Carol Leigh, also known as “The Scarlot Harlot,” was a multi-talented artist, author, performer, filmmaker, advocate, and political provocateur.
Carol Leigh was born January 11, 1951 in New York City and grew up in Jackson Heights Queens. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Empire State College in 1974 and went on to study creative writing at Boston University where she founded a women’s writing group. In 1978 she moved to San Francisco where she became involved in COYOTE, the first sex worker rights group in the United States founded by Margo St. James.
In 1979 Carol Leigh coined the term “sex work,” to push back against prohibitionist feminists who were using the derogatory and disempowering phrase “prostituted women.” The term sex work became a cornerstone in the fight for the rights and dignity of sex workers all over the world. By reframing the conversation, Carol Leigh helped unite a movement, fostering empathy and understanding for individuals working in the oldest profession.
In the early 1980s, Carol Leigh developed a one-woman show, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, which she performed in San Francisco and toured across the country building support for the growing movement to decriminalize sex work. She told stories about her working life, argued for a place at the feminist table, and suggested that sex for money was perhaps not that different from whatever else the audience did for money. When Carol Leigh spoke at events, she would sometimes hand out colorful stickers that read “Whore Power” or “Be Nice to Prostitutes.”
After the success of her one woman show, Carol Leigh founded the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, a semi annual event that continues to celebrate the art and experiences of sex workers. This festival has provided sex workers a safe space to express themselves, share their stories, and challenge harmful stereotypes since 1989.
Carol Leigh also co-founded BAYSWAN, the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network. This organization played a crucial role in empowering sex workers, and providing support, resources, and a sense of community to those who often felt marginalized and isolated. Through BAYSWAN, Carol Leigh’s vision for a more just and equitable world for sex workers continued to make a profound impact.
In collaboration with the Center for Sex & Culture in 2006, Carol Leigh received a grant from the Creative Work Fund to establish the Sex Worker Media Library. In 2008, she prominently advocated for a San Francisco ballot initiative to decriminalize prostitution.
Carol Leigh’s influence extended far beyond the borders of San Francisco. A 2023 memorial film, featuring testimonials, photos, and archival footage, showcased Carol Leigh’s immense impact on communities worldwide. Premiering at the San Francisco Sex Worker Arts and Film Festival she founded, the film stands as a testament to her dedication to this movement and the global resonance of her work.
In a world that often marginalizes and stigmatizes sex workers, Carol Leigh fearlessly challenged harmful narratives and fought for the recognition of sex work as legitimate labor. Her advocacy was not just about legal rights, it was also about affirming the inherent dignity of sex workers and their right to be treated with respect and fairness.
Throughout her life, Carol Leigh remained an unapologetic advocate and a fierce defender of sex worker rights. She used her artistic talents, political acumen, and unwavering dedication to amplify the voices of those often silenced and overlooked. Her legacy continues to inspire activists and advocates today.
As we reflect on Carol Leigh’s life and the impact she had on the sex worker rights movement, we are reminded that change is possible, and that one person’s determination can make a significant difference. We can all play a role in continuing Carol Leigh’s legacy by supporting organizations that champion sex worker rights, we can challenge harmful stereotypes, and we can advocate for the decriminalization of sex work.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.
Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge, 1997.
This volume provides a unique perspective on sex work and the sex industry by featuring self-identified feminist sex workers and their allies. Carol Leigh’s chapter, “Inventing Sex Work,” is included in this collection. The book draws from various feminist theories and perspectives, offering a comprehensive exploration of the topic.
Leigh, Carol. “Women of vision oral history interview.” Interview by Alexandra Juhasz. Women of vision: 18 histories in feminist film & video, The Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. December 2, 1995. Video.
In this interview, Carol Leigh discusses feminism, media, AIDS, and her work in video. She reflects on her projects, including the documentary “Whore in the Gulf” and a video involving the American flag. The interview provides a personal and insightful glimpse into Leigh’s creative process and thoughts.
Leigh, Carol. Autobiography of a Whore: The Demystification of the Sex Work Industry. 1983.
Carol Leigh’s poetry collection provides a firsthand account of her experiences in the sex work industry. Through her narrative, readers gain insight into the realities and challenges faced by sex workers.
Leigh, Carol. Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Work of Scarlet Harlot. 2004
Scarlot Harlot, unrepentant whore, activist and artist, is a brazen, brainy hooker. Since the late seventies, Scarlot Harlot (a.k.a. Carol Leigh) has written, performed and produced work in a variety of genres on women’s issues and on her experiences in the sex industry.
Carol Leigh: an interview. Carol Leigh; Ayanna U’Dongo; Charles Rice. 1993. Streaming video file.
This interview provides an in-depth exploration of Carol Leigh’s role in coining the term “sex worker” and her contributions to worker’s rights. Leigh’s use of performance and video to educate audiences about sex work and advocate for sex workers’ rights is highlighted.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Carol Leigh, Who Sought a New View of Prostitution, Dies at 71.” The New York Times, November 18, 2022. Link to the obituary.
Whiting, Sam. “Carol Leigh, who coined the term ‘sex work’ and fought to puncture taboos about it, dies at 71.” San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2022. Link to the obituary.