Remembering Margo St James, a Pioneering Sex Worker Organizer

The legacy of Margo St James, the trailblazing sex worker organizer who died earlier this month at 83, is more than her brazen personality, more than her bold and flamboyant tactics. She recognized that economic exploitation and gendered harassment are inextricably linked to police violence.

Margo St James on September 10, 1980. (John O'Hara)

On January 11, we lost an icon in the fight against police violence. That day, Margo St James, founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and a matriarch of the sex workers’ rights movement, died at the age of eighty-three.

In the days since, she has been eulogized in a number of places, including in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. These pieces have lauded her flamboyance, her passion, her unapologetically radical fight for the rights of those who sell sex. But few of these obituaries have dwelt at any length on the context for her activism.

As a result, those who have only heard of St James in passing — or who might only learn about her by reading her memorials — might miss the centrality of the fight against police violence in her own activism, and in the broader movement of which she was a shining avatar.

Getting Tough With the Cops

Margo St James was born in Washington state in 1937, and by the age of seventeen, she had already married and given birth to a son. Dissatisfied with her old life, she moved to San Francisco in 1958, part of the Beat Generation. She started hanging around with hippies, gurus, and pot smokers, which earned her the suspicion of the cops.

In 1962, at the age of twenty-five, she was hauled into court on a soliciting charge — one of which she was innocent, she would insist. The arrest cost St James her job, and she eventually did begin to sell sex (though just how often would later be a subject of debate).

In the early 1970s, she founded COYOTE — the “first prostitutes’ rights organization in the United States.” This was years before the term “sex work” would even be coined, but COYOTE would quickly inspire countless sex workers’ rights spin-offs and sister organizations, including PONY (Prostitutes of New York) and PUMA (Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts Association). In 1974, sex workers joined the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions; in 1975, newly formed sex worker collectives in France and London occupied churches to protest police violence and police complicity in the murder of sex workers.

Remarkable though it was, COYOTE was the product of decades of sex worker resistance to police violence, as well as economic and social marginalization. More directly, it was the result of several years of grassroots activism within the particular milieu of the Bay Area, the general revolutionary ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, and the specific brutality of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD).

I once spoke with Margo about this, on the phone, shortly before I dove into her archival papers (on which this essay is based). She talked about protest, and the police, and the importance of history.

Margo St James during her 1995 campaign for elected office in San Francisco. (Jim Marshall)

As far back as 1917, several hundred sex workers marched through the streets of San Francisco to confront a reverend who was calling for a police crackdown on prostitution. In 1954, a prominent San Francisco madam and two young sex workers sued the city, challenging the constitutionality of local ordinances that enabled municipal authorities to quarantine women (but not men) arrested for selling sex and subject them to invasive STI examinations. They won, though little changed as a result.

In 1966, a group of San Francisco street youth — largely trans and queer kids, many of whom sold sex in the Tenderloin — formed a new organization called Vanguard and immediately began meeting with city officials and organizing actions, marches, and speeches to raise awareness about the conditions faced by those on the streets. As the historian Laura Renata Martin has noted, they were focused not only on prostitution; for “Vanguard, resistance to the criminalization of sex work and police targeting of sex workers was woven in with resistance to harassment based on gender expression and sexual identity.” Though the vocabulary did not exist back then, it appears that many of the members of Vanguard were trans or gender nonconforming.

Several of these activists were apparently part of a famous queer uprising against police violence, three years before Stonewall. After a police officer roughed up a drag queen hanging out with other queens, hustlers, cruisers, and runaway teens at Compton’s Cafeteria — a twenty-four-hour Tenderloin eatery — she threw coffee in his face and a riot immediately broke out. “Plates, trays, cups, and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers,” recounted the historian Susan Stryker. “Compton’s customers turned over the tables and smashed the plate-glass windows and then poured out of the restaurant and into the street.”

In the face of this burgeoning activism, the SFPD escalated its tactics, launching numerous “get tough” raids, in which the cops might round up hundreds of suspected sex workers, as well as drag queens and trans residents of the Tenderloin, in a single night. Prostitution arrests leapt from 330 in 1960 to 3,221 in 1969; those arrested were disproportionately black. This was the context for COYOTE.

Do Thugs Have the Right to Barge Into a Woman’s Home?

In 1971, Margo St James — who had been politicized by her own experience with the cops, as well as more radical friends and neighbors — founded a short-lived organization in Sausalito called “Whores, Housewives and Others” (WHO), with “Others” meaning lesbians. Years later, a COYOTE member would write of WHO, “Margo organized in Marin County to see if ‘straight’ women and their prostitute ‘sisters’ could get together, understand each other, and work together for the betterment of both. They could.”

