Tea with Mama Cash transcript: Sex workers' rights matter
Zohra: Hello and welcome to Tea with Mama Cash, because feminist activism works. I’m Zohra, the Executive Director at Mama Cash, and today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. And so, we wanted to take the opportunity to bring the voices of sex worker rights activists into the studio. Welcome!
Velvet: Thank you.
Vera: Hi! Thank you, Zohra, for inviting us and helping amplify the voices of sex workers.
Zohra: Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves? We have two guests today.
Vera: Okay, my name is Vera Rodriguez. I’m a former sex worker. I’ve been a sex worker for 16 years. I’ve done a lot of activism in the United Kingdom, where I was based, and when I applied for a job for the Red Umbrella Fund, which is hosted by Mama Cash, I moved to the Netherlands, which is where I am now. The Red Umbrella Fund, which is where we work, is the only fund by and for sex workers, and there’ll be more to come about that.
Velvet: Hi, my name is Velvet December. This started out as my burlesque name and it became my sex worker name when I was a student sex worker. And I’m a sex worker rights activist, and I work for PROUD, the Dutch sex workers union, as their advocacy coordinator.
Zohra: It’s really great to have you both on the program today! So, thanks very much for joining us, and I think many people will be wondering, “What exactly is sex work?” Could you say a little bit about that from your perspectives?
Vera: Well I can start, if you want. Sex work is an umbrella term, and it’s very inclusive to everyone who is providing any sort of sexual services. In that sense, strippers can also proclaim that they are sex workers. Also, web cammers. But it’s also a protective term because unfortunately, the highest stigma goes to those ones who decide to do full service. Full service is basically having sex with a client, and it’s what the law would consider as prostitution. Some sex workers do not feel comfortable with the word ‘prostitute,’ and therefore we have a kind of protective term, which is normally ‘red umbrella’, and that includes everyone that works in the sex industry. I hope you agree with that definition, Velvet?
Velvet: Yes, yes of course. And it’s a term of self-determination, so someone who works in the adult industry might not identify themselves as a sex worker, but that’s fine. An organization such as PROUD is, of course, still there for you. But it is a term of self-identification. Sex work is called sex work to stress that it concerns work and that the people doing so deserve workers’ rights. The term was coined by a sex worker, Carol Lee, in the 70’s, I believe, to really stress that it concerns work. I think it’s really strong.
Zohra: And is it true also – related to what you were saying, Vera – that because it’s an umbrella term, it’s a way for people who are doing many different kinds of things to still be included and also not have to be very specific about what exactly they’re doing, because the stigma is very high?
Vera: Exactly. I am self-identified as a sex worker, and over my 16 years as a career as a sex worker, I’ve done many, many forms of sex work. But depending on the context, I don’t need to specify what sex work is part of my identity right now, because I’ve been out to my family and friends for many years. But I don’t necessarily need to give any details of the choices I’ve done over my career.
Zohra: And so, is it a way to also build solidarity across an entire sector of workers?
Velvet: Yes, although there is this thing called the ‘whorearchy,’ where sex workers in different sectors of the industry might look up or down on each other and, yeah, the term sex worker is of course inclusive, but yeah, there’s hierarchy and in-fighting in any marginalized community, I think.
Zohra: Mhmm. And can you say a little bit about - so many people think that people are forced into sex work. And there’s a difference between choosing sex work and being forced into it. And a lot of the anti-trafficking efforts tend to conflate those things. Can you say a little bit about that from your perspective?
Vera: Indeed. The terms ‘sex work’ and ‘trafficking’- unfortunately they get conflated together very often. But it is a challenge, indeed, because the governments are making it more and more difficult for migrants to go into other countries to work. Therefore, they’re making it more difficult to do it, so a lot of people in the adult industry decide to take illegal ways to get into a country. But that is not trafficking, that is their choice because of the conditions of work. I’m sure you can add more things to it as well, Velvet.
Velvet: Yeah, yeah, exactly what you mentioned, that’s the problem because, according to the definition, the consent of the person doesn’t matter. But of course, in reality, it does. So, there’s a difference between trafficking and smuggling, as well, that is often times not addressed, and conflating sex work and trafficking is very, very harmful. We see that now both in the public and political discourse in the Netherlands, that every policy that is proposed on sex work is actually about anti-trafficking measures. And trafficking is such a more nuanced topic than people would like to think or are informed about.
And I usually give the following example: let’s imagine that you’re a trans woman living in Brazil, and you would like to build a better life for yourself in Europe. And, as we know, a lot of trans people are murdered in Latin America, so somehow you find your way to Europe. You don’t have the legal means to do so, so you agree to get to Europe with a smuggler. This is illegal travelling and is therefore a crime against the state which you enter. But once you arrive in Europe, it could be that the smuggler takes your passport away and says that you need to pay, let’s say, 10,000 euros in order to get it back and continue your way. So, you either take up sex work or you’re forced into that to pay off this debt. So, you’ve consented to the travel, but of course not to this situation of exploitation, or financial exploitation. This situation is called ‘debt bondage,’ and that is what makes smuggling into trafficking. So, once this debt is paid off, you get your passport back, you continue your way, you might want to work in sex work or just find that that is the option for you at the moment. So it could be, that someone who has travelled to Europe through this route is now working behind the windows in Amsterdam. So, by definition, they would be a victim of trafficking, but in reality, they wouldn’t be better off by being taken out of the work and deported back to Brazil because, you know, they’ve already exited the situation of exploitation. There might be some needs to be addressed about that situation, but the situation this person is in right now is not necessarily harmful and it might be a success story, and they might be building their life and saving up to build their dream and be fine with doing sex work. So, it’s a lot more nuanced and a lot more complex. It’s not just, you know, angry white men taking people into a van and pushing them behind the windows here. That’s just not how it happens.
Vera: Mmm. And unfortunately, it’s those anti-trafficking policies, the ones that end up invading work places, showing the identity of sex workers into the press, for instance, deporting people that have agreed to do some consented work. And it is a discourse that is harmful. It wants to come from a good place, I want to think, but it is harmful for the people in the industry.
Velvet: Yeah, it’s harmful in denying the agency of the worker. It really portrays, often times, the woman as a victim without agency, without being able to decide, and no one could imagine someone choosing to do this job even if it would be out of survival. It’s, yeah, always problematized.
Zohra: And this maybe brings us to a next topic and the reason we wanted to have you on the program today: why is this a feminist issue?
Vera: This is a feminist issue particularly because so many feminists are anti-sex work, because they believe that most people in the industry are being trafficked, or that the woman that decides to do sex work suffers from false-consciousness and there are much better jobs for them out there. I think we need to see sex work with the intersection of capitalism, with the intersection of patriarchy, with the intersection of white privilege. We need to see the topic of sex work in the context of so many other realities.
In the history of feminism, sex workers and trans women have been historically excluded. And that is why sex work matters within the feminist discourse because, in our eyes, without sex workers, there is no feminism, because we are also feminists. And we are also here to make a better place.
Velvet: Yeah, so to elaborate on the false-consciousness that Vera mentioned, this is what I mentioned earlier - the denying of the agency of the worker, denying that someone is able to decide for themselves, to choose the work. And, of course, denying someone’s agency is very ‘un-feminist’ to me.
Vera: In fact, I want to quote a famous activist who is Georgina Orellanio, she says these things in many talks. It’s very inspiring that one definition of feminism could be ‘to allow women and trans and anyone that is not patriarchy, to make decisions that another person might not necessarily make for themselves.’ That’s feminism. Feminism should protect women’s and trans’ choices. And this is why sex work is a feminist issue, because we need to understand that we are not promoting here sex work and saying that this is a choice for everyone. But it is a choice that we have made in our lives at some point. And just because I’ve made that choice, I should not be excluded from feminist space and discourses.
Zohra: For today’s episode, we reached out to a sex worker rights group that Mama Cash supports. Here’s what they had to say.
Charlotte: Hi everyone, this is Charlotte.
Laura: And Laura.
Charlotte: And we are from the ECP. The English Collective of Prostitutes is a network of sex workers working both on the streets and indoors, campaigning for decriminalization and safety.
Laura: We fight against being treated like criminals. We’ve helped sex workers win against charges of soliciting, brothel-keeping, and controlling - the last two most often used against women who are working together for safety.
Charlotte: Most sex workers are mothers trying to do their best for their children. We campaign against austerity cuts and for housing and other survival resources, so that any of us can leave prostitution, if and when we want.
Laura: As sex workers we know first-hand what we want to help, what we need to help to win rights for ourselves.
