Fly in Power

Fly in Power
November 28th 2023

The kids, and their parents, don’t like sex these days. This crusade against public sex, as seen in the conservative influence across politics and media culture, has ushered in the return of the “save the children,” campaign, wherein the depiction of sex itself, and especially of sexual difference, is seen as harmful to the children and the public at large. Sex workers and queer and trans people are the primary targets of these campaigns and are framed as driving moral corruption in society.

One documentary, Fly in Power (2023), examines how this moral panic drives carceral systems to police and arrest sex workers under the guise of “moral rehabilitation.” Directed by Yin Q and Yoon Grace Ra, the film follows Red Canary Song—a grassroots transnational organization of Asian and migrant sex and massage workers—through its members’ struggle to destigmatize and decriminalize sex work.

Red Canary Song was formed in 2018 to provide legal and medical support to the family of Yang Song, a massage worker who fell to her death while police attempted to arrest her on the suspicion of sex work in 2017. Prior to her death, Song accused a New York police officer of harassment, sexual assault, and pressure to become an informant. As Melissa Gira Grant writes, police are often the biggest perpetrators of sex trafficking and violence against sex workers, which remain underreported—because how can you call the police when the police are the ones harming you?

As the documentary reveals, anti-trafficking agents use carceral logic to “rescue” sex workers, specifically women from the Asian diaspora, by jailing them or entrapping them in low-wage manual-labor positions. Migrant women are targeted by these networks for their precarious legal status. Many of these savior programs are produced—as Professor Elena Shih, featured extensively in the Fly in Power, argues in her recent book Manufacturing Freedom: Sex Work, Anti-Trafficking Rehab, and the Racial Wages of Rescue—through the histories of colonial and imperial dispossession of the Global South by Euro-American nations. These savior programs (often including celebrity endorsement, like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore’s Thorn or Ashley Judd’s World Without Exploitation) work to reaffirm the racial order of moral righteousness and division of low-wage labor globally.

While Fly in Power follows the numerous scholars, activists, artists, and sex workers affiliated with Red Canary Song, its primary narrative focus is Charlotte, a Korean massage worker in New York. Charlotte remains anonymous throughout the documentary to ensure her safety, which demonstrates the level of behind-the-scenes care to sex workers that is, sadly, novel to documentaries on the topic. Despite the film’s fairly conventional formal structure, its narrative of collectivity, mutual aid, direct action, and ancestral veneration creates an affective thrust that draws audiences in. It is this latter dynamic that educates those completely naïve to the demands of decriminalization, while remaining exceptionally tender to those within the dynamics of sex work and sex-work activism.

Fly in Power screens tonight, November 28, at the A/P/A Institute at New York University as part of the exhibition Our Inner Quarters: Spaces of Work & Care, on view through December 8.