Sex Worker Leadership in Grantmaking

Tribute to Carol Leigh

“The passing of Carol Leigh comes as a big loss for our communities. Carol was firmly dedicated to destigmatization of sex work, the term she coined, to acknowledge the labor of sex workers, and fought to ensure that sex workers were a part of the feminist movement. Not only sex workers, but Carol fought for the rights of other marginalized groups during the AIDS epidemic. Rest in Peace and Power.”
Ankit Gupta – Red Umbrella Fund Co-Chair

It is with great sadness that we write to commemorate Carol Leigh.

Carol, known to generations of activists as the “Scarlot Harlot,” was a sex worker, artist, and activist who was instrumental in shaping the way we think about and talk about sex work. Carol Leigh was a trailblazer who sought to empower people to embrace their sexuality and reclaim their own body autonomy. Carol was a beloved leader in the movement to end the criminalisation of sex work and to protect the health and human rights of sex workers around the world.

Carol coined the term “sex worker,” which she first used in a 1979 essay “Inventing Sex Work”. The term stuck and Carol used it in her one-woman play The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, which she began performing in 1980.

In 1988, she founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), an organisation dedicated to ending violence against sex workers, and was a driving force behind the creation of the first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on 17 December. In recognition of her tireless work to support and uplift sex workers, Leigh has been honored with numerous awards and accolades, including the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the SWOP.

She was a vocal advocate for sex workers rights, and fought for the decriminalisation of sex work. She was also a staunch defender of LGBTQ+ rights, and a key figure in the AIDS crisis. She used her art and activism to raise awareness about the disease and advocate for the rights of those living with HIV. Carol worked with organisations like the HIV Law Project and the San Francisco Women’s AIDS Network, and created numerous art pieces focused on the impact of AIDS on the sex worker community. Her works were featured in the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the first openly gay theatre group in the United States.

Carol was also a talented filmmaker who used her skills to shed light on the struggles and injustices faced by sex workers. She was a driving force behind the Bay Area Sex Worker Film Festival, which showcases the work of sex worker filmmakers and brings attention to the issues facing the sex worker community. Her extensive film archives document the history and experiences of the sex workers’ rights movement. The archive will have a permanent home at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.

Carol’s tireless advocacy, creativity, and passion for justice will be deeply missed by all who knew her and by the broader sex workers’ rights movement. She leaves behind a powerful legacy that will continue to inspire and guide us as we fight for dignity, respect, and rights for sex workers around the world.

She was a vibrant light whose legacy is living on.

Rest in power, Carol Leigh, the most Scarlot of Harlots.

Your work and your spirit will not be forgotten.

On 17 February 2023, the Carol Leigh Memorial Committee sent a call for 60 second videos to be included in a film documenting Carol Leigh’s international legacy to be included in the Sex Work Arts Festival in San Francisco 20 May, 2023. You can learn more at Submission deadline is 15 March, 2023.

photo credit The Estate of Carol Leigh

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