from Reading, Writing & Rewriting
the PROSTITUTE BODY
by Shannon Bell; Copyright, Indiana University Press, 1994
Prostitute Performances: Sacred Carnival Theorists of the Female Body
Scarlot Harlot: Carol Leigh
Scarlot Harlot, Carol Leigh's alter ego, personifies/embodies the postmodern
prostitute performance artist. She is a clown,a burlesque drag queen whore
turned out in southern belle American flag attire, and she is a sexual healer
and feminist activist.Leigh refers to herself as a life artist, an "autobiographicaljournalist...
using myself and my life as an example, employingthe image of whore in order
to reclaim female sexual symbolism."73
Carol Leigh is a writer,
performer (stage and street), filmmaker,and television host. Her work spans
five areas which stand individually and also come together in multimedia
ensemble. These five areas include (1) her early one-woman show, The Adventures
of Scarlot Harlot: (2) public acts of civil disobedience presented as guerrilla
street perform-ins; (3) performance art/theater (4) guerrilla cinematography;
and (5) feminist activism and education.
Leigh's early show
The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot had its inception in 1980 75 a time when
prostitute performance art was beginning as a postmodern art genre. The
Adventures of Scarlot Harlot is a personal narrative of what a woman experiences
when she announces she is a prostitute; it is a coming-out story presented
as stream of consciousness in which Leigh articulates her reflections onthe
pride and shame of being a whore and tells jokes.
The political aim barely below the surface in The Adventures of Scarlot
Harlot is twofold: "to show the audience that most of the discomfort
prostitutes suffer is a result of the stigma, rather than the sex or the
sex-for-money" 76 and to enable "people to examine their prejudices
about prostitutes."77 Scarlot aims to get the audience to realize that
prostitutes are just like them: "the person sitting next to you could
be a prostitute. People think we're either rich or desperate ..."78
Leigh discloses that in her prostitute support group most of the women are
college-educated: "a lawyer, elementary teacher andfilm historian are
among the group."79
Deploying nudity as what will become a recurrent consciousnessraising technique,
Scarlot undresses and dons pants and a T-shirtwhich reads "We're all
prostitutes."80 She then directly involves the audience with this human
condition by questioning individual members about what they do for a living.
The audience begins to participate as the other character in the play and
themonologue becomes a dialogue about how they make their money and their
assumptions about prostitutes.
Scarlot is known for protest performances and acts of civil disobedience;she
takes her political messages onto the street, presenting short,spontaneous
guerrilla pieces relating to prostitution, AIDS, andother feminist issues.
Leigh's first action as Scarlot Harlotwas to attend a NOW (National Organization
of Women) meeting witha paper bag over her head, inscribed "This PAPER
BAG symbolizesthe ANONYMITY of PROSTITUTES." Leigh said in an interview,"I
went around town with my paper bag"81 - publicizing in one visual moment
the shame and degradation that society visitsupon the prostitute.
Scarlot has held public solicitations in busy downtown areas at peak pedestrian
hours, most famously her 1990 public solicitation on Wall Street at lunch
time. Leigh uses this tactic of guerrilla street theater to protest the
soliciting laws and call for thedecriminalization of prostitution. Dressed
in her American flag gown, Scarlot informs the crowd: "I provide safe
sex for sale and I am offering intercourse with a condom for $200.. ..I
have ultimate jurisdiction over my body. .. . I am protesting State Penal
Code 230 and I am defiantly offering sexual services."82 Scarlot carries
this street act of solicitation into artspace, soliciting the audience as
part of her performances:
I would like to engage you in a little civil disobedience.
You all know that it is against the law, it is a crime to solicitfor the
act of prostitution.
I don't know if you know this but a few years ago they made alaw that it
is illegal to agree to engage in prostitution.
First of all are there any cops in the audience? You have to tell me, otherwise
it is entrapment. I am going to offer my sexual services, you just say
$200 for intercourse, of course with a condom. Now who agreesto engage in
prostitution with me! Great.
