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By late July, the Portland Sex Worker Relief Fund had redistributed over $25,000 to Portland sex workers whose income suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The mutual aid fund is run by two local sex workers, Saiya and Kat, who requested that we use their first names due to privacy concerns. Saiya launched the fund in early March, a couple weeks before Gov. Kate Brown issued a stay-at-home order.

“Before all of the bars and clubs closed, I felt like there was a really big need for help—especially options for folks that were immunocompromised doing sex work,” Saiya said in a recent interview with the Mercury. “I had heard from folks who had concerns. They were really worried about performing work, especially in-person, high-contact work.”

Saiya began by accepting and redistributing donations through Venmo, Cashapp, and GoFundMe, and her friend Kat started assisting her in late March. Their fund has grown and become more established since then, but its purpose—to assist sex workers who have lost income, particularly those who might not qualify for government unemployment benefits—has stayed the same.

The Mercury recently spoke with Saiya and Kat about how the fund got started, why sex workers are overlooked in unemployment benefits, and the importance of mutual aid.

MERCURY: Can you tell me about how the Portland Sex Worker Relief Fund got started, and what your own experience is with sex work?

SAIYA: I started the relief fund pretty early on, in early March. About a week or two later, strip clubs started closing. That was way before Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was even a thing, or any resources existed.

Toward the end of March, Kat got back [from out of town] and has been helping it ever since. It went from ‘Oh, we’ll take money and distribute it,’ to ‘Okay, we’re getting a lot of money.’... We've just tried to be as adaptable as possible, and roll with what’s going on.

KAT: [Saiya and I] actually used to strip together, and now we’re really good friends. We met in the sex industry, and bonded over wanting to see specifically Black and brown folks thrive, or at least survive, in an industry that in Portland is definitely not void from the white supremacist framework that exists here.

The club that we worked at, and a lot of other clubs I worked at—these aren’t the big brands or thousand-dollar-a-night clubs. These were clubs where folks were doing hard-core sex work, and places where the dancers are predominantly Black and brown and there is a huge need. That’s just something that gets left out of the conversation in general.

With sex work, a lot of the attention is given to strippers. [With the fund], I really was passionate about… building toward the vision of being super low-barrier and inclusive, and prioritizing the most marginalized people.

What are your recipients using the funds for?

SAIYA: This $25,000 is going directly to sex workers—so they can pay their bills, buy diapers, buy things to eat for themselves and their family, travel to family members who need help.

I can completely understand how high-barrier it can be—even if you just need $250 for a Greyhound ticket so you and your kids can go have somewhere to live while the pandemic is going on. Even that takes months in the nonprofit industrial complex. You have to get into a program, meet with an advocate, maybe you’re on a waitlist for a while. So we wanted to create something that had a better turnaround.

Our turnaround is about a week right now, which is way quicker than most nonprofits.

Can you walk me through how your fund works for people applying, and how much money they typically receive?

SAIYA: When it first started, we were collecting funds through Cashap, Venmo, and GoFundMe. That got to be quite a bit of funding, so to increase our scope and accountability, we sought out a fiscal [nonprofit] sponsor, Call to Safety [formerly the Portland Women’s Crisis Line]. We had to rethink how we were going to distribute those funds, because having a fiscal sponsor meant we couldn’t continue to use Venmo to distribute funds to people.

We were able to work out a system in which we were able to process people’s requests, and then have E-Visa gift cards sent to them by email. They can use that for online bill pay or Instacart, or load their cards onto Google Pay. That was what we felt was the second-best way to distribute funds, other than just cash through Venmo.

At first, people were sending us requests for up to three or four thousand dollars, so it was really challenging to have to talk people down to $200. Now we have a cap—the maximum we can give people is $300. That being said, we do use an equity tool when we are processing applications, to make sure that our most marginalized—meaning Black folks, Indigenous folks, people who are unhoused, sex workers performing in-person work, trans folks, folks with children or other dependents—are being prioritized.

KAT: Now, the range of funds we’ve been distributing has been between $100 and $300. There’s also not as much demand now as there was at the beginning. People are starting to get back to work, and access PUA. Which is great.

You said you prioritize giving to people who do in-person sex work. Do these people experience roadblocks in qualifying for PUA or other forms of financial aid?

KAT: There have been a lot of sex workers who have been successful in receiving some kind of benefits, if they’re stripping and can say that their venue has been shut down. But for folks performing work that skirts the line of legality, that can be a little bit trickier.

It depends on, if you were to apply for assistance, how you might define or frame your work so that you don’t have to disclose everything that you do for work. And that is something a lot of sex workers don’t see as an option for them. Largely, a lot of folks I’ve talked to have felt excluded from that. They say, ‘I don’t even know how I would apply. I can’t verify it.’

We are also trying to be a point of contact for sex workers doing any kind of sex work, and assist them through the process of applying for [PUA], and teaching creative problem solving around how they might try to access it. It’s really complicated, especially if you’re someone who is in the margins of the gig economy.

Would decriminalizing sex work help provide more protections for these people in the future?

SAIYA: Something that isn’t being talked about nearly enough is how sex work plays into everything that is happening right now [with protests against police brutality], especially in terms of police abolition. Sex workers have been creating safety nets themselves for forever while doing work that is considered illegal—always having to operate outside the law and law enforcement.

Also, police have been super violent toward sex workers, especially sex workers who are people of color, especially Black trans sex workers. In that way, our work is super aligned with the things going on right now. That conversation is kind of happening, but… it’s difficult, because especially now, in Portland, people tend to align sex work with this super-empowered, conventionally attractive, tattooed white stripper. And that is super, super far from the reality among sex workers.

KAT: I would also add that for a lot of conversations around the legalization of sex work, or even decriminalization, it is braided together with conversations on policy and trusting in government systems to abide by and enforce those policies.

If we are to step back and look at it through an abolitionist lens, it needs to be more about leaning heavily on mutual aid, and the ability to educate folks on how to navigate the systems to the best of their ability…. As we can see right now in Portland, a lot of laws put in place to quote-unquote “protect people” become useless as soon as you tell the police to do anything. We’re growing a sex worker community that empowers itself from within, without relying on the colonial powers of government.