With $200,000 in new funding, sex worker organizations and advocates across the U.S. will have more resources to address safety, worker’s rights, and political power in the new year. Third Wave Fund, a 20-year-old foundation, recently announced its inaugural grantees from the first and only Sex Worker Giving Circle, a new collective created by the fund in 2018.
This new giving circle is unique in many ways. The Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC) is the first sex worker-led fund housed at a U.S. foundation. SWGC consisted of 10 Fellows who were trained and supported by Third Wave Fund in order to raise more than $100,000 of the grant funding, design the grant-making process, and decide which organizations would receive funding grants, which ranged from $6,818 to $21,818.
“Sex worker organizing is both more necessary and more under-funded than ever. The SWGC is a critical new funding source for sex worker movements,” said SWGC Fellow Janis Luna, referencing the “increasing discrimination and violence under SESTA/FOSTA” that many sex workers report they are facing. The SESTA/FOSTA laws passed in 2018, which seek to end online sex trafficking, were both celebrated and sharply criticized by different parts of the feminist community. Some feminists, such as Mary Mazzio, director of the film I Am Jane Doe, which shed light on the tragic sex trafficking of children in America, supported passage of the laws, while other groups like Survivors Against SESTA, argue that the laws are driving sex workers back into exploitative situations with pimps, and back onto the street where they face increased harassment and criminalization.
SWGC Fellow Janis Luna says that many sex workers today “are struggling to make ends meet” and need all the support philanthropy can provide. In general, philanthropy tends to avoid the subject of sex workers and their rights, leaving only a tiny sliver of funding, $1.1 million for the entire U.S., going to aid and support sex workers.
Rhode Island recently experienced a bit more interface with the sex worker community as one of the state’s longest-standing strip clubs, The Foxy Lady, was shut down by the city of Providence for promoting prostitution. Employees of the shut-down club came forward on Facebook with a GoFundMe page, and comments from community feminist leaders ranged from supporting the fundraiser to suggesting that now would be a good time to organize a worker’s union and reopen with a better workplace environment. Stories like Rhode Island’s suggest there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that women’s health and safety are a priority in sex work.
SWGC grants will go toward projects to build power and well-being within sex worker communities. In New Orleans, Women With A Vision will be using part of its new grant to organize their second annual Black & Brown Sex Workers event called Second Line. Other grantees such as WeCareTN (Memphis) and The Outlaw Project (Phoenix) will use grant funds to support trans women of color sex workers as they advocate for increased safety, employment, and political power.
In a press release announcing the new funding, SWGC Fellow Sinnamon Love described a range of projects that will be supported by this new funding, including efforts to decriminalize sex work in Washington D.C., to healing initiatives for trans and queer sex workers in Seattle. “Each one is by-and-for sex workers, because we know what works best for our own communities,” said Love.
In a previous interview I did for Inside Philanthropy with Scott Campbell, executive director of the Elton John Aids Foundation and Crystal DeBoise, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, I learned about ways that philanthropy can do more to bring the issue of sex workers’ rights in from the margins. Both of these experts noted that access to health care is still a big problem for many sex workers. Legal access issues include getting criminal charges vacated for former sex workers or helping being rejected from housing because the landlord discovers. Another immediate need is housing for homeless LGBTQ youth who often get involved in sex work out of desperation for money. Funding for more emergency housing for these youth would make a big impact on the problem. Philanthropy could also help with create more peer support networks for sex workers, so they can help each other find access to better employment or educational opportunities.
Given the many challenges that sex workers face, these new funds from Third Wave Fund’s Sex Worker Giving Circle are a needed antidote to a culture that largely excludes and stigmatizes this population. The unique model for giving — with former and current sex workers doing the fundraising, the funding process design, and the funding decisions — adds even more integrity to this work.
View a list of the grantees for the Sex Worker Giving Circle here.