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Goodbye, Carol Leigh (Against the Law)

Friday Letter // 00095
Goodbye, Carol Leigh (Against the Law)

This is Friday Letters, an AGAINST THE LAW edition.

I don’t have much to offer or say this week. But I want to add just one thing to mark the life of Carol Leigh, also known as Scarlot Harlot, who died this week.

Anything That Moves, Spring 1999, the first photo I saw of Carol Leigh

I knew that the massage parlor she first worked in was, if my geography is right, right around the corner from my San Francisco apartment between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin, about thirty years before I lived there. Before she was a prostitute, she had met a feminist who “confessed” to her that she had been a prostitute, too. That made it seem possible. “I remember how Gloria Steinem went to work as a Playboy bunny and then trashed them,” she said in 2017, and so she decided to go work at a massage parlor. “As a feminist I realized, how just one act of sex would be determining my whole identity? Well that’s not very feminist.”

Within a year, she coined the term “sex work1.”

from Sex Work, 1987

I remember when I first met her and felt like I knew nothing. She was doing a speaking and screening tour that brought her to Western Massachusetts in 2002 or 2003. I was debating moving to San Francisco, to be an activist, to be a writer, to have a sex worker community that wasn’t just me and my girlfriend and a few of our friends. Telling her about all of this could have felt ridiculous but it didn’t. She spoke to me like it had already happened. She saw us coming up in her influence and greeted us with nothing but kindness.

photo from the International Women’s Strike, March 2017

Carol Leigh always showed up, so fully.

Lorelei said it beautifully:

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.

It would be impossible for me right now to fully describe what Carol meant to me. Every part of my life would be different without her. I owe her so much but she would never accept the idea that any of us were indebted to her. What makes her so, so unique as a movement elder is she always was there with the next generations as a peer.

The last time I think we were together was for a panel Hacking//Hustling organized last year. She wasn’t on the panel; she just came as a participant. Here was this group of sex workers who started a new project in 2018, and she was there to learn from them, and with them. Seeing her name there in the chat, I could hear her voice.

One last thing: I didn’t know she grew up in Jackson Heights in Queens, and I only learned today that her parents were “socialists in the 1930s,” as she recounts her family story as part of her ACT UP Oral History, that she was a red-diaper baby, and that her family was Jewish. (All of these she shares in common with so many of the women in the new book, which feels nice today, to have that thread.)

Carol Leigh’s papers will be kept at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, alongside those of COYOTE and Margo St. James, Susan Brownmiller and Angela Davis, and many, many others. It’s also the archives I’ve spent the most time in for the book. I’ll write something here when I go back.


A break from the playlist this week. This is “St. James Infirmary,” for Carol.


This is Friday Letters, by Melissa Gira Grant (me), and I am still on Twitter, but not for long? Who knows.

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  1. I told a version of this “sex work” origin story in my book, Playing the Whore: