Margo St. James, mother of the modern sex workers’ rights movement, has died. She left the planet on January 11. 2021. This article describes the international gathering of sex workers at the European Parliament in Brussels that Margo organized with Gayle Phedersen in October 1986. It is re-posted today to honor her. I and so many have been influenced by Margo St. James. The work to decriminalize and de-stigmatize sex work continues. Rest in Power Margo.
Sex Workers of the World Unite
The Second World Whores’ Congress was organized by the International Committee for Prostitutes Rights (ICPR), a global network of sex workers headed by two Americans, Margo St. James and Gail Pheterson. A founder of Red Thread/Pink Thread, the Dutch prostitute/feminist alliance, Pheterson—a university professor—has lived in Amsterdam for 10 years.
For Margo St. James, the Second World Whores’ Congress was part of a determined campaign for prostitutes’ rights, which began in 1973 when she organized COYOTE, the National Task Force on Prostitution. The acronym stands for “Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” In March 1986, Margo left the directorship of COYOTE in the hands of former prostitute Gloria Lockett and NOW activist Priscilla Alexander and moved to the south of France. This has brought her closer to the source of her strongest support, the whores of Europe.
Annie and I were put up in the home of Maryaika, one of the WOE (women’s center) women. We shared a bedroom with Tatiana, a young lawyer from Ecuador who works with prostitutes.
Not surprisingly, when the Whores’ Congress opened the next day, a gaggle of reporters had gathered outside the European Parliament where the Congress was being held. Some of the delegates wore masks. They feared such recriminations as losing custody of their children. A few of the Third World women were afraid for their lives. But most of the whores remained unmasked. A press conference is scheduled for each of the three days of the Congress, but very few journalists were permitted in the plenary sessions. (Because Annie Sprinkle and I were delegates to the convention as well as journalists), Forum was the only American magazine granted this unique access.
Two hundred participants filled the general assembly. Seventy percent of us were whores. Almost all were women. There were two gay male prostitutes: Danny from Canada, Geoff from Australia, and Dolly, an Italian transvestite – a platinum blonde in a backless black dress, clearly the sexiest outfit in the room.
“Do all the whores have head-phones?” Margo asked above the din. The translators enclosed in glass booths around the amphitheater made it possible for us to understand one another in nine different languages. ICPR provided the interpreters with lists defining slang terms like “blowjob” in many tongues. Representatives came from Austria, Australia, Canada, Ecuador, England, France, Holland, India, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Philippines, Switzerland, Thailand, United States, and West Germany, but not one whore from Belgium was in attendance.
We were grouped together by delegation. The U.S. group included French and Hampton from Atlanta, Lockett from San Francisco, and Sprinkle and Vera from New York, as well as Lottie Da, and Norma Jean Almadovar, an auburn-haired Los Angeles beauty who went from traffic cop to call girl and was, at that time, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of California.
“I have learned the big difference between a whore and a politician,” Norma Jean informed us. “There are some things that a whore will not do for money.”
The chief items on the whores’ agenda were the repeated violations of their civil rights. Even in countries where the exchange of sex for money is not considered illegal, many of the aspects that surround prostitution are illegal and make it impossible for a whore to live anything near a normal life. Italy gave the first report. The problems encountered by Italian whores were echoed by many of the prostitutes. Pia, a petite blonde, introduced herself as the secretary for the Committee of Human Rights of Prostitutes in Italy.
“In 1958, Italy’s legalized brothels were closed,” Pia noted. She continued her report: “This (closing) was due to the efforts of a female socialist who saw prostitutes only as victims. There was opposition to the closing of the brothels, but the opposition failed. Prostitution is not illegal in Italy. It is just not protected. Laws such as that forbidding brothels ultimately are used against whores. Two prostitutes who live together can be seen as operating a brothel. There are laws against ‘favoring the act of prostitution.’ Pimps are prosecuted and johns are liable for punishment, but any man who lives with a prostitute can be interpreted as being her pimp. Any hotel that rents a room to a prostitute can be seen as ‘favoring the act.’ A babysitter who takes care of a prostitute’s child runs the risk of prosecution. Prostitutes have no social benefits, yet they are expected to carry out the duties of normal citizens.
