Abstract

Over the last two decades, red umbrellas have increasingly appeared in campaigns to end violence against sex workers, oppose harmful legislation, advocate for decriminalization, commemorate lost community members, and broadly express sex worker pride. Originating with the work of the artist/activist Tadej Pogačar and the P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum of Contemporary Art’s contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale (“The Prostitute Pavilion”), red umbrellas were originally presented as a visual symbol of self-help, organization, and protection for sex workers. Since then the red umbrella has been adopted and adapted to a broader range of meanings related to sex worker activism, including decriminalization, opposition to antitrafficking discourse, and more. The umbrella has also come to convey the “big tent” concept—that all sex workers are together under its canopy, unified as one coalition. But like any symbol, the red umbrella’s use has limitations. The red umbrella risks amplifying negative rhetoric employed by the antitrafficking movement, which casts sex workers as passive victims in need of salvation, or of oversimplifying a complex, multifaceted political movement. The Curated Spaces section of this issue presents a brief history of the red umbrella as a symbol for sex workers’ rights and images that demonstrate its varied uses.

Over the last two decades, red umbrellas have increasingly appeared in campaigns to end violence against sex workers, oppose harmful legislation, advocate for decriminalization, commemorate lost community members, and broadly express sex worker pride. As a visual term, the red umbrella serves a range of functions in communities for whom visibility presents challenges due to criminalization and stigma. It has become a visually unifying symbol that is regularly featured on websites, publications, promotional materials, artworks, and even tattoos, in addition to being wielded aloft at protests. The red umbrella’s usage has developed from a convenient material object used for identification—and protection—at public marches and demonstrations to an iconic signifier.

The red umbrella premiered in the fight for sex workers’ rights in artist Tadej Pogačar’s contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale for the Slovenian Pavilion. Pogačar worked under the auspices of his P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum of Contemporary Art and in collaboration with the Italian Comitato per i Diritti Civili delle Prostitute (Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes). Together, they hosted the Prostitute’s Pavilion and mounted an event that they titled the First World Congress of Sex Workers at the Biennale, as an iteration of Pogačar’s ongoing critical artistic project on the complex parallel economy of the global sex trade, titled CODE:RED. As Pogačar describes, “The congress highlighted topics such as international migration, new forms of exclusion, the challenges presented by globalization, human trafficking, and similar issues affecting sex workers” and included discussions, performances, public actions, and more that ran throughout the Biennale.1 In discussing what the culminating event of the congress should be, Pogačar and his collaborators decided to host a march through the famous City of Canals. A march would invite the public to “join sex workers, activists, and artists on a walk tracing the suppressed and forgotten geography of Venice, and exploring the geography of the social history of sex workers, from the famous Venetian courtesans Veronica Franco and Gaspara Stampa in the sixteenth century to this day.”2 Inspired by the ubiquitous tour guides of Venice, whose differently colored umbrellas are held high so that their group members can quickly find them, Pogačar had the idea to ask marchers to bring along red umbrellas. These easily sourced props produced a hypervisible, unified image. Pogačar says that at first, spectators did not understand what the umbrellas meant, but as the marchers chanted slogans supporting sex workers’ rights, the symbol’s meaning became evident.3

In 2005, the red umbrella appeared at another march in Brussels, held in conjunction with the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labor and Migration. The anthropologist and event co-organizer Laura María Agustín recalls that in planning the march, someone suggested that participants carry red umbrellas. The umbrellas would strategically shield the individual identities of those who marched under their crimson canopies, given the criminalized status of sex work. Additionally, rain was predicted for the day of the march, so the umbrellas had a practical purpose.4 Later, Agustín would state that she had been unaware of the precedent for the umbrella established in Venice—demonstrating that clearly, the umbrella’s usage had begun to spread. That same year, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) adopted “the red umbrella as a symbol of sex workers’ rights,” and encouraged their supporters to “spread the word about the red umbrella.”5

Throughout the ensuing decade, the red umbrella’s popularity and prominence grew. In 2010, Audacia Ray founded the Red Umbrella Project, a New York–based advocacy organization that supports sex workers and in 2015 produced a film titled The Red Umbrella Diaries. In 2012, the Red Umbrella Fund was established to support sex work activism and projects internationally.6 Meanwhile, red umbrellas appeared at a wide range of annual events globally, among them the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17), International Sex Workers’ Rights Day (March 3), and International Sex Workers’ Day (June 2).7 Today, the red umbrella has become relatively ubiquitous in the international visual culture of sex workers’ rights movements.

