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New Tricks in the Labor Zone

By Marilyn L. Booth

The world's oldest profession has come in from the streets, organized as a not-so-undercover protest group. Prostitutes, inspired by the womens', civil rights and labor movements, have found political consciousness and, in turn, confidence that the hooker's lot can be improved.

COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) was founded on Mother's Day 1973 in San Francisco by ex-hooker and ex-madam Margo St. James, who gathered a group of disenchanted streetwalkers after discovering repeatedly that her background as a prostitute prevented her from finding another job. "The label is what outrages me and has kept me unemployable," St. James says now.

In its two years of existence, the union has attracted more than 10,000 dues-paying members and has launched sister organizations across the country--in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Honolulu (DOLPHIN), Seattle (ASP), New York (PONY), and--most recently--Boston (PUMA).

I met flamboyant, articulate Margo St. James during one of her frequent coast-to-coast speaking and organizing tours. COYOTE's director is optimistic that her idea will catch on throughout the country, although she quickly admits that the East is more "tight-assed" on the issue than the "mellow, laid-back" West Coast. The prostitute community has responded readily to COYOTE's call; "I feel we have a real solidarity going," St. James says. Grinning she told me: "It takes about two minutes to politicize a hooker."

Evidently, the complaints and needs of those in the trade have been submerged for too long without channels for expression or counter-action, and COYOTE is the first attempt to respond from within. This is no bunch of holier-than-thou reformist outsiders trying to barge in and clean up--COYOTE is hookers helping hookers.

Like its "chairmadam" (really), the organization's style and language are colorful--and noticed. "For Love and Money" is its theme song; "My ass is mine" is COYOTE's completely serious motto.

The organization's "media events" have matched its rhetoric in zaniness and lack of inhibition. The slogan "No Hippo Critters" adorned the walls of San Francisco's Longshoreman's Hall in October 1974, when the first annual Hookers' Ball attracted nationwide notice. Frisco and the rest of the West mustered its most decadent and bizarre characters for the frivolous extravaganza which was marked by fantastic costumes and coyote yells and attended by transvestities, pimps, working women and the curious press. Hot-pink pasties, g-strings, sequins and nudity adorned the raucous proceedings--but the drag queens reportedly outdid the rest, leading one participant to comment, "Once again it's proven that men end up on top."

The ball threatens to become an annual fixture--but COYOTE's year-round focus is not on wild parties. Its members are dedicated to improving the adverse conditions which prostitutes now endure. Representatives inform hookers of legal rights that are often denied them in police headquarters and courts. They provide bail, emergency housing and child care; help to find jobs for ex-hookers; file suits to protest the treatment of those still in the profession; and bring the pertinent issues to the attention of nationwide audiences and legislators.

Beyond the immediate objectives of the hookers' union are some long-range attitudinal and political goals. COYOTE's ultimate aim is the decriminalization of prostitution--not its legalization. The existing laws which make prostitution a crime do not deter a prostitute from plying her trade; instead, they engulf the hooker in a dangerous, de-humanizing trap which ensnares her more deeply in crime. Illegality creates the necessity for pimps and opens the arena to organized crime.

Law enforcement is co-opted by both sides. Organized crime, through bribery, and society, through covert tolerance, encourage cops to look the other way. But pimps, in return for their largesse, demand immunity for violence against prostitutes, and society demands clean-ups for appearances sake. Often there is nowhere to turn for protection; in all ways, the hooker gets screwed.

St. James says that she doesn't hate all policemen. Some San Francisco policemen were among her best customers, St. James alleges; a revelation that reportedly caught the embarassed department with its pants down.

"About the most popular sport with the junior jocks the vice squad is 'blow job roulette,"' St. James told the magazine Bay Area Lifestyle.

"After picking you up for soliciting, the cops offer to negotiate in the back seat of the squad car. If you score enough point, the wonderful boys in blue could let you off with a warning...then again their promises are pretty worthless and you can find yourself with the 'ol' jailhouse blues anyway," St. James said.

"Women are criminalized: they start identifying with the criminal element and committing real crimes. The police want to keep them as informers--the streetwalker is just a pawn in the whole cops and robbers game," St. James explains.

Imprisonment traps the prostitute further by forcing her to be dependent on her pimp for protection and bail money. Once she is released, a permanent police record will prevent her from finding a "legitimate" job--thus forcing her back to the red-light district. The so-called "villain" is thus a victim--of pimps and policemen, graft and payoffs, unpunished clients and selectively-enforced laws--not to mention society's censure. Not only does the criminalization of prostitution destroy a hooker's respect for herself; it also erodes respect for the law and for the hypocritical law-enforcing or law-escaping individuals who denounce the prostitute and jail her--while continuing to exploit her financially and physically.

COYOTE does not support legalization; from the organization's perspective, that alternative simply pulls the prostitute from one trap and lands her in another. "We don't want it ghetto-ized or regulated," St. James says. The government then becomes the most powerful pimp of all; as St. James told a squirming group of attorneys at the American Bar Association convention in 1974, "Really, who wants Ronald Reagan as a pimp?"

Prostitutes should not be taxed, either, according to COYOTE's leader. "They've paid their fees for too many years, for a lifetime." Taxation is just one more means by which men can continue to control women's bodies and lives," she says.

COYOTE has drawn the attention of many existing groups, for the issue of prostitutes' rights involves larger social movements. Because women are the main targets of exploitation, it has become a women's issue. Because it is often the minority hookers who get caught first and suffer the most from economic and racial discrimination, civil rights activists have become interested in the movement. And as members of a hitherto unorganized profession, prostitutes identify with exploited workers who lack the support of powerful labor unions.

The decriminalization of prostitution encompasses more than the technical repeal of existing laws; it cannotes a change in public attitudes as well. Regardless of one's opinion on the rightness or wrongness of prostitution, one must admit that the profession is clearly here to stay. Its regulation--through either unenforceable, ineffective laws or through legalization--places it in a special class, separates its practitioners (at least, the female ones) from the rest of society, and preserves its morally controversial status. When prostitution becomes an accepted occupation, when hookers are no longer regarded as pariahs but can run their own lives without fear of arrest or exploitation, then the need for COYOTE may fade. But the group has plenty of work ahead; Margo St. James will not need to go job- or john-hunting again for a long, long time.

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