Will funding small, sex-worker-led organizations facilitate the sex worker rights movement?
Employed in various components of sex work for twenty years, Savannah Sly felt driven to step into a community organizer role roughly a decade ago. She had relocated from the East Coast to Seattle at a time when the Emerald City’s sex industry had begun to flourish.
Recognizing that sex trafficking had also started to emerge as a problem, the city’s political leadership initiated a process to reevaluate its prostitution legislation that led to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes’ decision to adopt the Nordic Model in 2012. So named because Sweden had pioneered the practice in 1999, the Nordic Model arrests and penalizes the buyers of sex rather than the sex workers to reduce the demand side rather than the supply side.
“I felt that the whole Nordic Model and the demand narrative was akin to the war on drugs,” Savannah says. “As a sex worker, I was very alarmed by this, and I just sort of fumbled my way into community organizing and advocacy.”
She spent ten years mastering those skills locally and nationally, including a job as a coalition organizer with the ACLU in Washington State, where she addressed sex trade issues around data privacy, algorithmic discrimination, and facial recognition systems for their Technology and Privacy Portfolio.
“Sex workers are on the forefront of bearing the brunt of technological oppression,” she says. “Sex workers have definitely been raising the alarm on censorship and technological discrimination and surveillance for a long time.”
She became Director of the New Moon Fund in October 2021. The new organization “is dedicated to securing rights and opportunity for people in the sex trade by building awareness, attracting resources and seeking to address highest priority needs toward community wellbeing.” As Director Savannah is responsible for building a strong foundation and programmatic/development strategy. She is also a part-time board member and freelance ambassador and advisor for The Woodhull Freedom Foundation and a steering committee member for the Sex Work Donor Collaborative.
“I’m helping to support the movement for sex workers’ rights, but also ‘reach across the aisle,’” she says. “It feels ridiculous to state it that way because with anti-trafficking advocates and sex worker rights advocates by and large there is so much crossover. The bifurcation was artificially and politically created by the End Demand narrative, the intentional conflation of sex work and trafficking.”
From her perspective, Savannah believes that there are three major points that the two sides disagree on: 1.) Whether full decriminalization is the right path o reducing exploitation, violence and danger in the sex trade; 2.) Whether sex work can ever be meaningful work or a valid form of labor; 3.) Whether carceral solutions (imprisonment of people convicted of prostitution charges) are the best way to deter violence and exploitation in the sex trade.
[“Otherwise, we agree on everything else, to reduce exploitation and danger in the sex trade, we believe in housing first. We largely believe in immigration reform. We believe in decriminalizing youth who have a contradictory status in some places of being charged for prostitution despite being federally defined as trafficking victims.]
We are all in favor of antidiscrimination policies that would enable people to access education and employment and housing or to maintain employment. We know that’s a big deterrent to people being able to choose a different path in life or move their life forward is to especially if they have a criminal record. We’re all for record expungement. So, those are the things that I want to talk about.]
Savannah has been developing the program for more than a year now that will disburse grants to sex worker-led organizations or potentially to anti-trafficking organizations hat are sex-work inclusive and working towards collective goals. Currently, she and her team are growing the fund and planning their first deployment of microgrants to smaller organizations that will be paid monthly. They are also incubating several pilot programs with community partners to implement educational and advocacy initiatives.
“The whole goal is to help solidify and accelerate the movement for sex workers rights through strategic investments and technical assistance,” she informs.
As part of their development and testing process, New Moon Fund has already provided financial support to groups or people they’ve deemed “key players in the space,” such as Nicole Gilliland for her antidiscrimination court case in Oregon. Gilliland was studying nursing when the college she was attending began harassing her after learning of her previous life as a sex worker. She won the case, one that Sly considers “important, impactful litigation.”
They also provided a small, monthly grant to Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, which runs a toll-free community support hotline for sex workers.
“We’re helping them scale up as part of the technical assistance we’re providing,” she says. “We see that as a strategic program that could potentially benefit the entire movement, certainly on a direct services basis but also from a policy perspective.”