The umbrella has proven useful and effective as movements for sex workers’ rights have gained traction across the globe. Its wide canopy conveys a “big tent” concept—that all sex workers assembled under its shade are unified as one coalition. The umbrella’s efficacy as a symbol and a protest object is also highly flexible, and it has appeared recently within other rights movements as well, from the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong to the use of black umbrellas in marches for reproductive justice.8 Among these, though, the red umbrella’s association with sex workers’ rights may be its most ubiquitous usage. As the images in this issue’s Curated Spaces demonstrate, the red umbrella has been adopted and adapted by artists and activists for a variety of purposes extending well beyond mass, public demonstrations to a range of causes related to sex work advocacy. In everyday practice, the red umbrella has become a popular symbol through which people can affirm their identities as sex workers while simultaneously protecting themselves from those who might wish them harm. In these instances, the image of the red umbrella is used in a manner not so different from long-standing visual queer codes that hide in plain sight and are easily legible to the initiated but fly under the radar of those outside the family. The Sex Workers’ Action Network (SWAN) has produced decals featuring the red umbrella as a way of marking “safe spaces” for sex workers to seek health and social services without fear of incrimination.9 And artists such as Micah Bazant have produced powerful political graphics for people to rally behind, in solidarity with sex workers.

Solidarity is certainly a useful starting point for any rights movement, especially one that aims to be global in its purview. But is this unity a mere illusion? While the use of this symbol has proved to have global reach, it is worth noting, as Agustín pointed out over ten years ago, that the symbol originated in the Global North and has been used unevenly elsewhere. There are dangers to allowing the red umbrella to eclipse global histories of (visual) activism for sex workers’ rights that predate its usage. It runs the risk, for instance, of allowing the particular conditions and challenges faced by sex workers in the Global North to stand in for those faced by sex workers around the globe, and of colonizing histories of rights movements. It also imperils the organic emergence of new (visual) vocabularies in places where the umbrella might not effectively translate. It is, in part, for this reason that the artist and sex worker Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, who is noted for having introduced the term for sex work into Hebrew, shows the red umbrella in tatters, or as being itself weathered, in a short film about a direct action taken by sex workers in Tel Aviv.10 As Kantorowicz has stated, “neither the umbrella’s presence nor condition is accidental” in the film. It bears the marks of history and works to remind viewers how the “adoption of a single object risks erasing the diversity of other global voices, particularly those that are not as Western-based.”11

The choice of the color red for the umbrella bears analysis as well. It is a color widely used to convey sexuality, and within sex workers’ rights movements it moreover conveys an empowered sense of eroticism and often appears in promotions produced by sex workers for their labor. And yet, as Katie Hemphill demonstrates in her essay for this special issue, red also signifies danger. Red is the color of labor; its usage reinforces the idea that “sex work is real work” (an idea further explored in Judith R. Walkowitz’s essay for this issue). For some, a term like sex worker applies to a wide range of laborers, including those in the adult entertainment industry, dancers, web-based workers, and street-based workers.12 But for others, the distinctions between these industries should not be glossed over. Their effects on individuals are varied and material and cannot be drawn together simply by a call to stand together under one umbrella.

A further complication is that, as a technology designed to protect its users from harsh elements, the red umbrella risks amplifying negative rhetoric employed by the antitrafficking movement and popular media. These regularly cast sex workers as passive victims in need of salvation. Rights advocates respond by stating that sex work is not inherently harmful; rather, it is criminalization and stigma that cause harm by denying labor rights to sex workers and by creating conditions in which it is impossible for sex workers to seek recourse when they suffer abuse. Such debates were highlighted in a settlement reached between the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) and the Travelers Insurance corporation, whose advertising has featured a red umbrella since 1870. As terms of the agreement, SWOP-USA agreed to redesign their logo and jettison the red umbrella.13 “We’ve got you covered,” boasts Travelers on its website, affirming the association with umbrellas as means of protection that shield one from elements beyond their control. SWOP-USA, in announcing the launch of its new logo resembling a heart and a red fist, acknowledged that the “loss of one of our emblems is felt deeply across the organization” but also stated that “the sex workers’ rights movement is so much more than just one symbol and that tangible organizing is more important than icons.” SWOP-USA’s tagline accompanying the logo, “rights not rescue,” puts words to what can be seen in the move from umbrella to fist—from the idea that sex workers are in need of protection to sex workers’ agency and power.14

