Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Philanthrocapitalists stand in the way of direct aid, so we have no time for them

Sex workers and other marginalised communities are in desperate need of rights and direct cash assistance, no strings attached. Everything else is a distraction

Cora Colt
16 February 2021, 7.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved

When asked to address philanthrocapitalism over the last 20 years, one of the first thoughts I had was how late-stage capitalism impacts sex workers. I entered sex work as a stripper in the United States at the age of 19 in 2007, and even then dancers at my club bemoaned how much earnings had dropped since the 1990s. In the 14 years since, even those of us who are relatively privileged have seen tuition and predatory student loan practices soar, employment rates/wages drop, and a continuing erosion of social safety nets. This has meant that many of us in a previous decade potentially could have quietly done sex work in our early 20s and moved on to other careers as we got older, but under current economic conditions we have simply never been able to afford to entirely leave the industry.

As the sex industry has grown oversaturated, managers of legal workspaces have become bolder in pursuing exploitive and discriminatory labour practices. This, in conjunction with Trump’s presidency and the passage of anti-sex work policies like SESTA/FOSTA, has pushed many of us into higher contact, more criminalised work that is still preferable to the majority of available waged jobs. Anti-trafficking crusaders often blame us for glamourising the industry, but the reality is that people of all genders and ages are entering into sex work because they are under increasing financial duress and experience a lack of other viable options under our current power structures.

As an administrator of the Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund, a mostly volunteer-run resource specifically by and for sex workers, our collective grounds its resistance to predominant modes of philanthrocapitalism by drawing on what grassroots organisers call the non-profit-industrial complex. Non-profits, especially in the anti-trafficking realm, often give lifetime positions of power to people outside of marginalised communities. They are accountable primarily to well-off board members and funders. Funding typically goes to their salaries rather than directly to individuals in the populations they claim to serve.

This dynamic is also found within the sex worker movement. Formally educated, white sex workers from middle class backgrounds are disproportionately able to transition to paid advocacy work and secure grant funding, while our peers who face greater risk of arrest and violence in every part of their existence are often additionally barred from transitioning to non-profit and academic employment.

Preventing us from doing sex work at all in order to access services does not aid our safety in any way.

For these reasons, we’ve intentionally chosen to structure our cooperative on a sliding scale basis that prioritises resources going directly to struggling individuals and stipends for marginalised sex worker organisers. Since 2018 we’ve redistributed approximately $197,000 in cash gifts and stipends. With COVID-19 we’ve effectively doubled our usual output of funds and the number of sex workers around the nation we’re in contact with.

This has enabled us to begin work on building up our broader membership long term. Through December, we invited 400 people we’d previously assisted with funds to participate in a paid, check-in survey. Out of 200 respondents, a large number reported being houseless or housing insecure and not having connections to other sex worker communities or organisations offering the same type of low barrier cash assistance. Fully 150 were interested in becoming more engaged members. We’re currently restructuring our organisation to give these new members direct roles within our decision-making processes, as well as pulling together a budget to ensure that those who qualify for the fund will be compensated for their time and given more ongoing support.

Check out our latest series: It's time to get off the fence on sex workers' rights

We've managed to do all of this without the benefit of full-time paid staff, and without qualifying for any federal or foundation grant assistance. All of our funding is sourced from individual donors and fundraisers organised by high-profile, current and former sex workers who know through experience why this is such a vital resource.

We have of course tried to obtain grant funding in the past, but applications from sex worker-led groups are rarely successful. On top of that, many granting foundations explicitly do not sponsor direct services, especially not cash-based ones. Funders are often reluctant to pay out for material needs because even small amounts of direct assistance add up to large numbers surprisingly quickly. Few are personally invested in making meaningful structural or material change, and many believe that marginalised people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about how to best manage their own resources.

However, one of the principles of mutual aid is that direct and unconditional access to cash gives people the most agency over the use of their own resources. Other forms of assistance that non-profits are more comfortable with, such as gift cards or direct assistance with bills, do not. For this same reason, no non-profit should condition assistance on leaving the industry. Allowing adults who have a history of both consensual and non-consensual involvement in the sex industry to continue doing sex work after leaving an exploitative situation gives them low barrier income that they can best leverage for their own survival. Preventing us from doing sex work at all in order to access services does not aid our safety in any way.

In the US we risk being prosecuted as traffickers for the services we offer.

Sex work is a means of survival that falls outside of the control of capitalist systems. Forcing people into low-wage, ‘respectable’ jobs largely serves to benefit wealthy people who profit off of this type of labour while they are able to simultaneously take advantage of tax loopholes for charitable contributions. This allows them to donate selectively to foundations that distribute a minimum amount of funding yearly and avoid paying into necessary social services. This cycle does a disservice to everyone, but especially to single parents, those who experience discrimination in traditional job settings, or who are chronically ill or disabled.

Poverty, racism, criminalisation, and gender-based violence are some of the top factors that put people at higher risk of trafficking. In conjunction with a mass loss of jobs and housing due to the pandemic, many are entering sex work out of desperation and are very vulnerable to trafficking and violence. Consensual sex workers who have been steadily losing income options for years have largely been left out of government aid packages and are continuing to be forced to work outside of their usual boundaries as well. The solution to this at the speed we need it can only come in the form of large-scale, low-barrier, non-job attached government aid.

Outside of this already daunting plethora of difficulties, there are huge challenges to building any type of alternative community structures under criminalisation. We take on heightened legal risk beyond our own personal involvement in sex work and face additional criminal penalties for organising in groups, providing direct assistance, and sharing safety resources within our communities. In the US we are even at risk of being prosecuted as traffickers for the services we offer. This makes it difficult and dangerous to openly promote the work we do to reach a larger scale donor pool or advocate for basic human rights and labour protections. Even in countries where sex work is decriminalised or legalised there are clandestinely enforced, intricate webs of policies in place that enforce widespread institutional financial discrimination against individual sex workers and sex worker-run businesses. These greatly obstruct our ability to create our own equitable workspaces and long-term mutual aid networks outside of the non-profit system.

In the long run, the best trafficking prevention is sweeping societal change. At the top of the list are decriminalisation measures that remove criminal penalties for victimless activities engaged in by consenting adults, the abolition of prisons, the police, and immigration enforcement, protections for undocumented immigrants and trans folks, reparations to BIPOC communities, and universal basic income, housing, and healthcare. All of these measures would give more power to workers in every industry. Philanthrocapitalism unavoidably serves as a major barrier to the implementation of these measures and only serves to hurt truly authentic efforts to prevent trafficking.

This debate has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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