Charlotte: Decriminalization would increase safety and enhance health.
Laura: It would stop rapists, as sex workers could report violence without fear of arrest.
Charlotte: Decriminalization would also protect immigrant sex workers, vulnerable victims of raids and exploitation. It can also end criminal records.
Laura: We campaign against the Nordic model that criminalizes clients. Criminalizing any part of the sex industry makes sex workers more vulnerable, and decriminalization works. New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 with verifiable success.
Charlotte: Migrant sex workers in our group are currently campaigning against raids, detention, and deportation. We are about to publish our newly updated rights sheet against deportation, and have been circulating our dossier, ‘Brexit is Screwing Sex Workers,’ which highlights police racism, illegality, and abuse of migrant sex workers, including those of us from the EU.
Laura: We are also about to launch the second stage of our Make a Woman Safe campaign, which highlights the injustice of the law and asks the public to lobby their MPs to support decriminalization. Watch the video at makeallwomensafe.org. Thank you!
Zohra: Want to learn more about the groups we support and how you can support them, too? Then head to www.mamacash.org.
Zohra: So, we were just talking about how sex work is a feminist issue and relatedly how then sex workers rights is a feminist issue. And recording here in Amsterdam where sex work is actually legal in the Netherlands. Can you say a little bit about what sex workers actually want? What’s an ideal regulation and what are the kind of options we might think about?
Velvet: Well, it’s actually kind of a bridge too far to say that sex work is legal in the Netherlands. That is the legal model that we have, in theory, but in practice being a legal independent sex worker is virtually impossible because there are so many strict rules and regulations to abide by in order to gain that legal status. And what sex workers throughout the world want, as a legal model, is decriminalization. Vera, can you elaborate a little bit?
Vera: So, sex workers rights luckily are getting more and more visibility and the sex worker movement, I want to believe that it’s getting stronger every day. There is sex work organizing in many countries around the world, and we have one thing in common - it’s one step to start having a conversation and it’s that our decisions should not be a crime. And that’s why we say sex work should be decriminalized because none of our choices should be a crime. And this is the first step, to start having a conversation and then and therefore, depending on each country, each sex worker has their own realities and their own needs.
But if there is something that we all sex workers want, it’s to be decriminalized. But also, for the society to stop seeing us as the mischievous or as the ‘bad’ of society. Right?
Zohra: Yeah, that makes me think about a conversation Happy (co-host,red.) and I actually had on the podcast quite a while ago, and Happy was saying how much this can be seen to be about basically regulating women’s bodies, and a moral position on women’s pleasure and women’s sexuality. And so, inhibiting us from taking decisions about our bodies, including being able to generate income from how we use our bodies with others, is a kind of political effort to constrain us as women. What do you think about that, and then thinking about the different models that exist around the world?
Velvet: Absolutely. Well, this is a very important conversation, especially where the feminist angle comes in because some people would see sex work as a pillar of the patriarchy and it must be dismantled in order to address the power structures that we live under. But of course, by doing so, you deny the agency and the existence of sex workers and their current realities, and the livelihood of sex workers must not be collateral damage to the dismantling of the patriarchy. So, we would like to say that we are ‘finessing’ the patriarchy while we live under these patriarchal and capitalist structures. And you know, these power structures- there is definitely a link to sex work to make but you know it’s the question of whether it is the correct way to go, to see sex work as the ‘evil’ in this, and with that the people that practice this. And for some people it goes too far to call it work.
Well, if you, as you already mentioned, say it is an income-generating activity, which it is, that becomes increasingly difficult to deny. And then what do we do with this reality that is in front of us?
Vera: And I can add to the general perception of society to have the ‘good woman’ or the ‘bad woman’. The good woman is the one that is accepted, is normally married, and the bad woman is that one who decides to go beyond those decisions of getting married and trying to make some capital through an erotic force – right? – herself.
Velvet: Good sex is free sex.
Vera: Good sex is free sex, and bad sex is that one that the woman charges for. And that is extremely patriarchal indeed, as well. And-
Velvet: Can I add-
Vera: Yes, please.
Velvet: This narrative of buying sex, it sounds reasonable and of course, sex workers sell sex. But by phrasing it this way, it seems as if sex is bought. Well, this is not the case. A sex worker provides services. So, for example, if I pay for the services of a cleaner to help me clean my house, I don’t ‘buy’ a clean house. I pay for the services of the cleaner. If I need help with a legal case, I don’t ‘buy’ a good outcome of a legal case. I pay for the time and effort that a lawyer puts in. So, this phrasing is very insidious and it’s very, very harmful.
