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Back in 2018, Third Wave Fund announced the first round of grantees for its Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC), a “cross-class, multi-racial, intergenerational giving circle made up of fellows with current or past experience with sex work or the sex trade.” At the time, the giving circle was the first of its kind—the first sex worker-led fund, that is, housed at a U.S. foundation. Those inaugural grants totaled $200,000 and were awarded to 11 organizations. To date, the SWGC has now awarded $1.55 millon to 36 sex-worker-led organizations, including its largest round in December 2021, which consisted of $550,000 in grants awarded to 24 nonprofits.

In other words, the SWGC is growing, with ongoing support from individuals as well as a number of institutional donors, including the Libra Foundation, Foundation for a Just Society and the Tara Health Foundation. This is notable because institutional philanthropy has a sparse track record when it comes to supporting sex workers, to put it mildly.

We reported about the SWGC in 2019 as part of a piece on the state of philanthropic support for sex workers (spoiler: it’s not terribly extensive). We have been keenly interested in the SWGC’s progress because it is emblematic of popular strategies among progressive funders: participatory grantmaking, grassroots movement building, unrestricted grants, constituent-led organizing and the like. The SWGC walks the walk. Its 12 fellows make all grant recommendations, and as part of the program, fellows receive training and support. In this way, the giving circle incubates constituent leadership while providing grants to constituent-led organizations.

SWGC’s 2018 grants focused mostly on New York City-based fellows and organizations (Third Wave Fund is based in Brooklyn), but according to Christian Giraldo, SWGC’s program officer, it is now a national program. Grantees in 2021 included groups that span the country, like the BIPOC Collective, Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, and Sex Workers Outreach Project Los Angeles.

Giraldo says that the giving circle structure is particularly appropriate for sex-worker-led organizations because stigma and marginalization can make access to other philanthropic funding streams difficult. “Sex workers are under constant interrogation, constant political assault, and this results in fear when speaking to funders,” Giraldo says. “And there are many roles that philanthropy can be playing right now to dismantle and mitigate that dynamic. The giving circle has been beating the drum tirelessly about unrestricted, multi-year funding, and making funding easily accessible, with diverse ways of applying—video proposal, one-to-one conversations, metrics on their own terms rather than defined by NGOs.”

A decade ago, major donor support for sex workers’ rights was limited to a handful of known actors, including Open Society Foundations, American Jewish World Serices and Red Umbrella Fund, an international sex worker-led fund launched in 2012. Other major funders, inluding the Ford Foundation, the NoVo Foundation and the Gates Foundation, did not dedicate programs to sex workers’ rights, yet a small number of their grants went to that cause via larger funding buckets for violence prevention, LGBTQ rights, public health and gender equity. A 2014 report commissioned by Mama Cash, Red Umbrella Fund and OSF found that in 2013, only 56 funders — in total, internationally — backed programs related to sex workers’ rights.

But over the past few years, there’s been a shift as more donors show an interest in sex workers’ rights, liberation and decriminalization. This has bubbled up from the movement itself, as organizations find new spaces for networking and new ways to approach funders. Advocates are also leveraging the energy of the 2020 racial justice protests, which resulted in a willingness, among some funders, to take a closer look at historically marginalized demographics and the inherent intersectionality of rights-based movements.

According to Indigo Hann, co-founder of the MO Ho Justice Coalition, a 2021 SWGC grantee, another reason for philanthropy’s increased (though still lacking) recognition of sex workers is fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. “With COVID and stagnant wages and skyrocketing costs of living, more people are having to turn to sex work, and it’s less of a boygeyman,” Hann says. “It is happening in everyone’s backyards, and always has been, but now, the economic reality is becoming more apparent to more people.”

Decriminalization, harm reduction and mutual aid 

The SWGC fellows who select the giving circle’s grantees are themselves current or former sex workers, and therefore tend to understand that while some issues are sex-worker-specific, other issues like housing, policing reform, healing and harm reduction intersect with the priorities of other rights-based movements. An SWGC grantee might advocate for sex work decriminalization while also working on housing access, and the connection is implicitly understood. Organizations don’t need to pretend to be something they’re not in order to access funding.