Thank-you so much far engaging in this act of civil disobedience."83
Scarlot has also staged a number of AIDS demonstration perform-ins protesting
the lack of services and funding. For example, as part of a week of protests
by AIDS Action Pledge, in full Scarlot dress-her American flag gown, red
elbow-length gloves, red boots and tights, political buttons on each breast:
"Just Say No toMandatory Testing," "Sin Condom No Hay Amor"-
Scarlot tied up a fellow protester in red tape to publicize and protest
the red tape involved in getting public assistance for peoplewith AIDS.
At the Sixth International Conference on AIDS (1990)in San Francisco, Scarlot
was taken into custody for protesting the exclusion of women from AIDS research.84
Responding to a papal fundraiser for the 1987 visit of Pope JohnPaul II,
Scarlot organized a small group of protesters who, calling themselves the
Whores of Babylon, sang a take-off on Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach":
Pope don't preach, you're in trouble deep.
Pope don't preach, I hope you are losing sleep.
But I made up my mind, I'm terminating my pregnancy.
I'm gonna terminate my pregnancy.85
Pope. Don't Preach. I'm Terminating My Pregnancy developed intoa political
What has evolved as Scarlot's uniquely postmodern approach is to stage a
street perform-in/demonstration and to film the event, producing a guerrilla
documentary film which she then uses as part of a new piece involving live
performance, video, and discussion. In her recent two-part All Purpose Bad
Girl events, Scarlot in Part I did a live performance piece of Sunreich.
Sunsetup and Pope, Don't Preach. I'm Terminating My Pregnancy, showed her
video G.H.O.S.T:: Spiritual Warfare, and engaged the audience in a discussion
of the political implications the three pieces raise. Sunreich, Sunsetup
is a short musical commentary on the war in the Persian Gulf, which is a
part of Scarlot's series Whore in the Gulf. Wearing her famous flag attire
Scarlot sings the following to the tune of "Fiddler on the Roof":
Is this the little war I hoped for?
Is this the GI Joes at play?
I don't remember bombing Basra,
When did they?
Why won't she grow to be a woman?
Why won't he grow to be a man?
Arabs were sacrificed in this war, by Bush and Saddam.
Sunrise, Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset
Swiftly fall the bombs
People turn overnight to corpses.
Didn't this happen back in Nam?
Sunrise, Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset.
Swiftly flows the cash.
Chaos turns overnight to contracts.
Sucking the profit from the ash.86
Scarlot from her position as a prostitute critiqued the war; Leighwould
go to the antiwar demonstrations every day and interviewher fellow activists.
She would interject their comments withCNN cut-ups: shots of people suffering
juxtaposed to officialstate commentary. G.H.O.S.T.: Spiritual Warfare (1990)
containsa documentation of a street performance Scarlot did as a protest
against the three-day prayer fest organized by the televangelist Larry Lea
and his Prayer Army. "G.H.O.S.T." is an acronym for Grand Homosexual
Outrage at Sickening Televangelists. The video documents the confrontation
between Larry Lea's prayer warriors and thousands of the San Francisco gay
and alternative communityon Halloween. Scarlot begins this twenty-minute
video with footage from the protest: protesters in drag presenting high-camp
images are juxtaposed to husbands and wives and religious lower-middle Americans
going into the prayer meeting gay men are holding a kiss-in in response
to Lea's explicit homophobia. The film shiftsto pre-demonstration footage
of Leigh interviewing lesbian and gay activists, in various stages of getting
dressed for Halloween,recording their messages to Larry Lea's people. One
We are your sons and daughters who came out to San Francisco becauseit was
kind of hard to be this way in Texas... We are capable of loving each other
just like you are capable of loving each other. We want your tolerance and
acceptance. We want you to seeus for what we are: happy, healthy people
who know how to have fun.87
The remainder of the footage documents various verbal clashes between the
protesters and the prayer warriors. Scarlot, Pink Jesus, and Sadie, Sadie,
The Rabbi Lady lead the protesters in the recurrent chants of "Be gone
Bigots, Be gone!" and "Larry Lea, Go Away, Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay."
