One of the preeminent Bay Area sex work activists for nearly 50 years and the originator of the term “sex work,” Carol Leigh, a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot, died of cancer Wednesday.
San Francisco has been a hub of activism for the tolerance and rights of sex workers. And while it may be known as “the world's oldest profession,” sex work has only been known as “sex wok” since the mid-1980s. The term was coined by Carol Leigh, better known publicly as Scarlot Harlot, a well-known San Francisco activist who in 1990 co-founded the Bay Area Sex Work Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN) and in 1999 the Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival, both of which still exist today. But they will no longer have their co-founder Scarlot Harlot , as the Chronicle reports Carol Leigh died Wednesday of cancer. She was 71.
Rest In Peace Carol Leigh aka Scarlet Harlot @carol_leigh an icon who dedicated her life to sex workers’ rights (coining the term “sex worker” in the 70s), HIV/AIDS activism, and videos promoting sexual health and pleasure.— Jiz Lee (@jizlee) November 17, 2022
See some of her work here: https://t.co/OteGX1kfbb pic.twitter.com/YBmFGuiRDI
“Carol defined sex work as a labor issue, not a crime, not a sin,” Leigh’s estate executor Kate Marquez said in a remembrance to the Associated Press. “It is a job done by a million people in this country who are stigmatized and criminalized by working to support their families.”
A native of Brooklyn, Carol Leigh arrived in San Francisco in 1977 and casually performed sex work on the side. She turned to sex work activism in 1979, after being raped by two men and realizing she and others like her had no legal protections. “The fact that I couldn’t go to the police to report the rape meant that I was not going to be able to protect other women from these rapists,” Leigh said in a 1996 Chronicle interview. “And I vowed to do something to change that.”
Our community is deeply saddened to learn of the death of Carol Leigh.— ESWA (@sexworkeurope) November 18, 2022
Over five decades of revolutionary activism, she was instrumental in shaping the modern SW rights movement - including coining the term "sex work", in recognition and respect of our agency.
Rest in Power. pic.twitter.com/NStftc042t
But her most lasting contribution is likely coining the term “sex work,” which she did on an academic panel in in the 1970s when “prostitution” was generally the more common term. “I invented sex work,” Leigh wrote in a 2004 essay. “Not the activity, of course. The term. This invention was motivated by my desire to reconcile my feminist goals with the reality of my life and the lives of the women I knew. I wanted to create an atmosphere of tolerance within and outside the women's movement for women working in the sex industry.”
Leigh would become active with Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), and in addition to founding BAYSWAN and the Sex Worker Film Festival, served on the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution in the mid-1990s, and also during that era toured performing her popular play The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot.” Her memoir Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot was published in 2004.
Nov 16, 2022, Carol Leigh aka #ScarlotHarlot left her beautiful body. It was a good death as deaths go. She'd survived stage 4 uterine cancer for 7 years. Wise talented artist, author, performance artist, activist, coined "sex work." Surrounded by friends. HUGS!— Annie Sprinkle (@AnnieSprinkle) November 17, 2022
(Photo by me.) pic.twitter.com/wl7W5m0tMy
According to the Chronicle, “Leigh’s papers, videos and films will be archived at Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.”
Image: Carol Leigh via Facebook