Home Activism Starting To Show Up: An Interview With SWOP National’s President, Savannah Sly

Starting To Show Up: An Interview With SWOP National’s President, Savannah Sly

New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)
New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) is the most recognized name in sex workers’ rights advocacy in the U.S. Currently, they have over 25 chapters around the country, and a board of directors—SWOP National. The only requirements to be a chapter are that March 3rd (International Sex Worker Rights Day) and December 17th (International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers) are recognized in some way. To avoid outing and endangerment, SWOP does not require its members to identify as current or former sex workers, though the board’s president must always be an out sex worker herself.

Savannah Sly, SWOP National’s president, newly elected in the spring of 2015, e-mailed us about the mistake the SWOP National board felt they’d made not supporting Oklahoma City serial cop racist Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims more as an organization. This mistake highlighted long held bad feeling about SWOP among sex workers who felt the organization did not stand up for sex workers of color, survival sex workers, and other less privileged members of the community. SWOP National wanted to address the community publicly about their commitment to working on these problems. I asked Sly if I could interview her about the way the organization worked and its goal to be more inclusive. The following is an abridged version of our ensuing e-mail conversation:

Former SWOP-USA President Lindsay Roth in a campaign to speaking out about problematic aspects of the Runaway & Homeless Youth Act, 2015. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)
Former SWOP-USA President Lindsay Roth in a campaign to speaking out about problematic aspects of the Runaway & Homeless Youth Act, 2015. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

SWOP, and especially SWOP-USA, has sometimes had a reputation for being inaccessible and unsafe for survival sex workers, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, and other workers who fall short of a certain sort of respectability politic. What are you doing as an organization to address that? 

I think SWOP is arriving at the same uncomfortable place that a lot of organizations come to, where we need to take a hard look at what we’re doing and how we’re thinking, and admitting to ourselves where our internalized prejudices are manifesting as oppression.

One difficulty is that as an organization, SWOP has not been great on creating institutional memory. SWOP was founded in 2003, and since that time, we’ve had some amazing leaders and members who have done incredible, radical work. Sadly, many of these accomplishments aren’t well documented, nor are the trials that SWOP has dealt with along the way.

So, the current board has really struggled to piece together our organizational beyond word-of-mouth anecdotes. I’m always thankful for anyone who shares a piece of SWOP history… Especially the bad. I know there are people out there who have had negative experiences with SWOP on a local or national level, and those experiences need to be known and honored. They need to be learned from.

I feel that our ability to partner with other organizations and communities is critical to our evolution. On the board, we’ve been talking about how we need to start “showing up” for intersectional groups, to support their efforts, to show that we understand how oppression overlaps.

Part of that is reflected in who is on our board now. Our board reflects myriad identities and experiences, as do many of our local chapters, and we’re dedicated to not just maintaining, but furthering diversity within SWOP. This is a value, not a project that will ever be “completed”, and it’s something that will require on-going self-awareness and evaluation.

As we work to make our spaces and projects more accessible to all, a big question looms in the forefronts of our minds: Should SWOP support any step in the right direction, regardless of whether there is any benefit to the most vulnerable? Or should SWOP be firmly dedicated to ensuring that those who are hardest hit by criminalization are included and considered during any shift forward? This is a live conversation at National, and one we return to frequently as we decide what projects to take on, and how to respond to issues.

What can you tell us about SWOP’s response to the Holtzclaw trial? How would you want to improve SWOP-USA’s responses to community issues that affect marginalized sex workers in the future?

In light of the last question, this one is emotionally hard to address. I personally feel our response to the Holtzclaw case lacked concrete support and mobilization, and I know that there are people out there who feel failed by our response. We did not “show up,” we did not reach out to those affected, as pointed out by members of our SWOP network and here on Tits and Sass and by our community.

We acknowledge how we fell short on supporting the survivors, and understand that our subsequent actions come too little, too late. When I recognized how we contributed to the media silence surrounding this case, I was (and continue to be) beside myself, and personally, I feel changed by the experience. On behalf of the board, I am deeply sorry to those who felt underserved by our response. May our future efforts reflect how we have learned from this.

I sense that many among the Tit and Sass readership can relate to the feeling of constant urgency around sex worker issues in the media and news. I think our response to the Holtzclaw case is indicative of losing sight of priorities, which usually happens when focus is fragmented, communication lacking, or there are too many balls in the air. We’ve been crafting a media response protocol, but we need to examine how that model actually fits into our capacity. Clarifying the means by which we adhere to our values would help us remember where to put our energy, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed, or working late into the night.

SWOP-New Mexico also honoring December 17th 2015. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters.)
SWOP-New Mexico also honoring December 17th 2015. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

How does SWOP-USA balance activism and outreach?

