Priscilla Alexander dedicated much of her life to the sex worker rights movement. She popularized Carol Leigh’s term “sex work”  and helped Margo St James turn COYOTE into an effective organization. She created opportunities for sex workers all over the world and considered her work to decriminalize sex work to be some of the most significant of her life. She should be remembered.

Priscilla Alexander’s Early Life and Education

Priscilla Alexander’s parents met on her mother’s retreat in New Hampshire. Eleanor (“Nell) Rogers Alexander, an accomplished silk screen and visual artist, can trace her lineage back to the Mayflower. Her father, Michael Alexander emigrated to New York from Poland at the age of 6 in 1924.

Priscilla was born on January 27, 1939 in Boston and  is named after Priscilla White, the doctor who delivered her. She studied gestational diabetes and diabetes in pregnant women, and contributed to medical breakthroughs that made it possible for Priscilla’s mother, Nell, to survive the pregnancy. 

Nell died when Priscilla was nine years old of diabetes. 

When Priscilla was young her father worked as a farmer in New Hampshire and a house painter in New York. He fought in World War II, and later owned a home design and furniture business. Her father went on to marry civil rights activist June Shagaloff Alexander who gave birth to Priscilla’s brother David, who grew up in and still lives in Israel. 

Priscilla Alexander attended the High School of Music and Art in New York and attended Bennington in Vermont (class of 1960). She majored in set design. After graduation he focused on drawing and painting first in New York and later in San Francisco, where she also worked as a school teacher. 

Priscilla Alexander’s Career

Priscilla is most well known for editing and compiling the book, Sex Work. Since its publication in 1987, the groundbreaking compilation of essays changed the language we use to talk about sex for money. She continues to popularize the term sex work through her work at the World Health Organization and as an HIV/AIDS advocate. 

In the beginning of her career she worked in advertising in NYC. She went on to attend Bank Street College 1966-1967 where she got a degree in elementary education while working as a teacher in NYC. 

In 1968, Alexander moved to San Francisco which had become a center of political activism for LGBTQ+ folks, including sex worker rights advocates. In San Francisco, Alexander got involved in the early gay and lesbian rights movement, working with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office. (Alexander is featured in a historic clip in the film Milk).  

From 1967 – 1975 she worked as a teacher in San Francisco, first  as an elementary school teacher and then later teaching grades 7 through 9. 

She worked as an editor for the San Francisco Bay Times during its first years of publication in the late 1970s. Priscilla largely developed the “Women’s Page” during a time when coverage of women’s issues in the queer community was uncommon. Filling that void was part of the mission of the founding Bay Times team thanks to Priscilla’s advocacy and editorial talent. 

Priscilla Alexander & Sex Worker Rights

Priscilla Alexander was drawn to the sex worker rights movement because it intersected with all of the other issues she cared about, including poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and incarceration.

In 1975, Alexander met sex worker rights pioneer Margo St. James, who had founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973. COYOTE hired Priscilla Alexander in 1977 and she quickly became an integral part of the organization. Alexander’s organizing efforts elevated COYOTE into an internationally known organization and brought the sex worker rights movement into the mainstream, most critically to the global human rights and public health community.

In 1982, Alexander successfully convinced the National Organization of Women to form a committee on Prostitutes’ Rights and motivated women’s conferences across the country to address the issue.  

With activist Gloria Lockett, she co-founded the California Prostitutes Education Project (Cal-PEP) in 1984. She and colleagues also helped form the National Task Force on Prostitution concentrating on AIDS prevention and education, and on human rights for prostitutes. 

She continued to volunteer for the movement long after funding for her position ended. She worked with St. James to organize the first and second International Whore’s Conference in Amsterdam in 1985 and Brussels in 1986. Pricilla Alexander remained passionate about COYOTE’s efforts and often declared, “My most defining work and greatest joy have been in the sex workers’ rights movement.” 

Alexander with Frédérique Delacoste co-edited the book Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, a landmark collection of writings published in 1987 that changed the way institutions talked about erotic labor. 

Sex Work includes essays by Carol Leigh, Gloria Locket, Gail Pheterson, and includes a copy of the World Charter and World Whore’s Congress Statements. When the book was first published, it helped popularize the term “sex work,” amoung academics, human rights and public health advocates.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, edited by Gail Pheterson. Priscilla is described as “Co-director of COYOTE, Executive Director of the National Task Force on Prostitution (NTFP) Education Coordinator of the California Prostitutes’ Education Project  CAL-PEP, and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women. She lives in San Francisco with her lover, Lydall McCowan and her two cats.” 

In 1989, Alexander moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to work for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Program on AIDS. She made a number of trips to Africa representing WHO and worked with African women on AIDS prevention. At the WHO she pushed for programs to address the critical needs of sex workers and designed important health interventions centering the rights and dignity of sex workers.

She then moved back to her hometown of New York City, where she worked with the HIV/AIDS Prevention Project that served women who worked in some of the poorest sections of the city.  She became director of research and evaluation for FROST’D and became the co-coordinator of the North American Task Force on Prostitution. She also pursued a master’s degree in Public Health at Columbia University.

During her career, Alexander played an important role in creating opportunities for the emerging sex worker rights movement. At the time that Alexander began organizing there were not many people who were willing to stand with sex workers. Her powerful allyship paved the way for advocates today. 

Priscilla Alexander died on November 18, 2023 in New York City, she was 84 years old. She is buried at the New Montefiore Cemetery in Babylon, New York.