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Unveiling Icons: Sex Workers Who Shaped History

Sex workers have always been at the forefront of activism and change. From contributions to art and culture, to activism and advocacy, these iconic sex workers challenged societal norms and inspired change!

Lais of Corinth (4th Century BCE)

Lais was a renowned courtesan (sex worker) in Ancient Greece, who captivated the hearts and minds of philosophers and poets. Known for her incredible beauty, intelligence, and charm, Lais was not only the companion of many influential men, but also a patron of the arts and a muse for several prominent writers. Among her clients were the philosophers Diogenes and Aristippus and the Olympic champion Eubotas of Cyrene. She became so famous due to her attachments to powerful men, that after her death, her tomb was still a site of significance for hundreds of years.

Veronica Franco (16th Century)

In Renaissance Italy, Veronica Franco was a Venetian poet, courtesan (sex worker), and intellectual. She is known for her notable clientele, feminist advocacy, literary contributions, and philanthropy. In a time when the role of women in society was limited, Veronica challenged the status quo through her writing and activism. Veronica's poetry explored themes of love, desire, and women's agency. She also used her position to advocate for the rights of other sex workers and speak out against the double standards and hypocrisy of societal norms. She was outspoken about enjoying her work, once saying "I wish it were not a sin to have liked it so" and had no qualms about talking or writing in detail about her sexual encounters. She was so reputable as a courtesan that in 1574 when King Henry III of France was travelling through Venice, the city hired her as his personal companion for the trip! She received the favour of the King, who provided Venice with a fleet of ships to help defend against invasion, a significant feat for Franco,

Franco was also a mother, she had 6 children, all to different fathers, only three survived infancy due to high mortality rates at the time - none of the fathers offered any support - and so she raised them alone. She made plenty of money to support her family, and hired the best tutors and servants to care for her children's needs.

In 1575, she released a volume of 25 poems, her poems celebrated her sensuality, and passionately spoke in favour of women's and sex worker's rights, as well as speaking against all men who upheld the patriarchal system and expected women to submit to their wishes. She declared herself 'a defender of all women against such men'. This writing caught the attention of these men,, and she was subject to mocking and shaming, one man even published a response to her writings, saying she was the 'root of all things rotten in Venice' referring to Veronica being the cause of the Bubonic Plague!

Josephine Baker (20th Century)

Josephine was an African American cabaret dancer, singer, and actress who became a sensation in Paris during the Jazz Age in the 1920's and 1930's. Known for her sensual performances and provocative costumes, Josephine challenged racial stereotypes and broke barriers in the entertainment industry. In 1927, she was the first black woman to ever feature in a major motion picture! Despite facing racism and discrimination, she used her fame and influence to support the civil rights movement and fight against injustice. Josephine refused to perform for segregated audiences, and her insistence on mixed audiences helped other black performers to stand up for their rights.

She was also openly bisexual, before the word bisexual even existed. She openly held relationships with men and women alike. She faced criticism for this as her fame grew, but she refused to hide who she was.

Her career as a dancer started on street corners where she would perform for tips, and it is believed by some that she engaged in full service sex work during her teenage years as a means to escape poverty. As her income and fame grew, she started performing in bars and clubs, until eventually she was selling out large concert halls.

Fun Fact: In WWII she also worked as a French Spy to help defeat the Nazis!

Margo St. James (20th Century)

Margo was a prominent sex worker and activist from the United States. In the 1970's Margo founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) an organisation that fought for the decriminalisation of sex work and the rights of sex workers, and co-founded the St James Infirmary Clinic which provided medical and social services to sex workers. Margo advocated tirelessly for the recognition of sex work as a valid profession, emphasising the importance of human rights and safety for those involved in sex work. Her work has paved the way for future activism and discussions surrounding sex worker rights.

In 1962 she was wrongly arrested by police and even spent time in jail for suspected prostitution (before she had ever done sex work), this arrest, although eventually overturned excluded her from many job opportunities, leading to her turning to sex work. (The irony.) She founded COYOTE in 1973, along with COYOTE HOWLS a newspaper, and also started hosting annual Hooker's Balls - which had as many as 20,000 in attendance! She went on to lecture about sex and feminist issues on college campuses, including Harvard, as well as attending many human rights conventions around the world. It is even believed she considered running for President of the United States in 1980.

These remarkable people, serve as reminders that sex workers have ALWAYS existed, and have contributed to history in significant ways. Their activism and resilience challenged societal norms, pushed boundaries, and inspired change.


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