When I was a child
I wanted to be an actress on TV -- part of a larger, simpler
world where everything was electronic. My parents didn't help.
They could have. We knew Betty Boop, personally. At least
her voice. She lived in Jackson Heights, around the corner
from us. My dad used to fix her TV.
I became bitter,
despising all the skinny, pretty or ordinary people on TV
with their precise, classical characters. Where was there
room for my weird self? Mass media stole variety and individuality
from the cultural vision, and left me out of the picture.
Then I noticed
injustice, classism and the patriarchy. I realized that I
should become more than just an actress. I dedicated myself
to a mission as a political artist. I knew I had to have access
to the media to shape the planetary consciousness. I should
be a movie mogul, I thought, but I didn't want to major in
broadcasting or film. I became a feminist poet and went to
graduate school to study with Anne Sexton. She killed herself
the semester I arrived.
A few years later,
I accidentally became a prostitute. I spent all my money on
acting lessons. I performed a critically acclaimed one-woman
play about stigma and coming out as a prostitute. I spoke
at press conferences, protested at N.O.W. meetings and joined
C.O.Y.O.T.E., and worked with Margo St. James. I published
a journal, The Harlot Herald. I made up the term "sex
work."1 I proceeded with fervor as an autobiographical journalist.
I enjoyed working with media, using myself and my life as
an example, employing the image of the whore in order to reclaim
female sexual symbolism. I had always yearned for a bohemian
underground akin to the dadaist art scene, which I realized
was populated by libertines. I collaborated with other prostitutes,
and many other prostitute artists developing a cultural/political
strategy for the destigmatization of prostitution.
Then the AIDS crisis
hit. I was traumatized. The press called for statements. I
lied: I said I'd always use condoms for everything. Even kissing.
I resolved to flee the city (San Francisco), hoping to find
a context in which AIDS was not dominating everyone's thoughts.
I'd head for Texas. I'd sing about safe sex and educate people
who weren't thinking enough about AIDS. I'd speak out against
mandatory HIV testing. I thought I would form an organization
-- T.W.A.T. ("Texas Whores And Tricks"). I would
cast my fate with the wind, deconstruct my own life, perhaps
eventually realize one of my long range goals: to take my
political art to the mainstream, to have a great influence
on American culture, like Norman Lear.
I said goodbye
to my friends and tricks. I left for Texas, but my car broke
down in Tucson. That seemed fortunate, as I drove directly
from the highway to the "Adult Sex Strip." "Live Girls,"
the signs said -- "as opposed to dead ones," I thought.
This town could use a visit from Scarlot Harlot. I
picked up the personals, hoping to meet a nice man and have
a passionate affair, since I was stuck there anyway. I answered
an ad by a local media-life-artist (Dennis Williams). I handed
him my thick packet of Scarlot Harlot publicity, and
he immediately took me down to T.W.I.T. ("Tucson Western
a virus thrust me into this futurist TV ensemble in the middle
of the desert on public access television in Tucson. Tucson
Community Cable Corporation is very well funded. There isn't
much else to do in Tucson. The summer heat fries your brain
and everyone seems spiritual and profound. Dave Bukunus, head
T.W.I.T., became my mentor.
On The T.W.I.T.
Show, Dave's two-hour, weekly , live comedy show, I created
and developed several characters -- ranging from prostitutes
to funny old ladies. I wrote and learned to improvise on the
character generator as part of the ensemble, most of whom
were also performer-technicians. With Dave's guidance I produced,
wrote, starred in and edited, War and Pizza (in the Global
Village), and much more. 2
It all started
to come back. Television had been a big part of my life. My
father fixed televisions. I recalled being suckled by my mother
in a room full of television carcasses. Occasionally, I accompanied
my father on TV emergency housecalls. I wasn't too intimidated
by technology. I was always the one who could hook up a stereo
system. Instantly, the visual, electronic media became the
center of my life. I was "Queen of the Edit Vultures,"
waiting to claim all cancellations for that precious free
I appreciated public
access because of the cultural diversity which is part of
its mandate. For the first time in my artistic career I was
collaborating with a vast array of other local artists, black
artists, older women, homeless activists, Christian women,
teenagers and others.
