Milano School Open Letter

Dear David Scobey and Mary Watson,

We are writing an open letter of concern to the New School and Milano School on behalf of our members, sex worker-led organisations with regard to a project managed by the Milano School titled ‘Sex Trafficking Prevention Approaches and Policy Implications’ commissioned by their client, Equality Now. We have on-going concerns over the ethics of the research project given the uses to which it may be put.

We understand that the project is to be carried out in two parts; part one asks students to examine countries where sex work is legalised, and part two asks students to examine the history of sex worker rights groups in a number of countries (please note: sex worker rights organisations do not support or campaign for 'legalisation' but oppose criminalisation of sex work). It appears that in part two of the project that there will be a concerted effort to identify and investigate sex worker groups who are active in the sex workers’ rights movement.

One strand of this inquiry asks students to investigate the funding sources of sex worker rights organisations. The tone and thrust of this question seem to imply a search for something unseemly. They suggest that the client, Equality Now, is looking to "intervene" within the sex worker rights movement at funding level: utilising knowledge of funding sources gained through the Milano School to cut off the funding of sex worker rights groups.

Sex worker rights groups are generally sex worker-led, at considerable risk to the activists involved. To be active in a sex worker rights group in any country where sex work is fully or partially criminalised - the vast majority of the world - exposes sex workers to potential “outing”, arrest, police violence, incarceration, loss of child custody, loss of access to services such as health services or secure housing, and other myriad effects of social stigma associated with being "out" (either through choice, or by unwilling exposure).

As we're sure you're aware, groups led by sex workers generally have little or no funding. The funding that groups in our networks have, comes from perfectly open sources, which require minimal research to uncover. The Red Umbrella Fund is one such source, and the criteria for being considered as a grantee are on that organisation's website. The Open Society Foundation publishes a guide, called 'Sex Worker Health and Rights: where is the funding?’ These funding sources aren't secret. There aren't many others: again, as we're sure you're aware, the funding to protect sex workers health and human rights is scant and precarious. Most groups operate without significant funding, and the vast majority without secure funding.

Equality Now has in the past tried to get sex worker-led programmes de-funded. Gloria Steinem, perhaps Equality Now’s most high profile activist, has described sex worker-led HIV programming in India as a front for “traffickers”, putting pressure on funders to withdraw. The sex workers who deliver services to each other in Sonagachi are self-evidently not “traffickers”, and Steinem perpetrates a violence against her own intellectual honesty in stating so.

This is the context in which sex worker-led programmes struggle for funds. We are excluded from many mainstream funding sources (such as PEPFAR), as sex workers are seen as immoral, complicated, controversial; and often overturn simplistic understandings of our lives and work. When we find funding elsewhere (or even when we don’t), our organisations are accused of being ‘fronts’ for ‘pimps’ and ‘traffickers’ – accusations which could well have led to the de-funding of the Sonagachi project, ending effective HIV prevention and treatment services for sex workers in one of Asia’s largest metropolises.

We hope you will see that our concerns, as to how Equality Now will (mis)use the information your research will deliver to them, are real. Equality Now has a history of attempting to get sex worker-led groups de-funded: will the New School and the Milano School be proud of an end to HIV services for and by sex workers in the Global South? The silencing of sex workers advocating for our rights is not a theoretical, abstract debate within academia; it is a very real material reality for us, the subjects of the Equality Now research project.

We therefore remain concerned by this research on behalf of Equality Now, an organisation which has been vocally opposed to the sex workers’ rights movement. We are concerned by the purposes for which it is being be carried out, and the uses to which the knowledge gained will potentially be put. We are particularly disappointed to see a familiar syndrome apparently playing itself out again; again with marginalised populations; and again with populations based primarily in the Global South.

Sex worker rights organisations have the highest respect for research and academia. The work that comes out of universities and centres of research is a crucial tool in documenting our diverse and complex realities. It is due to this respect that we are writing to express our disappointment and concern.

