In 2022, Colorado State Representative Brianna Titone (D) introduced The Safe Reporting Assaults Suffered by Sex Workers Act, HB22-1288, which allows sex workers to come forward to report a crime or access medical or emergency services if they are in need or witness another in need of help, without fear of arrest for prostitution. Titone felt inspired to pursue the legislation when a dear friend of hers could not seek help after suffering a brutal attack while engaged in sex work. The bill passed through CO Legislature at lightning speed, with unanimous bipartisan support.
1951 – 2022
AKA Scarlot Harlot, Carol Leigh was a filmmaker, artist, author, and sex worker rights activist — she coined the term “sex worker” in 1978 at a Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media conference. In Leigh’s essay “Inventing Sex Work” (published later), she writes: “I invented sex work. Not the activity, of course. The term. This invention was motivated by my desire to reconcile my feminist goals with the reality of my life and the lives of the women I knew. I wanted to create an atmosphere of tolerance within and outside the women’s movement for women working in the sex industry.” Leigh also chaired Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival and was the director at Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN). She was known throughout the activist community as a continually loving, inspirational, and supportive mentor.
“Inspire yourself to inspire others.” — Ceyenne Doroshow’s motto
Activist, performer, writer, public speaker, and dedicated organizer and activist, Doroshow has worked relentlessly for the wellbeing of trans people and trans sex workers, continues to shine a light on injustice, and leads those in need to care and safety. Among her accomplishments, she has written a cookbook entitled Cooking in Heels and is the founder and executive director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.). Her mission in G.L.I.T.S. is to create sustainable holistic care of the LGBTQAI+ community, regardless of where they are in the world. She also serves on the boards of SWOP-USA, SOAR Institute, Caribbean Equality Project, and New York Transgender Advocacy Group, and writes the newsletter for SWOP Behind Bars.
Dame Catherine Healy
Dame Catherine Healy in New Zealand
Dame Catherine Healy was a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), awarded New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal in 1993, and appointed Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II for her work to better the lives of sex workers. Her campaign with NZPC helped write and pass the Prostitute Reform Act to allow brothels to operate as legitimate businesses. She is also an author and field researcher and has been invited to speak at the House of Commons and Oxford University, among other institutions, to discuss the rights of sex workers.
Dancers of the Lusty Lady
The Lusty Lady was a peep show establishment in Seattle, WA, and San Francisco, CA. The San Francisco branch was bought by the strippers who worked there, and they formed a worker cooperative. It was already unique for being a unionized business. Dancers received an hourly wage and tips on top of that wage.
Elisa Crespo is fighting for a world where all people feel “included, safe, seen, and heard.” In 2021, she ran for NYC city council, where she would have been the first transgender woman of color to occupy a seat on the council. Now the Executive Director of the New Pride Agenda, Crespo fights to seek protections for incarcerated individuals and advocates for the decriminalization of sex work. In March 2023, she joined DSW and hundreds of allies in Albany to lobby in favor of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would decriminalize consensual adult sex work in New York state.
Former State Rep. Elizabeth Edwards of NH
Represented the Democratic party in the 11th District of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, from December 3, 2014, to December 5, 2018. Edwards’ platform included criminal justice reform, marriage equality, education reform, and maintaining New Hampshire’s tax advantages. The bills she introduced to the House include (but are not limited to): permitting qualifying patients and designated caregivers to cultivate cannabis for therapeutic use (HB1476), removing criminal laws related to prostitution (HB1614), establishing a committee to study the decriminalization of sex work (HB287), and reducing the criminal penalty for certain controlled drugs (HB1792). We applaud and value her commitment to representing the needs of her constituents in her political career.
Elle Stanger describes herself as “a queer, mid-thirties nonmonogamous, parent, sex worker, AASECT Certified Sex Educator, and media producer.” Stanger has been published nude online since 2005 and has worked in adult entertainment and touch-work since 2009. Based in Portland, she is a leader of Oregan’s decriminalization movement, where she serves as a local Commissioner on the state’s Sex Worker Human Rights Commission and an as active advocate in Multnomah County, holding the DA’s office accountable for their promise to stop prosecuting sex workers. Stanger has made a career as a sexuality educator, telling stories of consent, gender identity, pleasure and boundaries. Her ultimate goal is to encourage people to learn and feel good in their bodies, understanding that what people want varies for everyone.