Ah, balance. This is something that I feel occurs naturally in a group when people are empowered to pursue their passions in a supportive and collaborative framework. Easier said than done, eh?

Locally, each chapter has freedom to decide what issues and projects they’ll tackle. Many chapters develop some sort of direct services for the sex worker community, such as offering “Know Your Rights” classes, teaming up with local service orgs to make free testing available, street outreach and the distribution of harm reduction materials, and providing peer support.

Many chapters provide regular sex worker community “socials”, which are casual gatherings where people can meet others who might relate to their experience of being a sex worker. This can be an immensely powerful community-building activity, but it can also be where people feel most alienated or unable to relate. This is one place where we feel the sensitivity and AR/AO [anti-racism/anti-oppression] training is most needed, to ensure that SWOP is creating safe and welcome environments for everyone. Other chapters do a splendid job of legislative activism, public education, cultural events, and advocacy. We encourage chapters to gravitate to the type of advocacy and service that they are best equipped to undertake.

On a national level, a lot of SWOP-USA’s current energy is going toward running the organization and building capacity and activism. We have realized that being reactive to headlines is not advocating from a place of power, and we’re creating systems to help us work proactively.

This year, possibly for the first time ever, our advocacy committee drew up a national advocacy agenda spanning the next two years. We developed this based our observations as a board, and on a chapter needs assessment we did last summer. We sought feedback from chapters on the final agenda, and now we are getting to work on those items.

Here are a few projects that are currently in the works: A coalition of chapter members with harm reduction and drug reform allies are working to expand Good Samaritan laws nationwide. We have plans to launch an anti-stigma campaign, and are forming a bad date list working group with contributions from other sex workers orgs. Finally, we are planning to begin reviewing and assessing the various PROS Networks (directories of service providers, legal, medical, and mental health professionals who are capable of providing non-judgmental, client-centric oriented care to individuals in the sex industry) SWOP chapters have established around the country, and identifying how similar service networks can be implemented in more regions.

How is SWOP-USA funded, and how are SWOP-USA’s funds used? Is there any way for community members to access SWOP-USA financial statements?

SWOP-USA is funded by individual donors, grants, and fundraising events and campaigns. We’ve published our 2014 financials (and that of prior years) on our Guidestar profile, and are in the process of creating financial statements and an annual report for 2015.

Since SWOP-USA is a 501c3, non-profit, National acts as a fiscal sponsor to local chapters. We file taxes on behalf of our chapters. Something we’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into is developing better tools and protocols for tracking finances on a local and national level. Money that is earned by chapters (through events, donations, and the like) is earmarked for their use.

The vast majority of our funding goes straight back to chapters. In 2016, we will disperse $25,000 to our chapters through several funding categories. This funding is available to all chapters, and even to individuals and outside groups whose missions are in line with our own. A portion of funding will be going into the development of AR/AO [anti-racism/anti-oppression] materials and accessible governance models,[…]and we also wish to provide basic advocacy training for all of our chapters. A large portion of our resources are always spent on event and conference coordination, as a way to raise awareness and offer our members opportunities to network, speak, and connect.

This year, we’ll be allocating a large chunk of funding to support members who want to attend Desiree Alliance. We’ll also be holding our board retreat right before Desiree, to try and reduce the cost of travel. Since we work remotely and are scattered all over the country, finding at least one time a year to get together face-to-face is a critical part our cohesion.

On a national level, SWOP’s 2016 funding priorities include bringing on paid part-time personnel and contractors to tighten up the ship, provide consistency, and help us develop the training materials we need to create training for our broader community. We have recently hired a communications director, a chapter coordinator, and two grant writers. We prioritized hiring from within the sex worker community, but for reasons […] around privacy and safety, do not require people to publicly disclose their history with sex work.

Derek Demeri tabling for SWOP-San Antonio at the 2015 US Human Rights Network conference. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters.)
Derek Demeri tabling for SWOP-San Antonio at the 2015 US Human Rights Network conference. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

Are the many one person SWOP chapters cropping up representative of SWOP-USA—do these small chapters interact with your national organization at all?

Ha, I’m always a little bemused and delighted when I hear about a SWOP chapter popping up that none of us knew about. It’s indicative to me of the desire people have to plug into something bigger, and the “just do it” attitude a lot of sex worker activists posses.

Our chapters range in size, from single-person chapters, to robust communities of activists and participants. I want to express that we deeply value lone individuals who are out there trying to make change in their region, and we recognize how incredibly challenging it can be to rally other people to this cause.

We’re working on ways to help activists connect with potential collaborators in their region, and in this way, reaching out to allies becomes a powerful tool. We’ve found chapter liaisons to be really helpful at connecting chapters that reside in the same state or geographical region, as there’s a lot of camaraderie that can be found from existing in the same political environment, or under the same laws. For example, we’ve recently had a number of chapters start up in the Texas. These chapters range from 1-3 people, and they’re in dialogue with each other. While they all have their own focus, they’ve done some speaking events together, and can potentially serve as a resource for each other.

