I’ve mentioned my work with the Sex Worker Giving Circle in this column before. With today, December 17th, designated as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I wanted to write about some sex worker wins in what increasingly seems like a bleak and scary world.
From April-August last year, I worked with the Sex Worker Giving Circle to grant out over two hundred thousand dollars to sex worker led organizations across the country. This was historic – never before was there a fundraising initiative by and for sex workers of this scale. As with many social initiatives, sex workers are often an afterthought in the world of philanthropy; for example, a mere $1.1 million dollars was given in support of sex worker rights in the U.S. in 2013, according to a study conducted by Mama Cash, the Red Umbrella Project, and Open Society Foundations. To put this in perspective – Americans reportedly gave 400 billion dollars to charity in 2017. Funding for sex workers rights was — and still is — a drop in the bucket compared to that.
Historically, sex workers have responded to this by organizing for ourselves. Trans legends Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, for example, used funds generated from sex work in order to fund STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, where they ran the STAR house, a shelter and social justice space for street youth in NYC. STAR also was responsible spearheading many social justice initiatives that advocated for the rights of street youth and trans folks, two populations that were frequently overlooked by other gay rights’ groups.
Sex workers today, too, often fund their organizing work via sex work. Now, however, much organizing work is done online – and is in jeopardy due to SESTA/FOSTA, which was signed into law in March. As a direct result of this dangerous, misinformed, and willfully hostile law, sex workers now are struggling not only to make ends meet in their personal lives, but are also facing struggles in furthering our cause. Because of the loose wording of SESTA/FOSTA, even harm reduction techniques meant to keep the most vulnerable sex workers safer can be interpreted as “aiding and abetting prostitution” – making even the online spaces we’ve carved for ourselves a stressful, potentially dangerous environment. As I wrote in a previous column, the implications of SESTA/FOSTA reach far beyond the sex worker community, encompassing the work that sex educators and therapists, as well as queer activists online, also do to further sexual freedom in the U.S. Sex workers’ rights activists have known this for generations, and have long tried to align with LGBTQ+ and feminist activists, experiencing varying degrees of acceptance.
The Sex Worker Giving Circle arose in direct opposition to these developments, highlighting the importance of funding not only sex workers’ rights organizations, but sex worker-led organizations. Why was it so important to highlight groups that are sex worker-led? According to Third Wave Fund, the gender justice-centered, women/QTPOC-led activist fund that gets its name in response to the historically anti-sex work second wave of feminism, it’s important because “current and former sex workers are best positioned to address the needs and experiences of our communities, and …we have the expertise on the strategies that work best to build community power.” My social work alter ego, always emphasizing to stay where the client is in all social justice oriented work, sang in response to this, and when I learned that Third Wave Fund was organizing the Sex Worker Giving Circle, I was beyond eager to apply.
As a Fellow in the Giving Circle, I worked with nine other Fellows, all current or former sex workers, some parents, some students, all working around the clock in all other aspects of our lives to further sex workers’ rights in the United States. Being in that space was intensely challenging – even more than my experiences at school, I had to come to terms with some of my entrenched narratives about sex work, and how my privilege had defined my experience. But serving as a Fellow was also an enthralling, inspiring, and healing experience. Sex workers aren’t quite like any other people I’ve met, and sex workers rights’ advocates are passionate and driving in a way that is hard to convey in words. This was evident also in the applications we received, we spent several days poring over each and every application, writing up responses that we shared with each other, and interviewing applicants on Skype in order to make our choices. We evaluated each organization, critically examining their vision, considering the potential for long-term impact and growth, and making certain that each organization, like Third Wave Fund, was rooted in gender and racial justice in practice as well as theory, up to and including making sure that Black, Indigenous, queer, trans people of color were represented in organizational leadership.
It is months later, now, and much has changed. SESTA/FOSTA had kept on keeping on, but so have we. And it is with the utmost excitement, honor, and gratitude, that I can write now and congratulate our grantees. Among them are Street Youth Rise Up, an organization which, in its work nods to STAR, in that it “is led by young women of color with experience in the sex trade and are one of the only groups focusing on young people in the sex trade” and fills the gaps where other organizations have failed to help young people “based on their involvement in the sex trade, street economy, or experience of homelessness.” I’m also incredibly excited about the Trans Women of Color Collective being selected as one of our grantees, as their work is specifically geared toward healing for trans women of color of sex workers, and specifically emphasizes the needs of Black trans women sex workers. And though by no means the last of our grantees (eleven organizations were selected!), the Urban Survivors Union is an organization that works with and even further marginalized population of sex workers — drug using sex workers — with the utmost respect for the self-determination and dignity of the people they serve.
Every single one of the applicants we interviewed were people and organizations that it was an honor to get to know, and all of their work is incredibly valuable and needed. They each knew what the Giving Circle also knew and prioritized — that, unlike the legislators behind SESTA/FOSTA — sex worker organization should be done by us and for us, because we know what our community needs. And so it is with the greatest enthusiasm that I congratulate our grantees and look forward to the work that they will continue to do: