In this chapter I will discuss former prostitute Margo St. James and her prostitutes rights group, COYOTE
Prostitution is considered one of the oldest professions in the world. It has been a topic in the spotlight for many years, though this spotlight has proven to be mostly negative. Individuals who work in the sex industry are unjustly targeted and profiled due to their choice of profession. People have a hard time seeing it as legitimate work, they believe it to be an unsafe, immoral choice. Though there is a degree of necessity to the involvement of most individuals in sex work many are content in their profession. The danger of prostitution comes with its criminalization as well as their under representation. Many individuals in the sex work community recognized this dilemma and some decided to take action, including Margo St. James.
Margo was born Margret Jean St. James on September 12, 1937 in Bellingham Washington to parents George and Dorothy. Margo’s father was a dairy farmer and her mother was a secretary. She got married immediately after graduating high school to a man named Don Sobjak and had a son with him. However, she decided she was not cut out for that life and left her family to attend art school in San Francisco in 1958. This is when Margo had her first real encounter with prostitution and it changed her life forever. Margo was an aspiring artist working as a waitress when she was unfairly arrested for prostitution just because she “knew the language”.1 This infuriated her so deeply “[she] went to law school. It took [her] two years to get an appeal and [she] won the appeal. But so many judges and lawyers were hitting on [her] to have sex with them for money that [she] finally said yes. [She] was in it for two years. In the early 70’s [she] decided to fight back.”2 This is the case with many who ended up in the business of sex. Margo St. James devoted the rest of her life to the decriminalization and destigmatization. This decision really came about when a former cop told her the conditions of prostitutes will not improve “until someone from the victim class steps forward.”3 She then decided that “victim” would be her and began by further educating herself on the state of prostitution. Throughout her time in the spotlight Margo participated in and created countless organizations, magazines, conventions, etc. One of her most impactful contributions was the founding of her organization C.O.Y.O.T.E (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics).
COYOTE, otherwise known as Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, was founded by Margo St. James on Mother’s Day in 1973. Her main goals were to decriminalize and destigmatize the profession of sex work. She felt that the creation of an organization such as this was necessary. Before COYOTE, there was no organization that spoke up for prostitutes while also being run by an individual with experience in the industry.4 Within the first year of COYOTE’s creation the organization acquired over 9,000 members nationwide, surprisingly, over half of these members were men. Each member also paid a membership fee of between $5-15 every month. This money is collected to help bail prostitutes out of jail and for the funding of events. The organization’s first year went so well that they were able to establish a chapter in Seattle.5 As a whole COYOTE has three primary claims. First, not all prostitution is forced, often it is chosen, second prostitution is work and should be respected just as any other form of service work is, and third, robbing women of the option to work as a prostitute is a violation of civil rights. All three claims work toward legitimizing prostitution as a profession.6
“A rather profound misconception that people have about prostitution is that it is 'sex for sale,' or that a prostitute is selling her body. In reality, a prostitute is being paid for her time and skill, the price being rather dependent on both variables. To make a great distinction between being paid for an hour's sexual services, or an hour's typing, or an hour's acting on a stage is to make a distinction that is not there.”7
The organization set a lot of goals and truly did their best to achieve them. In 1974 COYOTE came out with a newsletter called COYOTE Howls. These newsletters were printed up until 1979 and proved to be a great source of information for both prostitutes and allies. The newsletters mostly consisted of international and national news on prostitution, but also included interviews, recipes, artwork, etc. In the issue shown above the featured story pertains to the Kiss and Tell campaign. This was an effort on Margo’s part to encourage prostitutes to expose the names of anti Equal Rights Amendment legislators who also mistreat prostitutes.8 The first Annual Hooker’s Ball also took place in 1974. This event was a fundraiser around halloween in order to raise money for COYOTE Howls. The Hooker’s Ball was a big hit and consisted of extravagance and freedom of expression. Several years later in 1984 the first Hookers Convention transpired right after the democratic national convention. This convention was attended by attended by practicing prostitutes, ex prostitutes, and non prostitutes in various states who worked together to develop a position paper on a wide range of issues pertaining to prostitution. In the following year, 1985, COYOTE helped to organize the First World Whores Congress. This event was held in Amsterdam and was attended by prostitutes and allies from 8 different countries. During this congress the International Committee for Prostitutes rights was founded. Later that same year a Second Hookers Convention was held to focus on the AIDS epidemic along with drugs and pornography. Margo herself did a lot of interviews and speeches in order to spread COYOTE’s message. Margo passed away in 2021 but her legacy lives on through her revolutionary work and the continued existence of COYOTE;9 “COYOTE, as well as its track record and social remnants, still exists in a field where many have failed.”10