After two solid
years in this community, I felt an urge to work in a more
sophisticated and bohemian setting in order to bring out my
individuality. Although I was "out" about working as a prostitute
in Tucson, the political aspects of prostitutes rights didn't
fit with the consciousness in that milieu. I headed back to
the city (SF) to live and document urban life.
I joined a small
group of AIDS activists, Citizens For Medical Justice, to
fight legislation for mandatory HIV testing of prostitutes.
I organized, videotaped and distributed documentation of rallies
and educational events. This was particularly necessary in
regard to prostitutes' rights, as most activists are not educated
about the issues, problems for prostitutes, and solutions
we have proposed though our national and international charters.
For several years
I had organized demos and press conferences, often frustrated
with the coverage offered by the news departments. My media
skill, broadcast TV experience and political direction merged.
I was creating a context in order to be understood.
As an AIDS activist,
my collaborators were gay men with whom I had a great deal
in common. I wanted to influence the activist community (ACT
UP) and establish a precedent for prioritizing issues that
effect prostitutes. I was extremely inspired by these brave
men. I learned about nonviolence and concensus. I regularly
collaborate with The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Unincorporated,
who create challenging, intellectual, satiric street theater/civil
disobedience addressing local issues as well as the Roman
Catholic Church and the Pope.
I worked with nonviolent,
anarchist-identified groups. Although I had diverse political
contacts within the gay community and in prostitutes' communities,
I had rarely crossed racial or generational barriers, and
I wanted a multicultural community. I had previously been
concerned about the lack of activist support for other disenfranchised
groups, particularly prisoners in the AIDS movement. The crimes
committed against me, as a prostitute, by the government were
much more extreme in the case of black women who are targeted
for arrest and sentenced to jail in vastly disproportionate
numbers. I've always felt hypocritical in regard to political
righteousness unless I was also addressing the needs of those
with less rights than myself. I had been frustrated and compromised
in the white male dominated arts scene, and even in the white
female scene. When I mulled over the issues I noticed the
extremely impoverished, cruel conditions of the the ghettos.
I felt that these issues were most urgent, but I didn't know
how to become involved.
I am very fortunate
to be collaborating with Dee Russell, a black performance
artist and videomaker. We performed together in Jesse Helms
Nasty Ass Nieces and in Dee's Anti-Fashion Shows.
We created Yes Means Yes. No Means No. 3 This interracial
date-rape drama won awards at various festivals and is being
used by the San Francisco Rape Crisis Center as a training
tape for service providers. In regard to framing cross-over
representation, integrating my personal life was essential
and a constant goal. I also work with a community of black
moviemakers in Oakland including Dwaine Terry and Mario Babino.
As a bisexual,
I have always had a relationship with the gay/bisexual community.
I document a variety of communities, including the Bay Area's
multicultural and sexually diverse political and artistic
subcultures. I also document friends and their families. Through
extensive video work with diverse media oriented communities,
I have learned about concepts and production, the potential
of video as a communications tool, and creative way to use
video to explore and educate ourselves.
Works of Scarlot Harlot, the series, plays Friday nights
all over the Bay Area. 4 The series includes documentaries
Die Yuppie Scum, G.H.O.S.T.* Grand Homosexual Outrage
At Sickening Televangelists, Sex Workers Take Back
The Night, and Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes.
include documentation of the new prostitutes' rights movement;
Annie Sprinkle for High School Students; Sunreich,
Sunsetup from the weekly anti-war protest series, Whore
In The Gulf created at Atomic Media Groups' studios. Recently,
Scarlot Harlot was employed as a high school interdisciplinary
arts teacher. I am currently writing a feature length screenplay,
Feminists On The Rampage.
Carol Leigh aka
Oakland, Ca 94603
of my columns from "The Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot"
were published in Sex Work, by Cleis Press.
a $3,000 grant from the Tucson Community Cable Corporation,
Dave produced Elaines, a six-episode situation comedy
based on different political issues, which I wrote, starred
in and edited.
Means Yes. No Means No won first prize for fiction in
Sony's "Visions of U.S." contest, administered by
The American Film Institute.
Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot: Hometown finalist for
"Best Innovative Series;" "Most Outstanding
Tapes" award from Videowitnesses Festival of New Journalism;
Lynn Blumenthal's "Memorial Fund For Independent Video."