Margo St. James joined the world’s oldest profession by a circuitous route.
She was an artist working as a waitress and living the Beat life in San Francisco in the 1960s. Her home became a counterculture hangout, and, as she told The Windy City Times of Chicago in 2011, “there was a lot of pot-smoking and sex and, you know, whatever.”
It wasn’t the kind of sex that anyone paid for. But the police saw a lot of people going in and out of her house and concluded that it could be only one thing, and so arrested her in 1962 on prostitution charges.
“Your honor,” she told the judge, “I’ve never turned a trick in my life.”
As far as the judge was concerned, that response sealed her fate.
“Anyone who knows the language,” he told her, “is obviously a professional.”
Her conviction (she was jailed briefly) infuriated her and prompted her to take the college equivalency exam and enroll in law school. She didn’t get her law degree, but acting as her own lawyer she successfully appealed her conviction.
Still, with such a stain on her record, she couldn’t find work. And that, she said, drove her into sex work, which she kept up for four years.
St. James went on to become one of the nation’s most prominent rights advocates for sex workers, devoting her life to the cause of decriminalizing prostitution and destigmatizing its practitioners.
She died at 83 on Jan. 11 in a memory care facility in Bellingham, Washington, near the Canadian border. Her sister, Claudette Sterk, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
St. James, who called herself a sex-positive feminist, founded a group called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973 to press for health care, legal rights and financial security for sex workers. The group successfully fought to overturn San Francisco policies that required arrested sex workers to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and to be quarantined if they tested positive.
In the process, St. James sought to reframe prostitution as a profession with legitimate workplace and human rights issues rather than as something sinful. (An ally, Carol Leigh, coined the term “sex worker” in the early 1980s, and St. James helped popularize it.)
“There is no immorality in prostitution,” she would often say. “The immorality is the arrest of women as a class for a service that’s demanded of them by society.”
A media-savvy activist, St. James invested her crusade with showmanship. She organized an annual Hooker’s Ball, a fundraising event that celebrated sex workers and drew politicians, police officers and movie stars. The balls reached their zenith in 1978 with 20,000 attendees filling the Cow Palace in San Francisco. St. James loved to make an entrance; that year she rode in on an elephant.
When she campaigned for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she promised to keep a red light on outside her office when she was there. Although she was endorsed by Mayor Willie Brown and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fixture of San Francisco bohemian life, she lost.
She also established a free health clinic, the St. James Infirmary, which was run by and for sex workers in the Bay Area — one of the first of its kind in the world.
A charismatic speaker, St. James was popular on the lecture circuit and often began her speeches by saying, “It’s so nice to see so many familiar faces.”
To critics who complained that sex workers were splitting up families, she insisted otherwise. The vast majority of customers are married, she told a television interviewer in 1974, adding, “If we weren’t taking care of them and listening to their troubles, they might be beating up their wives more than they do.”
Margaret Jean St. James was born in Bellingham on Sept. 12, 1937, to George and Dorothy (Wellman) St. James. Her father was a dairy farmer, her mother a secretary.
Peggy, as she was called then, did not care for farm life.
“She didn’t mind working,” Sterk, her sister, said in an interview, “but you’re out in the country and you don’t see a lot of people, and she loved people.”
She took up watercolor painting and won a contest in which one of her works was shown at Carnegie Hall, Sterk said.
In high school, St. James met Don Sobjack, whom she married after graduating and who became a commercial fisherman. She had a child with him soon thereafter. But she knew she was not cut out for marriage or motherhood, her sister said. Leaving her husband and son behind, she headed for art school in San Francisco in 1958. The marriage ended in divorce.
Although she was based in San Francisco, St. James helped the sex-worker rights movement grow nationally. Sister groups to COYOTE sprang up, including PONY (Prostitutes of New York), HIRE (Hooking is Real Employment) in Atlanta and PUMA (Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts).
But the so-called feminist sex wars of the late 1970s and ’80s, driven by a powerful anti-pornography movement, were pitting women against one another, making it a challenging time to win sympathy for sex workers. Debates swirled over whether they could be considered feminists and whether prostitution was legitimate work, as St. James contended, or whether it was a form of coercion and violence against women.
Facing a conservative backlash in the 1980s during the Reagan years, St. James set her sights on Europe, partnering with other groups to mobilize an international rights movement. With Gail Pheterson, a feminist activist and scholar, she organized the First World Whores’ Congress, in 1985 in Amsterdam, and a second one the next year in Brussels.
The gatherings were held at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and a major topic of conversation was how sex workers could protect themselves and their livelihoods from a disease that was typically transmitted sexually.
While working on the international movement, St. James and Pheterson renovated a 16th-century house in the south of France, where they lived for several years.
In the early 1990s, Paul Avery, a friend and longtime Bay Area journalist who had emphysema, proposed that he and St. James get married so that she could share his health care benefits and also take care of him. They were married on Valentine’s Day in 1992, and she moved back to the United States the next year.
In time, she moved Avery to Orcas Island, north of Seattle, where her family had a cabin.
He died in 2000. St. James stayed on the island until her symptoms of Alzheimer’s appeared, and her sister moved her to the mainland.
In addition to her sister, St. James is survived by her son, Don Sobjack Jr.; a brother, George Robert St. James; a half brother, John Wachter; three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
By the end of her life, her goal of decriminalizing prostitution was unmet. It remains a crime everywhere in the United States except for certain counties in Nevada.
But she had empowered sex workers. She had given them voice and agency and may even have helped diminish the stigma against them.
“Over the years I went to every event Margo did that I could, because they were about the liberation and empowerment of people like me,” Annie Sprinkle, a former porn star and sex worker for two decades, wrote recently on Facebook.
“She was our fearless leader,” she added, “and she birthed so much of today’s sex positive culture.”