Resisting Violence and Stigma: COYOTE Fights Back

The first collective for sex workers rights was founded by sex worker Margo St. James in 1973, and was boldly titled COYOTE: “Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics.”[4] The image on the right features an early pin from that organization. COYOTE was critical to the sex worker movement in the United States because it was one of the first organizations expressly dedicated to legitimizing the work of prostitutes and fighting for rights and respect in the public eye.

Significantly, COYOTE created the first publication by and for sex workers that allowed those in the business to share stories and form communities with one another, leading to a more formalized organization. The newsletter, called COYOTE Howls, served a number of purposes: first, it gave prostitutes a platform to voice their opinions on their work and the practices and policies that affect their day-today life. Second, the newsletter allowed those in the business to form connections and communities with one another, eventually leading to a more widespread and formalized network. Finally, COYOTE Howls was also available to the public and allowed sex workers to tell their stories to audiences who would not normally hear them, which is an incredibly powerful tool in fighting stigma. [5]

Between their protests and their publication, COYOTE achieved notoriety and successes in their mission to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work and the dignity of sex workers. After gaining more public support and funds over their first decade of existence, they were able to expand their services to include “crisis counseling, support groups, legal counseling, and testimony at government hearings… helped the police investigate crimes against prostitutes, and provided sensitivity trainings to government and other nonprofit agencies.” [6] The ability to expand into service provision and work with the government was a direct result of their anti-stigma and anti-harassment campaigns of the 1970s, and lay the groundwork for the other sex worker rights organizations that were to emerge across the country over the following decades. The image at the left features protesters from a Los-Angeles based sex worker collective. The members were marching in protest of police harassment and intervention and proclaim the autonomy of prostitutes to be respected as workers and mothers.


Stigma and police harassment against sex workers is far from being a thing of the past. In many cities police have the right to profile and search those who fit their idea of a sex worker, and if that person has more than three condoms on them it can be enough to throw them in jail on charges of selling sex. Sex workers, especially those who are trans or people of color, are subjected to disproportionately high rates of rape and murder. At the same time, the powerful legacy of COYOTE has continued and morphed into contemporary anti-stigma protests like the multi-city annual SlutWalks that began in 2011 to fight rape culture and validate the dignity of sex workers. From the original protests and riots of the 1960s to the blogs and marches of the twenty-first century, the outspokenness of sex workers has served to change public discourse around prostitution and draw attention to the injustices that occur within the work.




[4] Majic, S. (2014). Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision. University of Pennsylvania Press. Print.

[5] Jenness, V. (1990). “From Sex as Sin to Sex as Work: COYOTE and the Reorganization of Prostitution as a Social Problem”. Social Problems, 37(3), 403–420.

[6] Chateauvert, M. (2013). Sex workers unite: A history of the movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk. Boston: Beacon Press.



Resisting Violence and Stigma: COYOTE Fights Back