There’s something really inspiring about single individuals wanting so badly to make change, that they’re willing to set up shop and get things going on their own, regardless of the challenges in their area such as conservative culture, geographical distance, and lack of an urban center. We’ve been embracing a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of attitude around this sort of local growth.

What we’ve found, regardless of the size of the chapter, is most rely upon a core of 2-8 people who have the drive, time, ability, and really, privilege, to be unpaid, volunteer community organizers. Creating inclusive and accessible activist and community spaces is a challenge…and it’s a critical step towards becoming the kind of advocacy organization that can truly represent the interests of all sex workers.

We recognize a need to create new governance models which enable chapters to remain autonomous, but ensure that anyone can get involved and be safe, respected, and accountable. We’re reaching out to groups that have more experience in creating these kinds of environments within activism, and we’ll extend what we discover to chapters. This is all a learning process, and we’re definitely open to ideas.

How does SWOP-USA evaluate its national and regional programs and campaigns to determine whether they are successful?

We’re trying to develop the capacity to do that right now. I came into SWOP-USA in April of 2015 after having been a rep for SWOP-Seattle for about two years. Before that board expansion, SWOP-USA had been run by three (yes, THREE) people for nearly two years, who were really just trying to keep the organization afloat.

In 2015, they expanded the board from three to ten people, and one of the first orders of business was to conduct a chapter needs assessment. 23 of our 25 chapters participated. From this assessment, we determined that there was not a sense of connection between chapters and National, relating to inconsistent communication and a lack of national direction.

All the new actions we’re taking on are still very much directed by our chapters and what they see as gaps in our national presence…We’ve implemented monthly chapter support and training calls…and founded a monthly chapter newsletter to support better National-chapter communication. There’s still a lot to be done, but the impact of our efforts has definitely been positive, and I’m proud of that.


  1. Solidarity might start with SWOP endorsing ESPLERP v GASCON, which they have refused to do for years, even though it is our only shot at getting all sex workers decriminalized. They wont even explain why they wont endorse ESPLERP.

    In March 2015 we filed a constitutional challenge on CA prostitution laws 647 (b) which is much like the Coyote v Roberts case in RI in 1979. ESPLERP v GASCON is waiting for judge White to rule if he is dismissing the case or if it will move forward. We worked really hard and have crowdfunded 45K over the past 3 yrs to pay our attorneys. ‪#‎whorenation‬ is coming for their rights. esplerp.org

    We also go ‪#‎HB1614‬ in NH. We got a 6 to 10 vote and it was send to interim committee for further study and will be brought back next year. Yet SWOP USA tried to derail these efforts by posting lies about the sponsor of the bill not consulting sex workers. Representative Edwards did consult several sex workers rights organizations yet SWOP USA refuses to retract their public bash on Representative Edwards.

    NWSP refuses to allow the ESPU ( Erotic Service Providers Union ) membership. ESPU is the only organizations that sends sex workers to labor training, so I need to ask what does solidarity mean to these people?

    Now #whorenation has showed solidarity, we raised 14K when a sex worker, Heather killed a serial killer with his own gun. We supported Kamyla and took the A&E show 8 minutes down. We supported Amber Bates when she was sentenced to 5 yrs in Alaska, we are supporting 15 yr old Latesha Clay who was sentenced to 9 yrs and we will continue to support Tracy. We have also conducted peer based research on sex workers in Alaska and Rhode Island and we regularly present at Universities to educate students.

    On International Sex Worker Rights Day #whorenation invites ALL sex workers to join us in solidarity. We offer free training and mentorship.

    Mrs Robinson, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of COYOTE

  2. Thanks. It sounds like SWOP has a lot of exciting stuff.

    I’m puzzled by a mismatch between your response to the Holtzclaw question, and your advocacy goals and priorities. You say that you regret not mobilizing around Holtzclaw’s victims, but this happens a lot, and figuring out a plan to show up and do real, in person support for victims like the ones in OKC isn’t mentioned anywhere, it’s not in your plans for the future, it’s not in your goals, so I wonder–you regret this, but (what) did you learn from it?