Scarlot'sperform-in commences with her shouting "Grab your makeup,fix
your hair. Prostitutes are everywhere... whores, whores, whores!" informing
fellow protesters and prayer warriors "I am Scarlot Harlot. I represent
the Great Whore Goddess," and exclaiming "here, I'll show you!"
Scarlot tears off all her clothes except for a turquoise feather boa draped
around her neck. She then declares: "I have been channeling the goddess.
I had a vision, and in my vision Larry Lea comes out of the ministry and
prostrates himself at my feet. He seeks the divine light of the Whore Goddess."
Within seconds a fellow activist impersonating Lea does just that, declaring:
"I believe in the goddess, take me into the folds of your love, take
me into your church,I am your disciple. Take Me. I am yours, I take you
as my savior."Scarlot, playing on the commercialization of the great
whore goddess,replies "Yes. Yes. But will it be Visa or MasterCard?"
At her second All Purpose Bad Girl show held the following week Scarlot
focused on violence against women from the prostitute point of view: "To
me, the laws against prostitution represent institutionalized rape and sexual
abuse, that is, if the police are sent to our bedrooms to arrest us, that
sounds like sexual abuse to me."88 She performs an excerpt from her
musical satire Bad Laws, which trashes the California State Legislature
for passing mandatory HIV testing laws for prostitutes. With changing slides
of vintage Scarlot protest footage and in the presence of two exotic dancers
carrying placards which read "KeepYour Laws off My Body," "Whore
Power," "No Mandatory Testing," "Support Prostitutes'
Rights, ""Decriminalize Prostitution," and "Prostitutes
Use Condoms, Do You!" Scarlot sing/shouts:
I'm talking about really, really bad laws,
I'm talking about horrible legislation,
See them doing it in broad daylight,
Hoping they don't catch the latest blight,
They don't get laid,
Cause their butts are too tight.
You ask yourself, just who do they think they are?
And while you are wondering, they make laws that are
putting prostitutes in jail until they die.
They make really bad laws.
I am against any law that curtails my freedom of sexpression, And my freedom
to do whatever I want with my body.
They make really, really bad laws,
Sad laws, bad laws, they make me mad laws, Bad laws.
All they do is add laws.
I tell you what I'm gonna do
I'm gonna get myself a new tattoo
Says "Let your government die for you"
Cause they make Bad Laws. 89
At the end of her performance Scarlot provides the audience witha handout
of her article "No Mandatory Testing! A Feminist Prostitute Speaks
Out," which analyzes the political and social consequences mandatory
This live performance is followed by a showing of two of Scarlot's feminist
films: Sex Workers Take Back the Night (1991) and Yes Means Yes, No Means
No (1992). In Sex Workers Take Back the Night Scarlot documents the diverse
attitudes among pro-porn and antipornfeminists who are attending the 1990
Take Back the Night march. She focuses on what the women consider violence,
their opinions on pornography and on the women who take part in it. The
film opens and is contextualized by a marcher's identification of the Montreal
massacre as one of the most dramatic instances of misogyny; she lists countless
other misogynistic practices, from spousal battering, to discrimination
against women in the legal system, to women earning sixty cents on the dollar,
to denial of reproductiverights. This statement unites antiporn and pro-porn
feministsin the face of the larger patriarchal acts of violence againstwomen.
Leigh carefully contains the division among women which she is documenting
inside a concept of coalition politics. Scarlot asks her interviewees what
issues are most important to them as they Take Back the Night. A young sex
worker attending the march with her a group of her sex worker friends says:
We don't believe that violence against women is perpetuated by pornography.
Censorship in the name of protecting women isn't protection at all; a lot
gets cut out, including women's sexual voices. There is a ground swellof
female-produced and feminist-produced pornography that is also getting silenced
by censorship."90 Another sex worker says: "We came down here
to say we are sex-positive sex workers,we are not coerced into it, we are
not manipulated." A woman who identifies herself as a stripper says:
"I don't believe that being naked in front of people is degrading.
You have toallow yourself to be degraded in order to be degraded."