She adds that part of the motivation for supporting that project is their intention to catch up on data.
“Our opposition, our “anti-prostitutionists,’ have heir own sets of data, some of which we question the validity of,” she says. “So we need to collect our own data, and the Community Support Hotline would be an amazing way of doing that.”
New Moon Fund also provided a $2,500 donation for the Ishtar Collective’s Sex Worker Summit in Manchester, New Hampshire in November, and Savannah attended the event. Ishtar Collective was founded a few years ago in Vermont [to support sex worker advocacy and related policy reform.]
“Events like that can be really catalyzing for energy and momentum and sharing information,” she says. “I’m very proud of the group for not biting off more than they could chew on their first major event, and they didn’t widely publicize it because they wanted to make sure that it was manageable and safe.”
“We see New England as kind of a hot spot where we are testing our new microgrant program with Ishtar Collective,” she explains. “We provided technical assistance to help them get fiscal sponsorship, and that paves the way for them to receive donations from organizations like New Moon Fund.”
New Moon Fund is furnishing some funding for an exploratory pilot program that they are calling primary prevention education. The program is now in development with Jamila Aisha, a sexual empowerment educator in Atlanta. The program will feature two different tracks, one for people who are currently working in some aspect of the sex trade, and the other will be for young people, roughly ages 9 through 21, that will give them age-appropriate tools for identifying potentially exploitive or exploitive situations.
Savannah believes that to be serious about preventing sexual exploitation, we first need to discuss child abuse and domestic abuse that occurs in homes, whether children are receiving support from parents and adults, whether they are learning about body sovereignty, and whether they have access to help when they need it.
“If we can’t address noncommercial sexual violence, how will we ever address commercialized sexual violence?” she says regarding the prevalence of domestic child abuse, exploitation and violence. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Savannah does see some commonalities between the two sides in the movement to gain rights for sex workers. Most people, she believes, are in favor of reducing exploitation and the dangers of the sex trade, the implementation of immigration reform and antidiscrimination policies that would enable people to access education and employment, record expungement for crimes people were forced to commit while being trafficked particularly for youth, and first and foremost, housing and social services should be provided or funded for sex workers in need.
She says that obtaining funds for pro sex worker programs can be especially challenging because of a lack of tolerance, “A lot of funders only want to fund the extraction of women from the sex trade,” she says. “They don’t want to fund the actual support of women who choose to be in the sex trade.”
For as much as she enjoys sex work, especially when she’s in her home community in Seattle where she is surrounded by other sex workers or people from the queer, polyamory, BDSM and kink communities that are allied communities, she knows that she is in a more privileged situation as someone who is white, well-educated and able to work as a professional and is not forced to do sex work for survival.
“Sex work is not right for everybody,” she says. “In a perfect world, sex work is best for people as a side gig to supplement their income. Sex work sucks if you have to do it and it is your only choice.”
She also enjoys the relationships that she has with multiple clients. “Living in Seattle, I feel well-adjusted, healthy, I have my community, and I feel fine about my choices and that I have a degree of choices,” she says.
Recently, she has felt “the judgment of society” more since she’s returned to her hometown in Vermont to take care of her elderly parents. There she feels less safe and weird when she’s talking to people who might be more provincial because she’s not sure what they know or think about her since she is visible online. She hears the whispers of neighbors who know her legal name and who’ve seen her website or videos but don’t say anything about it to her face. Those uncertainties, she relates, are instinctually why she wanted to leave home in the first place.
“What I do does no feel foreign or weird or bad to me, until I see how people’s eyes pop out of their heads, and they’re like, ‘You’re a prostitute?’” she concludes. “Well, I don’t really think of it like that, but yeah, I’m totally a bona fide, 100% prostitute, and I’m here to advocate for my human rights.”
Next Up: Bill Woolf, Principal, The Woolf Group in the Washington, DC/Baltimore Area, founder of Anti Trafficking International in 2013 and previously worked for the Department of Justice in various capacities for nine years.