November 1957 – March 2023
Georgina Beyer was the world’s first openly transgender member of parliament. Her role was pivotal in New Zealand’s decision to decriminalize sex work. A revolutionary Māori woman, her life experience as a former sex worker and survivor of sexual assault shaped much of her political work. In 2003, she gave a speech on sex work that changed the opinions of several MPs, ultimately leading to the passage of the Prostitution Reform Bill, securing the human rights of sex workers across the country.
Georgina’s memory will live on through the extraordinary impact of her work.
Giselle-Marie is a stripper, activist, and creator of the NYC Stripper Strike, a national movement launched in 2017 to inspire and aid strippers to advocate for the changes they want to see in the clubs: fair treatment and the abolishment of racism in strip clubs everywhere.
Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Gwendolyn Ann Smith is a writer, computer programmer, graphic designer, and activist for transgender, non-conforming (TGNC) rights. The inaccurate and disrespectful reporting around the tragic deaths of TGNC individuals, such as Rita Hester, inspired her to create the Remembering Our Dead project, an online chronicle of violence committed against transgender people. She also lobbied America Online (AOL) to adopt policies allowing discussions of gender issues on their service, which led to the creation of the first public forum centering transgender issues on a major online service — the Transgender Community Forum. Smith also organized the first-ever Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in San Francisco while fellow activist Penny Ashe Matz coordinated an event in Boston. From there, TDOR multiplied into the iconic occasion we know today.
Joaquin Remora has been committed to harm reduction in transgender, sex worker, and housing rights spaces for over a decade. He built San Francisco’s first transitional housing program for homeless Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming (TGNC) adults, and now serves as the Director of Our Trans Home SF, a coalition of organizations addressing housing instability for Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex (TGI) people in the Bay Area. Remora has also been involved with St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health and safety organization for sex workers in the country. Rather than identifying as an activist, Remora says he sees himself as an advocate or a friend to the community and sex workers.
Kiara St. James
Kiara Saint James is a community organizer and public speaker who has been promoting equity-building policies in New York and beyond for over 20 years. St. James is the co-founder and executive director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG). She founded NYTAG in 2014 along with Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, Celine St. John, Armani T. Taylor, and Cheryl Clancy. Their mission is to “advocate for more inclusive gender-based policies that benefit Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary (TGNCNB) individuals through building community.” NYTAG builds equity for TGNCNB individuals using training and education programs designed to dismantle stigma and violence, and build bridges between communities.
Laverne Cox is an American actress, a documentary filmmaker, and a tireless activist and advocate for the LGBTQI and TGNC communities. A career performer, Cox rose to prominence for her role as Sophia Bursett in Netflix’s award-winning series “Orange Is the New Black.” She became the first openly transgender individual to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in any category.
Cox has been vocal about her struggle working in performing arts, first as a gender-nonconforming individual, and then as a trans woman. She faced a lot of shame, and she mostly auditioned for and was cast for trans roles. Often discouraged by discrimination, Cox has been continually inspired by Candis Cayne’s character on “Dirty Sexy Money” and kept pursuing her dream against all the odds (see https://lavernecox.com/about/).
Cox continues to make historic strides in her career and inspire through her activism. She is an empowering advocate, a leading voice in the anti-violence movement. She supports gender-nonconforming individuals in moving beyond binary expectations to live more authentically as individuals. Cox was one of Glamour magazine’s 2014 Women of the Year, one of The Grio’s 100 Most Influential African Americans, and one of the Top 50 Trans Icons by The Huffington Post. She received the Courage Award from the Anti-Violence Project and the Reader’s Choice Award from Out magazine, among other accolades.
Representative Mandie Landry was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 2019. She is the author of Louisiana HB 67, the first-ever bill proposing the statewide decriminalization of sex work. In 2021, Landry voluntarily deferred the bill after it was clear the House Criminal Justice Committee was going to kill it on a vote. Still, we applaud her trailblazing effort to improve the health and safety of sex workers in her state.
Margo St. James
September 12, 1937 – January 11, 2021
Margo St. James was the founder of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) and St. James Infirmary Clinic serving sex workers in San Francisco. St. James was instrumental in building the activist scene in California, serving and protecting sex workers and LGBTQAI+ folx, and opening crucial litigation in Rhode Island (COYOTE v. Roberts), arguing that the state had too much authority over people’s personal sexual lives and choices. She was also famous for her successful and creative fundraising, such as the annual Hooker’s Ball.
