Remembering Margo St. James

The memorial for the crusading sex worker and San Francisco icon was exactly as raucous as you’d imagine.

While thousands of people were out getting arrested and raising hell in honor of the workers of the world on Saturday, May 1, friends and colleagues of the late Margo St. James convened on YouTube to honor her as the patron saint of sex workers around the world.

St. James, the founder of COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”), the peer-based occupational health and safety clinic St. James Infirmary, Hooker’s Balls, and many more ephemeral organizations dedicated to the rights of women and sex workers, died on Jan. 11. Nearly four months later, the people who knew and loved her came together to celebrate her work. In a two-and-a-half-hour marathon of paeans and panegyrics, sexologists, attorneys, pornographers, ex-lovers, and many fabulously made-up retired sex workers from around the globe celebrated a woman who set the bar for “tireless crusader.” An organizer, a private detective, a candidate for supervisor, a provocateur, a marathon runner, an autodidact who studied just enough law to get her own conviction for soliciting overturned, a scourge of hypocrites and puritans, and a sex-positive 1970s feminist, Margo St. James was also, by nearly all accounts, a warm and generous firebrand who loved to forage for chanterelles and entertain.

Opened with a land acknowledgment from St. James’ own Celestina Pearl that called for a “rematriation of the land,” the memorial included an old-school country tune written by St. James’ sister Claudette Sterk, and a louche burlesque number from erotic performance artist Annie Sprinkle, for whom moonlit candles are a weapon of choice. 

Sister Venus in Furs of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence then bestowed the “highest and only civilian honor” upon the late activist: sainthood. Margo St. James is now, and forever shall be, the patron saint of sex workers. 

Carol Queen of the Center for Sex and Culture — a San Francisco treasure in her own right — delivered the closest thing to a proper eulogy. Queen’s summary of St. James’ incredible life included choice anecdotes like her early-1960s conviction for soliciting (a judge ruled that St. James’ claim to have “never turned a trick in her life” wasn’t credible because a nice girl wouldn’t even know what that meant) and how the wild 1970s Hookers’ Balls got big enough to draw the likes of Prince Charles. 

St. James’ belief that “whore stigma touches the lives of many who are not whores” animated her feminism, which was rooted in opposition to society’s repulsion toward a woman with agency over her own body. It also guided COYOTE’s preference for the decriminalization of sex work over legalization, since fully legalized systems like the one in Nevada still give too much power to pimps and johns. 

Then as now, the jurisprudence of sex work has come down to a sexist, unequal application of the law. “Everyone knows it takes two,” St. James said in a piece of archival footage, but any woman alone at night was at risk of being “busted” for solicitation — which, after a public defender’s refusal to take their case, could result in the imprisonment of an innocent first offender for six months and brand her for life. The real “crime” is in flaunting the freedom that gives women financial independence.

To that end, one advocate after another spoke of what made Margo St. James such a revolutionary: her candor, yes, but also her decision to put her name and her face to her work. For every eco-warrior erotically licking a mango to the sound of panflutes on a Zapotec pyramid — yes, that really happened — another speaker referenced Buddhist poet Alan Watts or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For every academic section, there was  an interlude of women lube-wrestling in an inflatable pool. Some people addressed St. James directly, thanking her, while others told stories of her offering to smoke cannabis with a conservative judge. Sup. Rafael Mandelman was there, having authored the resolution declaring Feb. 14, 2021 as “Margo St. James Day” in San Francisco, as was the archivist at the Schlesinger Library charged with St. James’ papers. Retired sex worker Gloria Lockett described St. James’ racial equity work and how she introduced Lockett to domination toward the end of her career, while Captain Josh Pryor — interviewed on his boat, Ruby — recalled an episode in which he, St. James, and several other “psychedelic raiders” painted fire hydrants purple as an antiwar direct action. “Six Busted for Plug Paint-in” reads the Examiner headline from 1967.

You can watch all of these recollections, separately or in full, including a misty-eyed Buck Angel wearing a “Hooker AF” hat and a superb interview with Gail Pheterson, the activist who was St. James’ partner during the period in the 1980s when she lived in Europe. It’s almost worth it just to see buttons from P.O.N.Y. (Prostitutes of New York) that depict a headstrong woman riding a horse that’s snorting most aggressively.

Those heady days are long behind us, but St. James Infirmary’s commitment to social justice continues. The clinic’s Cesar Espinoza-Perez spoke about its commitment to mutual aid during COVID and its legislative lobbying work in Sacramento. Some things never change, though, as Yin Q of Asian and migrant sex worker collective Red Canary Song read out the names of the (mostly Asian) victims of the Atlanta spa shootings in March. The work remains unfinished. The sheer radicality of a banner reading “Outlaw Poverty Not Prostitutes” remains intact.

The Best Quotes from Margo St. James’ Memorial 

Referring to the conservative male Establishment, St. James once said, “Grab their balls, and their hearts will follow.” So it should be no surprise that her memorial would include some pearls and zingers. Here are some of the best

“Activism is not another kind of work, but a genuine first-class joy.” 
—Rev. Donna Shaper

“[Her] message of whore’s rights made feminism make sense.” 
—Carol Leigh, aka Scarlet Harlot

“Margo was the Abbie Hoffman of females.” 
—Marilyn Haft, attorney for the ACLU

“People make change even after their passing.” 
—Buck Angel, porn performer

“God, who has the courage to ride an elephant, if you haven’t been trained? And her armpits, all that hair!” 
—Priscilla Alexander

“If we don’t have the right to fuck whoever we want, we’ll never break the glass ceiling and get our feet off the sticky floors.” 
—Margo St. James, in archival footage

Peter-Astrid Kane is a former SF Weekly editor. Twitter @peterastridkane

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