“Forty percent of street prostitutes are drug addicts. There are many part-time prostitutes who come from the ranks of students, housewives, women with dubious sources of income. Often street prostitutes are minors and/or foreigners.
“There is less and less control of the street work by organized crime because the racketeers are more interested in the drug trade. Genoa, Milan, and Rome are still organized by the rackets, particularly in the importation of foreign women. Transvestites and transsexuals work mainly in the streets and are often the victims of police brutality.” This was Pia’s report.
A common concern among the working women was that while governments expect tax dollars from whores, they do not observe their civil rights.
“Why can’t a prostitute be a mother?” asked Bridget, an Australian. “I had to give up prostitution to keep my daughter.” Bridget sat with Alfreda, who has been in the business for 11 years. Alfreda founded the Austrian Prostitutes Association.
“We want to build a life for ourselves based on proper social protection plans,” Alfreda said. “We are expected to pay taxes but we have fewer deductions, no pensions, no health insurance… no security.”
“Choice” was the operative word at the convention. Almost all of the women in attendance had made the choice to be prostitutes. Prostitution was their profession and they wanted more control over it. In some respects, the Congress was a guild meeting of middle class entrepreneurs. But there were other voices.
Lana was from the Philippines. She did not choose to be a prostitute. She was duped. A Philippine government official offered her a job in Holland working as a receptionist in a deluxe hotel.
When she arrived in Holland, she was immediately transported to a brothel in the province of Friesland, the boondocks of the Netherlands. There she was allowed to see none of the other workers in the brothel, only the boss and the clients. She was beaten and lied to continuously. She was told to forget about the police because they would not help her.
“You say ‘yes’ to prostitution,” Lana said. “I say ‘no.’”
The Western women complained of the compulsory medical exams. “If there are exams, we want anonymity,” the Austrians angrily affirmed. “We want to choose our own doctors.”
Lana’s voice was different. “I welcomed the regular health checks,” she said. “It was the only way that I knew I was still alive.”
Going to and from the Parliament, and during all of the press conferences, Een from Thailand covered her face with a scarf and dark glasses. She was afraid to be seen but determined to be heard:
“When I was 14 years old, I started working in a steak house that also offered sex. One day a group of men took me and a girlfriend to the beach. One of the men took me to a brothel. Every day I was forced to see 15 men. If I didn’t, the boss beat me. One guy helped me to get out. Now I work in a go-go bar until 2a.m. Tourists buy me drinks. They pay a fee to the bar owner and we go to a hotel. Many tourists do not understand. They think when they pay at the bar, that they have paid the girl. So sometimes the girl winds up with nothing. In one month we must have 10 men or our money gets cut. The boss does not help us if we are sick. If we have problems in the hotel, we get no help. The police do not help. The Thai people think of us only as whores… never worry, never care.”
The report of the Thai delegation showed that laws designed to “protect” women are ultimately used against them. In 1960, as a result of U.N. pressure, the Thai government passed the Prostitution Suppression Act. Previously, commercial sex was permitted in a brothel. To accommodate American soldiers during the boom years of the Vietnam War, a special entertainment act was passed that protected bar owners from prosecution under the sex laws. There is no penalty for the clients, only the women. Once again, the women were forced to rely on the bar and brothel owners. They must work 28 days a month or pay a fee to the club owner. There is no welfare or medical aid.
Raven-haired Miriam, of Lebanese and Cypriot extraction, asked the journalists to remember that one definition of whore is “stand-by friend.”
“How many prostitutes would you estimate there are in the world?” a reporter asked Margo St. James. She fired back, “How many tricks do you suppose there are?”
