July 12, 2013— -- Audacia Ray came from a "good family" and had a normal childhood, attended college in New York City and then made a career choice -- she became a prostitute.
"I had one other friend doing it but I had never considered it before then," said Ray, now 33 and an advocate for sex workers. "She made it sound easy and something I could do."
Throughout her 20s, until just a few years ago, Ray, a bisexual, sold sex through Craig's List. She went on to modeling and fetish work.
"It's not the best job in the world, but it's not the worst," she said. "It took me a while to figure out what I was comfortable with and what my boundaries were."
But hooking was isolating and she had a few encounters with men that frightened her. Once, a man assaulted her. And Ray couldn't discuss her work with most of her friends.
Today, as founder of The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP), she works to give a voice to those who are in the sex business -- prostitutes, strippers, dominatrix and fetish professionals, porn performers and "anyone who trades sexuality for money or survival," even Internet chat room "camming" and phone sex workers.
Just this week in New York's Bluestockings Bookstore, people in the sex trade gathered to read from "Prose and Lore," a literary journal started by Ray and devoted to sex workers.
This edition features stories from 17 writers, three-quarters of whom are previously unpublished and developed their stories during an eight-week memoir workshop taught by this spring by Ray.
In 2004, Ray founded the sex worker magazine, $pread, and served as its editor.
"The group is very mixed and it's been interesting to hear very, very different experiences in the sex industry when they are all in the same room," she said. "Everyone learns from each other."
One story was written by a former gay porn star about undergoing plastic surgery; another was a trans woman's experience working the street; a stripper wrote about the first time she experienced shame on the job.
Until now, many, like Ray, didn't have a way to connect with others in the same industry.
Anna, a 32-year-old retired prostitute, wrote a story, "Class Whore," about an encounter with a sugar daddy client who, like her, was of South Asian descent. The story touched on the issue of race and class in sex work.
The client discovered Anna's family had come from a lower class in India, where the caste system is still powerful.
"He is a business magnate and he contacted the hotel where I was staying because the owner was one of his friends," Anna said. "He asked under what name my room was booked. He told me he knew my real name then he said my name back to me and it sounded worthless. He's Indian and I'm Indian, but a higher caste, so it took me back to that place."
Anna never solicited on the street, but worked independently. Still, she found having a network of other sex workers helpful, on how to negotiate a living, tricks of the trade, and getting references on high-end clients from other sex workers.
She also learned how to keep herself physically safe from clients, and how to avoid police entrapment.
"If something happens, you can't go to the police even though you have a right in our culture not to be assaulted," she said. "Because of the stigma and criminalization of sex work, it endangers us in many ways and increases our danger with our clients because they know we can't report these crimes. They know we are vulnerable."
Ray founded RedUP in 2010, after seeing the complicated personal lives of sex workers she encountered on the job.
Its mission is to "amplify" the voices of these people through storytelling and the media, as well as to fight for legislative action to ensure protections and fight discrimination. The majority of sex workers are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, according to Ray. She said she is not sure why, but speculates it may be societal discrimination.
"A lot of LGBT people have challenges accessing mainstream jobs, particularly when they are younger and they enter the sex trade before they have gotten job skills. They have had altercations with family and need to get out and make a living."
It's a hot-button issue for transgender workers, who fight against the perception that "the only thing they do is sell sex," said Ray. "But trans women, especially, lack access to jobs and legal protections."
One of RedUP's recent initiatives in New York State was to back a ban on the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution in legal cases. Police are allowed to use as evidence in court the fact that a defendant on prostitution charges was carrying condoms at the time of arrest.
"We worked with a coalition of people to help produce research that showed this was a public health crisis," said Ray. "People are often profiled as sex workers for carrying condoms. ...The condom bill seriously affects sexual health. It keeps people from protecting themselves."
Ray said RedUP doesn't expect prostitution to be legalized any time soon -- though laws vary from state to state -- but she is more concerned about existing laws that create barriers for people to access justice.
"Most sex workers," she said, "never speak to their legislators."
For sex workers like Anna, putting her own experiences into words has been the beginning of writing a longer memoir about her years in the trade. For the last 18 months, she has been out of the sex business and works as a community organizer.
But RedUP's work has inspired her.
"It really empowered me to connect with other folks in the community," Anna said. "It meant a lot developing my voice as a writer and as an activist to tell my personal story. It meant a lot professionally and artistically."