Zohra: Mhmm. And can you tell us a little bit about, you were saying in the beginning.. I was saying, ‘It’s legal in the Netherlands,’ and you were complicating that idea, and giving us a fuller picture of what that’s like. I also know that it’s a very live debate, even in the Netherlands, where some people who may come as tourists or be looking from the outside think, ‘Oh, it is’, and OK, it’s a little bit more complicated now after listening to our wonderful podcast, maybe they know, but they don’t actually know that there’s an active political fight going on right now. Can you say a little bit of that, what’s happening now?
Velvet: Yeah. So, as a sex worker in the Netherlands, you’re better off than in a lot of other places. So, the legal model definitely helps the rights of sex workers. But it’s not ideal. Especially for how it is has been implemented since 2000, and actually, prostitution wasn’t legalized in 2000 - the brothel ban was lifted. Prostitution was never really illegal in the Netherlands, it was always sort of tolerated. But keeping brothels was illegal from 1911 to 2000. So, after 2000, keeping brothels became legal and the existing sex businesses were taken up in the process of legalization and licenses were given out. But after that the licenses were frozen. So, there’s only a limited amount of licenses available, so the people who manage sex businesses – escort agencies, brothels, etcetera – gained a monopoly position. And, well, some take advantage of this. Innovation is very difficult to achieve because there’s very limited space on the market in the adult industry in the Netherlands. And, the debate, politically and publicly, changed overtime, and not for the better. We currently have a government majority coalition that is part right-wing, part Christian, very, very moralizing, and they’ve proposed a new national legislation on sex work, the law on regulating sex work, and this doesn’t really look good for us.
It would basically mean that there will be a national registry of sex workers. So, everyone needs to be registered in order to work legally. Now, you can imagine that a national registry of prostitutes is very interesting for blackmailing, for hackers, for whatever. So, we are very concerned about the privacy, people not wanting to register, the minimum age will go up from 18 to 21. So, people who are deemed as ‘more vulnerable’ because they are younger actually become more vulnerable because they will be illegal now. If you work as an illegal sex worker, which is just working without the correct license, it means that you will be fined with 20,000 euros. Clients who visit someone who is unlicensed could face time in prison. There is a pimping ban taken up and, of course, exploitation in any way is already illegal so it’s not actually about pimping but it’s about the third parties working around someone with a license. For example, someone who protects you, someone who you split rent with at home, someone who drives you to an appointment, all these people could be criminalized under these laws. So there’s a lot of really harmful things, and all, of course, under the guise of protecting the bodily integrity of vulnerable people and combating trafficking. But in reality, we know that all these measures are very detrimental to the health and safety of sex workers.
Vera: I just want to add, as well, that we’ve found at the Red Umbrella Fund, a German sex worker group called BesD. They do awesome work and they are trying to deal with mandatory registration already in Germany, that was implemented two years ago. The consequences, we have learned from them, have been devastating. Because there has been a gap in the law, it has made it very difficult for people to be able to register. They took so much time to implement the small details of the law and that left a state of illegality to many workers. It’s impossible now to do any sex work if you are not registered. So, a lot of people who decided not to be open and public about their identities as sex workers are now looking for other sources of income. And I also want to bring in that it also helps with the construction of the ‘other’. Every registered sex worker now in Germany has to have a special health card that includes certain stars on it. This is what was on many years ago, how it started with the Jewish. If you start putting in a separate bag two people that are already stigmatized, that’s the beginning of something really bad. And I’m devastated to live in a context where it’s true that it’s much better, the context of legality than in many other countries, but what will happen to the Netherlands if we go to this mandatory registration, which is extremely problematic.
Velvet: Yeah, and let’s not forget how severe the consequences are when you’re outed as a sex worker. It’s almost impossible to obtain a business bank account, to get insurance, to rent a house, to get a mortgage. We have people coming into PROUD who have their children taken away, who are evicted from their house. The consequences are very severe, so just going to register is not an easy decision.
