You might recognize this sentiment: the sex workers’ rights movement is funded by “the industry.” We are “the pimp lobby,” whether we’ve ever been in any sort of management role ourselves or not, let alone whether we’ve abused or exploited other workers. You might think it’s pretty easy to laugh at that sort of thing, but if you’ve ever spent any time going through the e-mails that sex workers’ rights organizations receive, you’ll hear a lot of this, even from people and organizations who are sympathetic. They’ll make assumptions about “staff”—”we want to meet your staff”—or they want to meet in “your office.” There are people who try to chat you up about nonprofit careers at events, thinking you have jobs to offer them. And so on. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating, and if people with nasty motives didn’t use these assumptions against us.
It’s human to overestimate the resources of others and to underestimate one’s own. But let’s have some real talk.
Management doesn’t want to fund the sex workers rights movement. They do not have an interest in our vision for social change beyond issues of their own legality. Don’t believe me? This is management in action, or more specifically, strip club managers in action, allying themselves with anti-trafficking organizations. Management-directed organizations want to cover their own asses and reap benefits from the REAL money spigot, the anti-trafficking movement, of the “End Demand” variety, funded by former ambassador and current filthy rich lady Swanee Hunt. You’d see the same from escort agencies if they were legal, and you already do see the same from the legal Nevada brothel industry. As it is, some of the individuals in sex work management give us mild, conditional support, sort of the same way clients do. You know the story—they have many more demands than they do contributions. I have never seen any of them donate money.
Radfems, the “pimp lobby” is pretty firmly on YOUR side on this one.
The anti-human trafficking movement has spawned endless nonprofits, with staff and offices from easily obtained grants and donations. The main sex workers’ rights movement organization in the US, SWOP USA, had to fight for about five years for nonprofit status, having to engage the services of an attorney to prove eligibility after nonprofit status was wrongly denied1. The average wait time for nonprofit status is about four months. Think the Tea Party groups were discriminated against? We know where actual, serious IRS discrimination happened. This might also give you some idea of the sparseness of grants available to such genuine community organizations: so far, the only person SWOP USA has had the capacity to pay has been an accountant on the national level. The board and the many local SWOP organizers across the country are all unpaid. Additional funding has just started—barely—supporting the activities of various chapters across the country. In the past, organizers have had to fund our events and other activities on a shoestring or non-existent budget, through our own personal funds and in-kind donations. As we build capacity and resources, large numbers of stipends that relate to specific tasks are preferable to marginalized communities than one or two high-commitment, classically high-skilled salaried positions that tend to get filled by more privileged activists.
The sex workers rights’ movement is a labor of love and it always has been. And we haven’t just poured our time and effort into it, we’ve poured our personal money in—often, if not always, money earned on our backs. As it stands, it’s no place for someone looking for a career, and when opportunists discover that, they defect to the anti-trafficking movement or to the criminal justice system. The rest of us know we need something more viable, but we keep fighting even when we don’t see that in our futures.
And that’s our strength, in a lot of ways. We may not have much, but we have passion, and dedication, and the strength that comes from doing something real and transformative. Sex workers are versatile and passionate. And damn do we get shit done: Bad date lines and lists, PROS networks of service providers who have been trained to be sensitive to sex workers, outreach, events, memorials, protests, peer support, and so much more. We do not limit these resources to those who agree with our beliefs. And look, particularly, at the amazing work of SWOP Phoenix: Fighting stings and Project ROSE, using harm reduction outreach, and their excellent organizing around the injustice being faced by Monica Jones. That was all the work of volunteers.
So, what is this the radfems say about us putting our resources into propaganda instead of helping people in the sex trade? You know they spell that sort of thing P-R-O-J-E-C-T-I-O-N. Hell, basically all COAST (Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking), which I linked above as an example of a management-driven organization, does is have strippers hand out “info cards” and the like. This functions as advertisement for specific strip clubs in addition to propaganda for anti-trafficking organizations—there’s management looking out for their own interests again. There’s a whole wing of anti-trafficking organizations that do nothing but create propaganda (AKA “awareness”) yet offer no services of any kind. Many of the remainder coerce their clients through the criminal justice system and/or require them to participate in activities of a religious nature. Many of them were formed around the ridiculous notion of fighting “prostitution addiction.”
We in the sex workers’ rights movement support all victims and survivors of forced labor, whether that labor is sexual or not. All such violations are horrific (and labor violations outside the sex industry often involve harrowing sexual violence as well, e.g. the “fields of panties”). We recognize that there are material, social, and structural factors shaping the exploitation of labor, and we know that our industry is not immune. But anti-trafficking organizations don’t support sex workers, or even, really, victims of trafficking. And all of us who aren’t paid shills know it, and know that we know what we need and that we can only look to ourselves to provide for those needs.
1. Documents related to dates of filing, approval, and financial records are publicly available but must be requested from the IRS or the board by mail. The original filing was in 2008.↩