Imagine this: late one afternoon in Thailand, as you walk around Chiang Mai looking for a spot to sip a beer in the dwindling heat, you stumble upon a unique little bar. Here there is no exploitation of the staff; the managers do not underpay or sexually harass the servers; the work shifts do not drag on long past when they should.
If you’re in the business of promoting fair labor practices and equity, as many of us in philanthropy are, you might wonder: in an industry rife with labor rights violations, how does this bar manage to be the exception?
Ask your server, and you’ll find out this: the bar was founded and is owned by a collective of women from a Thai nonprofit that organizes workers across the industry to stand up for their rights. The business is modeled on the principles of respect, fair labor conditions, and good wages.
And the women who own, manage, and work at the bar are all sex workers.
Now notice your reaction. Are you surprised? Dismayed? Uncomfortable? Intrigued?
As you might have guessed, this isn’t just an exercise in imagination. The Can Do bar is a real bar founded by a group of sex workers from the Empower Foundation, a model of just the sort of nonprofit that any funder interested in human rights, women’s rights, and social enterprise would normally jump to support. Except. It’s run by sex workers.
Sex workers have faced extreme exclusion from all human right advocacy groups and organizations, especially in the United States. Though they sit at the crossroads of the movements for women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, criminal justice reform, and access to a living wage, sex worker activists have been marginalized in all of these movements, especially in the U.S.
Because of deep cultural stigma against those who sell sex, they have enjoyed little solidarity even from fellow feminist activists.
Philanthropy has played an important role in the fight for gender equality by funding women’s rights organizations as motors of social change. But it, too, has also perpetuated the exclusion of women on the margins, and has been especially reluctant to get involved in the movement for sex workers’ rights.
As human rights funders and advocates, we must check ourselves. When it comes to human rights we can’t pick and choose which groups of individuals deserve human rights; they are universal and unalienable. Even if we are uncomfortable with sex work, we must uphold the human rights of sex workers.
Empower Foundation was one of a dozen sex-worker-led nonprofits that Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) and Neo Philanthropy heard from at a recent gathering of funders and activists in Bangkok, to discuss the contributions of sex workers to advancing many basic human rights around the world.
Those of us from the funding community were asked to confront our own biases around the idea of sex work, and to think in new and exciting ways about how to begin including sex worker organizing in our work advancing human rights.
A radical idea: women’s rights for all women
Sex work has been an important livelihood for women and men throughout human history. And, for most of that history, it has also been deeply stigmatized.
Today, International Women’s Day, is an important opportunity to take stock of the many gains women have made, and to take an unflinching look at the roadblocks to achieving equality between people of all genders.
This year’s #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are undoubtedly gains for women’s rights around the globe, but—as many have pointed out—have not been inclusive of immigrants, women of color, women in low wage jobs, and others.
Likewise, the U.S. women’s rights movement has often left out women on the margins: Black, brown, queer, disabled, migrant, and trans, among others. From the suffrage movement of the early 20th century to the Women’s March in January 2017, the movement has been challenged to take more intentional action to recognize and include the leadership of historically marginalized women.
Yet female sex workers share many of the same challenges and want many of the same things as other women: access to a safe and healthy life, with the autonomy to make decisions about their bodies and their futures. And, in spite of their ostracization, sex workers have been organizing for their right to recognition as human beings and to freedom from violence, police repression, and discrimination.
However, less than one percent of global human rights dollars went to sex worker organizing between 2011 and 2015. On top of that, the grants made tended to be small—typically less than US $12,000, according to the Red Umbrella Fund, the first global fund that exclusively grants to sex-worker-led organizations.
But there are signs of change. At the recent gathering in Bangkok, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women shared its recent groundbreaking research on how sex workers use community organizing to fight trafficking and other human rights violations around the world. It use the stage for funders to engage in honest conversations about the stigma, discrimination, and violence sex workers face.
We also got to hear, from sex workers themselves, how philanthropy can be part of the solution:
- Support the decriminalization of sex work in order to create safer and more just labor conditions
- Frame sex work as a labor issue and work towards the formal recognition of sex work as work, replete with rights and protections
- Create spaces for sex workers to speak for themselves so that others can understand their realities and needs and recognize their humanity
- Increase the amount and quality of funding for sex workers to self-organize
The fight for sex workers’ rights is at the intersection of racism, classism, misogyny, xenophobia, and transphobia. So by supporting sex worker rights, we are actually addressing a myriad of issues on the human rights agenda.
By bringing sex worker rights into the mainstream women’s rights movement, we can build coherence and solidarity to uphold the rights of ALL women.
And by increasing and improving the quality of funding for sex workers to organize, philanthropy can be a bold ally for ALL women’s rights.
Dana Preston is Senior Program Manager for Gender Focused Initiatives at Hispanics in Philanthropy and Sienna Baskin is Director of the Anti-Trafficking Fund, a project of the Oak Foundation, at NEO Philanthropy.
Click here for more content, written to celebrate International Women’s Day 2018.