Margo St. James, Advocate for Sex Workers, Dies at 83 (The New York Times, January 20, 2021)
Marsha P. Johnson
August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992
“How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and humans in the same human race?” — Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson is most recognized for her involvement in the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969. She co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera and was an AIDS activist with ACT UP. She was also a performer, model, and a prominent figure in the community.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, MO in 1928. Angelou is a cultural icon that is renowned for her revolutionary writing and work in the civil rights movement. Her second memoir, Gather Together in My Name, details her experiences as a sex worker and madam in her early adulthood. While sex work was only one of Angelou’s many professions, the experience was important enough for her to dedicate space to it in her writing. She did this purposefully, to demonstrate that humans are messy, imperfect, and multi-faceted. We make personal choices every day to survive, to get ahead, to do the “right” thing, and these choices, particularly those that have to do with our own bodies, are ours to make.
“We have to look for one another because we’re all we got. The rest of the world really doesn’t give a shit whether we live or die. And the thing is, when the dust settles, I want a whole bunch of transgender girls to stand up and say: I’m still fucking here.” — Miss Major
Miss Major is a leader and former sex worker in the trans community in New York City and California. She experienced, like so many others, violence at the hands of police and served five years in prison for her activist work. While in prison, she connected with Frank “Big Black” Smith who taught her more about community organizing and gave her new hope for building up the transgender community and continuing to provide the advocacy and care they need. During the AIDS crisis, she provided funds for funerals and was an active caregiver for those affected in her community in San Diego.
October 7, 1958 – September 13, 2012
The founder of the national Sex Workers Outreach Project and a former sex worker, Few was a leading and steady voice in the mission to decriminalize prostitution. Her tireless work has inspired activists for years and has laid the foundations for outreach work, caregiving for AIDS and medical marijuana patients, and effective lobbying strategies in the Bay area for these issues. She helped to organize the first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17, 2003, while under house arrest after her conviction of prostitution. We still celebrate and honor D17 to this day.
Elected in November 2016, Senator Scott Wiener represents District 11 in the California State Senate. In 2022, he introduced SB 357, otherwise known as the Safer Streets for All Act, which repealed the California Penal Code that criminalized the act of loitering with “intent to commit prostitution.” The bill went into effect in 2023, officially securing the safety and autonomy of sex workers across California.
Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, served on the Burlington City Council from 2014-2017 and has served in the Vermont House since 2017. In 2020, she introduced HB 569, which would decriminalize sex work in the state of Vermont. Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski; Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown; and Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro co-sponsored the bill. Colburn also sponsored HB 568, which limited criminal immunity to sex workers who report a crime committed against themselves. While sex work remains a crime in the state of Vermont, DSW commends Colburn on her dedication to the cause of decriminalizing sex work.
d. July 2016
Sharmus Outlaw was a dedicated activist and advocate for health care access for the trans community. She was a policy advocate for Best Practices Policy Alliance, U.S. representative for the Red Umbrella Fund, founder of Different Avenues in Washington, D.C., and had 25 years’ outreach experience in D.C., North Carolina, and Maryland. Sadly, she passed away in July 2016. The Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute in NYC and the Outlaw Project in Arizona are both named in her honor.
July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002
“We have to do it because we can no longer stay invisible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.” — Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera was born in the Bronx, left home at age 11, and discovered a group of trans folx, sex workers, and drag queens who welcomed her into their community. Her activism began in the 1960s during the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Marsha P. Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which advocated for LGBTQAI+ rights, especially for the inclusion and visibility of trans folx in the gay rights movement. STAR also pushed for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which eventually was signed into law in 2003.
In 2019, Tiffany Cabán ran for Queens DA on a platform of decriminalizing and decarcerating nonviolent offenders such as sex workers. She specifically pledged her support to the sex work community. Despite her loss, Cabán pushed the message of decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work. She succeeded in sparking conversation among Queens residents, urging them to rethink how we police our communities.
The women involved in the Prostitute Strike in Lyon, France, 1975
In a historic move, full service workers in Lyon, France, occupied five Catholic churches for eight days and garnered international support and recognition. They were protesting laws that criminalized their clients, police fines, and destruction and gentrification of the red light districts in France.
