THE WORK AHEAD
‘Blowin Up’: The Crisis Facing Sex Workers Trapped in a Broken System
A new documentary highlights the way sex workers are mistreated by the criminal justice system, and relegated to an uncomfortable space between two labels: criminal or victim.
Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Blowin’ Up premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival at a time when sex workers’ rights, or lack thereof, are a trending topic. The documentary, which is at once candid in its politics and slow and meticulous in its exploration of a workplace and its cast of characters, becomes urgent in context. The issues that weave their way through the film are currently at the forefront of a national conversation; primarily, the way in which sex workers are mistreated by the criminal justice system, and relegated to an uncomfortable existence in between two designations, criminal and victim.
The tension between these two narratives—sex worker as criminal to be punished or trafficking victim to be saved—is on full display at the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court that is Blowin’ Up’s home base. Here, Judge Toko Serita attempts to intervene at a critical moment in the lives of people who have been charged with prostitution. Most of these cases end in a deal; an offer to attend a designated number of counseling sessions in return for dismissal.
Blowin’ Up delves fairly deeply into the lives of multiple women hoping to have their cases dismissed. Their testimonies exist along a complicated spectrum of choice and coercion; some fit the definition of a trafficking victim, but would not identify as such, maintaining that they made certain decisions which had certain consequences. Some are resentful towards the work itself, others towards the police officers who seem to threaten both their current source of income and future opportunities for success. As Serita clearly articulates in court, she has no desire to see these women sent to jail or deported. Serita and the other central characters in this film, primarily counselors who are tasked with working with these women, are reckoning with deep-seated histories and prejudices; they are an intervention to a criminal justice system that has done sex workers a deep and lasting disservice. In many cases, their aid is either not enough or too late.
In Blowin’ Up, the personal lives of women at an inflection point seem to mirror a system in flux. Serita’s court is a microcosm of a larger evolution, a priority shift from arresting and punishing sex workers to honing in on traffickers and exploiters. In addition to providing an alternative to incarceration, the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention court seeks to offer resources. While these connections to counselors and legal aid are forged under less than ideal circumstances, they could very well substantively change somebody’s life. Still, Blowin’ Up highlights an important disconnect between Serita’s court and the police who are making these prostitution arrests.
Leigh Latimer, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, explained in the film that, “The police focus much more attention arresting women for engaging in prostitution than they do for promoters and exploiters. I know in their defense that it’s a much harder job to get the people higher up in the chain, but it just seems like such a waste of resources to me to pick on the easiest people to arrest…I wish the police would dedicate the resources that they spend every week making dates and arresting people to investigating who’s behind the ads, who’s behind the massage parlors, who’s behind the brothels, instead of just making quick arrests.”
In a 2014 article, Latimer pointed out the fundamental challenge of the Human Trafficking Intervention Court—the very notion of intervention through criminalization. “There is a somewhat more recent view that clients are potentially victims, but we’re still arresting them at a very rapid pace,” she told the New York Times. “We’re trying to solve their problems through being arrested, which is not an affirming process.”
Arrest is a common concern, whether someone considers themselves to be a trafficking victim or not. One woman described her arrest during a counseling session with Garden of Hope’s Susan Liu, recalling, “Of course I didn’t want to be arrested…the hardest part was that they were too rough, and they hurt me. And nothing was clear. I wish they would’ve let me know what was happening.”
For some, help comes, counterintuitively, from the aftermath of an arrest—or at least from the resources it provides. “I wanted to stop, even before I got arrested, but I never knew how,” one woman explained. “In a way, I’m glad I got arrested, because it was easy for me to step back and pull back and be like OK, this is not what you want, this is not what you need either.”
Still, as Liu noted, “I can’t say that for every woman who comes to the service providers or for every woman that comes to the court, they are going to get the exact help that they need. Cause the help that they need, it’s—how do you say that word—insurmountable. It’s just too big.”
G.E.M.S’ (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) Eliza Hook spends much of the documentary reassuring women that she does not see them as criminals. Still, in order to practically serve these women, she has to be realistic about law enforcement officers who could upend or complicate her clients’ futures. Speaking with one woman who was taking substantive steps to get out of “the life,” Hook said, “I just want to make sure that you’re not going to get rearrested.” She continued, “Once they know you, they know you, and then they’ll just keep re-arresting you.”
Catherine Carbonaro with the Legal Aid Society similarly advised a defendant not to work at or even walk into massage parlors. “The police are cracking down all over Queens,” She warned. “There are people who are just working at the counter, and they say that prostitution is involved, every single time.”
At one point in the film, Serita explains why she changed the name of the court from prostitution diversion to trafficking intervention, “because there was so little recognition that trafficking was taking place in New York City.” She continued, “It’s a tricky line because you start looking at what is happening in a lot of this massage parlor cases,” including “subtle coercion” and “implicit threats.”
Serita describes exploiters who threatened to tell women’s communities back in China that they had been engaging in sex work, or withheld their identification—things “which generally might not be considered trafficking.”
The narratives that women share on camera are complicated, vacillating between clear acts of abuse and statements of autonomy; weighing options, weighing debts and dreams, deciding to do something in order to get by. While Serita’s desire to shed more light on systems of exploitation and trafficking is a noble one, these individual testimonies show how difficult it is to put someone into a convenient box, effectively blowing up the neat compartments we build around criminals and victims; the stories that we—citizens, legislators, law enforcement—tell ourselves about sex work, choice, and coercion.
One woman told her story of working with an abusive and restrictive pimp; in addition to emphasizing that this was her decision— “the easiest way to get money that I know”—she acknowledged the hardships that she faced even after she seemingly “escaped” exploitation. “It’s hard to do on your own,” she says, recalling that she was robbed, stabbed, and had a gun pointed in her face. “The benefit to having a pimp is that you have protection,” she continued. Later on, she insisted, “I don’t think that I was human trafficked. It’s a choice that I decided to make.”
Blowin’ Up, unsurprisingly, does not have an easy, happy ending. As Liu explains, even before Trump became president, women that she worked with who were applying for humanitarian relief were “panicking.” She continued, “I worry that if there’s no more incentive for them to come forward, there’s no encouragement for us to say, if you tell us what happened to you we can help you, the government can help you. Now, what can we say if you come forward? and then what?”
Near the end of the film, the court is thrown into chaos after immigration agents appear in the building with warrants. Hon. Toko Serita intoned, “I will never forget the look of panic on the face of the first woman whose case I called; there were two individuals that day who were the subject of ICE apprehension, both women were led out of the court room, one of them we found at later was apprehended at the subway station, and we do not know what has happened to her at that time.” Representatives from the various counseling groups are justifiably worried that their clients will be too afraid to come to court, or will be arrested and deported.
“I really wish that I could provide more of a reassurance for the clients that you see. The bottom line is that this is not a safe space, as much as we would like it to be, and as much as all of us have been working really, really hard to ensure that victims and defendants can feel somewhat safe and somewhat secure here,” Serita continued. “We will continue doing whatever it is we can.”