Sex worker advocate Carol Leigh dies

  • by Liz Highleyman, BAR Contributor
  • Monday November 21, 2022
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Carol Leigh, left, wearing a dress designed by Gilbert Baker, right, and hundreds of other activists took part in a June 19, 1990 march targeting the immigration service and anti-HIV immigration policies. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Carol Leigh, left, wearing a dress designed by Gilbert Baker, right, and hundreds of other activists took part in a June 19, 1990 march targeting the immigration service and anti-HIV immigration policies. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Carol Leigh, a bisexual sex worker activist and artist also known as Scarlot Harlot, died November 16 at her home in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer. She was 71. An advocate for decriminalization of prostitution, she is credited with coining the term "sex work."

"Carol Leigh was the sexy red-headed harlot with the heart of gold, the soul of an artist-poet, and the brain of a scholar," said Annie Sprinkle, an artist, former sex worker, and friend of Ms. Leigh for more than four decades. "She knew more about sex worker issues than anyone, and she inspired and empowered legions of sex workers around the world who continue to carry her torch."

Carol Queen, an author, sex educator, and co-director of the Center for Sex and Culture, also commented on Ms. Leigh's legacy.

"Carol knew everyone, connected people whenever possible, saw the big picture, was a fierce feminist, and a gentle soul who had the biggest heart," Queen said. "She stands right there with Margo St. James as the other powerhouse of sex worker organizing, and I just don't think it's possible to overstate how much space she made for us."

Ms. Leigh, who chose her name as an adult and kept her given name private, was born in New York City on January 11,1951, and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, by parents she once described as "disenchanted ex-socialists." She later said, "I grew up with three strikes against me: I was poor, I was big, and I was smart."

A self-described "flower-child hippie," Ms. Leigh attended Suffolk Community College, Empire State College, and Boston University's creative writing program, where she studied with the poet Anne Sexton shortly before her death by suicide. While in college, she became a feminist and started a women's writing group that included both a stripper and an anti-pornography activist.

After moving to San Francisco in 1977, Ms. Leigh took a job at the Hong Kong Massage Parlor on O'Farrell Street. She soon joined COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the first sex workers' rights group in the United States, founded by St. James, whom Ms. Leigh first met when her mother invited St. James to speak at a National Organization for Women meeting. (St. James died in January 2021.)

Ms. Leigh later said that she did not feel exploited by voluntary sexual transactions with clients, but when she was raped by two men at the sex parlor where she worked, she could not report the crime to police because prostitution was criminalized and she feared the business would be shut down.

Ms. Leigh became enmeshed in the feminist "sex wars" of the 1970s and 1980s. As described in Jill Nagle's 1997 anthology "Whores and Other Feminists," while attending a conference organized by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, she suggested that a panel on the "sex use industry" should be renamed the "sex work industry," coining a phrase that became widely used as an umbrella term for all types of sexual and erotic labor.

AIDS activism and sex workers rights

As the AIDS crisis exploded in the 1980s, Ms. Leigh intended to move to Texas, thinking she could educate people less aware of the threat, but her car broke down in Arizona and she ended up living in Tucson for two years.

Returning to San Francisco, she joined Citizens for Medical Justice, which later became ACT UP/San Francisco. She advocated for safer sex, opposed mandatory HIV testing of prostitutes, volunteered with the Prevention Point needle exchange, and did outreach to prostitutes working the streets. She was among the hundreds of activists arrested during the week of action surrounding the Sixth International AIDS Conference in San Francisco. In 2017, she described those years in a video for the GLBT Historical Society's San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project.

"Carol was the fairy godmother of the early AIDS direct action groups of San Francisco. She was a character, always injecting an element of over-the-top satire into our protests and deliberations, with a devilish grin and a wink in her eye. Her sex-positive safer sex messages were way ahead of their time and were a blast of fun amidst all the doom and gloom," recalled former ACT UP/SF member and longtime LGBTQ community activist Terry Beswick. "But she was also deadly serious about her causes. It was not always easy to get us middle-class gay boys to care about things like prostitutes and prisoners rights when so many of us were dying on the streets of the Castro, but she genuinely loved our boys who were dying, and we loved her back."

Over the years, Ms. Leigh could often be seen doing political street theater and civil disobedience, collaborating with artist-activists such as the late rainbow flag co-creator Gilbert Baker and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

"Gilbert designed a number of costumes for Carol Leigh's drag persona, Scarlot Harlot, and they frequently collaborated on all sorts of scandalous shenanigans. I also remember her sitting at pot dealer Dennis Peron's kitchen table on 17th Street, regaling us with the intimate details of various elected officials' kinks," longtime gay activist Cleve Jones told the Bay Area Reporter. "I hope she will be remembered as a true pioneer in the effort to decriminalize, destigmatize, and defend sex workers." (Peron died in 2018.)

In 1990, Ms. Leigh co-founded BAYSWAN, the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network. The group provided support for the Exotic Dancers Alliance, which organized for better working conditions for strippers, and helped establish the St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health and safety clinic run by and for sex workers. She later helped start the Sex Workers Outreach Project in 2003 and worked with Queen and partner Robert Lawrence to establish the Center for Sex and Culture.

In the mid-1990s, Ms. Leigh was among the leaders of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, which issued a report supporting decriminalization of sex work. A decade later, she helped organize ballot campaigns for decriminalization in Berkeley and San Francisco. Although these did not pass, they laid the groundwork for state laws that bar sex workers from being arrested when they report crimes and stop police from arresting people for loitering for prostitution.

Ms. Leigh was an accomplished artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her early 1980s one-woman show, "The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot," argued for the inclusion of sex workers in the feminist movement. She contributed a chapter in Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander's classic 1987 anthology "Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry." Her own book "Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot" was published in 2004.

"For me, as a teenage peep show girl, discovering the writing and activism of Carol Leigh was a revelation," author Lily Burana told the B.A.R. "Her work, always centering sex worker needs and perspectives, helped me feel less alone."

Ms. Leigh directed and produced film and video including feminist erotica for House O'Chicks, collaborations with Sprinkle and Joseph Kramer, and the documentary "Blind Eye to Justice: HIV+ Women in California Prisons," narrated by Black lesbian activist Angela Davis. She received awards from the American Film Institute for videos including "Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes" and "Yes Means Yes. No Means No." She started the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival in 1999.

Openly bisexual, Ms. Leigh had relationships with both men and women, but she did not marry or establish a household with a partner. After Ms. Leigh was diagnosed with cancer, she moved in with her mother, Augusta — also a feminist and artist — who died this summer at age 100.

During her final months, Ms. Leigh established a trust, funded by her and her mother's savings, to benefit friends and sex worker activists; did a final video interview with Sprinkle and her spouse, UC Santa Cruz art professor Beth Stephens; and prepared her archives for donation to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

Ms. Leigh is survived by her brother, Phillip, and many friends and admirers around the world. Plans for a memorial service will be announced when they are finalized.

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