Margo St. James died in January 2021, after leading a remarkable life. She fought the uphill battle of decriminalizing sex work and recognizing women’s (and all adults’) rights to choose prostitution, as well as other forms of sex work. She began her tireless advocacy for women’s rights to our own bodies in 1972, when she held gatherings of the cleverly named WHOM — Whores, Housewives, and Other Mothers.
She is best known for COYOTE — Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. Clearly, she had a gift for naming organizations. COYOTE was one of the founding resources for the St. James Infirmary, an active San Francisco “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders.” The bio of Margo St. James on the SJI site says:
She said that she founded COYOTE in response to police treatment of prostitutes and to feminists’ contempt for them. At the time she founded COYOTE, she was in touch with the English Collective of Prostitutes and with Selma James, who’d recently founded Wages for Housework. Flo Kennedy, a black feminist lawyer and founder of the Feminist Party, who Margo said taught her to “kick-ass and “did the most to turn me out” (clearly meaning inspiring Margo as a political activist) and was a very early decrim advocate who explained that, “I just don’t see that women have such fascinating jobs, for the most part, that a job that pays ten times as much as most others should be outlawed.” [book: Color me Flo]
St. James’ name became synonymous with the cause now known as “decrim.”
COYOTE gave legal help to sex workers, published COYOTE HOWLS newspaper to over 60,000 subscribers, and successfully fought to overturn city policies. She attended national and international women’s conferences, testified, and lectured. She pushed decriminalization onto the political agenda and led an international movement to decriminalize sex work.
She ran for a supervisor position in San Francisco, endorsed by the Mayor, but didn’t win. She convinced Cecil Williams, a prominent San Francisco clergyman, to host the annual Hookers’ Ball. The Atlantic Monthly published a feature on her, saying “no public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than Margo St. James has done with COYOTE.”
Mary Reinholz, writing at The Village Sun, draws a direct line from St. James herself to the people continuing her work today.
History repeats itself. St. James was always a controversial figure in the feminism of her time. She may have had Flo Kennedy and many others aligned with her, but she also faced a great deal of “feminist” opposition from the faction that believes that all prostitution is exploitation, and all women who sell their bodies are forced to do so.
Today, the National Organization for Women still opposes decrim, and specifically a 2019 bill in the New York State legislature. The current executive director of NOW-NYC is quoted as saying:
“When the sex trade is decriminalized, demand increases, and in an unregulated market, predatory men who pay to have sex with poor women become law-abiding citizens. That’s not progress, it’s doubling down on male privilege.” However, due in no small part to the movement Margo St. James embodied, even NOW-NYC and Gloria Steinem, support a bill which would decriminalize prostitution, but keep laws against pimps, brothels, and “related sex trade operatives.”
Men who pay to have sex with poor women are effectively “law-abiding citizens” now, and have been so for longer than St. James was working to change hearts, minds, and laws. Men are not prosecuted for paying for sex work. In addition, although NOW-NYC didn’t bring up the specter of human trafficking and child endangerment in this quotation, many opponents of decrim use that argument, even though they know we could erase every law against prostitution off the books tomorrow, and there would still be a robust body of law protecting children and anyone under age in any state from exploitation, grooming, and victimization. Margo St. James was a crusader for the rights of adults, mostly women, to do what each of us chooses to do with our own bodies–and have the opportunity to use the laws to help them stay healthy, safe, and out of jail.
We remember her as the hero she was.
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