It’s time to talk about sex work. Stormy Daniels, a former porn star, is poised to take down the president, and the one piece of legislation our divided government can agree on is an anti-sex trafficking bill called FOSTA-SESTA that endangers more people than it helps. Meanwhile, over in Queens, there’s a sex trafficking courtroom run by women that treats its defendants not as criminals, but as humans. “Blowin’ Up,” the excellent new documentary from Stephanie Wang-Breal, takes you right inside.
The film opens with the commotion of a typical day in the courtroom. Its official title, the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, never flashes onscreen, nor does the name of the Honorable Judge Toko Serita, who conducts the proceedings in a gentle but businesslike manner. The viewer is dropped into the action with little handholding or explanation, much like the women who find themselves before the court.
These people serve as guides for each new client. If you’re one of the many undocumented Asian immigrants, likely arrested during a raid on a massage parlor, you learn everything through a translator. Judge Serita takes her time explaining the situation, making sure each person understands the severity of their charges and the path to clearing the record.
If you’re one of the many black or transgender women who has turned to survival sex work due to lack of job opportunity and discrimination, you are likely greeted by Eliza Hook. Sprightly, no-nonsense, sporting tattoos and shortly-cropped hair, Hook is a counselor with GEMS, a Harlem-based advocacy group for women and girls “in the life.” Hook has a rapport with Judge Serita, leaning in closely to whisper to one client, “She’s awesome.” Serita nods.
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The undocumented women who appear in “Blowin’ Up” have more complicated stories than the locals. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, working the front desk at a massage parlor. They don’t want to plead guilty to a prostitution charge, even though it may be the quickest way to clear their names. During a counseling session, one woman, her face semi-obscured, shares how she ended up engaging in sex work shortly after immigrating from China. She didn’t like doing it, but she needed the money.
Other women are more open about choosing the life. The film’s title is a gift from Kandie, a client of Hook’s whom Wang-Breal interviews in a park outside. She explains “blowin’ up” is a slang term for when a woman leaves her pimp, and she had recently done it. Charismatic and self-assured, Kandie says she consensually chose sex work, chafing at the sex-trafficking label.
Wang-Breal approaches the vastly misunderstood topic of sex work from a non-judgmental feminist perspective. The courtroom, not surprisingly but unintentionally, is full of women. Judge Serita, Hook, a sympathetic assistant D.A., and the wide range of defendants fill out this hidden oasis. Outside, and in lesser films, the women are called names, vilified, even assaulted. Inside this remarkable sliver of the criminal justice system, they are just people in difficult circumstances.
Leaning against a wall outside the courtroom, Hook advises a client on how to avoid future arrests. “If you’re still out there and postin’, you gotta change it up,” she urges, before adding: “I got no judgment about that.”
This is probably one of the most important moments in the film, and the biggest clue as to Wang-Breal’s stance on sex work. “Blowin’ Up” has no judgment about what these women do to survive or make a living. But the movie does have a verdict: It’s time to change up the way we police, criminalize, and vilify sex workers without hearing their stories.
“Blowin’ Up” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.