The NSWP was established as an informal alliance in 1990 by a group of sex worker rights activists working within sex work projects around the world. Over the years, NSWP has conducted activities in partnership with other organisations, and the principle of the participation of sex workers in policy and programme development has been accepted at many levels. Despite lacking resources and recognition, the NSWP has influenced policy and built leadership among sex workers and facilitated the development of regional and national networks of sex workers and sex work projects. Significantly, NSWP participation in the global response to HIV/AIDS was largely responsible for the term 'sex worker' replacing 'prostitute'. More than mere political correctness, this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex work toward a labour framework which signposts solutions to many of the problems faced by sex workers. It also questions the stigma of sex work and represents greater recognition of sex workers as rights bearers, with the capacity to make a difference. As a result of NSWP advocacy, female, male and transgender sex workers have presented the case for protection of their human rights at international forums such as international and regional conferences on AIDS, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995, UNGASS, the UNAIDS Programme Co-ordinating Board and the Global Fund consultations. The NSWP successfully lobbied for wording of the UN convention against trafficking in persons (the Palermo Protocol) to ensure that trafficking is defined as including force or coercion. NSWP, along with its regional networks, was also successful in urging UNAIDS to reconsider its 2007 policy guidelines on HIV and sex work.

In addition, the NSWP, through its member organisations, published Making Sex Work Safe and a regular journal (Research for Sex Work); maintains global and regional listservs; and manages a website containing some of the most influential and important work on HIV and sex work. The NSWP’s work has been widely acknowledged and NSWP regional networks and members have received various awards.

Following an organisational review completed in 2007, which recommended the NSWP formalise its membership structure, becoming a network of organisations (rather than individuals) and establishing a secretariat in the global north, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) registered as a not-for-profit private company limited by guarantee, with its registered office in Scotland, in October 2008.