    If you feel like your response re Holtzclaw was a mistake and wrong, and you felt the need to publicly say something about this, then what is the right thing and the proper way, and what is your plan for doing it better in the future? How are you making direct support to more criminalized and more vulnerable sex workers, and particularly sex workers of color, a bigger part of your advocacy? How are you deciding what individual police abuse and human rights abuses are you mobilizing on? I can’t figure it out from what you said here.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for asking this, it’s something I wished to address more fully in this article. However, my original response to the interview questions was waaaaay too long, and I thank T&S for the great editing job they did here. That said, I’d like to share a few ways in which we are addressing our shortcomings:

      A major project for us this year is reaching out to individuals and social justice orgs who are experienced with creating and implementing anti-racism/anti-oppression trainings. We see an urgent need to provide baseline education of this nature to all aspects of our SWOP network, from the Board to local Chapters, and folks in between. We feel that cultivating more awareness around intersectional issues such as racism, classism and poverty, gender discrimination, labor migration, and whorearchy, our community as a whole will be better positioned to appropriately and effectively advocate. We’re doing the same thing with basic advocacy/activist training, and connecting with groups outside our own for this wisdom.

      I touched on this lightly in the interview, but our lack of response around the Holzclaw case was partially an issue of capacity. December 17th planning consumes a lot of our time and resources, and we’re figuring out ways to ensure that all of our energy/attention isn’t made unavailable around similarly demanding events. We’re also reexamining our adherence to our goals, and as I mentioned, we have a live conversation going at SWOP-USA about what we mobilize around. I think it’s important that we work to amplify issues that aren’t getting enough airtime (Holztclaw being a perfect example), and thus we’re currently working with COYOTE RI to mobilize around the sentencing of Latesha Clay. http://www.swopusa.org/latesha-sentencing-youth-as-adults-and-the-hypocrisy-of-anti-trafficking-rhetoric-practice/. Our ability to respond swiftly and effectively is a work in progress, and we’re moving forward with open eyes and ears.

      Last thing I’ll offer (cuz I can go on, and on, and on…) is that we see a need to make leadership within SWOP more accessible to the people most impacted by criminalization. The SWOP-USA Board of Directors is an online work-group, which inherently presents technology and literacy barriers that prevent many people from participating. We see this as an opportunity to evolve, and we’re committed to discovering alterations to our structure that empower rather than continue to oppress. It’s going to mean changing the way we do things, conscious effort, and listening. We’re open to ideas.

      I hope that helps answer some of your questions. If you’d like to chat more with me about this, I’m open: savannah@swopusa.org.

      • I also want to address the question of “concrete things we have implemented.” Addressing police abuse and violence is one of the 6-8 concrete advocacy actions on our 2016-8 agenda, which we’re starting by mapping/tracking and monitoring police and criminal justice system brutality and violence nationally.

        I want to add — what I’m hearing you say is that what we did do, (which was encouraging our chapters to help raise awareness, reaching out to OKC and asking how we could support, media work and integrating Holtzclaw into all of our communications work leading up to the verdict) was not enough, and there is a bigger issue with advocacy SWOP as a network mobilizes around and HOW we mobilize.

        You’re right. I think that is/has been a very very real problem….so the advocacy agenda is great, but toolkits and fact sheets and statements and articles really aren’t enough. Savannah talked about a deeper changing of SWOP’s culture and expanding who, as individuals, make up SWOP, is really important to this…

        And then on top of that, addressing the issue of organizer support, training and capacity–I think a lot of people don’t know (heck, for some of these, including me) things like: “How to find out about court dates and locations?” “How do you find out about abuses or cases that don’t show ever even make the media?” “How do you build referrals from social service organizations which might be more likely to have direct contact with individuals like Holtzclaw’s victims” “How do you reach out to victims without revictimizing them?” “How do you engage in victim-centered advocacy?” “How do you mobilize broader support?” “How do you identify and link individuals to other resources?” “How do you establish your capacity, not over-promise, and make support sustainable?” “How do you engage in direct advocacy within the criminal justice system and court rooms and outside police offices when you, yourself, are criminalized?” — which is knowledge that made OKC’s impact so powerful and the lack of which is (I think) really affecting what we organize around and how we do it. Maxine Doogan has emphasized to me the importance of ensuring activists have access to good training and opportunities like labor school, and I 100% agree. So, to that end, in addition to focusing on strengthening connections and addressing our culture, we are trying to address this in particular by earmarking a lot of funding for educational opportunities like conferences, and by putting major effort into building out the training and capacity-building work we do with chapters/organizers, aggregating and sharing resources, and creating E-learning modules with training materials that are more broadly available. I think additional capacity-building and support will make it possible for organizers on the ground to find out about and then provide more direct support and action around similar cases of police brutality and victimization of sex workers in their communities in the future.

  3. Thanks for answering these questions, Savannah!

    I was very interested to read about your financial situation in particular and have to say I do have mixed feelings about corporations who make money off of sex workers funding an organization like SWOP. And I mean “mixed feelings” genuinely. On the one hand, it’s great they seem to care about our well being and not just the income we provide them. On the other, I have to question their motives.

