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"Repeal the War on Whores and Drugs!" Margo St. James Takes Down America's Sexual Hang-Ups

Forty years in the hustle, a Q&A with sex worker activist Margo St. James.
 
 
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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.

 
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