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Carol Leigh
Carol LeighEstate of Carol Leigh

Remembering sex worker rights activist Carol Leigh, in her own words

Leigh, the legendary pioneer who coined the term ‘sex work’, passed away last week at the age of 71

Carol Leigh had a wicked sense of humour. The sex worker, artist, and activist pioneer who coined the term ‘sex work’ in the late 70s was also a self-described “natural comedian”, who, by her own declaration, wanted to create “The Monty Python of Sex”.

With her abundance of fiery orange curls, elaborate costumes, and enchanting, mischievous smile, Leigh – who passed away last week at the age of 71 – became renowned in her home of San Francisco, and subsequently across the world, for her vivacious, eccentric onstage persona Scarlot Harlot. Performing across the city as her alter-ego, Leigh would regale audiences with tales of her life as a sex worker through her idiosyncratic brand of comedy and poetry.

But Leigh’s work wasn’t a joke – far from it. Her dedication and determination to destigmatise the sex industry, improve conditions for those who work in it, and ensure sex workers had a place at the feminist table saw her launch sex worker rights organisations, festivals, and libraries, lead outreach programs, and campaign tirelessly for legislation to decriminalise the sale of sex. Leigh fought for her cause for decades, enacting real change for sex workers and becoming a foundational part of the sex worker rights movement – all the while doing so with her ebullient playfulness. As she once said: “I think particularly when life is hard, I always resort to comedy.”

To mark Leigh’s passing, we walk you through her vibrant life, pioneering work, and indispensable legacy.

“My parents strongly believed that people should be able to talk openly about sexuality”

Carol Leigh – her stage, but only known, name – was born in New York City on January 11, 1951.

During her upbringing, Leigh’s parents were very forthright about sex, regularly having candid conversations about the topic. At a young age, she became privy to her father’s pornography collection, which, she wrote, her mother “insisted he hide in the cupboard under the stairs”. Leigh would relish flicking through the magazines whenever her parents left her alone in the house. She recalled seeing one particularly beautiful woman among the pages, who, she claimed, was called Carol. “I wanted to grow up and be just like her, with my breasts pert and everything,” Leigh wrote. “So, that’s what I imagined I would be, although I repressed that desire a lot.”

Leigh also observed how her parents’ different sexual desires made her mother feel. “He was more sexually aggressive and, although they did have a hot relationship, she said she felt like a prostitute sometimes, because he’d pressure her. So there was a discourse in my family all the time.” Watching this dynamic unfold, Leigh – who was bisexual – said she learned to see sexuality as something that could be free and open, but also imbalanced in power.

Leigh’s relationship with her mother remained strong throughout her life. “It’s a big stigma for her. In a way, it’s a burden to have a daughter who’s this political and who admits she’s a prostitute,” she once said. “But my mother’s always supported me in everything.”

“As soon as I tried it, I knew it was going to be my life’s work”

In 1978, Leigh decided to move to San Francisco – and it was here, at the age of 28, that she started doing sex work. “My friends who were artists were working in restaurants. I looked at them and I thought, ‘I don’t want to work in restaurants. I’m an artist, I want to explore life’. So for me, initially, prostitution was an investigation. I was also poor and feeling desperate at the time,” she said in a 1996 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

Leigh started selling sex in a parlour, where she said she became “enchanted” by the other working women, whom she looked up to as “sexually wise” and “strong”. She also described the work as “exciting”, writing: “The men would come in, pay you, cum, and, before you know it, it was over! Then you have all this money!” Having previously struggled with her own feelings of sexual arousal, Leigh found that sex work helped her learn about sex, which in turn made the act itself less daunting.

“I was raped – and that was when I became very, very dedicated to changing conditions so that other women would not have to deal with what I dealt with”

In 1979, Leigh was raped by two men who invaded the parlour that she worked in. At the time, she felt unable to report the crime for fear that the establishment would be shut down, thus leaving herself and her colleagues unable to work or forced into more dangerous ways of doing so (as is still the case today).

Speaking to the Chronicle two decades later, she identified the rape as a defining moment in her life, and one that led her into sex work activism. “I saw that the criminalisation of prostitution… meant that I was not going to be able to protect other women from these rapists. And I vowed to do something to change that.”

“I guess they thought no one was going to stand up for prostitutes, right? Well, they’re wrong”

In the years shortly after the rape, Leigh joined and became a spokesperson for the sex worker’s rights organisation COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) – founded by sex worker activist Margo St. James – and co-ordinated an outreach project for street workers in San Francisco. She argued that, for many, sex work was a choice – a perspective rarely vocalised at the time – adopting the now-widely espoused mantra, “Sex work is work”.

As time went on, she became a prominent activist figure, not only fighting for sex workers, but also the rights of other marginalised groups, particularly during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. In a Bay Area Reporter obituary for Leigh, Terry Beswick, an LGBTQ+ activist and ACT UP member, called her the “fairy godmother” of the city’s early AIDS action groups.

