issue and everyone has a lot of opinions about it. Was there anything you learned about sex work while filming that surprised you, or challenged your preconceptions about this industry?
Absolutely. We can sit in our comfortable homes with our comfortable values with our degrees of education and feminist theory and talk about sex workers’ rights, but what do we know if we haven’t lived the life or the choices they’ve lived? A lot of people said, “This must have been so challenging to make. It must have been so hard to see these women go through so much trauma.” And there was definitely that, no question about it. These women were dealt a challenging deck of cards for life. But I also have to say: a lot of these women taught me how resilient and strong they are. They are empowered in their own sense. And I appreciated and I admired them for standing up for who they are and what they are doing.
What would you say your preconceptions of sex work were?
I think a lot of people believe sex workers are all being taken advantage of, and don’t have any agency in making these choices. I no longer believe that. There’s definitely a group of people who have agency in the choices they are making, and this is what they are doing, and they have every right to decide what they want to do with their bodies.
There’s always a risk when covering sex work of covering it from a savior narrative, specifically a white savior narrative, and you feature a few characters like Eliza [Hook, a a social worker for GEMS, or Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, which works closely with the defendants] who is very sympathetic, but I could see how some viewers would perceive her that way. How much were you thinking about that while filming?
That was very important to me, because I also made a film about Chinese adoption, that was my first film, and that was also something I did not want to do: “this is a white family saving a Chinese girl. I’m averse to that dialogue and that narrative because I think that is just pushes people in the wrong direction that people need to be saved in the first place. We tried to use as many bites that we had as possible from those conversations we gathered in the courtroom, the hallways, where we do hear them questioning the system. Like Eliza said: “we don’t want to be here either. Court is a terrible place.” In no way, sense, or form do Eliza or Judge Serita feel that they are saving these women. They always say that they are operating within a system that is imperfect but because the system exists, they are here to function within it and make it better. It’s better than no system existing and women just going to get convictions. So I did my best to make sure we were not pushing that narrative, and also showing how everyone had their own dilemmas in the space.
What do you think of the growing decriminalization movement in New York? Where do you think the movie falls in terms of whether it is pro or con decriminalization?
It’s hard for me to say whether or not it’s good or bad because it is such a moving organism. It’s growing and changing as we speak. I do not think prostitution will be legal in our country in the next 10 years. I don’t think our country with its current leadership and values is ready to go there, unless we have more frank discussions about sex work, which people shy away from.
This film, in terms of the whole decrim movement, is really a conversation starter in terms of who these women are. And it’s just giving you a glimpse into their lives and the different narratives that represent the sex work spectrum, because it isn’t just one story, it’s many different stories and many different lives and many different narratives are involved. I don’t think it takes a stance either way on decriminalization. Whatever your stance, you’ll take something different away from it….but I think it has made more women question their values and judgments, I think. It’s like, “Interesting. She is making that choice and I didn’t think she knew how to.”
Asian massage parlor workers and the oppressive conditions they work in are obviously in the news as of late with the Kraft case. What are your thoughts on the recent press coverage of the Kraft case, and what are we supposed to take away from it?
I think it’s great they’re looking into this story and the media is not just looking at the men and not the women, which I think is so important, and I’m hoping this will shed light on the fact that when police go into massage parlors and do raids, they usually go in and arrest the women as well. So hopefully this large story involving a very public person will make people realize they shouldn’t be arresting the problem and the spate of massage parlors that have opened up across the country. Often these women if they get arrested they are transported down the coast and have similar living conditions….If you do visit an Asian massage parlor, and you pay well and tip well, keep going. Don’t let this do what the New York Times piece did to nail salons [many Korean salon owners and employees took issue with the 2015 New York Times investigation into poor working conditions at nail salons, arguing that it negatively affected their business]…these women need this work. They don’t have many options for survival. So continue going because this woman wants to do that, because it’s good hard work for her. And she has to make her ends meet to survive.
What is the current state of sex workers in the U.S. post-SESTA/FOSTA in the Trump administration?
From the sex workers I’ve spoken to post-SESTA/FOSTA, and these are all women who have been doing this work for a long time, they have talked about how it’s gotten a lot more dangerous. They can’t vet their clients. They have to go back out into the street. And they’re getting arrested. I think it’s challenging for them right now and it’s gonna be interesting to see what they’re going to do.