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Challenging Dominant Narratives on Sex Work


The Open Society Public Health Program calls for letters of intent from organizations, informal groups, and networks in select countries to apply for funding to change dominant narratives about sex workers.


The Open Society Public Health Program calls for letters of intent from organizations, informal groups, and networks in France, Spain, and Sweden to apply for funding to challenge dominant narratives about sex work.

Narratives about sex work shape the way we perceive and treat sex workers, the way we formulate law and policy on sex work, and the way in which sex work is policed. In Europe, narratives about sex workers have shifted significantly over the past decades. In the past, sex workers were typically construed as criminals, moral degenerates, or vectors of disease. Today, however, an increasingly dominant victim discourse shapes narratives about sex work. Overly simplistic characterizations of prostitution as violence against women, and a conflation of consensual sex work and human trafficking have led to equally simplistic, and harmful, laws and policies.

Efforts to eradicate sex work altogether by “ending demand” for sexual services has become particularly prominent across Western Europe. Criminalization of the purchase of sexual services and activities related to sex work, including advertisement and sex workers working together, has led to laws and regulations that push sex work further underground and increase stigma, but has little impact on the supply of sexual services. In France, a study from 2018 showed that the “end demand” law in that country led to 42 percent reporting greater exposure to violence, while 70 percent experienced no change or even a deterioration in relations with the police. In Sweden, which pioneered an “end demand” law almost twenty years ago, sex work is far from been eradicated. A government report on the extent of prostitution in 2014 showed an exponential increase in online sex worker ads from 304 in 2006 to 6,965 in 2014. In addition, the Swedish police has reported an increase in sex work venues as well as an uptick in younger clients of sex workers.

Victim narratives are also prominent in media and popular culture, which further perpetuates marginalization and stigma. Depictions of sex work tend to be sensational and lacking in nuance, and the voices and experiences of sex workers themselves are often absent altogether. At the same time, art and popular culture present opportunities to challenge dominant narratives about sex work by introducing new voices and greater nuance. 

Eligibility Criteria

Projects should fulfill all of the following criteria in order to be eligible for funding:

  • The project makes the issue of sex work more salient; it provides a new framing of the issue of sex work, or enables new actors to enter the debate about sex work.
  • Strategic and policy-relevant: While we do not expect narrative change to occur quickly, the proposed project must be designed with the aim of changing public discourse over the long term.
  • Sex worker–centered: Applicants must demonstrate sex worker leadership or partnership on an equal footing in all phases of the project.
  • The project must be implemented in one of the following countries: France, Spain, Sweden.

Purpose and Priorities

With the overall goal of challenging dominant narratives about sex work, we will consider funding requests specifically for creative and artistic interventions that provide counter-narratives to mainstream representations of sex work by:

  • raising awareness about the rights of sex workers and the consequences of criminalization of sex work;
  • amplifying the voices of sex workers, empowering sex workers to tell their own stories, and documenting their everyday experiences;
  • creating space for dialogue about sex work and the manifold issues affecting sex workers, including poverty, stigma, precarious working conditions, violence, deportation of undocumented migrants, and more; and
  • highlighting a multiplicity of perspectives on sex work and contributing to critical debates on sex work and human rights.


Interested applicants should upload their letters of intent by June 15, 2018, through the Open Society Foundations Grant Portal. Applicants can apply for a maximum of $40,000 for a period of no more than 24 months. Letters of intent should be no longer than two pages, and include a budget with primary line items as well as proposed start and end dates.

Successful applicants will be contacted by July 1, 2018, and will have until July 15, 2018, to submit full proposals for consideration.

Questions about the submission process may be directed to

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