Zohra: So, it’s not neutral, it comes with a lot of risks. And I think that some of what you’re talking about relates to our ideas and stigmas about how people who are making the choice to do sex work must be unfit in some way. Right? That’s what that comes down to, when people are losing their children for example, when children are being taken away from women who are in sex work, it’s because of our ideas about what a ‘good woman’ should be. And a good woman shouldn’t be doing this. And I wanted to ask specifically, going back to Vera, what you were saying, you said, you know people will go into other forms of income. And of course, for some people that’s the ideal. That’s the point of having the legislation in this way and the regulation in this way, is to encourage-slash-force people to exit sex work as an industry. And we know there are particular models that are designed exactly for that purpose. Can you say a little bit about your take on that?
Vera: Well, yes, this just brings us to what we call the End Demand model, which is actually criminalizing the clients. It’s a model that started in Sweden, and that is why it’s called, in some activist circles, the Swedish model. And unfortunately, here in Europe, it’s been implemented now in Ireland, it’s been implemented now in France, it’s been implemented now in Israel and Palestine, and it’s been implemented in Spain.
We are starting to hear more and more political parties defining themselves as abolitionist parties. Even the word abolition, it can be problematic and there’s so much to say around that, but many anti and prohibitionists of sex work define themselves as abolitionists, because they want to abolish prostitution. We say, well abolish poverty. Don’t abolish prostitution because, indeed - and maybe I didn’t express myself well – many people will try to find other sources of income but maybe there isn’t. We know that poverty is also gendered. And therefore, I’m going to ask them back ‘Why?’
Velvet: Yeah oftentimes sex work is not the problem. Sex work is the solution to a lot of problems. Some people choose to do sex work out of survival to make ends meet, do it temporarily or for a longer period of time. And besides, you know, picking and choosing who can choose or decide for themselves what to do, it’s just not the reality that we live in that anyone can do anything they like. But, you know, enjoying your work, etcetera, and having pleasure in your work every day, it shouldn’t be a pre-condition. Thinking that it’s good, like ‘I’m not going to wait for you to think that I’m good enough to be deserving of labor rights,’ – you can’t change the reality around someone so quickly by taking this option away from them, it doesn’t help. You can offer exit programs, you can help people who would like to change jobs, of course, but for some people it will be the only option.
Zohra: I guess I would also want to be a bit careful there that for some people it is the only option. So, if they want another option we need to tackle the root causes of why they’re in this option versus an option they would want.
Velvet: Yes, but a job doesn’t have to be validating to be valid.
Zohra: It’s time for feminist mishaps, because nobody’s perfect and we’re all human. Vera, you were telling me about your feminist mishap.
Vera: Yes, okay, I’m going to share quite a personal story and I’m even a bit embarrassed myself, but I guess it will help to understand that everyone is in their journey. As I said, I’ve been a sex worker for 16 years and I’ve been in activist circles for about 10, but just before I was lucky enough to meet people from the movement, I came out to my family. And my father was very, very angry at me when I said that I was working in peep shows and that was my main source of income for the last eight years of my life. For years, I was working in red light districts and I was sharing working spaces with people – with girls – that were working in windows and I was working in strip clubs and I was working with hostesses that would go and have sex with clients. And to me, we were all sisters and we were all on the same boat. But somehow, when I came out to my father, unconsciously I said to him, ‘But listen daddy, I am not having sex with the clients.’ And I didn’t realize that by saying that I was stigmatizing those ones who decided to do it.
And this goes in line with what has been said about ‘whorearchies.’ I learned a lot from that mishap because part of my activism was to try and build bridges between people from many different backgrounds in the industry. And after years and years of trying to have a relationship with my parents, eventually they got it. But I have to say that at that time, for my father, it didn’t make any difference and I was still far from him for about five years. So, I hope that - everyone can be human, everyone can make mistakes, and I hope that I made up for that mishap.
Zohra: Thanks a lot for sharing. Do you have a feminist blunder of your own? Send us your confessions, anonymously if you wish, and we may share it on a future episode. You can reach us on Twitter @Mama Cash, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zohra: So we’ve been talking a lot about decriminalization, legalization, regulation, and everything in between. What exactly is the difference between decriminalization and legalization?
Velvet: So, legalization still entails a lot of strict rules and regulations. And of course, it’s normal for a sex business to be regulated in a certain way because there are health and safety issues to think about. But decriminalizing – as is the case in New Zealand, which I visited recently – it changes the legal position of the sex worker and sex business managers. It really says sex work is work and you are protected by the law in doing so. So you have your workers’ rights respected.