We would like to raise concerns over the following:

1.   Whether the New School has considered its responsibilities to the sex worker rights movement in terms of what use this research will be put to once the study is completed. What ethical or moral responsibility will you hold if, as a result of this project, sex workers are exposed to harassment, state violence, or arrest; or sex worker rights groups are de-funded and there is no longer any financial support available for those fighting for the health and human rights of their communities? How was this addressed within the ethical review process that was conducted?

2.    What safeguards are in place to prevent the client from using your students' research to ends destructive to the health or safety of individual sex workers or sex workers’ organisations?

If assurances cannot be provided, both by the Milano School and by Equality Now, we firmly feel that the Milano School should be obliged to reconsider this project. A rift of trust between researchers and sex workers would obstruct further research into sex work populations. We believe that the New School will instead want to fulfil its ethical duty to prevent harm to individual activists and groups, and by extension, to sex workers' advocacy for health and human rights. We are writing to you in the hope that this is the case, and that, more than anything else, your own moral and ethical assessments will intervene to end this potentially damaging and frightening research.


We look forward to your response.




NSWP Members and others who support sex worker concerns (organizational supporters, academics, and activists)


NSWP Members

  1. Patience Nkomo, African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), Zimbabwe
  2. Aime Nshombo Furaha, Action Humanitaire pour la Sante et Developpment (AHUSADEC), DRC
  3. Olena Tsukerman, All-Ukrainian League Legalife, Ukraine
  4. APNSW, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Thailand
  5. Asociacion De Mujeres Trabajadoras Del Sexo "Colectivo Flor De Azalea", Ecuador
  6. Fabian Chapot, Aspasie, Switzerland
  7. Carol Leigh, Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, (BAYSWAN), U.S.A
  8. Alban Anonyuo, Civil Society on Health and Rights of Vulnerable Girls and Women in Nigeria (CiSHRWIN), Nigeria
  9. Desiree Alliance, U.S.A.
  10. Émilie Laliberté, Stella l'amie de Maimie, Canada
  11. Anna Muhonja, Ebigeri United Self Help Group, Kenya
  12. Ms Meena Saraswathi Seshu, SANGRAM, India
  13. Ms.Shabana Goundi, VAMP - Collective of Female Sex Workers, India
  14. International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe – ICRSE, Europe
  15. LEFÖ/TAMPEP, Austria
  16. New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), New Zealand
  17. Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, Turkey
  18. Albano Anonyuo, Renewed Initiatives Against Disease and Poverty (RENAGAIDS), Nigeria
  19. Respect Inc, Australia
  20. Rose Alliance, Sweden
  21. Joel Simpson, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana
  22. Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association, Australia
  23. Sex Professionals of Canada, Canada
  24. Sex Worker Open University, UK
  25. Sienna Baskin, Esq. Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, UK
  26. STAR-STAR Skopje, Macedonia
  27. Trajche Janushev, Star-Star: Association For Support Of Marginalized Workers (SW), Macedonia
  28. STRASS – Syndicat du Travail Sexuel, France
  29. Licia Brussa, TAMPEP International Foundation, The Netherlands
  30. TAMPEP-Germany, Germany
  31. Kerry Porth, Triple-X Workers Solidarity Association of British Columbia, Canada
  32. Women’s Network for Unity, Cambodia
  33. X-talk, UK

