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Why Being a Feminist Funder Means Supporting Sex Worker Activism

A group of women walking holding red umbrellas that cover their faces.

Mama Cash supports sex worker organisations. Mama Cash believes that women, girls, and trans* people can only fully enjoy their rights if they are free to make decisions about their profession, their bodies and their sexuality without repercussions. In other words, we uphold the principles of ‘My job, my choice’ and ‘My body, my choice’. We therefore support sex worker organising that centres around autonomy and consent and that considers how views on gender roles influence the debate around sex work. Because of our commitment to fund activist work that is designed by those directly affected, we fund self-led groups of women and trans* sex workers.

Sex work remains a highly contested issue. In most places in the world, societies and laws impose horrendous stigma and abuses on sex workers. But even within human rights movements there are disputes about whether sex work should be seen as labour or as exploitation. Opinions on sex work are often formed without consulting or respecting sex workers themselves. An example are the broad protests around Amnesty International’s landmark resolution of August 2015 to adopt a policy that treats sex worker rights as human rights and that is in favour of full decriminalisation of sex work. Hollywood celebrities, backed by a women’s anti-exploitation organisation, and human rights advocates accused the human rights organisation of protecting pimps and turning a blind eye to violence against women in the sex industry. However, sex workers globally applauded the resolution because it can be an advocacy tool for them to operate safely within the law.

Mama Cash’s support to sex workers has been central from the early days as an international women’s fund. In 1985, soon after the establishment of the fund, the first International Whores’ Congress which took place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was financially supported by Mama Cash. One of the ideas behind the congress was that sex workers’ rights are critical for the rights of all women: because of the gender norms in society any woman can be stigmatised as a ‘whore’, so freedom for women is only possible if sex workers enjoy their rights and freedom. In the 1990s and the 2000s several of the sex worker groups supported by Mama Cash added a labour rights lens to their analysis and advocated for sex work to be treated as work. Examples of groups that received funding in this period are AMMAR from Argentina and WONETHA from Uganda. Besides providing direct support to sex worker groups and networks, Mama Cash, together with other social justice funders and sex worker networks, promoted the foundation of the Red Umbrella Fund in 2012, the first global fund guided for and by sex workers.

Throughout the years, the importance of supporting sex workers has been discussed regularly by board and staff of Mama Cash but was never fundamentally questioned. Sometimes questions come from outside; from individuals and organisations inquiring how it is possible for Mama Cash to identify as a women’s rights promoter without responding to women and girls being trafficked into the sex industry and to act as if sex work was a profession like any other. Mama Cash’s answer to this is that a feminist perspective allows for two things: firstly for seeing sex work and trafficking as separate issues, and secondly for forming viewpoints on these two that are supportive of those directly involved, such as sex workers and women trafficked into a variety of exploitative situations.

The right to voluntarily engage in sex work and the right to refuse forced sex work are both valid and in a just world these two co-exist. It is feminism, with its scrutinising eye for power relations that offers the possibility for this “both/and” perspective. We can support both sex worker activism and the fight against trafficking. We can pursue both an increase in sex workers’ power and agency and the dismantling of power of those who force women and others into sex work. Curtailing the rights of sex workers in order to prevent trafficking is an “either/or” approach that does not do justice to those who choose sex work as their profession, and it is thus not Mama Cash’s pathway. Mama Cash values both anti-trafficking efforts and sex workers’ agenda-setting, and can financially support self-led groups working in these domains.

So why are sex workers’ rights a priority for Mama Cash? The reason is fairly simple: we see sex work as work. We are committed to fund women, girls and trans* people claiming their labour rights and their freedom of choice, and consequently we fund sex worker activism. Sex workers’ voices need to be heard and their place at the decision tables to be secured. If sex workers get a say in legal and practical aspects of sex work, the stigma surrounding it can be reduced. This is an important step towards realizing Mama Cash’s vision that every woman, girl and trans* person in the world will have the power and resources to make her own choices, have control over her body, and participate fully and equally in creating a peaceful, just and sustainable world.