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Sex Worker Film & Arts Fest Honors Founder Carol Leigh’s Legacy

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Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a column highlighting the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits by Maxine Holloway.

Whore culture – a rich blend of sex, money, creativity, and power – is an undeniable and powerful reality in our society. The Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival (SWFF) aims to bring whore culture to the forefront. The 2023 festival, May 19-30, recognizes and honors the artistic achievements of sex workers, including prostitutes, dancers, and porn performers, who have been integral members of the arts community for centuries.

Sex workers are constantly confronted with a range of political and social discrimination. Locally, sex workers are calling for decriminalization, support, and protection from San Francisco and Oakland. However, law enforcement, politicians, and neighborhood associations have yet to respond to asks for resources and support and are focusing on barricading streets to deter outdoor sex work. Unfortunately, the barricades fail to provide a solution and create more opportunities for abuse and dangerous working conditions for Bay Area sex workers.

In the face of these circumstances, it’s essential to create platforms that celebrate the whole lives and creativity of sex workers, and that’s precisely what the Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival does.

Kaytlin Bailey used to be a contributor to Broke-Ass Stuart. You can read her stuff right here.

This year’s festival is especially meaningful as it marks the first since the passing of the festival’s founder, Carol Leigh, aka “The Scarlot Harlot.” Leigh coined the term “sex worker” in the 1970s. She was a wealth of knowledge and experience, attending almost every San Francisco city meeting, task force, protest, and art show about the sex trade. In addition, Leigh made meaningful connections with sex workers worldwide, often passing out red umbrella earrings (an international symbol of sex worker rights). Many of this year’s events will commemorate and celebrate her legacy: A documentary film and memorial for Leigh at The Roxie Theater on May 20th. And “Carol Leigh in the House of Mz. Pat” performance at the New Parkway Theater, May 22nd.

Before her passing, I had the opportunity to visit Carol in her home in Lake Merced in San Francisco. I was photographing and interviewing her for an upcoming column about the difference between the legalization and decriminalization of sex work. She always wore her “whore-ness” loudly and proudly. For our photographs, she wore a bright red shirt with the words “Whore Nation” emblazoned on the front. She donned scarlet lips and glasses and brought out her red umbrella. We went out to her balcony, and I immediately recognized the movements and poses of someone who professionally posed sexy for a living. Carol hit all her best angles on that balcony and continued to do so on her couch.

Photo by Maxine Holloway

After our photoshoot, we chatted for so long that we didn’t complete the interview portion of our meeting. However, Carol and I made plans to finish the interview “soon”… I guess we’ll have to conclude that interview in the “whorey-afterlife.” 

Rest in Power, Carol; you were a massive inspiration as an activist and human being. Thank you for paving the way for us to be here now. Thank you for all of your writing, studying, the countless meetings, and policy work hours you put in. Thank you for your art. Thank you for your sexiness and boldness. Thank you for coining the term ‘sex worker’. Thanks for continually bringing your mom to sex worker events; seeing how proud she was of you was so cool – we all needed that. Thanks for your wisdom and experience. Thank you for continuing to learn and grow as an activist. Thank you for the red umbrella earrings. Thanks for your humor and charm. When I’m older, I hope I’m a curious bad-bitch like you. I’m grateful that whores and those who love us will celebrate your legacy next week at the Sex Worker Art and Film Festival.

Leigh founded the Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival in 1999, providing a platform for sex worker filmmakers and videomakers to screen and celebrate their work. Over the years, the festival has expanded to include performances, workshops, visual arts, political organizing, and skill sharing for the sex worker community.

The event’s intersectional mission prioritizes the voices of politically underrepresented people, including trans folks, workers of color, street-based workers, and those who challenge the racist, sexist, hetero-sexist, and white supremacist norms and standards of mainstream beauty. The festival is an important event celebrating diversity and inclusion by providing a platform for marginalized communities to celebrate their art, voice their concerns, and share their experiences.

The festival’s full lineup of events can be found on I will be reading a written piece (from my BAS column) on opening night, ‘While We Were Away’ Sex Worker Literary Event and Working It Anthology Release, Friday, May 19, at 7 pm at Fabulosa Books in San Francisco’s Castro District. Additionally, I will co-host a film night with Failed Films Festival – ‘An Evening of Delights’ – a benefit for Bay Area Workers Support on Wednesday, May 24, at 6 pm at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. 

The Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival is an opportunity for everyone to learn about the artistic endeavors of sex workers in all aspects of the sex industry. As people in the sex trade face surmounting social and political turmoil, this is a celebration of the community’s resilience, creativity, and activism and an event that should not be missed.

I hope to see you there. Get your all-festival pass here:

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Maxine Holloway

Maxine Holloway

Maxine is a sex worker, advocate, and new mom living in the Bay Area. She works for sex worker justice through the ever-intersecting avenues of community organizing, politics, education, and art. Her pornography performances and direction earned her AVN nominations, an XBIZ award, and a Feminist Porn Award. She founded to raise awareness about communication and consent. She co-founded, a sex worker resource organization. See more at (SFW)