“Last year was a very tough year for us,” said RJ Thompson, CEO of SWP. Founded in 2001 in New York City, SWP provides legal and social services to people involved in the sex business, whether due to “choice, circumstance, or coercion.” They fired people and lost a government grant, he said. The new donor’s scholarship was transformative. “The people are suffering, the organizations are suffering, and we have had the most successful year we have ever had in terms of growth, performance and everything.” SWP has now hired a staff member, Mariah Grant, to coordinate the campaign. “There is no real coalition per se,” said Thompson. “At the moment the phase we are in is a lot of relationship building” with “local sex workers rights organizations”.
What brought them to Oregon since they are not working in a formalized coalition with local groups and are still working to build local relationships? Thompson said he made a proposal to the donor interested in decriminalization to go to Oregon and received the grant based on his suggestion. Thompson said they had also spoken to group Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW), a national group that launched in 2018 and described itself as “pursuing a state-to-state strategy to end the ban on consensual adult prostitution in the United States USA “. and whose leadership includes two former SWP employees. In discussions about which states were ripe for a decriminalization campaign, “Oregon kept coming up,” Thompson said. This was partly because the state had decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs. There was already an Oregon-based decriminalization coalition modeled on New York and Washington, DC. “[DSW] encouraged us to move forward in Oregon. “The Oregon Coalition, Decrim Oregon, did not have the” capacity, funding, and paid staff, “Thompson said to launch a nationwide campaign for Decrim. (An interview request emailed to Decrim Oregon received no response.) In February, Democrat Rob Nosse introduced a SWP-sponsored Decrim bill, House Bill 3088, into Oregon state legislature. SWP’s Mariah Grant said the bill also garnered additional co-sponsors.
The relationship between community sex workers rights groups and national groups (or those like SWP trying to go national) is complex, but it reflects some of the fundamental tensions found in other rights movements: about who makes decisions, who gets funded and who gets results. These types of conflicts can also come with increased visibility and support. It was fairly public when DSW, a national group, attempted to launch an electoral initiative to decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC, which was rejected by DC sex workers and their decriminalizing coalition, the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC). who had already introduced their own decriminalization law. They accused DSW of trying to “overshadow our local movement,” the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition said as part of a statement. DSW was led in white, while the DC groups were led by colored people. DSW was also co-ruled by a former marijuana lobbyist named Rob Kampia, who was charged with sexual misconduct with a marijuana politics organization and was labeled a “serial sexual harasser” by his former chief of staff. More than two dozen sex workers ‘rights groups issued a public statement in March 2019 calling for Kampia to resign and for other sex workers’ rights groups to reject Kampia.
In February 2020, when SWAC raised the issue again and reported it in the Washington Post as a sign of “rifts in the nascent sex labor movement trying to move from the fringes to the mainstream,” DSW withdrew its DC election initiative. The movement was anything but emerging; The modern movement to decriminalize sex work has been active for nearly fifty years. But it may have been the first time that intra-movement debates on racism and sexual harassment have been treated for a national audience and as a political story.