Then, in the 1990s, Leigh co-founded BAYSWAN (Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network), served on the city’s commission on prostitution, and in 1996 was a lead writer of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Task Force on Prostitution Report, which advocated for the decriminalisation of sex work in the city as well as well-funded housing, food and drug treatment programs, and police investigation into crimes against sex workers. She was described by the Chronicle that year as “one of the country’s most militant and vocal advocates for prostitution rights”.

Leigh herself summed up her steadfast determination best: “I’m going to complain loud and in public, and I’m going to get as many people to care as I can.”

“I invented sex work. Not the activity, of course. The term”

It’s likely Leigh coined the term ‘sex work’ some time between 1978 and 1982. Leigh – who was, at the time, one of the few sex workers to publicly identify themselves – was representing sex workers at an anti-pornography conference, where speakers described selling sex as the ‘sex use industry’.

“The words stuck out and embarrassed me,” she wrote in ‘Inventing Sex Work’. “How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction?” So, at the beginning of the workshop, Leigh suggested that the phrase be changed to ‘sex work industry’ because, as she wrote, “that described what women did”. 

According to The New York Times, Leigh felt a disconnect between her experience of sex work and the feminist analysis of it as “the ultimate state of women’s oppression”, which she said “didn’t fit the strength and attitudes expressed by the diverse women I met”. Leigh asserted that sex workers must be included in conversations about feminism in order to eradicate external and internal stigmatisation. On one occasion, she went along to a meeting of the National Organisation for Women with a paper bag on her head, on which she’d written ‘This paper bag symbolises the anonymity prostitutes are forced to adopt’.

“The usage of the term ‘sex work’ marks the beginning of a movement. It acknowledges the work we do, rather than defines us by our status,” reflected Leigh, later adding: “It’s brought the strippers and peep show workers and prostitutes together. I’m really proud of that.” The term is ubiquitous today, used in academia, healthcare, and the media, and is credited with reframing how people talk about the still-hotly debated topic.

“Journaling was my initial medium as a writer, and so it made sense that my material would be my life. I figured I would be like a prostitute version of Hemingway”

In the early 1980s, Leigh wrote the one-woman satirical play, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot. She performed it for the first time in 1983, debuting her now-renowned persona, Scarlot Harlot. “I’d wander into the audience and ask them what they did for a living and sneer, saying they were whores too,” she once recalled. “It was a fun piece and I had loads of press.”

In a bizarre turn of events, Leigh ended up taking her comedy from the stage to the silver screen, after her car broke down on the way to Texas. She’d decided to move to the state to form an organisation called TWAT (Texas Whores and Tricks), but, “fortunately”, she never made it. Instead, she got stuck in Arizona, where she responded to an ad by artist and video maker Dave Bukunus. “He worked at TWIT,” she wrote. “Tucson Western International Television. So I set out to do TWAT but ended up doing TWIT.” Leigh joined Bukunus’ comedy and variety line-up, appearing on the show as her various characters, including Scarlot Harlot and ‘Mom’ – a skit where she played her own mother and talked about life with a sex worker daughter.

Later, she’d put her newfound video skills to use, making short films including the Angela Davis-narrated documentary, Blind Eye to Justice: HIV+ Women in California Prisons, and would go on to found the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival in 1999. She also started making, as she called them, “esoteric sex education” videos with the likes of radical sex positive educator Annie Sprinkle. “I feel my genre has a long way to go,” she wrote, “although I’m glad that people want the Scarlot Harlot touch.”

“I’m aiming to be the oldest woman in the oldest profession”

Carol Leigh died of cancer on November 16, at the age of 71. In the later years of her life, she continued advocating for sex workers, uplifting other activists and sex workers, as well as engaging in her own activism. In 2008, she was a vocal advocate for a San Francisco ballot initiative to decriminalise the sale of sex (unfortunately, it failed). In 2010, Leigh established the Sex Worker Media Library in collaboration with the San Francisco-based non-profit, Center for Sex and Culture, which was designed as a searchable database of 20 years of sex worker, LGBTQ+, and other activist and arts interviews, performances, and videos. She also continued her creative endeavours, publishing her only book, Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Writings of Scarlot Harlot, in 2004.

After being diagnosed with uterine cancer seven years ago, Leigh moved in with her mother, who died just three months before her, after celebrating her 100th birthday. Their combined savings have formed the Carol Leigh Fund, which the paper describes as “a trust to benefit friends and sex worker activist organisations”. Leigh’s work has been donated to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University. 

Leigh’s above quote, as published in The Washington Post’s obituary, is a characteristically playful quip about seeing some of her “old clients for a paid tryst” – but also serves to exemplify her dedication to sex work, as a profession, cause, and the inspiration for her art form. “She inspired and empowered legions of sex workers around the world who continue to carry her torch,” Leigh’s friend and colleague Annie Sprinkle told The New York Times after her death. “No doubt Carol Leigh will be continuing her work from that big brothel in the sky, where whores are safe, revered and happy.”

You can find some of Carol Leigh’s work here.