Deborah Jeane Palfrey
Famously dubbed “The DC Madam” by media, Palfrey ran an escort agency in Washington, DC. Unable to convict on trafficking charges, prosecutors convicted her on racketeering and money laundering charges. After she was sentenced to 5 to 6 years in prison, she was found hanged along with her black book of clients and messages to her family. It was ruled a suicide, although she did not seem suicidal according to her mother. She catered to DC’s elite, including several senators.
The New York Times, May 2, 2008
Donna Castleberry Dalton
Donna Castleberry Dalton was killed by an undercover vice police officer in Columbus, Ohio. She was in a car with the undercover officer after an alleged altercation, and the police officer shot her three times (some sources say eight, but the coroner’s report lists three). It is unknown whether Dalton knew that she was in the car with a police officer but it seemed as if she was trapped in the backseat of the car with him and likely feared for her life. Mitchell, the police officer in question, was already under investigation for criminal activity on his numerous rental properties.
Splinter News online, August 27, 2018
April 24, 1986 – July 11, 2013
Dora Özer, a 24-year-old Turkish trans woman, was murdered in her home July 9, 2013. Because the Turkish system legalizes full service work only for registered workers in legal brothels, Dora was not protected from violent clients. Anyone unregistered is only able to work in dangerous circumstances and is distanced from healthcare and law protection services.
Press release from Global Network of Sex Work Projects, July 10, 2013
April 24, 1986 – July 11, 2013
Petite Jasmine (legally known as Eva-Maree) was a Swedish sex worker, activist, and outspoken critic of the Nordic model. She had known that her ex-boyfriend was violent and stalking her. When she went to the authorities to report this worrying behavior in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, the police dismissed her because she was a sex worker. In the years leading up to her murder, her ex, already sanctioned for his violent behavior, got full custody of their children because of her sex worker status. The European sex worker and activist community held protests and memorials for Petite Jasmine and another sex worker murdered in Turkey, Dora Özer.
Tits and Sass, July 16, 2013
The Local, Sweden, July 17, 2013
Because of the stigma, marginalization, and criminalization of the sex work industry, serial killers often target sex workers, knowing that they will likely be able to get away with killing people who are not valued by society or law enforcement.
Juan David Ortiz, a Border Patrol Agent, was apprehended after a woman in his captivity escaped and linked him to the four murders of sex workers working by the border of U.S. and Mexico. All four murders were committed in a short two-week span and in a similar way. Had his last potential victim not escaped, it is not clear how long it would have taken until he was caught.
Gary Leon Ridgway aka Green River Killer was convicted of murdering 49 sex workers but admitted to 80 murders although the bodies were never found. He stated that killing prostitutes was best because no one would know they were gone and they were easy to pick up.
The Giglo Beach killer targeted sex workers in Long Island in 2013.
Peter Sutcliff, the Yorkshire Killer, killed 13 women in England, some of them sex workers.
Steve Wright killed five sex workers in Ipswitch, England.
Robert Hanson killed 17 sex workers in Anchorage, Alaska. Again, he discovered that strippers and full service providers were less likely to be missed by the people around them and, as a result, reduced his chances of getting caught.
Joel Rifkin killed 17 sex workers in the New York area.
Robert William Pickton killed 49 women, most of them sex workers, in Canada.
Jack the Ripper was famous for killing full service providers in the late 1800s in Whitechapel, a low-income area of London. He was never caught, but the horrific and gruesome murders mysteriously stopped in 1888.
Highlighting the grave consequences of NYPD’s vice squad’s work to dismantle the unregulated sex industry in New York, this article paints a poignant picture of Yang’s life and tragic death post-raid.
It is prudent to point out that the author mentions James O’Neill, the New York City police commissioner, who revealed in early 2017 that Vice shifted its work to target the pimps and the johns instead of the service providers themselves. While this seems harm reductive, this decreases safety and increases violence against the providers. If johns are criminalized, anyone seeking pay-for-play sex will be more likely to want to break the law and push boundaries. The answer is the full decriminalization of sex work to protect the lives of all operating within unregulated economies.
Many famous people have been involved in the sex industry in one form or another — either as sex workers, clients, or outspoken allies. We want to acknowledge these individuals — some of whom have helped to expand sexual freedom while others have not. The short list below is only the start of what will become dozens, and then hundreds, of VIPs who made a splash in the realm of sex work, for good or ill.
