You’re not allowed to use the word “whore.” I mean, I guess you could use it if you wanted to, but if you considered yourself a feminist in any sense of the word, you’d probably want to stop. And here’s why.
The word “whore” comes originally from the Old English and meant, back then, a term of abuse for an unchaste or lewd woman, whether or not she accepted money for her favours. From as long ago as 1200 AD, language has been shaming women who enjoyed sex, and perhaps had sex with multiple partners. It was also synonymous with “lupa” for she wolf, from the Roman times and “pumcalli” from the Sanskrit, which translates to “one who runs after men.” (Reference from the Online Etymology Dictionary)
But in our current times, the word “whore” while still derogatory, became also used for men and women who lower or debase themselves in some way for some form of attention. See: “media whore,” “attention whore,” and so on and so forth. I myself used it in an article—in which I mentioned that men were wont to look upon any woman who had sex as a whore—which puts the onus of the blame on the woman herself, and not on the men who are so blithe and easy with labels.
A few years ago, women around the world organized themselves into a “Slut Walk” to reclaim the word that had been used to spew abuse at women for centuries now. I wasn’t very comfortable with the movement, though I accepted it for women choosing to step out and become empowered, but it wasn’t until I came across a blog post on a website called Feminist Current, that I understood my mixed feelings. The author of the post titled “It’s Not Slut Shaming, It’s Women Hating”, Meghan Murphy, says, succinctly, “No matter how hard you try to take back ‘slut’, people will still use it to shit on you. And it still won’t feel good. Just because you’ve painted ‘slut’ across your chest and proudly tromped down the street in fishnets doesn’t mean that assholes across the continent are going to stop using sexist language. A lot of people like to make comparisons around ‘taking back’ the word ‘slut’ to the n-word. But as we all know, racists still use this word in a racist way. Because they are racist and because racism is a thing that still exists in our world. You can pretend that, in the last year, ‘slut’ has been taken back to mean ‘awesome-fun-times-sexy-lady’, but it’s not true.”
Using it in casual language therefore, might seem to some as a way of taking the sting out of its intended meaning—certainly no one bats an eye when you say “slut”—but in reality is just a way of making sure this word lives on and on and on in our collective consciousness. Justine Musk, another blogger, says in a post about the subject: “When you call a woman a slut, it’s not because you necessarily believe that she’s slept her way through the entire NBA. You do it because there’s nothing more base than female sexuality. You want to cut her down to size, to put her in her place, for whatever transgression she’s committed that took her outside the box of ‘proper’ feminine behavior and made her such a pain in the ass.”
Why should a word that means you might have (in society’s view) had sex with more than one person, or even several persons, be such an insult? The vernacular Indian language abuses are even worse—you can call someone the son of a whore, or a vagina, and these are words that are just parlayed around, because wow, nothing is lower than someone who is born to a woman who wasn’t married to your father, nothing is lower than a female’s genitalia, so let’s use that to mortally insult someone.
And this was a headline recently on the website, India.com, owned and operated by Zee, PMC, and United Internet. “Sapna Bhavnani: Whore, Feminist or Woman of Substance?” It’s enough to make you bang your head against the wall. First of all, that the idea that a “woman of substance” cannot be a “whore” or a “feminist” (because it’s “or” not “and”). Secondly, the editor who let this headline pass. They may as well spell it out in big words: whore/feminist = bad! Especially, since the article is about Bhavnani, a stylist, who opened up on an online forum about the time she was raped. Seriously.
Is it any wonder that “whore” is tossed around so loosely then when even our media can’t seem to come up with alternatives? And now that you know the problematic connotations of it, maybe you’ll stop. Maybe we’ll all stop.
(A version of this appeared as my column in mydigitalfc.com)