Bold and pioneering sex work activist Carol Leigh has died

Laure McElroy and Carol Leigh of the San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival
Laure McElroy and Carol Leigh of the San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival

Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, the bold and pioneering sex work activist, artist, author and performer, died last month at her home in San Francisco. Her contributions to the sex worker rights movement were far reaching; not only did she influence and inspire countless individuals within the movement but she also helped to change the way sex work is viewed and discussed around the world.

In her essay “Inventing Sex Work” (which appears in the anthology Whores and Other Feminists edited by Jill Nagle), Carol Leigh wrote that, in 1979 or 1980, she attended a conference in San Francisco by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. She had intended to be “a sort of ambassador to this group, educating feminists about prostitution.” However, she discovered that the workshop on prostitution included the phrase “Sex Use Industry.”

“The words stuck out and embarrassed me.” She wrote. “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 actor and agent in the transaction?”

Leigh suggested that the title be changed to “Sex Work Industry” as that prioritised the work of the provider rather than the customer. The term stuck and Leigh used it in her one-woman play The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, which she began performing in 1980.

In the show, she told stories from her life as a sex worker and suggested that having sex for money was perhaps not that different from whatever the people in the audience did for money.

According to BAYSWAN, the NSWP member group Leigh cofounded, the earliest documented use (printed in mainstream media) of the term "sex worker" as it is currently used was found in an article from the Associated Press Newswire from 1984 about the use of this term in her theatrical production. 

“Sex work” came into more common use with the 1987 publication of Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Industry (edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander). Since then it has been adopted by health agencies and advocacy organisations around the world, and its use is increasingly used by the mainstream media.

“The usage of the term “sex work” marks the beginning of a movement.” Carol Leigh wrote in her essay. “It acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our status.”

The Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN) was co-founded by Carol Leigh in 1990 to create a network of social service organisations, service providers, and community members to advocate for the improvement of working conditions of, and the elimination of discrimination. BAYSWAN advocated for financial, housing and social support, as well as for the health needs of sex workers, including HIV/STD prevention, substance abuse issues, mental health, harm reduction, and protection from violence.

In 1999, Carol Leigh founded the biennial San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival alongside Johanna Breyer and Dao Passar. lt is thought to be the second-longest-running sex worker film festival in the world, behind Calcutta.

The festival was established to provide a forum for the accomplishments of sex worker film and video makers and to screen works about sex workers from all around the world – the inaugural event included films from Burma, Thailand, Taiwan, Canada and the United States, as well as a benefit for the then-in-progress Live Nude Girls Unite! documentary film based on the unionisation efforts of dancers at the San Francisco peepshow, Lusty Lady. Over the years, the festival evolved into an energetic venue for political organising and skill sharing.

From founding vital sex worker-led spaces and services to introducing the world to the term ‘sex work’, Carol Leigh’s impact on the sex worker rights movement is monumental. As well as being a powerful activist, she was also a kind and dedicated friend to many and she will be dearly missed. May she rest in power.