The morning was devoted to health. Everyone’s biggest concern was AIDS. Gloria Lockett chaired the session. A few doctors were present, including Don DeJarlais, and American AIDS researcher, and Dr. Peter Greenhouse from England. The U.S. government funds AIDS research projects in several major cities, and whores are included on many research teams. But too much is not known about AIDS. In light of so much uncertainty, Priscilla Alexander’s comment makes absolute sense:
“Testing does not prevent disease. Condoms prevent disease.”
For their own protection and that of their families, the whores all want to use condoms. But as the German whores noted, “Our clients refuse to wear them and if we press them, we will make no money.” In Germany prostitution is legal and controlled by the state.
The highlight of the Whores’ Congress was the safe sex demonstration.
Dolores French announced that she would show how to put a condom on a client without his knowledge. “This is my assistant, Lynn,” she said introducing Lynn Hampton. “And this is my dick.” Lynn held up a banana. Using sleight of hand, Dolores deftly pulled a condom out of her mouth. “The trick is to distract him,” she said. “Just before you slip on the rubber, you can slide down his belly, pinching his nipples…”
(The translators in the booths had a field day with this demonstration.)
“If after the ejaculation, the client happens to notice this thing on the end of his dick, a good tactic is to pretend that you have done that all the time with him and he has just never noticed.”
Another whore volunteered, “I tell my clients the fuck is for him, the condom is for his wife. They usually accept that.”
To the whores who feel that condoms will curtail their business, diamond-studded Miriam proposed: “We are the ones who provide this service. We should be the ones to determine how it is performed.”
Pornography, feminism and lesbianism were among the topics discussed in the afternoon session. Annie and I gave a report on pornography in the United States. We sat next to Jill, a pretty British whore in a black leather skirt. “I worked for peanuts as a porn model,” she said. “When I decided to go into business for myself as a prostitute, I considered it a step up.”
This amused Annie and me, who definitely thought that as porn stars we were at the top of the pecking order. But sets of hard-core movies are often busted in Los Angeles. The performers are subject to prostitution charges and the producers, with pandering. All sex workers are clearly in the same situation.
All of the women expressed anger that whores are not regarded as feminists, particularly by other feminists. “I wrote a book with five other whores about our experiences,” said Fiki from Berlin. “The women’s magazines gave us no publicity or support.”
As the Congress progressed, each delegation took on its own personality. The Italians were the best dressed and they loved to bitch about the food. The Austrians were definitely angry. The Dutch contingent had strong dyke support. And the Americans loved show biz. In addition to the safe sex demos of Lockett and French, Annie and I performed in the evening at the WOE women’s center, where we all had our dinner.
The first act was from Amsterdam. Betty Paerl played the role of whore and her friend Natasha was the feminist. They sat and called each other names, accusing each other of exactly the same things. It was a humorous illustration of how much they had in common. I was a bit nervous about introducing my new song, “Big Ben,” a country-western ballad about a man who comes and goes. But I figured that, after two days of politics, this audience would be grateful for any break. Annie brought down the house with her Nurse Sprinkle Sex Education class. She called on Danny from Canada to help her. “This is the first time I have unhooked a bra,” said Danny, a gay prostitute. “And that,” ad-libs Nurse Sprinkle, “is exactly why you are here in sex education class.”
This was the day we planned for the future. Where would the next conference be held? What committees would be established and who would be on them? We endorsed the statements on prostitution drafted by the ICPR advocating financial autonomy, occupational choice and alliances between all women. A separate statement on health covered the issues raised at the Congress. (The publicity around the conference inspired others to participate). A Belgian whore finally arrived.
The final press conference was held in the general assembly rather than in the smaller room. A large banner hung from the dais. It read, “Outlaw poverty, not prostitution.” On display were funny Swiss posters advertising condoms as well as sexy campaign posters of Norma Jean Almadovar.
An Italian newsman wanted to know if the prostitutes discussed prices.
“Where is the most expensive sex?” he asked. The answer he got was a collective sneer. I leaned over and the whore in me informed him: “You do not understand. The subject here isn’t rates, it’s rights.”
Written by Veronica Vera – Photos by Annie Sprinkle (Originally published in Penthouse Forum, 1987)