Carol Leigh is an artist, feminist, hooker, activist and video maker who lives in San Francisco. Her first play, in Chick she played herself, back in 1982, was the first performance about the stigma of sex work; in fact, she invented the name "Sex Worker". Her nick-name The Scarlet Harlot comes from her red hair and wild appearance. Carol is hoping to develop her genre of esoteric sex education videos and become a Great Pornographer.
My father had a pornography collection which my mother insisted he hide in the cupboard under the stairs. Since I knew where it was, whenever they went out of the house, to go shopping or whatever, I got a chair so I could reach up and get out the magazines.
One of the magazines had a beautiful woman in it. Her name was Carol, just like mine, and she was posed under a Christmas tree, looking so friendly, and so beautiful and loving. I wanted to grow up and be just like her, with my breasts pert and everything. So, that's what I imagined I would be, although I repressed that desire a lot.
My mother resented the pornography collection because she thought it gave my father some extra power. She felt the porn was an insult to her. Dad was nasty to her—he didn't work much, he was lazy, and not really that accommodating. I loved my mother, who was lovely and beautiful and kind. My father was twenty eight when they married and my mother only seventeen. She was a virgin when they met and he wasn't. He was more aggressive sexually and, although they did have a hot relationship, she said she felt like a prostitute sometimes, because he'd pressure her. So there was a discourse in my family all the time.
My parents strongly believed that people should be able to talk openly about sexuality, so they discussed it and were naked in front of us (although not sexual) until we were twelve or so. There was a freedom which went both ways: I became free and open but I was aware of the imbalance of power. I could observe him chasing her, being verbally abusive. So, sexuality meant a combination of those two things.
My parents thought they should teach me about sex, but sadly, it was my father who taught me, from text book, when I was in bed. This felt awkward and wrong. I wished my mother had done it. My sexual history was confusing. I started getting involved with boys when I was fifteen or sixteen. I had guilt mixed up with lots of issues, so I'd go only so far with boys, then stop. I realised I could hardly get aroused: as soon as we started doing it, I wasn't aroused at all. I was afraid I was frigid even though I was pretty open minded.
I realised that I was bisexual from a very early age, after A big relationship with a girl when I was nine. Thus, I knew I didn't want to be monogamous. I became a feminist when I was twenty one. I started going to lesbian bars, and met lesbian feminists. I started masquerading as a lesbian while refusing to admit I was bisexual. I was still trying to work it out with men.
I was sort of anti-porn at that point. As a feminist, I was supposed to come out about the different ways I appeared as a woman, which meant lying about my sexuality. The way women spoke about men was incredibly insulting to them. I didn't mind sharing my problems, but didn't like insulting men en masse. It was very difficult for me, confusing. I was fantasizing about doing sex work, and playing out these fantasies with my boyfriend. But as a feminist, I knew I shouldn't be doing that.
One of my closest friends, Macha Womongold, was the antiporn activist who shot a bullet through a window of a shop selling sex magazines in Harvard Square in Boston, and had her children taken away as a result. She switched to environmentalism after that. She'd been the one to bring me into feminism, taught me about the Goddess, even though she was dating a stripper. I had met her at Graduate School, where I had gone to study with Ann Sexton. My sex life took on the image I had of my Mum—I assumed that she was offended by my dad, his verbal abuse and his porno collection but, in actual, fact my Mum was aroused by all this in an S/M kind of way and it kept her addicted to the relationship.
I moved to San Francisco after school, when Ann Sexton had killed herself. I was on the verge of breaking up with a boyfriend, and needed money. I saw ads for sex massage girls. I thought I was desperate, so why don't I just go there and do it? I went to the sleaziest parlour, to make sure I picked one that wasn't selling anything else, like glamour! Once I started work, I was enchanted by the women, to see how they deal with their roles. I met women from all around the world, from Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, and I'd never had the chance to be with sexually wise, strong women before—it was really exciting. The men would come in, pay you, come and, before you know it, it was over! Then you have all this money! As soon as I tried it, I knew it was going to be my life's work.
I was already a committed artist, almost twenty eight and looking for something to write about. I remembered Gloria Steinem who infiltrated Playboy and became a bunny and trashed them, and I thought, well if she can trash Playboy, I should investigate prostitution.