Giraldo says that organizations have historically found funding through programs for HIV/AIDS, public health, or via funders interested in LGBTQ or migrants’ rights issues. He explains that while all of that work is important, organizations also need to be recognized for — and free to pursue — the “huge part of our work that is addressing stigma and violence and precarity for being sex workers.”

Many factors serve to reduce access to that funding, not least being that the sex trade is outlawed to various degrees in most countries. And many funders don’t differentiate between sex work — which the Sex Work Donor Collaborative defines as “the provision of sexual services between consenting adults for money or goods” — and sex trafficking, which the U.N. defines as involving “lack of consent due to coercion or deception, or involvement of minors.” Efforts to rein in and prosecute sex traffickers can lead to policies that are dangerous and harmful to sex workers, and not distinguishing between the two groups can be counterproductive to anti-sex-trafficking efforts. A 2012 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) policy paper points out that sex workers are in a good position to report sex trafficking, but are hesitant to do so when sex work is criminalized, as well.

For Hann, the SWGC’s overt commitment to the community made it an obvious place for MO Ho Justice to turn to for funding. “Sex worker organizing and direct services often comes with aversion by funders and nonprofits because of this conflation between sex work and trafficking,” Hann says. “And people sometimes get a little weird about it — ‘why are we giving whores money?’ — so having a grant opportunity that’s directly pro-sex work, sex-work-affirming, really investing in our community, was such a special opportunity, we knew we had to apply for it.”

MO Ho is a St. Louis-based nonprofit that launched in 2019 and has been involved in advocacy, community-building, and training and skills development. Its first major initiative was putting together a State of the Hustle report, in conjunction with ACLU Missouri, which drew on interviews with sex workers to “take the temperature on what is going on in Missouri” with the industry, as Hann put it. The paper includes data from a survey that found, for example, that 38% of respondents were transgender and 42% reported a disability or mental illness.

“We knew that because of stigma and criminalization and the fear of state violence, sex workers were suffering disproportionately from mood disorders,” Hann says. “We knew this, but we did not have the data, and we knew having that data is a powerful thing.”

Another major project for MO Ho is a drop-in center designed to be a hub of “mutual aid and healing justice resources” for sex workers. “We wanted to create a space where sex workers can come — that centers Black and trans women — and be welcomed and affirmed and get the services they need without judgment and stigma,” Hann says. On the day we spoke with Hann, they shared that MO Ho was holding its first self-defense training that evening.

Both Hann and Giraldo repeatedly underscored the importance of mutual aid and community-based healing, and were careful to note that mutual aid has always been a core part of this community (“We were doing mutual aid before nonprofits would touch us,” Hann says). Mutual aid takes many forms, from healing and medical care to grocery runs, emergency housing and childcare.

Giraldo says that among the 36 organizations that the SWGC has funded, every one of them has created or supported systems of care, mutual aid and resource-sharing. “In a way, that is a necessity; mutual aid is the centerpiece of the work,” he says. This is in large part because sex workers are unable to rely on public systems.

“The biggest challenge is the reason behind why mutual aid needs to be on permanent speed dial,” Giraldo says. “Sex workers are criminalized, policed, jailed — and always cruelly and needlessly. They lack support from state and federal resources.” And for related reasons, harm reduction has also always been a priority. “Harm reduction communities have been so on-point in terms of sex worker organizing,” Giraldo says. “The two communities just walk in lockstep in a lot of ways.”

Intersectionality and the “canary in the coal mine” 

Sex workers are more likely than the general population to be from historically marginalized Black and brown communities, and to lack access to housing, healthcare and education. They are also more likely to identify as trans, disabled or have histories of personal trauma. One might expect that this intersectionality would put sex workers on the radar of funders interested in tackling multiple issues. But due to stigma and criminalization, the community is often left to fend for itself.

“The issues that affect sex workers often represent a canary in the coal mine,” Hann says. “Things like immigration policy, financial discrimination, infringements on digital privacy, bodily autonomy… the issues that other groups and movements are organizing around, a lot of them affect sex workers first.”

Hann began organizing during college as part of a student alliance and the local Fight for $15. They later brought that anti-exploitation and workers rights lens to sex work organizing. Hann pointed out that philanthropy and other institutions are often involved in efforts to either “rescue” or punish sex workers rather than providing care, support, and means toward empowerment or opportunity.