And it changes the way that you interact with health workers, with other care providers, with the police. We heard a story there where there was a sex worker working in the streets and there was a client who refused to pay. The police were called and came to the situation. And the police officer actually took the client to the ATM and made him pay. Now that is something that, in a legal context here in the Netherlands, we do not see. And oftentimes, when someone is working illegally, working without a license, or even within the legal context with that legal status, the police would respond differently, or would tell the sex worker to give the money back to the client to solve the situation. So, yeah, the distance that is felt towards police, in particular, and so also to access justice, is different in these contexts. So, legalization is definitely a good step, but decriminalization would be better and it would be a starting point to address the stigma on sex work.
Zohra: So, is that basically what sex worker rights activists are advocating for around the world?
Vera: So, I just want to say that New Zealand is the only country that has decriminalization in the whole country. Southwest of Australia has had a decriminalization model for a while now, and the Northern Territory of Australia just passed recently a law that will allow also a decriminalization model. There are more and more countries in the world that are looking into this model, particularly, to give another example, South Africa.
And we are on the right track, but it’s very sad that at the same time as some countries are looking into decriminalization, there are other countries that are looking into the End Demand model. And it’s important to listen to what sex workers want.
Zohra: And what are some of the examples of interesting activism you think we should know about around sex workers’ rights?
Velvet: Well, there is a particular agency – the agency that I worked for, actually – that is very idealistic and feminist in its own right because it is a lesbian escort agency. And we see this worldwide that there are more and more female clients, and, you know, starting the conversation on client stigma and on an active female sexuality, I think that De Stoute Vrouw – The Naughty Woman – is doing a lot in their own regard for this conversation.
Vera: Yes, and in terms of sex workers’ rights organizing, the movement, I personally think it’s fascinating because I think sex work is kind of inherent to humanity, and sex work happens in every part of this world. I’m just going to mention around the networks. There are so many different sex worker groups. It can be a local group of people trying to fight municipal law or doing some actions against stigma. It can be a national group that tries to change the global – sorry, the national law in that country and is connected in different spaces. But there are also regional networks that try and connect the actions of all the different groups that happen. So, we are actually quite connected.
For example, in Latin America, we have two different sex worker regional networks. In Europe, we have three different sex worker regional networks. In Asia-Pacific, we have another sex worker regional network. In Africa, we have two – an English-speaking one and a recently created French-speaking one, as well. And then we have a global network of sex workers projects, which includes between 200 and 300 groups in their membership. And it’s fighting on a global policy. And it is important that we can be connected, not only locally but also globally, because when you look at the realities and the struggles of sex workers, the context can be very different, but we all suffer from stigma and stigma is something that touches us all. It is important to be part of a global movement, as well.
Velvet: Yeah. And we have links with the LGBTI rights movement. ILGA Europe and ILGA World support the decriminalization of sex work.
Zohra: And ILGA is?
Velvet: ILGA is an umbrella organization for LGBTI organizations either in Europe or other regions, and it’s also a worldwide umbrella organization. We fought hard in New Zealand, actually, to get a resolution on decriminalizing sex work, and of course we hope for more feminist organizations to reach out to sex workers in their communities, as well. Another local initiative that I’m very proud of that PROUD was involved with as well is a local trans health clinic, where sex workers teamed up with trans organizations to save each other’s lives, basically, because trans health - yeah - the trans health clinics in the Netherlands are a big mess and a lot of people can’t get access to the medication they need or the surgeries that they want.
So, we teamed up with a team of doctors who are trans themselves and just made a grass roots gender clinic.
Zohra: Amazing. And Vera, you work for a funder that’s run by and for sex workers, the Red Umbrella Fund, which is hosted at Mama Cash. And of course, Mama Cash also funds sex worker rights activism. From your perspective, what’s the funding situation like for sex worker rights activists?
Vera: Indeed. Thank you, good question. There is not enough money to fund sex worker rights. It is very difficult to find funders that are supportive of sex workers’ rights. I would like to say that also, in comparison with the amount of funding that goes into anti-trafficking programs that do not respect the consent of many sex workers. So, it is not only the lack of sex workers’ rights, it’s also the huge amount of funding that goes into those prohibitionist, anti-trafficking discourses. Luckily, there are a few supporters. Mama Cash is one of them; it’s quite unique in their feminist approach. I think the strategy is fantastic, that we are hosted by Mama Cash because, indeed, sex workers are a feminist issue. We have been funding since 2012. Every year, we open a call and I think the numbers can talk by themselves. This year, we received nearly 200 applications. Out of those 200, about 120 were eligible sex worker groups. And out of those 120, we have been able to make 30 grants that we will be making in the next year.