Images that deploy the red umbrella are included in the following pages. Most harness the symbol’s power to call people together in protest and celebration; others explore the umbrella’s symbolic capacity to help destigmatize sex work. While the red umbrella’s iconicity might seem to indicate a unified message, its varied applications suggest that its ultimate power lies in its flexibility as a term.

Figure 1 

Tadej Pogačar is an artist concerned with borders and edges. Through his P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum of Contemporary Art, he produces projects that blur the lines between art and activism and between the inside of a museum and the public space that surrounds it. For the First World Congress of Sex Workers, held at the 2001 Venice Biennale, Pogačar was intent that the work not take place solely within the confines of the Biennale, so he sought and gained permission to set up a tent just outside the grounds. The culminating event of the congress was the Red Umbrella March traversing the streets of Venice, led by Carol Leigh (pictured here). The march wended its way through the city, visiting sites associated with famous Venetian courtesans and ending at the Biennale.15 Melissa Ditmore writes that the march was “reminiscent of the Sunday parade of prostitutes in Genoa.”16 The red umbrellas ensured the hypervisibility of the marchers as they made their way through the city.

Figure 2 

Micah Bazant makes art in collaboration with liberatory movements for social justice.17 When they learned about the arrest of the activist Monica Jones for “manifesting an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution,”18 or, as the actress and activist Laverne Cox pointedly stated in relation to Jones’s case, simply for “walking while trans” (and particularly “as a trans woman of color in certain neighborhoods”), Bazant immediately contacted the Sex Workers Outreach Project Phoenix to ask how they could lend their skills to the campaign to support Jones and to bring a stop to Phoenix’s now defunct and highly controversial Catholic Charities–backed arrest diversion program entitled Project ROSE.19

The resulting collaboration between Bazant, SWOP Phoenix, and Jones was a vibrant portrait of Jones looking directly at viewers while smiling under the tipped-back canopy of a red umbrella. The self-possessed image presented Jones as someone basking in the light of solidarity and helped to extend the campaign’s reach far beyond Phoenix. Celebrities such as Janet Mock wore T-shirts printed with the image; young, undocumented activists used the image to print posters that they held during demonstrations to show cross-movement support. After Jones’s initial conviction, Bazant’s image continued to circulate in support of Jones’s exoneration, until the charges were eventually dismissed on appeal.

Figure 3 

Rachel Schreiber designed this small sticker for the St. James Infirmary in 2014 as part of a campaign to create awareness of the work of this free, peer-run health care clinic for sex workers. The stickers were distributed for free at various conferences and conventions related to sex workers’ rights and AIDS prevention, and at LGBTQ Pride marches. In addition to SF, the suite included stickers for NY, LA, CHI (Chicago), and LV (Las Vegas).

The design draws on Milton Glaser’s now-famous and infinitely repeated “I love New York” logo from 1977. Glaser had been hired as part of a marketing effort to promote New York City to tourists and businesses. As the scholar Miriam Greenberg explains, Glaser wanted the logo to be “just cryptic enough”—forming a semiotic puzzle that prompts its viewer to assemble the meaning.20 Glaser stated that “the ‘I’ is a complete word, ‘♥’ is a symbol for an emotion, and ‘NY’ are initials for a place.”21 Following this logic, the red umbrella in this sticker for the St. James Infirmary signifies love. The syntax here doesn’t work as well as the original: “I love New York” is a complete sentence, while “I umbrella San Francisco” is not. Instead, the umbrella can be understood, according to Glaser’s logic, to elicit a feeling. Here, it stands broadly and simply for the solidarity and support of sex workers’ rights within a particular urban community. In this type of shorthand usage, the status of the red umbrella as highly iconic is confirmed.

Figure 4 

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) sponsored a march in September 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa, to honor Robyn Montsumi, a sex worker who had died while in police custody. The march also offered the opportunity to highlight the additional challenges faced by sex workers during the pandemic as street-based workers suspended their work for fear of contracting COVID-19. At the march, sex workers were offered the COVID vaccination. Surgical masks served a dual purpose here, providing pandemic protection and shielding the identity of participants, the latter being a feature of the red umbrella as well.