At this point Scarlot, who is videotaping the interview, interjects:"I
feel degraded constantly being a very big woman and I'mforty. Life is one
big degradation, prostitution sometimes is degrading." Here Scarlot
is consciously linking prostitution with other feminist issues like size
and age and linking it to general degradation in our society. At one point
Scarlot pulls her top down, displaying her breasts and holding a sign which
reads WHOREPOWER, she tells those around her that "Take Bac kthe Night
has had a history of not doing outreach to prostitutes": she proudly
announces "I was invited especially."
Scarlot questions another woman who has identified herself as a sex worker:
"What about Taking Back the Night! Do you feel whores ought to be able
to take back the night" The woman responds that she has been dancing
for two years and that it is one of best things she has ever done. She adds,
"The hardest thing about dancing is when people say to me that it is
degrading to women." Antiporn feminists are shown with a huge mobile
installation entitled "Erotomisogynist speech incites femicide";the
installation is covered with pictures of nude women, batteredwomen, and
women in mainstream pornographic poses. An antipornfeminist at the installation
tells Scarlot, "This stuff is hate literature." Scarlot asks her
what she thinks should be done with it. She responds: "I think we should
expose it wherever we go, like we are doing here." Scarlot then questions
her as to what she thinks about the women who posed for the pictures. The
woman says: "I think they are traitors to their sex." Scarlot
doesn't confront her.
In another mini perform-in Scarlot, topless, is yelling, "I am exercising
my right to freedom of speech." Later, as themarch is underway, she
connects her freedom of speech action to that of a woman who is ripping
up a porn magazine. Scarlot asksher, "Are you exercising your freedom
of speech on Haight Street!" The woman answers:
"We oppose erotomisogynist literature." Scarlot is presenting
both sides of the pornography debate and positions in between,such as that
of a woman stating "Pornography is something to be talked about between
us and among us, not to be fought about. It is to be fought with men about."
As the march is winding up, a protester states: "I think it was a mistake
for the feminist movement to take on an antiporn stance. What we needto
do is reform or transform those images, not try to eliminatethem in society."
Sex Workers Take Back the Night has been used as a consciousness-raisingtool
to initiate a dialogue between sex workers/pro-porn feministsand antipornography
activists. In addition, Scarlot has organizedand facilitated a four-part
discussion and work group entitledTaking Back the Night/Challenging Divisions
through Open Forum-A School of Collective Learning. The Open Forum flyer
This is a woman's discussion group to bridge the gap between sex workers
and anti-pornography activists....
A facilitated discussion will create a safe space for women to express a
variety of attitudes towards sexuality, and personalexploration will enhance
our understanding of stigma and socialcontrol. Participants will consider
strategies to resist divisionsbased on our sexual experiences and preferences.91
Among the items on the agenda were "What do we want from other women
in regard to issues of sexual representation, sexual expression, sexual
communication?" "What are our various definitions of pornography,
erotica, sexually explicit material,erotomisogyny?" "What stigmas
have hurt you?""How have you been oppressed by women?" "What
are your sexual rights? (Do they include the right to receive payment for
sexual services? The right to engage in safe sex if we are HIV positive?The
right to sell sexual services if we are HIV positive? etc.).""What
sort of abuse did you experience as a young person?"92These and other
issues were explored in accordance with both consciousness-raising style
(each woman speaking without interruption) and discussion style. Scarlot,
in an interview, says:
The workshops were a big learning experience for everyone. I learned a lot
about how to deal with and talk to anti-porn women. I...see them as warriors.
