During the fever pitch of the 1970s sexual revolution, Margo St. James, the flamboyant matriarch of the national prostitutes'-rights movement, burst out of San Francisco's bohemian scene with an infectious enthusiasm for her cause: to make prostitution “palatable for the public.”
On Mother's Day, 1973, St. James launched the San Francisco–based COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a “loose woman's organization” dedicated to decriminalizing prostitution. Under St. James's witty and charismatic leadership, COYOTE fast became a national darling. By 1977, the Atlantic Monthly declared that “no public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than Margo St. James has done with COYOTE.” Apostolic affiliates of COYOTE sprouted up around the country, including PONY (the Prostitutes Organization of New York), PUMA (the Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts), the Spread Eagles in Washington, DC, and DOLPHIN in Honolulu (Dump Obsolete Laws, Prove Hypocrisy Isn't Necessary).
At a time when women were making 57 cents to every man's dollar, and there was a scarcity of career options within and beyond the menial pink-collar job market, St. James (who had worked a brief stint as a call girl) was determined to rebrand prostitution as a legitimate and necessary alternative for women. As she put it, “There is no immorality in prostitution: The immorality is the arrest of women as a class for a service that's demanded of them by society.”
Though St. James managed to wrest endorsements from NOW and the League of Women Voters during COYOTE's first year, she also made powerful enemies among the era's radical feminists, most notably Andrea Dworkin, who argued that “rape and prostitution negate self-determination and choice for women.” Just as COYOTE inspired a generation of advocates for sex work, it also prompted a counter movement—what is now the contemporary anti-trafficking movement, which equates sex work with sex trafficking and aims to abolish both.
May 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of COYOTE, which in 1999 became the St. James Infirmary, a free, nonjudgmental occupational safety and health clinic in San Francisco run by and for sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations. Though the organization bears her name, St. James left the city after its founding. From her cabin on Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington state, with chickens clucking and a rooster crowing in the background, St. James, 75, still hosts regular visitors (“My neighbors probably think I'm turning tricks!”) to talk about the ongoing “War on Whores” and COYOTE, the first U.S. organization to fight back.
Before there was COYOTE, you started WHO—Whores, Housewives, and Others—for women who felt left out of second-wave feminism. What made you decide to bring these women together?
When I moved to Druid Heights [in Marin County, California], my neighbor, the lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, kept sliding radical materials under my door. I was also cleaning houses in Marin County and getting to know the housewives. I've always been a curious woman. I saw the way all these [marginalized groups] were treated— lesbians, women of color, housewives, whores—and I said, “Let's gang together!”
The housewives, especially, were really excited to meet the whores, so I invited them all over for a little meeting. A couple of the women even traded places for a few days. I thought it went really well!
A year after you started COYOTE, you declared that 1974 was “the year of the whore.” Besides decriminalization, what were your earliest goals?
We wanted to reclaim the word “whore” like lesbians reclaimed the word “dyke.” We were trying to give sex workers our own group, our own voice. Madams and hookers who were being abused by the law and the prohibition [on sex work] wanted to join up in other cities and start their own groups.
We got support from the street all the way to the top—even some of the rich liberals liked the pretty women and invited us up to their mansions on [San Francisco's] Nob Hill. Flo Kennedy, a black lawyer and activist, was our mentor. We had artists, musicians, cartoonists, lawyers, the gay community, NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws], Chinese-American organizations, the White Panthers. San Francisco was the only place it could have kicked off.
By the late 1970s, the feminist tide had turned against COYOTE. Andrea Dworkin argued that “a precise corollary of possession is prostitution,” and Kathleen Barry's Female Sexual Slavery was published. Were you surprised by the backlash?
Yeah, and I was pissed off, too! Dworkin and [her colleagues] didn't want to have anything to do with whores. They were too academically closeted. Even the word “prostitute” was a threat to them.
And [anti-trafficking advocates] have the same wrong way of thinking today. In their work, they separate themselves from poor women and women of color. They want to hold themselves apart from sex workers. When you've got a stigma to stick on somebody, whether unconsciously or not, in the name of saving them, I think it's a bad idea. We need to have a level playing field, we need to be honest with each other, without making any judgment.
Anti-trafficking activists charge that today's sex-work advocacy only represents a minority of women and doesn't speak to the needs of the poorest sex workers who are most vulnerable to exploitation.
I can't agree with them because they exclude sex workers [in their activism], and sex workers cross all ranges: ages, sizes, nationalities, genders. I just think that we've got to include everyone.