    I’ll use EROS as an example since I’m the the most familiar with them personally. I imagine they see it as they’re making money off of the more privileged end of the business and then giving some back to an organization that helps the less privileged, but to me this seems more like an extension of their marketing strategy than representative of their actual business model. From what I’ve seen, EROS makes money by operating in a handful of large cities where Backpage is no longer a viable option for the majority of indoor providers, for example New York City where the sheer volume on BP means average rates are actually lower than those in rural areas despite cost of living as well as work expenses being many magnitudes higher. This gives them an effective monopoly on advertising for many providers, which they exploit as much as possible.

    They’ve singlehandedly made it so advertising costs can actually exceed provider rates, which places a great barrier of entry on an area of the industry that still does largely consist of survival workers rather than the “high end” providers they market towards yet in actuality often no longer need to publicly advertise at all. For example, I could choose either to work on Backpage and spend nearly half my rate for every appointment on transportation or choose to work on EROS and pay them the equivalent of nearly one appointment every month.

    My point is that I don’t think a corporation can both promote workers’ rights and profit off of selling services to workers. In the cities they operate EROS would be doing more for the *average* independent escort by cutting their rates than SWOP could possibly do for anyone with their $5,000 donation. But in order to do so they would have to first concede to not taking absolutely as much income away from workers as they can get away with.

    With the percentage of your total funding they make up, it seems you need them less than they need you to deflect criticism of their business model as exploitative. Given that, I wonder if you actually have leverage to start this conversation with them.


    • I suppose given your newfound mission of inclusivity, it’s also worth mentioning how the workers who suffer the most from the ratio between EROS ad rates and provider rates are trans women and how those who benefit the most are fetish workers—a segment of the industry that is trans-exclusive. EROS charges trans women the same as cis women even though provider rates are nearly half as much, whereas they charge fetish workers 1/4 of vanilla escorts despite their being a significant overlap in rates.

      • Hi Sophia,

        As a provider myself, I totally understand frustrations with businesses such as Eros. I chalk this up to a sheer lack of options we all face in a world where our advertising venues are regularly shutdown. My peers and I are invested in working towards a world where we can exercise our right to exist, and where our power as consumers of a business product can have more clout, more options. Until then, I’m perfectly happy to accept Eros’s money to aid us in these efforts.

        • I do understand how non-profit funding works in that it generally comes from corporations washing their taxes and consciences, but that only practically becomes an issue when it is allowed to influence policy as in if they had seats on the board or personal relationships with staff. I think it’s just a bit shocking to sex workers who saw SWOP as a grassroots organization (not saying I’ve ever heard any of you state that) to learn not only do you have significant funding, but that some of it comes from corporations that exploit us.

          Your relationship with EROS, known already because of the discount codes you received as recently as summer 2015, was already a topic of great curiosity among sex workers I talk to and mainly just in terms of how anyone at SWOP developed a relationship with them. In other words…no one in the sex worker community even knows who owns and operates EROS since they’re privately held, no one I as an advertiser am able to speak to working there even knows what SWOP is, yet somehow someone at high up at SWOP is in contact with someone high up at EROS.

          I’m not implying anything nefarious going on with that, I’m suggesting you attempt to use it as a means to influence their policies. As opposed to Craigslist —who donates to you not because they any longer have a stake in sex worker rights, but because they were targeted under criminalization in the past—or Backpage, who offered free advertising while they were unable to process credit cards—EROS seems very clearly to have a business model that profits off of criminalization. Their rates have increased in correlation with criminalization efforts as they’ve gained an increasing monopoly in certain markets by playing to respectability politics, the latest example of this being their ID policy.

          So if you do actually believe EROS is financially exploiting sex workers AND they’ve given money to you, I question whether you have an obligation to push back against them by making this a policy issue. As mentioned, this could possibly be as simple as starting a dialogue with them regarding their business practices.

          Then there’s the fact that Katherine explained how the majority of funding from EROS was not processed through SWOP-USA , rather distributed directly to regional chapters. This makes it much more difficult to assess the ethics of this relationship. I suppose it’s really part of a larger issue that SWOP-USA doesn’t appear to have any accountability processes in its relationships with individual chapters (at least that I’m aware of) even as one of its primary functions is to distribute funding to them.

          I honestly didn’t know hardly anything about the structure of SWOP-USA before reading this interview, but had a largely negative view based on what I’ve seen in several regional chapters. If you don’t have any control over the policies and leadership of regional chapters, then that takes a lot of the air out of the statements you’ve made in this interview about changes you’re working on going forward since they can only really be said to apply to a small fraction of what most people will see from SWOP generally.

          And on a more matter of fact level in regards to the donation you received that was earmarked for work focusing on underrepresented groups (which I’m curious as to why it was left off the donor list…), if you’re passing that funding along to regional chapters you really cannot honestly tell the donor you’re using it as requested.