I have always admired them. I myself need tohave room to be who they are:
the one who says no. I want to be that too, and I want to be this. There
just has to be room for both.93
Leigh has made essential contributions to the construction ofa new postmodern
role of performance educator; she has producedfilms an prostitution, AIDS,
and date rape as educational toolsthat promote discussion among the groups
that view them. OutlawPoverty. Not Prostitution records the 1989 World Whores'
Summitin San Francisco. Through a series of interviews and newspaper,television,
and film montages, Leigh documents the discussionof prostitutes' conditions
by prostitute activists from Thailand,Amsterdam, Brazil, and the United
States. Her 1990 video Whoresand Healers: Women Respond to AIDS documents
the role of prostitutesand ex-prostitutes as healers and teachers. It includes
footageof CAL-PEP- the HIV prevention and education program designedand
implemented by prostitutes and ex-prostitutes for prostitutesand IV drug
users and their partners. Leigh says, "We aretrying to teach people
in general about sex. We are sex experts."She contends: "We want
people to know that we are very involvedin safe sex education; we really
care about our health, we careabout other people's health." "Sex
workers are healingpeople."94
Leigh and performance artist Dee Russell recently produced Yes Means Yes,
No Means No, a date drama which begins with flowers and candy and ends in
rape; the only soundtrack is the continuous singing of "That Old Black
Magic" by Frank Sinatra.Yes Means Yes, No Means No is used as a training
tape for serviceproviders by the San Francisco Rape Crisis Center. It is
also shown at performance events such as Scarlot's All Purpose Bad Girl
show. All of her films are featured on her weekly television show The Collected
Works of Scarlot Harlot on Channel 29 in SanFrancisco.
Scarlot Harlot is a performance/protest artist, and a teacher/activistwho
narrows the boundaries between entertainment and educationand performing
73 Janet Ghent, "Festival should be red-letter event for'the Scarlot
Harlot,'" Tribune, Oakland, California, Nov.2, 1989.
74 Carol Leigh published ten chapters of Scarlot's adventuresin Sex Work:
Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, ed. FrederiqueDelacoste and Priscilla
Alexander. The Adventures of Scarlot Harlotis on video.
75. As well as playing around San Francisco, The Adventures ofScarlot Harlot
was featured at the National Festival of Women'sTheatre in Santa Cruz in
76. Murry Frymer, "Leigh calls her act 'The Scarlot Harlot,'"
San Jose Mercury News, May 1983.
78. Thea lohnson, "First National Festival of Women's Theater,"Plexus:
San Francisco Bay Area Women's Newspaper, May 1983.
79. Hunter Drohojowska, "A Happy Hooker goes on stage: Practicing prostitute
performs comedy as Scarlot Harlot," Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March
80. Carol Leigh, The Adventures of Scarlot Harlot, video.
81. Interview with Carol Leigh, San Francisco, July I992.
82. "Art, Prostitution, Free Speech Form a Bizarre Brew at a Rally,"
New York City Tribune, May 25, 1990.
83. Performance which I attended at the Freedom of SexpressionForum, sponsored
by the National Writers Union, San Francisco,July 7, 1992.
84. She presented her music video Safe Sex Slut as part of a seminaron performance
and social change at the Fifth Intentional Conferenceon Aids (I989) in Montreal.
She sings in the video:
I won't become disease infected
Me, I'll be so well protected
I always pay my income tax
I eat granola for my snacks
Safe sex, safe sex.
At the movies, in a car,
In a bathroom at a bar
Safe sex, safe sex.
Scarlot Harlot, Safe Sex Slut, video, 1987.
85. Charles Linebarger, "Papal Protesters Picket Dianne'sFundraiser,"
San Francisco Sentinel, July 3I, 1987. 86. TheScarlot Letter, March 1990.
87 Carol Leigh, G.H.O.S.T: Spiritual Warfare, 1990. The following quotations
are from the video.
88. Carol Leigh, Personal Statement of Purpose, Taking Back theNight/Challenging
Divisions, November 1991.
89. I saw Scarlot perform this piece at the Freedom of Sexpression Forum,
sponsored by the National Writers Union, San Francisco,July 7, I992.
90. This and following quotes are from Carol Leigh, Sex WorkersTake Back
the Night, 1991.
91. Open Forum- A School of Collective Learning (Spring I992),flyer.
92. Carol Leigh, Taking Back the Night / Challenging Divisions,discussion
93. Interview with Carol Leigh, San Francisco, July 1992.
94. Scarlot Harlot, Whores and Healers, 1990.