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Labor of Love

(Image via Melissa Gira Grant's twitter account)
(Image via Melissa Gira Grant’s twitter account)

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 storythey 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.

Club owners stirring up trafficking hysteria with the best of them (Promotional imagery for COAST)
Club owners stirring up trafficking hysteria with the best of them (Promotional imagery for COAST)

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 startedbarelysupporting 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 inoften, 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.


  1. This is the pimp lobby list that Julie Bindel used during her talk launching Stop Porn Culture UK several months ago. Here are the people they believe are running the show, profiting off the supposed billions, et cetera.

    Chris Knight
    Brooke Magnanti
    Sebastian Horsley
    Thierry Schaffauser
    Douglas Fox and John Dockerty
    Elizabeth Wood
    The Sexual Freedom Coalition
    Jerry Barnett
    Belinda Brooks Gordon
    Maggie McNeill

    She also included Stella Marr and Rachel Moran presumably as counter-examples (I did not see presentation but this is list that has been making the rounds.)

    Sebastian Horsley has been dead since 2010. Pimping from beyond the grave.

  2. That was super on point and inspiring. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much we accomplish with so little. Thank you!

  3. As a co-founder of COAST and a former exotic dancer, I was disappointed you didn’t bother to go to the source and learn what we really do. First, this program was developed because law enforcement and fundamentalist groups insisted the adult club industry has an epidemic of trafficking. We asked ourselves, “Is this a problem in our industry? If so, what can we do?” While we’ve learned that there is no epidemic of trafficking, there can be problems. I cover my own travel expenses and am not paid for hosting COAST meetings with law enforcement, namely the Dept. of Homeland Security Investigations. We average approximately 200 attendees at the meeting, mostly dancers, who learn the indicators of human trafficking and exactly what steps to take if they suspect they’ve encountered a victim. To date, we have trained almost 5,000 industry professionals and H S I has saved approximately 20 individuals, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of two traffickers. Yet, you do have a point: What happens to the victim? We also invite NGO’s to our meetings, who offer services for women who need the help–and in many of those cases, it is the club owner donating the funds so the NGO can help. For example, in Houston, the clubs collectively donate $1million per year to fund an anti-human trafficking task force which includes service oriented programs for victims. Myself and my colleagues worked very hard to implement this program and sit at the table with law enforcement and elected officials–to have a voice–because I believe so deeply in my heart that saving a life is a valuable thing to do. If you feel COAST has a problem and could be better, rather than bashing us, share with us how to make it better. I invite you to the table–and anyone else who wants to engage in a dialogue.

    • Angelina brings up a good point here, which is that a lot of very restrictive anti-strip club-legislation is presented as anti-trafficking legislation. And strip clubs are a little different because of their collective/legal nature. The interests of management and workers/contractors are often in opposition, but when it comes to a state legislator introducing a bill that wants to, say, ban alcohol sales in strip clubs or enforce 6-ft distance laws, crying “strip clubs are trafficking hotbeds! let’s ban lap dances!” we do have the same common interest—not getting legislated out of business.

      That being said, I agree with the basic premise here, which is that as an organization, it’s not got much to do with the self-directed sex workers’ rights movement.

      • Hm, that sounds like a good point. I don’t see where there’s anything about the organization in this article that contradicts anything in Angelina’s comment myself, or any reason that the author ought to have talked to them, but it does look like there is an opportunity here for dancers in genuine workers rights organizations or who have such interests to meet or discuss issues with this organization. That might include things like whipping up false hysteria around sports events, how calling ICE can get victims deported (you might look into how difficult it is to get a T-visa), how calling DHS can get minor victims sent back to abusers, and so on. Even, as mentioned in the article, how strip club management might be using organizational materials as advertising for specific strip clubs, while the advertising itself might be leading to such deportations and so on. The prosecution of two traffickers might be compared to the number of victims whose lives might have been made much worse by such actions.

      • I mean I think it’s explained in the piece that donating yet more money to anti-trafficking NGOs is in fact a way for management to look out for its own bottom line. When there’s a line someone like Swanee Hunt is pushing (and many of those state legislators Bubbles mentioned fall in line)…or when a particular person believes in Jesus and that everyone else needs to too… Particularly if those NGOs are similar to ones similar to the one linked to Angelina’s name, which clearly gets clients through the criminal justice system, is a diversion program that is not available to all arrestees, and clearly does believe in the concept of a “prostitution addiction” and uses DBT in order to stop clients from doing it and pushing them into much lower-paying jobs that can often be rife with labor abuses from wage theft to sexually coercive management. Sexually coercive management in straight jobs can be a particular problem for people with a history of prostitution.

  4. Not that you necessarily disagree, but slavery involving forced sex is significantly worse than slavery not involving forced sex (or “equivalent” forms of torture). So it’s legitimate to focus limited resources on the former over the later. But, of course, I doubt there is any government on Earth that is legitimately so broke that it can’t make an all-out effort against slavery in general.

    • Sorry, what forms of slavery are you thinking of that don’t ever involve forced sex or other forms of torture? And do you really think that any government is or is willing to fight to eradicate serious labor violations that are in its own interests, like those associated with lower-skilled guest worker programs?

      • It’s pretty common for people from Mexico who come to the US without a visa to be brought in by coyotes. There’s a continuum from a clean business deal to trafficking of slaves. The US is never going to spend the money to handle this situation in a morally appropriate way.

        I’m sure you agree that rape by coyotes is a good reason for their arrest to receive higher priority by ICE and other law enforcement. I agree with the point that a real anti-slavery organization is not going limit itself to cases where sexual assault or transportation over a large distance of the slave is involved. But, realistically, such an organization might need to prioritize cases where rape, torture, family separation or other aggravations of the crime are going on.

        • That’s called smuggling, and it is a result of fucked up immigration policies by the U.S. I’m not sure why you assume that I’m pro-ICE, since their involvement is probably the number-one factor that will lead to, as you say, family separation. Rape is a huge risk for women crossing the border, and it could be coyotes, it could be random predators looking for easy prey, and it just as easily could be agents of ICE or of local law enforcement. You make a lot of assumptions about my views, particularly that you seem to think that I approve of the U.S. government, of its immigration policies, and of its own actions that allow in many ways for human trafficking and other horrible labor violations.

    • Also, agricultural and mining laborers who are trafficked into working 20 hour days until they literally die in the fields/at the site might disagree with you. (Not that migrant laborers who are trafficked into non-sex industry labor aren’t constantly vulnerable to sexual abuse as well, as is pointed out in this piece and by L in her comment.) Ditto domestic laborers who are trafficked into situations in which they’re held prisoner in their employer’s houses, beaten, screamed at, starved, etc. I think saying, “This form of torture is qualitatively always objectively worse than this form of torture” is somewhat absurd. I mean, what basis of comparison and/or experience are you speaking from?


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