T. Grace Atkinson said that prostitutes are in the front way in the battle of the sexes. I'd studied Hemingway, and Hemingway went to war to write about it. I decided to do the same with prostitution. I was fascinated. I looked in the mirror and said "Oh. that's a prostitute." I'd always heard that you couldn't turn back after you'd stepped over that line from the good girl to the bad. That was a dare for me. How could it be that I could never turn back after one hand job? I remember feeling, after I'd crossed the line, that I turned round, and the line had disappeared. Imagine walking into your whole life's work. It made sense. After all, I was doing prostitution with my boyfriends, now I was getting paid for it. It all fitted together. The more I did it, the more I learned about sex, and the less scary sex became. It wasn't a cure-all, although I've had the best sex in my personal life when I've been working most, because the work inspired me sexually. I had a lover at the beginning and my relationship with him was very erotic. What I enjoyed about the work was the way I didn't really like it with my tricks, and how this contrasted with the way they thought I did like it with them. On the other hand, if I had a few things that were quasi arousing during the day, I'd have a good time with my boyfriend that night.
When I first started working as a prostitute, I went along to a meeting of the National Organisation for Women, with a paper bag on my head, on which was written "This paper bag symbolizes the anonymity prostitutes are forced to adopt." I realised that I had a role as a feminist.
The title of my play, "The Adventures of Scarlet Harlot, the Demystifcation of the Sex Work Industry", was sort of a joke, but I knew we needed a word that was different than prostitute. Now the expression "Sex Worker" is used around the world, and it's changed the movement and people's concepts. I'm really proud of that. It's brought the strippers and peep show workers and prostitutes together. I had studied linguistics at college and, after all that training, it was great to be able to put it to some use!
The play used my poetry, and I'd wander into the audience and ask them what they did for a living and sneer, saying they were whores too. It was a fun piece and I had loads of press. I took lessons in acting and singing. My play was about stigma but, when the AIDS crisis came along, suddenly the issue wasn't stigma so much any more, the issue was AIDS. I was totally traumatized because, at the beginning, there was no way to get tested. Every day, I heard more about prostitutes spreading this terrible disease and the tricks refused to use condoms.
So I decided I'd leave San Francisco and become a Country and Western star in Austin, Texas. I was going to form an organisation, Texas Whores and Tricks—TWAT! Fortunately, my car broke down in Tucson, where they had all these strip joints I reckoned I could work in. This was where I met Dave Bukunus, an artist and video maker, through an ad in a paper. He worked at TWIT, Tucson Western International Television, so I set out to do TWAT but ended up doing TWIT. We had a great affair and he taught me everything about making video. I wrote, directed and edited public access comedy videos.
Eventually, I returned to San Francisco and started working with Citizens for Medical Justice, the organisation which preceded ACT-UP. I was a founder member of the Cal-Act and joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We staged demonstrations against the church and censorship, and I did a lot of political art and activist work. Nowadays, I'm city government, I'm the main organizer of the City Task Force on Prostitution, and we are winning —we're in the process of decriminalising prostitution in San Francisco but it's definitely a long project. We want the whores to be in charge, not the management! Prostitution works best as a cottage industry. Our main goal is an on-going panel with a majority of sex workers on it, to monitor working conditions, police, etc.
I still work as a whore but only with regular clients. Not many activists still work full time although some do. Dolores French is still dedicated to the work itself. I still do outreach work with street prostitutes. A lot of the discussion is around street prostitutes, they are symbols of the poverty today.
The first sex video I was involved in was Annie Sprinkle's Sluts and Goddesses video. Annie is fabulous and lovely and generous and professional. It was really hot in the studio in New York, we were very sweaty, so it was hard. Being in New York was handy because it meant I was near my father, who was dying on Long Island. He died the day after the shoot finished.
My own personal fantasies are submissive and so the pornography I like to view personally shows women being tied up. I need to be forced because I feel very guilty but that's only in game-playing, and I know the difference. I enjoy watching one woman being screwed by a group of men, with lots of penises everywhere.
Since 1985, I have been recording the cultural underground in terms of sexual rights and now my videos are more pornographic. Esoteric sex education is what I call my style of work, but I need a better name. I feel my genre has a long way to go, although I'm glad that people want the Scarlet Harlot touch.
Joe Kramer, Annie Sprinkle, Dorrie Lane all work in this new genre, and I help interpret their ideas, by being their director and editor of their films. I'm helping them express their vision. What I really want to make is a sex comedy. Somebody gave me a cute title: "Genitals—the Comedy," and I want to make it!—porn which crosses over the markets. I'm more comfortable mocking sex than exploring the rhythms of lust. I like sexual imagery that is funny. I want to be a great pornographer. Amongst the greatest—with Henry Miller. Andrea Dworkin is a great pornographer. Annie Sprinkle is a great pornographer and her Sluts And Goddesses video is one of the best pornographic videos. Kay Diamond's ejaculation video was great too. But if there's great erotic comedy to be made now, I would like to make it. I see that as my future. The Monty Python of Sex.