Carol Leigh, who coined the term ‘sex work’ amid a lifetime of activism, dies at 71


When Carol Leigh attended an anti-pornography conference in 1982, she was troubled by the way participants described their opposition to the “sex use industry”.

For Ms Leigh, the term has disturbed her personal sense of feminism and empowerment – shaped by a turbulent span of years that took her from studying creative writing in Boston to a job at the massage parlor in Hong Kong. on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco.

“I said, ‘No, we should call it ‘sex work’ because that’s what women do,” Ms Leigh recalled in a 2017 oral history. “We’re supposed to be feminists. Why do we call it ‘sexual use?’

His improvised sentence took root. Within a few years, “sex work” entered the global lexicon of scholars, researchers, and writers to describe activities ranging from high-end brothel services to curbside pickups. The term has also come to represent the movement, championed by Ms Leigh, for greater labor rights, health protections and public representation for sex workers.

“I knew we needed a different word prostitute,” wrote Ms Leigh, who died on November 16 at her San Francisco home at 71.

For more than four decades, Ms. Leigh has established herself – sometimes in the guise of her bawdy stage persona, Scarlot Harlot – as one of the leading advocates for sex workers in the Bay Area and an important ally for groups around the world on issues. such as human trafficking and transgender rights.

Mrs. Leigh, with red hair and an incendiary personality, cut a colored stripe. She brought a mix of performance art, civil disobedience and political networking with outreach to the homeless, transgender communities and others. Her style was influenced by San Francisco’s brand of bold activism, such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a street ministry and outreach group known for their nun and harlequin costumes.

Ms Leigh debuted her boa-draped, bustier character in the solo show ‘The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot’. Created in 1983, this explored her experiences in sex work and revealed that the profession was one that, at its core, was one like the others, with workers focused on workplace safety and security. Ms. Leigh, as Scarlot, shouted, “Sex workers, unite!”

“I would walk around in the audience and ask them what they did for a living and I would sneer, saying they were whores too,” Ms Leigh wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

As “Mom”, wearing a headscarf and leopard-print fur, Ms. Leigh appeared on a local access channel in Arizona amid the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s to remind sex workers of the importance of using condoms. In 2005, Ms. Leigh (again as Scarlot) set up a stall at a San Francisco Christmas bazaar selling sex toys and other X-rated gifts to help the Exotic Dancer Education Project, a program to address issues such as tax filing and ”preventing sex worker burnout.”

With the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, a group co-founded by Ms Leigh, she worked with another former sex worker, Margo St. James, on initiatives to decriminalize prostitution and protect sex workers from abuse. .

There have been successes. In 2013, California declared that sex workers attacked or raped would be eligible for assistance through the state’s workers’ compensation fund. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation in 2019 that gives sex workers the ability to report crimes without risk of arrest for prostitution.

Ms Leigh helped dancers at a San Francisco club, Lusty Lady, negotiate their first contract of employment in 1997.

“Leigh argued that until sex workers are included in conversations about feminism, sexuality and legality – conversations from which they have historically been excluded – sex workers will remain fragmented rather than collective, and stigma will abound,” said one statement of the UK-based Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement.

At times Ms Leigh noted that she would still be seeing some of her ‘former clients’ for a paid appointment.

“I aim to be the oldest women in the oldest profession,” she once said.

Carol Leigh was born on January 11, 1951 in Manhattan. and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. She said she felt insecure about her body image as a child, saw beautiful women on TV and peeked at her father’s porn magazines , hidden under the stairs.

“Then I noticed the injustice, the classism and the patriarchy,” she writes.

She graduated in 1974 from Empire State College, part of the New York State University System, with a degree in creative writing. She enrolled in further writing classes at Boston University with professors including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in October 1974 shortly after the semester began.

In 1978 Ms Leigh moved to San Francisco, first finding work in a restaurant, then noticing options for sex work.

“I’ve seen ads for sex massage girls,” she wrote. “I thought I was desperate, so why wouldn’t I go over there and do it?” I went to the sleaziest salon, to make sure I picked one that didn’t sell anything else, like glamour.

A year later, Ms Leigh was raped by two men, but did not report the attack because she feared the massage parlor was closed, she said.

“The fact that I couldn’t go to the police to report the rape meant that I wasn’t going to be able to protect other women from these rapists,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 1996 interview. “And I swore to do something to change that.”

She joined the St. James group, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), and quickly began to establish her own activist identity. At a meeting of the National Organization for Women, Ms Leigh arrived with a bag over her head with the message: ‘This paper bag symbolizes the anonymity that prostitutes are forced to adopt’. She carried an oversized handbag with the slogan “Be nice to sex workers!” and openly discussed his bisexuality.

In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Leigh decided to try Texas. “I would sing about safer sex and educate people who didn’t think enough about AIDS,” she wrote. She drove all the way to Tucson, where her car broke down. She scanned the personal ads and met an entertainer, who introduced her to the staff of the Tucson Western International Telethon, a local-access cable show known by its acronym “Twit.”

Ms. Leigh – or rather her characters Scarlot Harlot, Mom and others – has joined the show’s weekly two-hour comedy and variety lineup. Along the way, she acquired video skills used in later work, including a short film about sexual abuse “Yes, it’s yes, no, it’s no” (1990). In 1999, she founded the San Francisco Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival.

Among his literary works were “Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Writings of Scarlot Harlot” (2004) and “Inventing Sex Work” (2010).

“I had studied Hemingway, and Hemingway went to war to write about it,” Ms Leigh wrote. “I decided to do the same with prostitution.”

Ms. Leigh’s papers will be archived at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, said Kate Marquez, the executor of her estate. Ms Leigh was battling cancer, said Marquez, who confirmed her death. She is survived by a brother.

“People have talked about creating a term,” Ms Leigh said in the 2017 oral history with AIDS-HIV activist group ACT UP. “I also feel like I helped launch an identity.

“There has always been this identity of a really libertine sex worker, or a sex worker who is not ashamed and that is part of it,” she continued. “But launching it as a contemporary identity rooted in work is something that has never happened before.”


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