The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to mitigate it have exacerbated existing inequalities by forcing millions of workers around the world to lose work and income. Sex workers have been particularly hard hit. The long-standing conflation of sex work and trafficking have effectively led to their exclusion from not only government relief and protective measures but also from most private and philanthropic support. Yet the explicitness of the damage being done also presents us with an opportunity to turn the conversation around. Coronavirus has opened a door for funders to increase their support for sex worker-led organisations and to advocate for an end to this harmful conflation once and for all. Now they must walk through it.

The Sex Work Donor Collaborative will be waiting on the other side to help them get their bearings. Founded in 2008, the collaborative was first convened to fundamentally change the structures of funding that defined anti-trafficking efforts. In particular, the donor collaborative hoped to “increase the amount and quality of funding and non-financial support for sex worker rights and sex worker organizing”. Members of the collaborative oppose exploitation of and violence against sex workers, regardless of the form they take, and recognise the distinction between sex work and human trafficking.

A dangerous conflation

Links between trafficking and sex work are often based on assumptions rooted in the stigma against sex work. The denial of sex workers’ agency, reinforced by the conflation of trafficking and sex work, has led many funders to prefer supporting organisations that claim to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ sex workers over organisations that are run by them. In turn, this perpetuates the exclusion of sex workers’ voices from philanthropic circles and makes funding sex worker-led organisations and networks incredibly difficult.

The damage caused by equating the two ideas together is plain to see. Anti-trafficking legislation and initiatives based in the conflation of sex work and trafficking have led to increased criminalisation of sex workers’ clients and third parties, forced ‘rescue and rehabilitation’, exclusion of sex workers from services, discriminatory immigration laws and restrictions, and increased violence against sex workers.

The “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” (APLO) provision passed into US law in 2003 and embedded in the 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is a particularly egregious example of this in practice. This provision requires non-governmental organisations based outside the US to have “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution” in order to receive PEPFAR funding. The oath further prohibits recipient organisations from using the funds “to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking” and specifies that no funds “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking”.

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Now is the time to support sex workers’ rights by Paul-Gilbert Colletaz

Feb. 18 2021