Carol Leigh, Legendary Activist Who Coined the Term ‘Sex Work,’ Dies at 71

Leigh's legacy is remembered by performers, activist organizations, and those close to her as enduring beyond her death.
​Carol Leigh in her one-woman show, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot. Courtesy Leigh's executive estate ​
Carol Leigh in her one-woman show, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot. Courtesy Leigh's estate

Carol Leigh, the pioneering sex work activist, artist, and performer, died on Wednesday, leaving behind an enduring legacy that includes coining the term “sex work” while representing sex workers at an anti-pornography conference. 

Annie Sprinkle, herself an iconic sex work activist, performer, and director, confirmed to Motherboard that Leigh passed away on Wednesday night, as did the executor of Leigh’s estate. 


Leigh wrote and performed in political films and shows under the pseudonym "Scarlot Harlot.” She began working in the sex industry in 1977, according to a biography published to the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network, which she co-founded.  

Leigh was an original member of HIV and AIDs activist organization ACT UP, was a founding member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and spearheaded multiple efforts to educate and lobby for better understanding of anti-trafficking initiatives and the ways they affect sex workers.

In her essay “Inventing Sex Work,” Leigh wrote that the term “sex worker” came to her while attending a conference by the anti-porn feminist organization Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media in the late 1970s. She was in attendance in hopes to educate others about the industry, as someone active in it—she publicly identified herself as a prostitute, which was courageous for the time, especially in a hostile environment such as that conference. 

“As I entered I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase ‘Sex Use Industry,’” Leigh wrote. “The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction?”


She wrote that she suggested the term "sex work industry" instead, “because that described what women did ... I went on to explain how crucial it was to create a discourse about the sex trades that could be inclusive of women working in the trades. I explained that prostitutes are often unable to reveal themselves in feminist contexts because they feel judged by other feminists. The workshop participants were silent and curious.” One woman approached her after the workshop to tell her that she’d been a sex worker as a teenager, but never discussed it because she was afraid of condemnation by other feminists. 

Today, the term “sex work” is generally accepted by healthcare professionals, industry advocates, the media, and in political spheres. 

Performers, activists, academics, and organizations that support sex workers’ rights posted their tributes to Leigh’s legacy on Twitter on Thursday.

Sprinkle tweeted that Leigh “left her beautiful body” on November 16. Leigh co-directed "Annie Sprinkle's Herstory of Porn” in 1999.

“She had been so sick these past six months, and now she is out of pain and suffering and will have avoided moving to assisted living and hospice,” Sprinkle wrote on Facebook. “I had the privilege to be with her body last night, along with Kate, and she looked so beautiful, peaceful, and positively ANGELIC! A gorgeous love Goddess even in death.” 


The Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) tweeted that Leigh’s invention of the term is “now a fundamental part of the language regarding all workers' rights and agency.”

“Ultimately, Leigh argued that until sex workers are included in the conversations about feminism, sexuality and legality – conversations from which they have historically been excluded – sex workers will remain fragmented rather than collective, and stigmatisation will abound,” SWARM wrote.

Nicole Gililland, who recently won a lawsuit that claimed her school discriminated against her for being a sex worker, tweeted a photo of her and Leigh and some thoughts about Leigh’s impact on her life, and the lives of others.

“Her grace and strength inspired me to not only continue my fight to victory, but to continue the fight for our community for the rest of my life, just as she had,” Gililland wrote, noting that Leigh had recently come to her college, where she’s studying law, to speak to future attorneys about the importance of understanding and overcoming stigma. “This is a sucker punch of a loss. Her work will continue through those she mentored and inspired, may she rest in peace.” 

According to a press release from her executor, Leigh’s papers will be archived at Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.