And this is just to show that there are so many groups that are trying to organize to get a better society, but there is not enough funding to fund the good work that they are doing.
Zohra: So, in addition to pressing that donate button on our pages to contribute more to funding for sex worker rights activism, what else can people do to support sex workers and sex workers’ rights?
Velvet: Invite us at the table, if you already have a seat of table. Pass the mic, if possible. Speak to sex workers, listen to sex workers, learn about sex worker rights issues and the related health rights, safety rights, labor rights. And, you know, regardless of your personal opinion or what you would do in such a situation, just respect the autonomy and agency of the sex worker.
Zohra: And can you say a little bit about the phrase we know of that’s so important to the movement?
Velvet: ‘Nothing about us without us.’ It basically – yeah, that’s it. It implies the meaningful participation of sex workers in the policy and decision-making that concerns them, which is an important concept for any marginalized group. Yeah, so, practicing meaningful participation takes responsibility and a certain flexibility, but it gives great results in terms of effectiveness and inclusiveness.
Zohra: And on that….
Vera: Well, on that I would like to share a poem that I think fits very well today. This is a poem that’s been played at the Sex Workers Opera, which I’ve been lucky enough to be part of since it’s beginnings.
It’s a sex work activist project. And it’s – the whole show has been made by sex worker stories that have been sent from many different countries around the world. I want to dedicate this poem to every sex worker who had a friend and who felt rejected by this friend at some point in their lives. It’s been written by an anonymous sex worker and it’s called ‘Mosaic.’
She sat in front of me and she told me I had sold myself.
I confusedly answered, ‘But I’m still here!’
And she just ignored me, as though I wasn’t.
Today, I’m bringing stories that map my life journey. Stories songs that sing about love and hate and anger. I will be sharing these stories with you. Is this selling myself, too?
It seems that sex is all you see. Well, then I think you see me in 2-D, because the actual reality is a mosaic blur, a tapestry.
I’m finger, teeth and flesh and bone, and I fight for rights to walk safe home.
I’m a screaming mess with a casual lean. I’m lonely, loved and in between.
My arms are nurture, loving is and forcing clients onto their knees.
I don’t fit what you think of me. Not he or she. Not forced. Just be.
So, if you can’t see me for more than sex and can’t see that I deserve respect- don’t like my work? Or understand? Well, my safety shouldn’t be in your hands.
So. Put aside your gallantry, because it’s time for a new strategy. Stop sadly singing my elegy.
Radical notion? Listen to me.
Zohra: Thanks for listening! You can find Mama Cash on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook or at www.mamacash.org. And you can find this podcast – Tea with Mama Cash – on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud and Stitcher. If you think what we do is important and you want to help us support women, girls, trans, and intersex activists around the world, there are many things you can do. You can, of course, donate via our website. You can also rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts to help us reach more people. Or, better yet, you can recommend Tea with Mama Cash to a friend who cares about feminism too. You can also always reach us with questions, feedback, or ideas on email at email@example.com. And if you’d like to reach our guests…
Vera: Yes, you can contact Red Umbrella Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, you can write me an email at email@example.com. You can visit our website, you can visit our Twitter account, and we also have a Facebook page. Thank you.
Velvet: You can reach PROUD through firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach me email@example.com, and of course check PROUD Nederlands Twitter and Facebook account.
Zohra: And we’ll include all these links in the show notes. That’s it for us for this episode.
Vera: Thank you so much once again, Zohra.
Velvet: Thank you for having us.
Vera: Thank you so much, Velvet. It’s always a pleasure sharing spaces with you.
Velvet: Thank you, likewise.
Zohra: Thanks a lot to Velvet and Vera, our special guests today, and this is your host – Zohra Moosa – signing off until the next time.
[End credits and music]
This podcast was produced by Amanda Gigler, Majk Mirkovic and Sophia Seawell, my colleagues at Mama Cash – and of course I’d like to extend a special thanks to Vera Rodriguez and Velvet December for joining us today.