Documentary on sex worker rights set to kick off colloquium series


Screen grab from the documentary.

Cameron Gorman

Kent State professor’s documentary on sex worker rights will be screened this Friday as part of a colloquium series being held by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality this semester.

“Red Umbrella Rights: An Ethnographically-Based Documentary About Sex Worker Activism” weaves its central ideas through the narrative of events organized by the San Francisco chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project- USA, an activist group that focuses on human rights for those involved in the sex trade.

“Globally, the red umbrella is a signifier of sex worker rights – and even of sex workers – and what it supposedly goes back to … is that in Italy, prostitutes would carry a red parasol, and then men would know to follow them,” said Molly Merryman, the director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and an associate professor in the department of sociology.

Merryman filmed the documentary herself, over the course of several years —  a somewhat exceptional approach, Richard E. Adams, a professor in the department of sociology, said.

“This is a part of social science that’s really pretty far from what most sociologists do. We know documentaries, we appreciate them, we show them in our classes and things like that, but we don’t actually produce them,” Adams said. “And so Molly is sort of unique in that respect.”

Adams was also responsible for organizing the colloquium series.

“This gives her a chance to kind of educate her colleagues a little bit about where it is — how this fits into what we as a department do,” Adams said.

In the process of creating the film, Merryman also conducted multiple interviews with activists and organizers from the group, including those at an event for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in San Francisco.  

“It also was important to have sex workers on camera because often when you see documentaries, they’ll be in the shadows, or they have big hats and wigs,” Merryman said. “And I think that really dehumanizes a group of people who already have been incredibly dehumanized.”

The screening, which is open to the Kent State community, will take place in Room 107 of Merrill Hall, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and will be followed by a reception planned to be held in Room 221 of the same building.

“I think that primarily what I’m interested in is that people who see it think more compassionately and openly about sex workers, and to realize that there are dedicated activists and that there’s really critical issues that sex workers face,” Merryman said. “I think the other thing that I wanted to convey in the movie is how often happy and positive activists are. Because this is a really difficult situation, and the day is always very emotional, and yet activists do stay supportive of each other and they stay very optimistic and definitely want to make social change.”

Cameron Gorman is the humanities reporter. Contact her at [email protected].