SWEAT is a member of an alliance of Pan-African sex workers’ rights organizations with members in thirty-five countries in Africa. Red umbrellas appear throughout these organizations’ protests, marches, and demonstrations as they do in other regions as well.

Figure 5 

On June 2, 1975, sex workers occupied the Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France, to protest police repression and violence, saying that the church “is the only place where the police cannot touch us.” Similar protests “spread to other French cities,”22 and the striking sex workers received support from “a range of political and union organizations.”23 In the ensuing years, many came to regard the 1975 occupation as the “symbolic birth of the sex workers’ rights movement in Europe”24 and continue to celebrate June 2 as International Sex Workers’ Day.25 For the fortieth anniversary of this act of collective resistance, the UK-based Sex Worker Open University (now known as SWARM, or the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement), held a poster competition with the theme “40 years of sex workers’ activism.” Among the entries was this image, which SWARM still uses both to celebrate the act of those who came together at Lyon and those who continue to fight to have sex work regarded as work and as part of interlocking, intersectional systems of oppression. This is most poignantly underlined via the way the image assembles the red umbrella, text that echoes Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s Communist Manifesto, and the image of a raised fist. The fist, which holds the umbrella, is an icon of strength and solidarity that has long been associated with the Industrial Workers of the World and the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and most recently, in images generated in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Figure 6 

How do we archive histories of political resistance performed by those who are forced to the margins and made to use imperfect tactics to preserve not just their livelihoods but their liberty? This is the primary question Liad Hussein Kantorowicz wanted to answer in her contribution to Decriminalised Futures, an exhibition mounted as “part of a border project of the same name led by artists and members of SWARM” and held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (February 16–May 22, 2022).26

The resulting film, Mythical Creatures, tells the story of the Argaman Alliance, “the first sex workers’ rights organization run by sex workers in Palestine-Israel,” and its opposition to an Israeli law that followed the Nordic model.27 Centered around a set of images intended to challenge popular depictions of sex work, on the one hand, and typical images of protest, on the other, while simultaneously dislocating the Argaman Alliance’s story and offering it up as something born of both local and global conditions, Kantorowicz chose to stage her pointedly solo performance in a lush, serene park located many thousands of miles away from Tel Aviv, and featured a tattered, red umbrella across multiple scenes. Still worth wielding, the umbrella is shown as having its limits, or as being an imperfect vehicle for representing what are very complex cross-cultural politics.

Notes

2.

CODE:RED, 26; Tadej Pogačar, interview by Rachel Schreiber, November 29, 2022.

3.

Pogačar, interview.

7.

March 3, International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, originated in India. June 2, International Sex Workers’ Day, originated in France. The dates of commemorations such as these vary by national context.

8.

Protesters in Hong Kong recently used umbrellas to hide their identity and protect themselves from pepper spray (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbrella_Movement). Reproductive health care activists in Poland wielded black umbrellas at a protest in 2016 (see https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/04/496526099/polish-women-hold-black-monday-strike-to-protest-proposed-abortion-ban).

11.

Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, interview with Nicole Archer, May 18, 2023.

12.

The St. James Infirmary, for example, offers a broad definition of sex worker and relies on self-identification for access to services. See www.stjamesinfirmary.org/wordpress/?page_id=9 (accessed May 22, 2023).

15.

Pogačar, interview.

17.

Micah Bazant, interview with Nicole Archer, May 9, 2023.

18.

State of Arizona v. Monica Renee Jones, Higher Court Ruling/Remand, January 26, 2015, Lower Court Case Number 2013–9021636. Full text available at https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/state-arizona-v-monica-renee-jones-monica-jones-conviction-reversed (accessed May 19, 2023).

19.

State of Arizona v. Monica Renee Jones; Cox, “Laverne Cox Receives the Stephen F. Kolzak Award.” 

24.

“1975 to 2015 Sex Worker Poster Project.” https://sexworkerposterproject.weebly.com/ (accessed August 15, 2023).

25.

Historically, this date was referred to as International Whores Day. While some still choose to use this name, many have chosen to replace the term.

27.

Kantorowicz, interview.

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