Unbuttoned

Scarlet Crusader

Sex worker rights activist Carol Leigh on coining the phrase “sex work” and why Americans should support decriminalization of prostitution

I first learned of Carol Leigh—aka Scarlot Harlot—more than 20 years ago when I picked up the book Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. It was a groundbreaking collection of stories, poems and political tracts by sex workers—prostitutes, escorts, exotic dancers and workers in massage parlors—that challenged the idea that all sex workers were voiceless victims. With honesty and wit, Leigh chronicled her experiences working as a prostitute in “The Continuing Saga of Scarlot Harlot,” which appeared in installations throughout the book.

Since then, Leigh has been a guiding figure in the global movement to decriminalize prostitution and provide safer working conditions. At the recent Desiree Alliance National Sex Workers Conference in Las Vegas, she screened her documentary-in-progress about the history of the anti-trafficking movement and its impact on sex workers. Ever the consummate archivist, Leigh seemed to be everywhere at the conference, moving from session to session in an effort to video record for posterity as many panels and discussions as she could—materials that will eventually find their way to the Sex Worker Media Library, a collection of resources for scholars and activists that she curates.

Although prostitution in legal in many of Nevada’s rural counties, it remains illegal in Las Vegas and periodic efforts to lobby for its legalization have fallen short. I spoke with Leigh about coining the phrase “sex work” and why decriminalizing prostitution remains a key focus for many sex worker activists.

You’ve been involved in the sex worker rights movement for more than 30 years. How has the movement grown and evolved since its emergence in the 1970s?

Well, it has certainly expanded exponentially. I remember when the movement consisted of about maybe 20 local people at the most. There were people in San Francisco and some in New York. Now I turn around and there are hundreds and thousands—many thousands—of activists all over the world. The majority of people involved in prostitution are women, and with the growth of women’s rights the idea of prostitution rights just made sense to many people.

In the earlier days there was a lot of discussion about the details, definitions and goals of sex worker rights, called prostitutes’ rights at the time. What did it mean to be a prostitute? What kind of rights did we want? At this point, what I see more is community building and organizational building. The movement has always been global and now there is a large global sex worker rights organization, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

What are some of the most pressing issues and challenges facing sex workers today?

When we talk about sex workers, it’s important to remember that we are extremely diverse. One can be in a situation where one is homeless and living in the most marginal way, but someone might also be doing sex work part time and working as a lawyer…People don’t seem to realize that sex workers aren’t only the vulnerable victims or the glamorous call girls they see in the media. There’s an illusion in the way prostitution is viewed in our society, as a monolith of one sort or another. I think we are blinded by the taboo, along with sexual fears and confusions.

So the issues vary widely by country, context, region and venue. That said, certainly the criminalization of prostitution and lack of legal recognition of sex workers’ rights has the most impact on our daily lives, and forces many of us to be underground, which is limiting, punitive, and responsible for a great deal of the violence many of us have encountered.

It is very hard for us to find the right kind of legal support. There’s a dearth of attorneys who are interested in working on behalf of sex workers, and although we may earn substantially more than the minimum wage in a short encounter, that’s often not reflected in our total earning. Many of us are poor. We struggle to feed our families. Criminalization often keeps us from working in a regular way or it results in our arrests. All of these things are so intense that we really do need pro bono legal services. And there is a lack of support and interest from the legal community.

You support decriminalization of prostitution. How do you explain to people why that’s important?

It’s not necessarily about what you personally may feel about sex for money. People have all sorts of personal reasons for being uncomfortable with that. But I think it’s just too cruel to arrest somebody and put them in jail for this survival strategy.

Most people agree that it’s too cruel, but come back to the argument that we have to arrest them to give them services. That’s the idea that needs to be corrected the most. Sure, it definitely works for a small minority who then thank the police for arresting them. We’ve all seen some form of that on TV, but this approach should not be the basis for policy. The kinder harm reduction approach of providing services to sex workers before they get arrested or instead of arresting them receives almost no government funding, whereas the punitive approach receives all the available funds.

Decriminalization is not the answer to all the problems involved in sex work or in poverty…it’s just a necessary starting place. Prostitution needs to be legal so we can develop ways to regulate, and especially self-regulate, based on community representation and experience. We have to also understand that the problems are a reflection of our economy. We can talk forever about giving people alternatives, but our society doesn’t necessary apply these alternatives. Funding isn’t forthcoming and the gap between rich and poor widens. The most marginalized and criminalized become more vulnerable. Many people have a knee jerk reaction that if you can’t help people, you should lock them up, out of sight—supposedly to help them. This seems like the old story of social control of the poor, and then there’s the intersection of the usual sexual control that seems intrinsic to societies. Sex workers reside at this intersection.

In looking back at your long activist career, what are you most proud of?

Coining the words “sex work,” of course! I went to an anti-pornography conference to speak from the first person as a prostitute. I believe it was around 1980. And there was a workshop titled something the “The Sex-Use Industry.” I thought, well, we are organized here as feminists, and I thought that it was important to define the subject based on what the women were doing. The men use the services, the women do the work, so I said, “Well, this should be called the sex work industry.” I think it has been a very good formal way to define our work…as work. And I experienced it as work. But prior to that it was rarely regarded as work in public discourse—although [sex worker activist] Margo St. James certainly challenged that. “A blow job is better than no job,” was one of her slogans in the early days of [the sex worker rights organization] COYOTE.

Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV. Her column, ‘Unbuttoned,’ examines issues of sex and gender—with a Vegas twist.

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  • Granite

    Hard to say if we should legalize prostitution. It is like a lot of things as we change our mores toward unacceptable behavior, be it drugs or moral turpitudes, the transition can go too far as the old saying goes- First we abhor, then we tolerate, then we accept, then we embrace.

    I just don’t think we as a society are ready to embrace prostitution.

  • CarolLeigh

    Thanks so much for this interview!

    I want to add something about decriminalization and the way we are targeted, which is very important in our current organizing trends. In addition to criminalization, sex workers who are marginalized in additional contexts, transgender sex workers, people of color, adults and youth who are homeless, or those who use illegal substances are targeted in multiple ways. So prostitution criminalization is part of a web of violations. Much of sex worker activism in the U.S. is informed by (and informs) resistance to the expanding the prison/correctional system in general.

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