“You can’t claim to care about us, or want to quote unquote ‘save us,’ if the solution is jail or arrest or disenfranchisement or being blacklisted from financial institutions, employment opportunities, educational opportunities,” Hann says. “You can’t have both. You don’t have to like that the commercial sex industry exists, but if you really care about the people who work in this industry, stigmatizing them is not going to help.”

But Hann says that there is a growing understanding of how sex workers are impacted by the underlying economic conditions and forms of oppression that affect other types of workers.

“When we think about workers’ rights and worker empowerment, in other industries, we don’t criminalize people, put them in jail, force them to work in unsafe conditions, and more people are recognizing this double standard.”

Forging connections in the community 

As one of the few institutionally supported funding sources for a community accustomed to stigmatization, a major benefit of the SWGC is its ability to connect individuals who might otherwise be isolated. For Alice Maule, a New York-based dancer who served as an SWGC fellow in 2019 and 2020, connecting with others in the community helped her understand the importance of decriminalization as a core objective for the movement.

Maule became involved in movement work via the Industrial Workers of the World, which is a sex-worker-inclusive union. Meanwhile, she was having conversations with people who work in the criminalized parts of the industry, and she began to understand the connections between criminalization and working conditions.

“And then the (SWGC) fellowship was a larger dose of that,” Maule says. “They had really intentionally created a cross-section of the industry… decriminalization really takes precedence because many of the other issues workers face can be traced back to criminalization. When you eliminate criminal punishment for performing work, it makes it easier to address stigma, labor rights and working conditions.” Maule says the fellowship gave her the opportunity to learn about some of these larger issues, which she otherwise might not have fully understood “because it is not always easy to transcend the different segments of the industry.”

Advocacy work around decriminalization varies from state to state, depending on local laws. But across the movement, advocates want to dismantle FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), two federal bills that passed in 2018 with wide bipartisan support, despite warnings by sex workers and advocates that they would endanger both sex workers and trafficked individuals by forcing traffickers further underground and removing safe online spaces for sex workers to connect, converse, and warn one another about dangerous clients.

The fight surrounding SESTA/FOSTA is an example of advocacy work that benefits from an organized national movement. Among its goals, the SWGC counts that movement-building as paramount. “Sex workers have come through the program as fellows and strengthened their own leadership, connecting with each other while creating spaces for the national movement,” Giraldo says. “Former fellows have started their own organizations, have joined the staff, the advisory board, have leaned into skillsets and gone on to be sex worker lawyers and therapists… so a lot of our program successes are married to the vision of creating spaces for sex workers to enter organizing, philanthropy, and to shape policies.”

Giving circles on the rise

In this regard, the SWGC showcases the benefits of giving circles as a model, which allows under-resourced, marginalized communities to pool resources and access funding while also networking, building infrastructure and strengthening leadership. Giving circles have also caught the interest of mainstream funders lately. For instance, the giving circle movement has been bolstered by Philanthropy Together, which launched in 2020 with the goal of “radically increasing the good that giving circles can do in the world.” According to a recent press release from the SWGC, Philanthropy Together has led 2,000 giving circles in donating $1.29 billion globally.

Giving circles have traditionally sought the support of everyday donors rather than larger institutions, and Giraldo says that he’s been “blown out of the water” by support from individual donors. “We owe so much to that pooling and donor advocacy work, and the countless direct one-to-one conversations they had with their communities. We know that has turned into support for the giving circle since its creation.” The SWGC also sees itself as closely aligned with the recently established Sex Work Donor Collaborative, which includes the International Trans Fund, Women’s Fund Asia, Red Umbrella Fund and the Nairobi-based UHAI among its members.

For Maule, the community of the SWGC fellowship did not end when the fellowship itself ended. “The Third Wave staff are really amazing about making sure they have a long-term relationship with us,” she says. “They have shown a real dedication to wanting us to succeed, whether that is within the [sex work] industry or transitioning out successfully. They have really made an effort, and I don’t know how common that is for philanthropy in general, but it’s a meaningful model that I hope will catch on.”