Sex worker, artist, activist and icon Carol Leigh dies at 71 

The beloved activist coined the term “sex work” 

An icon gone too soon—Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, passed away this week at age 71. The activist, filmmaker and sex worker rights hero died after a seven-year battle with uterine cancer, according to friend and fellow artist and sex worker, Annie Sprinkle

Leigh was a mother figure and mentor to many in the sex work and sex work activist communities, notably always willing to support as well as learn from others. A proud bisexual, Leigh is mourned by many in the overlapping queer, sex work and AIDS activist communities, of which she was a part. 

In remembrances on social media, Vancouver-based writer and sex worker advocate Amber Dawn called her an “icon, unstoppable sex work activist, artist and dear friend to do many of us.” Non-binary adult performer Jizz Lee called Leigh “an icon who dedicated her life to sex workers’ rights … HIV/AIDS activism, and videos promoting sexual health and pleasure.” 

Performer and activist Lorelei Lee echoed the sentiment, writing, “Carol Leigh gave her whole life to people in the sex trades, and never stopped learning, growing and questioning her own analyses. She was the rare icon who also made herself a student of younger activists. She gave me so much, and I’ll hold her in my heart always.” Many North American sex worker rights organizations have also posted their respects throughout the day. 

Leigh is remembered for her many contributions to the sex worker rights and arts worlds. Here’s just some of her legacy: 

Coining the term “sex work” 

Sex work activism wouldn’t be what it is today without Leigh, who is credited with having coined the term “sex work” in the late 1970s. According to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, Leigh attended a conference where the term being used was “sex use industry,” which she found embarrassing and objectifying. In wanting to centre the worker and not the client, Leigh suggested “sex work” as an alternative, which is still the preferred term among sex worker activists today. It’s first noted to be used in the media in 1984, becoming more common in 1987. 


Founding BAYSWAN

While Leigh was involved in a number of activist organizations throughout her many years active, she is credited with co-founding the San Francisco-based non-profit Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN) in 1990. Leigh also served as the director of the organization, which works to improve working conditions for sex workers and working against the discrimination of those employed in the trade through a coalition of groups. 

Publishing her collected works

Leigh’s book, Unrepentant Whore: the Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot was published by Last Gasp in 2004. Complete with 150 photographs by notable photographers, Unrepentant Whore collects over 20 years of Leigh’s feminist articles, poetry, performance pieces and essays. Leigh writes about her own experience, work against injustice and more. Her writing has also been featured in Jill Nagle’s Whores and Other Feminists and elsewhere. 

Her work as a filmmaker 

Leigh was active as a filmmaker beginning in 1985, with shorts including Die Yuppie Scum and Safe Sex Slut. Her films can be viewed on her website, in conjunction with the Sex Worker Media Library. 

Her work as a performance artist

Leigh’s one-woman show, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, debuted in 1983 at The National Festival of Women’s Theater in Santa Cruz. For over 30 years, she performed in venues across the U.S., including as as part of the Sex Workers Art Show Tour for a number of years in the early to mid-2000s. Later in her career, Leigh performed to international audiences, including in Venice and Taiwan. 

The San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival

Leigh co-founded The San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival in 1999, which she continued to co-produce with Erica Elena and Jovelyn Richards until her death. The festival includes performances, film, visual art, workshops, skill-sharing, events and more. While the festival took a pause during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is slated to run again in 2023. 

Rest in power, Scarlot Harlot. You can learn more about the beloved Carol Leigh here

Senior editor, politics, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk (she/her) is an English-speaking Toronto-based editor and writer. She was most recently editor of This Magazine, and previously Toronto editor at The Dominion/Media Co-op. She has been published in JoylandMaisonneuveToday’s ParentReader’s DigestBitchHerizonsQuill & Quire, and various other outlets. She is a queer single parent by choice and author of three poetry books.

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