Margo St. James, Matriarch of the Modern Sex Work Movement, Has Died
Historic SF sex worker organization St. James Infirmary broke the devastating news Tuesday that its namesake and founder Margo St. James had passed. “With profound sadness, the St. James Infirmary announces the death of the most storied among our founders, Margo St. James,” the health and safety clinic said in a blog post. “The St. James Infirmary is a part of Margo’s legacy.” St. James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in June, and was in an assisted care facility. She was 83.
But before she co-founded the St. James Infirmary in 1999, Margo St. James was a frequently topless Summer of Love folk hero, a political activist alongside Harvey Milk, founder of the wildly popular 1970s annual Hooker’s Ball event, a frequent fixation of Herb Caen’s columns, and was very nearly elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1996. St. James would become one of the first internationally known sex work champions.
“Margo was far from a one-trick activist, so to speak,” Good Vibrations staff sexologist Dr. Carol Queen said in a statement to BrokeAssStuart.com. “She was—from many years of pro-prostitution rabblerousing in San Francisco—very connected to city politics.”
NOTE: It is generally believed that Scarlot Harlot coined the term “sex worker” in 1978. Many of the events recalled in this article took place prior to then, and as such, this post contains some terminology that has since fallen out of fashion.
WHORES, HOUSEWIVES, AND OTHERS (WHO)
“Others meant lesbian, but it wasn’t being said out loud yet, even in liberal bohemian circles,” St. James herself once wrote. She refers to Whores, Housewives, and Others (WHO), the first sex worker support group she started in Marin County before the Sexual Revolution got underway in the 1960s.
“The housewives, especially, were really excited to meet the whores, so I invited them all over for a little meeting,” she recalled in a 2013 Bitch magazine interview. “We wanted to reclaim the word ‘whore’ like lesbians reclaimed the word ‘dyke.’ We were trying to give sex workers our own group, our own voice. Madams and hookers who were being abused by the law and the prohibition [against sex work] wanted to join up in other cities and start their own groups.”
St. James remembers her first criminal trial for prostitution at age 25. “It was 1962,” she wrote. “I said in court, ‘Your honor, I never turned a trick in my life!.’ He responded, “Anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional.’”
She promptly studied law, and got her conviction overturned.
CALL OFF YOUR OLD TIRED ETHICS (COYOTE)
By 1977, The Atlantic wrote in a sex worker movement profile that “No public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than ex-prostitute Margo St. James has done with COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), formed on Mother’s Day in 1973. COYOTE now has affiliates in more than a dozen cities, including PONY (Prostitutes of New York), Honolulu’s DOLPHIN (Dump Obsolete Laws; Prove Hypocrisy Isn’t Necessary), and CAT (California Association of Trollops).”
“She was always out there for the underdog,” St. James’ former COYOTE colleague Tallulah Bankheist told BrokeAssStuart.com. “There would be women who came into COYOTE meetings that were not hookers, that got cited for jaywalking in an area that there were street-walkers, they were just visiting their gay cousin at The Motherlode or something like that. She was there for you. It didn’t matter whether you were a hooker or not, once you got that stigma on you. You’re branded, you can lose a job, or not get hired for a job. And she had lawyers for you.”
COYOTE provided free legal assistance for sex workers, and professional apparel for their court appearances. They helped shoot down mandatory penicillin therapies and multi-day venereal disease quarantines for incarcerated women, and would spawn several offshoot advocacy groups like the underground club Whore Church, Slutfest, and Bay Area Workers Support.
“It wasn’t just about sex work,” Bankheist tells us. “It was about poverty, it was about basic human rights, sex workers rights touch so many different areas. And it wasn’t just feminists. It was the gay community, the straight community, the trans community, the disabled community, everybody. And we were also speaking up for the clients that got policed.”
Before there was a Folsom Street Fair, before there was an Exotic Erotic Ball, there was COYOTE’s fetish-culture event called the Hooker’s Ball. This KPIX video from the 1974 Hooker’s Ball takes you right into the thick of that Halloween weekend event that raged annually from 1974-1978, and was duplicated in many other cities with hopes of normalizing sex work.
“99% of our customers are married,” St. James tells KPIX in the segment. “If we weren’t taking care of them and listening to their troubles, they might be beating up their wives more than they do.”
Former Hooker’s Ball producer Diane Sward Rapaport writes on her personal blog that:
It began with me watching the Marin County firemen that Margot talked into helping rig Longshoreman’s Hall, while I helped a bevy of gorgeous hookers assemble mailings and lick stamps.
Just before the ball, there was a pre ‘get-it-up’ fund-raising party with the same bevy of women serving canapés to many of San Francisco’s politicos, rumored to be their clients. Sally Stanford was there—she ran one of the city’s most notorious brothels, and so was Linda Lovelace, the famous porn star.
The dance itself was a huge costume party of San Francisco’s gay men and women, bisexuals, transgenders, queens, and cross dressers. The mayor and police chief came, and the only incident was a lavishly dressed clown with a cane who had climbed on top of one of the speaker stacks and was trying to ‘hook’ the chandelier. I don’t remember how one of my crew talked him safely down.
St. James was notoriously friendly, perhaps in more ways than one, with local power brokers of the day like Sheriff Richard Hongisto and Mayor George Moscone. “Sex workers have always been inextricable from politics but no one laid that bare the way Margo St. James did,” sex work scholar-at-large Maggie Mayhem tells us. “Her work compelled me to understand the ways my community could drive history rather than be a mere witness or even victim to it.”
ST. JAMES INFIRMARY
The name “St. James Infirmary” actually came from a 1928 Louis Armstrong ragtime song, But St. James told SFGate in 2007 that “My pads were always called the St. James Infirmary.” That name would be attached to the first-of-its-kind “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders” St. James Infirmary that opened in 1999, and remains very active today.
St. James Infirmary has been instrumental in many sex work legal reforms, including a ban on using condoms as evidence of sex work that eventually became SFPD policy, and is now United Nations policy.
“There are a lot of improvements that if Margo hadn’t have been the one to open the door, it wouldn’t have happened,” Bankheist says. “She really pushed things. She was one of the first, and the loudest, most captivating. and persuasive.”
1996 BOARD OF SUPERVISORS ELECTION
Margot St. James ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1996 in what was not a conventional campaign. “Sex phone operators, people that did phone sex, were her phone bank people,” says Bankheist, who was a campaign volunteer. “She was really well-connected, everybody in town knew her.”
She was endorsed by then-District Attorney Terrance Hallinan, but barely missed being elected when she came in seventh in a race where only the top six vote-getters would win seats. (Ironically, one of the winners in that race was Leland Yee, who would eventually resign in disgrace and serve prison time in the 2015 Shrimp Boy scandal.)
“I wonder how it would have changed SF history if she’d won,” Carol Queen says.
“Margo was an extraordinary role model not only for those of us who worked directly with the sex worker’s rights movement—she lit a match to create a flame that hasn’t burned out and has changed the way people across the country think of sex work,” Dr. Queen continues.
“She also takes her place in San Francisco’s pantheon of citizen activists, one of the people who have made this city what it is—and certainly what it was in the last 30 years of the 20th century, which was a damn amazing time to live in San Francisco,” Dr. Queen adds. “Without her as a predecessor and friend, I don’t think I’d have lived the same life I’ve had.
“Thanks, Margo, for changing my life, changing our town, and changing the world.”