Organisational Supporters

  1. Karen Nickel, Assaulted Women & Children Counsellor/Advocate (AWCCA), Canada
  2. Association of Hungarian Sex Workers, Hungary
  3. Sam Liebelt, Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League – AIVL, Australia
  4. Autonomous Workers Association, Equador
  5. Comite de Apoyo a las Trabajadoras del Sexo (CATS), Spain
  6. Tiago Ferreira , Community Organization GAT, Portugal
  7. Dra. Cecilia Varela, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones científicas y técnicas (CONICET) y Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina
  8. Diritti Civili delle Prostitute Onlus, Italy
  9. Everyday Whorephobia Project, UK
  10. Rajendra Patil, MUSKAN - Collective of Male and Transgender Sex Workers, India
  11. George Ayala, PsyD , Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF), UK
  12. Efi Kokkini, Greek Drug/Substitute Users Union, Greece
  13. Dr Eliot Ross Albers, International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), UK
  14. North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, U.S.A.
  15. Sarah Patterson, Persist Health Project, U.S.A.
  16. Mr Rajendra Naik, MITRA- Collective of Children of Sex Workers, India
  17. Cleo, STTS, Switzerland
  18. SWAGGERR SA , Australia
  19. Krystal Metcalf, SWOP NT, Australia
  20. Elena Eva Reynaga, Working Women Network Latin America and the Caribbean (REDTRASEX), Latin America
  21. Wendy Lyon, Feminist Ire, Ireland
  22. Research Project Korea, Germany
  23. Julie Bates, sex worker activist and Principal, Urban Realists Planning & Health Consultants, Australia
  24. Project X, Singapore
  25. Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund, The Netherlands
  26. Susann Huschke, Visiting Fellow, Queen's University Belfast, UK
  27. Marinette Sjöholm, Rose Alliance, Sweden
  28. Caty Simon, co-editor of Tits and Sass
  29. Candice Gilford, Community Programs Worker - NSP | NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA), Australia
  30. Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights, U.S.A.

Academics and Activists

  1. Agata Dziuban, Jagiellonian University, Poland
  2. Anastacia Elle Ryan, PhD Researcher, University of Glasgow, UK
  3. Andi DeRoin, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, U.S.A.
  4. Audry Autonomy, Sex Worker, Australia
  5. Bella Robinson, Rhode Island chapter of Coyote, U.S.A.
  6. Brigitte Tenni, Senior Technical Advisor- HIV, Nossal Institute for Global Health, The University of Melbourne, Australia
  7. Crystal Jackson, Assistant Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of NY ( CUNY), U.S.A.
  8. Dennis van Wanrooij, TAMPEP, The Netherlands
  9. Dr Kate Hardy, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations, University of Leeds, UK
  10. Heidie Hoefinger, Postdoctoral Fellow, National Development and Research Institutes, New York, U.S.A.
  11. Helen Koureskas, Independent Sex Worker, Australia
  12. Jennifer J. Reed, University of Nevada-Las Vegas Sociology PhD Candidate, U.S.A.
  13. Jill McCracken, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, U.S.A.
  14. Karina Rosa Bravo, Association of Women Collective sex workers "Flor de Azalea", Equador
  15. Kennedy Kimori Oyaro, Ebigeri United Self Help Group, Kenya
  16. Laura Lee, Independent Escort and Sex Worker Rights Activist, UK
  17. Luca Stevenson, Sex Worker, Coordinator ICRSE, UK
  18. Maria K. Powell, LLM Candidate, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, Advocacy Chair, Stepping Stone, Canada
  19. Modeste Mambo Amisi, AHUSADEC, DRC
  20. Nicolette Burrows, Sex Worker/ Drug User Activist, Thailand
  21. Robert Childs, MPH, Executive Director, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, U.S.A.
  22. Ruzgar Aydin, Sex Worker, Turkey
  23. Samuel R Friedman, AIDS Researcher and Activist, U.S.A.
  24. Scott Long, Researcher and Human Rights Activist, Egypt
  25. Shawna Ferris, Assistant Professor, Women's and Gender Studies, University of Manitoba, Canada
  26. Susan Lopez, sex worker rights activist, former sex worker, and cofounder of Desiree Alliance, U.S.A.
  27. Susan R. Schmitt, Doctoral student in Women's Studies at Texas Woman's University, U.S.A.
  28. Tarkwin Coles, Sex Worker, Australia
  29. Tristan Pyke, Individual Sex Worker, Australia
  30. Violet Rose, sex worker, sex worker rights advocate, UK
  31. Sonja Dolinsek, Researcher and Human Rights Activist, Germany
  32. Sue Simon, New York, U.S.A.
  33. Matthias Lehmann, PhD Candidate, Queens University Belfast
  34. Rachel Wotton, Sex Worker Rights Activist, Australia
  35. Francsica Funk, Sexworker and Activist, Germany
  36. Gillian Dolce, Human Rights Activist, Milano Alumna ('12), New York, U.S.A.
  37. Pramada Menon, Queer, feminist Activist, India

Download this resource