The NSWP was founded in 1992 as a network of HIV prevention projects that involved sex workers. Most founding organizations were sex workers rights groups that had recently taken on HIV prevention work. At that time, the main mission of the NSWP was to ensure that sex workers were involved in a response to HIV that respects the rights of sex workers. It was never the intention that the NSWP be the global voice of sex workers. The role of a network of sex work projects was considered complimentary to that of the International Committee on Prostitutes Rights (ICPR), a committee of prostitutes and feminists. This duality was discussed and agreed upon at a joint meeting in Amsterdam in 1992. The ICPR stopped operating soon after and the NSWP become known as the global organization on and of male, female and transgender sex workers. Fifteen years later, the environment has changed. There are now thousands of HIV/AIDS funded sex work projects. Few such projects meaningfully involve sex workers, while some harm and stigmatize sex workers.
The NSWP operated without core funding for its first 10 years. Instead funds were obtained for individual projects such as publishing Making Sex Work Safe and participating in global fora. These funds were always channeled through sex worker groups. In 1999, Shane Petzer was appointed (unpaid) coordinator and a board was formed. The NSWP was registered in South Africa in 2002 prior to receiving core funding (from the Gates Foundation). This funding was withdrawn in 2004 as a result of US government policy. Shane became very ill in early 2004 and the board asked Paulo Longo to travel to South Africa to wind up the office there and begin the process of registering in Brazil. That was underway when Paulo died later in 2004. Since October 2004 the NSWP has not had an office and Melissa Ditmore has been (unpaid) acting coordinator.
Membership of the NSWP has always been open to any organization or individual who supports the NSWP goals. The process is for a potential new member to be nominated to the NSWP list by an existing member who can confirm that the organization or person is bona fide and for the nomination to be seconded. Once on the list the organization or individual is able to use the NSWP name to conduct activities that contribute to the mission of the NSWP, to post information and opinions to the NSWP list, and to attend events organized or promoted by the NSWP