The Decriminalization of Prostitution: COYOTE

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For my activists histories assignment, I researched prostitution and an organization called C.O.Y.O.T.E, which is a backronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. This organization was America’s first prostitutes’ rights organization founded in San Francisco in 1973 by Margo St. James, who was a former prostitute herself. Their ultimate goal was to decriminalize, not legalize, prostitution laws and end the social stigma associated with sex work, which is primarily due to male-imposed standards of ethics1. The difference between decriminalization and legalization is that: decriminalization would allow prostitutes to work as if it were any other socially acceptable occupation, while legalization would make prostitutes register, get a license, submit themselves for health examinations, all while still being stigmatized now as “known prostitutes”.

If we think of prostitution as an exchange of sex for something of value, we can see that historically there has always been social stigma associated with this profession. From Mesopotamia (which dates back to 10,000 BC) to Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome, we see that prostitutes were regarded as something lower than slaves. Ancient Rome, however, is where we see the first signs of regulation.

Now, COYOTE does see reason in why prostitution is criminalized. It is done to prevent the exploitation of women and children as well as preventing the spread of STDs. COYOTE’s argument is that the criminalization actually fails to achieve its goal while simultaneously harming prostit2utes. They argue that criminalization allows men and the government to control women’s sexual autonomy and jeopardize women’s lives. If we consider two possibilities when a prostitute is caught, they will either be fined or jailed. If she is fined, she will most likely go back to prostitution to pay off that fine. If she is jailed, however, she maintains a criminal record. This criminal record will not negatively affect a woman’s opportunity to obtain housing, an education, and even the ability to get a job. So those that genuinely want to leave this lifestyle are actually left with very few options. COYOTE also argues that criminalization condones violence against prostitutes; the oppressive cultural norms allows them to be abused while making them invisible.

COYOTE also wanted to normalize the occupation as if it were any other job. They staged counter-degradation ceremonies along with different events such as: Hookers’ Balls, Hookers’ Conventions, and Hookers’ Film Festivals.3

Despite COYOTE leaders asserting that the majority of population supported a change in the law, longitudinal data suggested that the movement had no positive impact on public opinion. The organization struggled to sustain acceptance from authorities because it was considered an “immoral crusade”. One of the biggest downfalls of this organization was that the leaders spoke on behalf of prostitutes rather than involving them to mobilize a movement.  Solidarity between prostitutes, wherever they were found, were purely survival-based.

Margo St. James also was not active in delegating responsibilities and decision-makings and ended up leaving COYOTE in 1985 to become the co-director of the International Committee for Prostitutes Rights.

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