I think that's why [famed sex-work activist] Carol Leigh came up with the term “sex worker” [in 1978]. Most women would not use the word “whore,” they would use “call girl” or “hooker.” But “sex worker” has really lifted the word out of any prejudice on the issue. The term “sex worker” makes it easier for nonprostitute women to get political on the issue. It's unifying.
Do you think sex workers–rights activists and anti-trafficking activists could ever get together and find common ground?
They won't even talk to me! But the wife of my mother's preacher did ask to talk to me because she was getting involved in stopping the trafficking of underage young girls, and I said, “Perfect! Come on over. I'll tell you what it's really about.”
Prostitution kept hidden gives bad people the opportunity to drag in willing or unwilling teenagers. I told her that the statistics they use are highly exaggerated, that it's a panicked reaction by nonhooker women. And it's the classic reaction of women who want to be good and live up to a man's image. We can't just say, “We don't want our reputations ruined because we're hanging out with a bunch of harlots.”
My mother's preacher thought I was being a little too hard on his old lady. I guess I got a little excited and raised my voice. I don't have a lot of patience for [the anti-trafficking] line.
What developments do you see emerging that are important for sex work and healthcare?
When aids came along, the activism was really amazing. I said, “We've got to stop this shit. They're going to scapegoat the whores in a second.” We always felt, especially when aids hit the scene, that we had to take the offensive on health [issues], that health was going to be the issue that could cross a lot of borders.
Before [COYOTE leader and cofounder of the National Task Force on Prostitution] Priscilla Alexander went to work for the World Health Organization, it was her idea to start the St. James Infirmary. We were on the cutting edge of what needed to be done. Today at the Infirmary, sex workers and their families can come in and get medical care, [STI] testing, peer counseling, needle exchange, and hot meals and clothes. We put out a handbook [the Occupational Health & Safety Handbook]—it's an inch thick—with all kinds of information for sex workers.
I think the movement is incredible here and abroad; there are more groups around the country than when COYOTE was in its heyday. There are so many other groups doing good work, like SWOP [Sex Workers Outreach Project] and HIPS [Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive] in Washington, DC Holland's got a great group, the Red Thread [De Rode Draad]. Sex workers have found a more humane and respectful way of protecting other sex workers. Arrests are not how you protect people.
Even though sex workers are making great strides in healthcare advocacy, last year many, including St. James Infirmary allies, were banned from entering the country and attending the 2012 International AIDS Conference. What are the biggest obstacles to giving sex workers a voice in aids and public health policy?
There's still so much hypocrisy. Under the Bush administration, [Randall L.] Tobias, the man in charge of distributing money from USAID to health clinics around the world, demanded a pledge from the clinics—some run by sex workers—that they say they were against prostitution before they were given any funds. He resigned when it became known that he was on a DC madam's customer list. “To Buy Ass”—that's what I called him! He was such a hypocrite.
What still grabs me is police using [the posession of] condoms as evidence against sex workers. They didn't do that so much before, but now the bastards are doing it in a bunch of major cities! It doesn't say much for supporting safe sex. Or showing some common sense and empathy.
Do you think portrayals of sex workers in pop culture and the media have improved over the last 40 years?
The old Western movies are much more caring toward women than the current crap on the TV or movie screens. The media portrayals of sex workers in reality shows or movies, they're still keeping women in a net. Usually women die in the movie, or they get arrested, or they're brutalized by their pimps. They show sex workers being punished. Why don't they ever show the cops hassling them instead?
The mainstream press, when they do cover sex work, is square and nobody really complains about it. The underground newspapers write our stories, but they don't get the corporate money, and they fold, like $pread.
So what do you think is the best way forward for sex-work policy in the United States?
Bottom line, we need to engineer a repeal of the war on whores and the war on drugs. These prohibitions are the mechanism by which racism and sexism are maintained. Examining these bad laws will show clearly how stigma is used to disenfranchise minority women and men, especially.
You can't divide economic injustice from sex-worker injustice. The two go together. The men and women on the streets are the ones who are going to be hassled by the police. I think we need to look at that, and we've got to leave the policy answers up to the sex workers. The criminalization of marginalized people is the problem we need to fix. As far as getting funding and having good healthcare, getting rid of the stigma on women and others, decriminalization would result in better funding and the end of dividing women. Even if people don't think decriminalization is the answer, increased fines, penalties, and prison terms like in [the recently passed California ballot initiative] Proposition 35 aren't the answer, either.
And I've always felt that if we couldn't get the prohibition on sex work repealed, we would never end up hanging on to our abortion rights, and now we can really see [the loss of these rights] happening! I don't know what to do. I might have to come out of retirement.
So you connect the movement for safe, legal abortions with the movement for safe, legal sex work?
Absolutely! It's the same piece of property—our property.