Now is the time to support sex workers’ rights

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The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to mitigate it have exacerbated existing inequalities by forcing millions of workers around the world to lose work and income. Sex workers have been particularly hard hit. The long-standing conflation of sex work and trafficking have effectively led to their exclusion from not only government relief and protective measures but also from most private and philanthropic support. Yet the explicitness of the damage being done also presents us with an opportunity to turn the conversation around. Coronavirus has opened a door for funders to increase their support for sex worker-led organisations and to advocate for an end to this harmful conflation once and for all. Now they must walk through it.

The Sex Work Donor Collaborative will be waiting on the other side to help them get their bearings. Founded in 2008, the collaborative was first convened to fundamentally change the structures of funding that defined anti-trafficking efforts. In particular, the donor collaborative hoped to “increase the amount and quality of funding and non-financial support for sex worker rights and sex worker organizing”. Members of the collaborative oppose exploitation of and violence against sex workers, regardless of the form they take, and recognise the distinction between sex work and human trafficking.

A dangerous conflation

Links between trafficking and sex work are often based on assumptions rooted in the stigma against sex work. The denial of sex workers’ agency, reinforced by the conflation of trafficking and sex work, has led many funders to prefer supporting organisations that claim to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ sex workers over organisations that are run by them. In turn, this perpetuates the exclusion of sex workers’ voices from philanthropic circles and makes funding sex worker-led organisations and networks incredibly difficult.

The damage caused by equating the two ideas together is plain to see. Anti-trafficking legislation and initiatives based in the conflation of sex work and trafficking have led to increased criminalisation of sex workers’ clients and third parties, forced ‘rescue and rehabilitation’, exclusion of sex workers from services, discriminatory immigration laws and restrictions, and increased violence against sex workers.

The “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” (APLO) provision passed into US law in 2003 and embedded in the 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is a particularly egregious example of this in practice. This provision requires non-governmental organisations based outside the US to have “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution” in order to receive PEPFAR funding. The oath further prohibits recipient organisations from using the funds “to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking” and specifies that no funds “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking”.

The negative impact of this oath have been extensively documented (see, for instance, the factsheets produced by Pathfinder International and CHANGE). Nevertheless, due to a (real or claimed) lack of knowledge and pressure from abolitionist women’s organisations that define all sex work as inherently exploitative, many philanthropic actors have chosen to follow the US government’s lead and refuse to support sex workers’ rights and sex worker-led organisations as well.

Enter Red Umbrella Fund

Red Umbrella Fund, a member of the Sex Work Donor Collaborative, was created to blaze a different trail. It was born following the first international exploration of funding for sex workers’ rights and health issues by Open Society Foundations’s Sexual Health and Rights Project in 2006. Two years later, a dialogue on sex work and trafficking took place between donors, researchers, and activists in collaboration with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the Indian feminist human rights organisation CREA. These dialogues were intended to help donors make the distinction between sex work and trafficking, and to figure out more effective ways to support anti-trafficking efforts that affirm sex worker and migrant rights. In other words: to develop a sex worker rights-based approach to anti-trafficking. In April 2012, Red Umbrella Fund was launched as a new, innovative global grant-making mechanism for, and by, sex workers.

Red Umbrella Fund released its 2020-2025 Strategic Plan on 14 September 2020, to coincide with International Sex Worker Pride Day. This plan reaffirms our vision to live in a world where sex workers are respected as human beings and as workers, so that all sex workers can live lives free from criminalisation, stigma and violence. For this vision to become reality, a more nuanced discourse among funders on the human rights approach to sex work and the harms of conflating sex work with trafficking is needed. Significant progress has been made over the past 20 years. Recently the members of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, for example, voted to support the decriminalisation of sex work. Their statement made clear that they were joining “a growing number of human rights, health and anti-trafficking organisations demanding governments recognise sex work as work, and protect sex workers’ labour and human rights.”

But despite these advances the conflation between sex work and trafficking remains as alive as ever. And as long as it is there it will hinder progress in both the sex workers’ rights movement and the anti-trafficking movement. One practical example of the obstacles it creates can be found in the simple bureaucratic act of registering an organisation. As sex work continues to be criminalised in most of the world, sex worker-led organisations and networks face enormous challenges with registering their organisations with their governments. This, along with the criminalisation itself, prevents them from accessing funding even from donors interested in supporting their work

Funders can and must play a crucial role in turning the tide. With their help we can ensure the compatibility of anti-trafficking efforts with sex workers’ rights. In order to achieve impact, we encourage funders to:

  • Support the decriminalisation of sex work,

  • Educate themselves on the difference between sex work and trafficking,

  • Meaningfully involve sex workers in their grant-making relating to sex workers’ rights,

  • Fund sex worker-led organisations and networks in line with their expressed priorities, including anti-trafficking efforts.