While DSW staff will try to find the time to add a few new people every month or two, most of the expansion of this web page will probably come from our allies who take the time to send us info about famous people whose involvement with the sex industry is somehow noteworthy or newsworthy, whether living or not. If you have a suggestion to add to the list below, please send the person’s name, photo (not necessarily a head shot), photo credit, caption, and a short paragraph describing why the person (or group of people) is significant.
Bill Maher hosts his own show on HBO and is a famous stand-up comedian. His poignant comedy focuses on topics ranging from religion, politics, mass media, and political correctness. He is an ardent supporter of pragmatic, harm reduction policies such as the legalization of marijuana.
Bronx-born rapper, former stripper, and internet sensation Cardi B has released several hits, topped charts, and accumulated several accolades. Throughout her music career she has been open about being a stripper before her music career was launched. By being open about her sex work history, she has been an icon for many strippers.
Author, advice columnist, pundit, and LGBTQAI+ activist and advocate, Savage is known for founding the It Gets Better campaign, creating Savage Love (a podcast on sex, love, and relationships), and being a proponent for relaxing laws against porn and sale of sex toys. He is also vocal in his support of sex workers and is quoted saying in an article on theStranger.com: “I have good friends who do sex work — women and men — and they’re not human shields. Their lives are valuable and, like Fagen says, they’re not here to soak up male rage. They deserve safe working conditions and they deserve our respect — not despite the work they do, but because of it.”
Outspoken Queens-native comedian Attell is no stranger to the limelight. Known especially for his bawdy and often dark humor, his show Insomniac with Dave Attell garnered a cult following. Attell is not shy about discussing his love of porn, and even hosted a Showtime show entitled Dave’s Old Porn.
Erika Jayne is the professional name for Erika Girardi, a singer with chart-topping hit singles, a star on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. She proudly expresses herself artistically through her fashion and sexuality and has been slut-shamed for her choices. In a comment from another Real Housewife calling her a “hooker,” Girardi responds, “And being called a hooker … well, you know what? Hookers are kinda fabulous, in my opinion. So, if I have to represent for all the hookers in the world, I’ll have to do that.”
“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.” ― Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More
Honolulu native Janet Mock is a fearless advocate for transgender visibility and rights. Not only a successful editor and author, she has appeared on many talk shows to advocate for her experience and the experiences of others. In terms of her heroism for sex workers, especially trans sex workers, she worked in the sex industry in order to fund her transition and has since gone on to write a book about her experience entitled Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More. She is a beacon of intelligence, confidence, and a symbol of transcending stigma to fully express herself.
Jim Norton is an actor, writer, host of The Jim Norton Show, and comedian who has been very vocal in his support of decriminalizing sex work. He understands the dangers of condemning an entire labor sector that fulfills the needs of many people from many walks of life, including those living with sex addiction. Norton succinctly breaks it down in his opinion article for Time Magazine: “By keeping prostitution illegal and demonizing all of its parties, we (you) are empowering pimps and human traffickers and anyone else who wants to victimize sex workers because they feel helpless under the law. Give sex workers rights. Give johns a break.” (The full article is here.)
On February 27, 2022, HBO’s Last Week Tonight aired its “Sex Work” episode, where host John Oliver discussed the benefits of decriminalizing consensual adult sex work. DSW’s Rebecca Cleary and Melissa Broudo provided background research to the producers of the show, resulting in a poignant and hilarious analysis that unflinchingly addresses the stigma and misconceptions around sexual labor.
Margaret Cho is a comedian, actress, writer, producer, singer/songwriter, and passionate advocate for anti-racism, anti-bullying, and pro-LGBTQAI+ rights and visibility. She has also been public about her experiences in the sex industry. She has a varied and extensive collection of projects, accolades, and side projects. She is also the executive producer of “Mercy Mistress,” a web series that delves into the world of BDSM, kink, and sex workers.
“The deck has always been stacked against me, but I own my story and the choices I made.” — Stormy Daniels
Stormy Daniels is a porn star, stripper, director, author, and ambitious entrepreneur. In 2018, she became involved in the very famous legal dispute between herself, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. Daniels came forward with the information that she was paid $130,000 in hush money so she would not go public with the affair between herself and Trump. We applaud her bravery to stand by her convictions and speak the truth despite scrutiny and stigma. Her book, Full Disclosure, is available now.