Celebrating Margo St James, a Devoted Sex Worker Activist
Celebrating Margo St James, a Devoted Sex Worker Activist
Posted:March 04, 2021
To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we’re recounting stories of the women who’ve helped shape the world we enjoy today. Sure, there’s plenty of progress to be made, but we can’t forget the icons who’ve led us into women’s voting rights, sexual freedom and education, women in the workforce and so much more.
We’ve also covered Betty Dodson, the feminist and self-pleasure sex educator, as well as Monica Roberts, the journalist who covered and advocated for the transgender community. Today we’re discussing Margo St. James, a staunch sex worker advocate who passed away early in 2021. St. James worked to de-criminalize prostitution her entire life and was a San Francisco native who was also briefly involved in politics.
In this post we’ll talk about St. James' impact and her work, as well as how we can continue to carry the torch and honor her accomplishments.
Who Was Margo St. James?
Margo St. James was an advocate, politician, sex worker and union organizer. She founded COYOTE, or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, in 1973 in San Francisco. The group pressed for worker’s rights, health insurance and financial security for sex workers, and in her Washington Post obituary, it was said “she and her associates also referred to themselves as a ‘loose union of women’ or, winkingly, a ‘union of loose women.’”
St. James was born Sept. 12th, 1937, from Washington state. She grew up on her family’s dairy farm and around the time of her high school graduation married her first husband, a classmate. Their son was born shortly thereafter. According to the Post, St. James told The Guardian in 1986 she knew it was a mistake. She left for San Francisco and left her son and husband behind.
“I knew I would be a bad mother,” she said.
She originally wanted to be an artist, but began working as a prostitute after being falsely accused of it. According to the New York Times, in the 1960s she was working as a waitress to support her artists dreams and her home became something of a counterculture spot, with a lot of people “pot-smoking and sex and, you know, whatever.” Local police got suspicious of the activity and arrested her on charges of prostitution. During the trial, she reportedly told the judge, “I’ve never turned a trick in my life.” His reply, she said, was that “anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional.”
St. James briefly enrolled in law school to try and appeal her conviction, which was eventually overturned even though she wasn’t able to graduate. With her record she found it difficult to get work, so she paid for tuition through sex work as well as brief stints as a private investigator and deckhand, according to the Washington Post.
Over time she developed a serious mission to liberate sex workers and make the profession more mainstream, demystifying it and humanizing prostitutes. She founded COYOTE, the sex workers’ union, as well as St. James Infirmary, a free San Francisco clinic that served sex workers. According to the Times she organized an annual Hooker’s Ball, a fundraising event that celebrated sex workers and drew politicians, police officers and movie stars. The 1978 event drew 20,000 attendees, filling the Cow Palace in San Francisco; St. James rode in on an elephant. In the 80s she moved abroad and helped organize international sex worker conferences; she also authored a World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights.
“There is no immorality in prostitution,” St. James said according to the New York Times. “The immorality is the arrest of women as a class for a service that’s demanded of them by society.”
When she later returned to the U.S. she began getting more heavily involved with politics, running unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. According to the Post, at one time she also ran for Republican presidential nomination, although it’s unclear how seriously she took that bid. St. James, who called herself a sex-positive feminist and once called the lack of female orgasms an epidemic, married for a second time after returning from Europe, this time to a reporter who’d cover the Zodiac Killer and other national events. He died in 2000.
St. James passed away at 83 on January 11th, 2021, in a memory care facility and is survived by her son and other family members.
How Do We Carry On St. James’ Legacy?
The real tragedy here is that St. James’ goal to legalize prostitution and provide more rights, health care and stability for them is yet unmet. Prostitution Above all, educate yourself and work to de-program the anti-sex-worker propaganda you may have absorbed. And if you know a sex worker, maybe give ‘em a tip and tell them you love them—heck, even an Only Fans subscription counts! We know, love and support sex workers every day, sometimes without knowing. Let’s make it a little easier for them, and for us, when we can.is still illegal in the U.S, with a few exceptions like Las Vegas.
Her work was at least partly spurred by the women-on-women pitting against each other caused by a very anti-porn movement in the 60s and 70s, and that kind of comparison and slut-shaming still happens today.
The best thing we can do is to continue to educate and activate, including union participation and petitioning legislators for sex workers’ rights. You can also support efforts she founded, like the St. James Infirmary, which continues to operate today.
Above all, educate yourself and work to de-program the anti-sex-worker propaganda you may have absorbed. And if you know a sex worker, maybe give ‘em a tip and tell them you love them—heck, even an Only Fans subscription counts! We know, love and support sex workers every day, sometimes without knowing. Let’s make it a little easier for them, and for us, when we can.
This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating leaders who made the world a better place. Join us in remembering Monica Roberts, a journalist who made a difference in the trans community in Houston and around the world.
There are so many options and types of relationships out there it’s difficult not to be curious. Valentine’s Day has, sex, pleasure, and romance on our minds so we are diving into ethical non-monogamy and what it means.