          • So you brought up a number of things I want to address:

            1.) What is Our Financial Situation: What I was trying to say is that while we are not well-funding, our existence has never been and will never be reliant on donations from corporations, individuals, or foundations that could curtail our advocacy. I also want to make clear: we are NOT WELL FUNDED: We have about 1/30-60th of the annual expenses/income of that of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, 1/120-1/240th the Drug Policy Alliance and 1/200-400th that of the National Womens Law Center. We are very very fortunate that the core of our meager funding is not from sources that could be seen as having an agenda; and that that core funding that we can predictably expect is enough to make sure our website, our chapters’ websites, our email addresses, phone line, our mailing address, our newsletter, etc. doesn’t disappear; we can pay someone to handle our accounting and finances so we don’t lose 501(c)3 status; and also have ~10,000-15,000 to use for all of the following: dividing as micro-grants between 27 chapters; funding specific national-level projects/research/advocacy, providing support as national (eg – for chapters, for local advocacy) beyond volunteer capacity.

            Right now I think SWOP is trying to move beyond its’ historical, core funding sources so it can be more consistent and make a bigger impact. I also know “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” was required reading for our board retreat and new board members, so even though we are moving into the fundraising zone, the issues that often come with $$$ is totally on everyone’s mind and in discussions. I also want to say that Savannah and the board are at a place where we are trying to catch up to our growth and create clear, written policies around these and other kinds of questions, and really well-define the structure. So I’m glad you highlighted this as a specific thing it’s really important to have a policy around.

            2.) Chapter Accountability: We have gotten a lot of complaints from both sides — one the one hand, that our accountability processes (eg. reportbacks on micro-grants) is overburdensome, impossible and unfair to volunteer-run grassroots groups; and that accessing funding is also overburdensone (especially for small, 100-500 grants) and impossible for chapters, especially chapters run by people without a finance or business or non-profit management background (eg. most of our chapters); that we are preventing chapters from accessing funding that is there’s that we are serving as a fiscal agent for (eg, because in order to serve as a fiscal sponsor, we need expense documentation). On the other hand, we have gotten criticism for not holding chapters accountable enough.

            So this is a conversation the SWOP Board has been having, and Derek and Savannah and the chapter relations and finance committees are working really really hard to streamline funding requests and accountability mechanisms — that they are both less burdensome and better at making sure the (meager amount of) money we give out has an impact and is well-used.

            Another issue — increasing monitoring and elaborating rules/regulations for new chapters requires capacity, especially across 27 chapters and hundreds of people…when I was on the board, we really really tried to be all volunteer and do this, I was working maybe 60-70 hours/week without pay, other board members were working 20-30 odd hours/week, and we weren’t able to effectively implement a sustainable, streamlined prosess… And so, this goes back to this recurring theme of trade-offs: improving accountability and support and advocacy nationally means less funding directly for on-the-ground work or getting more funding; getting more funding (not from sources with a clear conflict of interest, but even from more mainstream donors or foundations) often comes with diluting our messaging or changing the way we do things or focusing more on different things or spending more resources tracking impact and less resources actually making an impact… so I don’t think there are clear answers; and again, I believe the board is still working towards a point where we have all of that defined.

            3.) Top-Down Policies – (eg. policies about who we can accept donations from + policies about activities/what chapters do) So, as a preamble, I want to say that when I first got involved in national, there was a major, major discussion about what national CAN and CANNOT force/require chapters to do. I think SWOP-USA is very conscious of this and also very cautious of top-down approaches.

            So, regarding “How can SWOP-USA make sure the changes Savannah talked above permeate across the SWOP network.” — I first want to say this these goals and changes that chapters expressed a desire for from SWOP-USA. So I think it’s important to clarify that these aren’t top-down changes that the board discusses and then imposes–this is something we are doing in response to and in collaboration with chapters.

            Re holding chapters accountable for this happening, you are right — SWOP has not had a clear, well-formed accountability mechanism, due to capacity issues I went through above and also concerns about being “top-down.” However, since early on, Tara, a former board member led drafting of “chapter agreements” and SWOP has had these for years. Chapters (now) sign these when they become a chapter; prior to that, becoming a chapter meant explicit acceptance of that agreements: http://www.swopusa.org/about-us/swop-agreements/ So these core agreements — which include working within an AR/AO framework, fighting economic injustices, fighting criminalization, engaging in coalition work, and making SWOP a space where all voices are valued and where all individuals feel welcomed, comfortable and safe — IS something that we CAN enforce.