Then, one evening in the winter of 1972, a group of San Francisco police raided an upscale bordello. As St James recorded, they were in full riot gear and seemed “high, really up, turned on, their eyes sparkling, nostrils flaring.” The police terrorized the sex workers within, either pushing or frightening the madam out of a third-story window onto the cement courtyard below, leaving her paralyzed. The “issue” with this raid, St James wrote, was “not whether she” — the madam — “is guilty of soliciting the men — she isn’t; they came to her — but rather one of do licensed thugs have the right to barge into a woman’s home.”

St James decided she wasn’t going to take it anymore. In December 1972, she wrote an article in a nationally circulated countercultural monthly announcing the formation of “Coyote, a Loose Woman’s Collective,” which would provide “legal assistance, court clothes and alternative means of survival to those women being discriminated against.”

On May Day, 1973, St James issued a press release on new COYOTE letterhead (a howling dog beside the spiky text). St James and her organization demanded the decriminalization of sex work, the end of police entrapment, the death of the double standard under which female sex workers were arrested but male clients were not. They also condemned the “racism that exists . . . with the poor women of racial minorities making up the majority of those arrested.”

Two weeks later, on Mother’s Day, St James issued a second press release. “Whores don’t need to be saved from themselves but rather from the men who insist on putting them in prison!” she wrote. Soon, COYOTE members were offering legal assistance to women who were arrested for selling sex; they started a bail fund and taught “survival skill classes” in jail. Within a year, COYOTE claimed a thousand members.

Margo St James in 1975 at the World Conference on Women in Mexico City, where she sought support for decriminalizing prostitution in the United States. (UPI)

As the historian Melinda Chateauvert has argued, St James “didn’t want to ‘organize’ or build an activist membership core; she had little experience with grassroots organizing.” But she was a brilliant speaker and agitator, relying on stunts and coverage in both the underground and mainstream press to spread word of her group and its meetings. She rode an elephant into COYOTE’s annual “Hooker’s Ball,” signed official missives, “Soliciting! Jacking Some Dude Off!” and ran for president.

“You Ain’t Walkin’ on Us No More”

A subsequent focus on these antics can obscure the fact that COYOTE and St James remained fiercely fixated on resisting police violence. Immediately after its founding, COYOTE organized a campaign to oppose the Bay Area practice of quarantining all women arrested for prostitution for three days and invasively examining them for STIs while in jail, a practice St James condemned as violent and degrading. She wrote to “V.D. doctors” all across the country to gather information about best and worst practices, and soon COYOTE launched a successful lawsuit to halt the practice in San Francisco.

Just weeks after this victory, COYOTE celebrated with its first National Hookers Convention in San Francisco. The theme of the convention was, “We’re sisters and you ain’t walkin’ on us no more.” A thousand guests crowded in.

“Unlike most conventions, ours was open to the public,” wrote advocate Janine Bertram. “The mood that night was high energy.”

St James presented a key to the city to a seventy-three-year-old sex worker named Baby Doll, who had recently been arrested in Peoria, Illinois. Pioneering feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy gave the keynote address in a green pith helmet and floor-length lavender cape.

“What is this shit that’s going on between the whores and the police?” she asked, before explaining, in painful detail, the ways the police harass prostitutes, as well as queers, people of color, and women. Kennedy then led the crowd in a rendition of the song “My Ass is Mine.”

In 1975, the liberal George Moscone edged out a conservative challenger to become the next mayor of San Francisco. St James was thrilled, attending his victory party and sending him a quick note, asking him to appoint her to the police commission. Just a month into Moscone’s tenure, COYOTE successfully pushed the city to halt all prostitution prosecutions. But this victory only lasted eleven months, and the assassinations of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk permanently halted the prospect of future progress, especially when the more carcerally minded Dianne Feinstein became mayor.

COYOTE’s headquarters burned down in late 1978, and the organization essentially merged with the National Task Force on Prostitution, which sought to unite various cities’ decriminalization efforts and also provide resources for accused women and monitor police activity. In the mid-1980s, COYOTE and St James became deeply involved in AIDS activism, advocating against punitive public health policing and the passage of forced testing or quarantine laws. COYOTE members founded the California Prostitutes Education Project (CAL-PEP), an entity run by sex workers for sex workers, to spread the word about safe sex.

In the late 1980s, CAL-PEP began sending a fully equipped van into the Tenderloin and Polk Street neighborhoods, staffed by volunteers (including former and current sex workers) who offered food, rest, counseling, HIV testing, safe-sex tips, and supplies to sex workers. A decade later, members of COYOTE founded an occupational health and safety clinic in San Francisco, to be run by and for former, current, and transitioning sex workers. This clinic — known as the St James Infirmary — remains open to this day.

Margo St James’s legacy is more than her brazen personality, more than her bold tactics, more even than the remarkable clinic that bears her name. It is, rather, the recognition — by her and by thousands of others — that economic exploitation and gendered harassment are inextricably linked to police violence.