            My understanding (and Derek and the board can correct me if I am wrong on this) is that the work Derek, Savannah, and the chapter and advocacy committees are now doing is to better define what these agreements mean in practice and also creating more elaborated materials about HOW to put these agreements into practice that chapters can use… And again, with maybe very very very rare exceptions, I don’t think “iron-hand-enforcement” of policies is what is leading chapters to do something that might be questionable, it’s chapters not getting the information (as in a comment below) and not having access to training and tools to help them/chapters do it (not having a toolkit, not providing practical education on “how to do X”). SWOP has an obligation to do this for chapters, and Savannah, the Advocacy & chapter relations committees, and I are working really hard to get this together,

            And then, for things that are not connected to the core agreements (and again, Savannah and Derek and BOD, chime in with corrections/elaborations), we can attach conditions to serving as a fiscal sponsor; and we can attach conditions to funding, or offer a specific funding stream to encourage on-the-ground organizers to engage in specific types of work. So without unnecessary mandates that are NOT connected to SWOP’s core values, using other ways to make the changes we desire happen.

            4.) EROS Relationships: The SWOP board does not have a strong relationship with EROS, nor as far as I understand, does EROS offer financial support to an extent that should people want to mobilize a national campaign to address the very real issues of price gouging that exist across advertising options — that we would worry about losing a major or future revenue source in doing this.
            Again, I want to empathize, EROS’s funding to SWOP has been meager and inconsistent. The ’15 discount codes did NOT pan out and were stopped shortly after they were offered to our board. The ’13 donations were sponsorships of a single event. So my understanding is that funding from EROS as curbing/restraining our advocacy – based on a precident of support or future expectations – has not been and is not an issue. They to date have not and do not provide sufficient financial support to influence what we do in any way.

            5.) Why isn’t reducing price-gouging on advertising sites an advocacy priority of ours: Our advocacy agenda was developed directly out of needs assessments completed by 22 chapters. This issue was not listed as a priority. Personally, I think it’s a huge issue, and I would encourage chapters and individual activists who share that as a priority to mobilze and would happy to offer support as an individual human being, unconnected with my role within SWOP.

            3.) Do SWOP-USA have the capacity to influence EROS pricing? My impression is that they don’t. My impression is also that SWOP-USA’s connection with EROS is not through a board member or someone working for SWOP-USA.

            I can also say that every time (the two times) I have been able to talk with EROS representatives, I have very much stressed the issues you are bringing up; and expressed at MINUMUM the need for TRANSPARENCY regarding EROS finances (eg – it’s possible increases in criminalization are contributing to escalating costs, which are then getting passed on to advertisers–so they say–who knows?) as well as a transparent feedback policy (eg – from advertisers regarding the site). I think other individuals who EROS has reached out to as well have also asserted these conderns. So, frankly, I don’t think SWOP has that leverage.

            On that note though, as an individual, I would LOVE a hard-ball T&S interview with an EROS representative about your questions!!

    • SHORT ANSWER: we have been incredibly fortunate to have sufficient “no-strings-attached” (other than maintaining 501c3 status) funding from Craigslist, a donor-advised fund, and individual donors to cover our basic core operating costs (telecommunications and network infrastructure, bookkeeping/accounting/tax preparation, smaller chapter grants/conference scholarships, periodic essential independent contractor work). We are also grateful to have received operating budget funding from the Red Umbrella Fund, which is supportive of stipends to increase the capacity of that core work, at a national and chapter level, but does not constrain what work we do or enforce conditions other than the core values/chapter agreements chapters sign onto when they join. This means that our existence and core expenses are not and will never be reliant on programmatic grants or corporate funding. We

      LONG ANSWER: Thank you so much for bringing the issue of donations and conflicts of interest up. National has had many, many, many conversations about this–around not only donations but also board selections. We do not accept and will never accept strings-attached donations which influence our advocacy; nor will we invite board members who could have a conflict of interest to join our board.

      Chapters have discretion over which donations to accept or refuse — but I’m glad you are bringing this up, and I think it’s really important to consider.

      Regarding funding sources: the bulk of our funding has historically come from Craigslist. Craigslist donations are “no-strings-attached/no-questions-asked,” with the sole exception of maintaining 501(c)3 status. — there are no conditions to the funding we receive through craigslist. We have receive funding through an anonymous trust. We literally do not know who that donor is and we have no information about what they would like us to do with that money. We also have amazing, amazing individual donors. Excluding donations we process for chapters and donations to project-specific fundraisers, these donations are given with no guidance other than “keep up the good work!” The one exception was a large donation to cover compensation earmarked for work by underrepresented and more impacted sex workers within SWOP with the goal of diversifying SWOP and making our work more inclusive and more relevant. This was something we had wanted to before the donor contacted us, and we are incredibly grateful for the funding that will support this. We are also applying for additional project grants around work identified by our chapters as priorities. As you likely know, more funding is available for certain kinds of work; so our capacity may be unequally expanded across our priorities, but ultimately this additional funding will not affect our core work but simply expand it beyond that core work.

      Regarding EROS, national does not receive significant or sustained funding from EROS. The donations we have received were:
      –>Direct funding to individual organizers at chapters for December 17, 2013. This was coordinated by SWOP-USA and Kate D of SWOP-NYC, but the funding was not processed through SWOP-USA and was payable to individual organizers, at the discretion of individual organizers. Details are here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NcT0QgsIfZNxfidnpiH0qW558Xgk2INdF7ylZi-VvCc/edit?usp=sharing
      –>Around $1,000 following December 17th as a donation to SWOP-USA in early 2014.
      –>500 at a fundraiser in summer, 2014.

  4. So: I don’t get involved in organizational dynamics/politics/relationships, either within one org or between the various ones. It’s just not something I’m good at. But – here’s what I know.
    I’ve known Savannah for about five years, and in that time, in spite of being very different people in a lot of ways, we’ve become good friends. We’ve done a lot of sex work together, and we’ve done a lot of sex work activism together, and we’ve helped and supported each other through some fucking intense moments in life. I love Savannah, but what is more, I respect her integrity more than I can say. Her kindness, her generosity, her patience and compassion, her openness to learning, and her total commitment to making the world a better place for everyone have often been an inspiration to me when my own emotional well for activism feels like it’s empty.
    So I can’t speak to exactly how SWOP USA has been run in the past, and I certainly can’t speak to what changes are being made now or how that’s being done. What I can say is: Savannah is an amazing, smart, unbelievablely hardworking woman who is giving everything she has to making things as right as she can. Whatever she’s doing, she’s doing it because she honestly believes it’s the best way to go, and I believe in her with all my heart.

  5. Our chapter has been really out of the loop. There’s been no support and our chapter has basically disolved. We’ve asked swopusa for support and capacity building, but we keep getting referee to an anti racism training run by a friend of swop. It’s strange. The whole thing is starting to look like selfdealing.

    • Hi there.

      I’m sorry you have felt disconnected and under-supported.

      It’s definitely challenging to keep a national organization connected. That said, we have tried to diversify the ways that chapters can connect with each other and with SWOP National:
      –> The Scarlett letter, a monthly newslletter with national, chapter, and other updates; as well as aggregated information regarding upcoming conference calls and trainings, requests for feedback, and funding information.
      –> A national email listserv for asking questions/communication.
      –> A closed facebook group, mainly for SWOP chapters but also for allies.
      –> Regular trainings and ~monthly national conference calls.
      –> Surveys and needs assessments.
      –> Regional chapter reps, who you can reach out to with specific issues, as well as [new] a part-time chapter coordinator. You can find their contact information here:


      If you are not connected to the SWOP facebook group – Listserv – Scarlett Letter, please email me at katherine@swopusa.org and I can get you set up. If you need support finding resources beyond AR/AO trainings, also feel free to connect directly with me.

      Otherwise, many of us, in the role of board members, have tried to provide informal support around conflict mediation, but we did not have a paid position to support chapters. So beginning in 2014, we have had funding for chapter mediation for a while, which was advertised on the SWOP-USA chapter hub. Chapters have not reached out for this funding. Details are here: https://swopchapters.wordpress.com/chapter-funding-finances-2/swop-usa-funding-opportunities/mental-health-conflict-mediation-and-facilitation-fund/

  6. Hi Savannah,

    We haven’t met, but I hope we can get to know each other at Desiree. I take Matisse’s opinion of you very highly.

    Here in Alaska we suffer from heavy criminalization, and you know most of our efforts have been towards supporting those impacted and ultimately going upstream and changing policy. It has been frustrating to see SWOP not supporting or actively sabotaging efforts towards decriminalization across the country. I hope this is something you’re working towards changing.


    • Hi Tara,

      Pardon the slow response, it had been awhile since I checked in on this article.

      I know there has been a lot of confusion and concern around how SWOP is responding to decrim efforts. As I mentioned in this article, SWOP is at a crossroads where we are deciding how to best adhere to our proposed values: To support any step in the right direction that will help a segment of sex workers, or to ensure that all motions forward include and address the needs of all sex workers (particularly the most impacted/marginalized)? The former is easier to support than the latter (and may enable more of us to participate in advocacy), but the latter best describes SWOP’s values, and is where the most anti-oppression works needs to be done. This is a complex and active conversation at SWOP, one we are striving to address concretely this quarter, via community discussions with our Chapter Reps, and via outside perspectives in the format of webinar presentations on various decrim efforts. We are also considering creating a decrim task force, a group composed of SWOP members, sex worker advocates from outside the SWOP network, and allied strategy advisors. This group would be charged with researching best practices, creating model policies, and identifying where implementation could take place. In this way, SWOP hopes to bring together a diverse array of bright minds that can develop strategies addressing the needs of the broader sex worker population. Again, this is in it’s fledgling planning stages, but it feels like the right next step.

      On a personal note, you’re a powerful activist, and I greatly look forward to meeting you as well.

      ~ Savannah


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