“To unapologetically ignite, and together, rise”
I find I have much difficulty writing the first 1972 article after a long break, and this piece is no exception. So much happened during this past interim— Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, Congress’ stalemated efforts to reform immigration legislation, the powerful representation of the “me too” movement at different awards shows, further probes into Russian election interference, the trial and sentencing of Larry Nassar and the tremendous bravery USA gymnasts and athletes— I could go on. I will write about these topics, and more, in the upcoming weeks. Today, though, I want to write about the pervasive double standard evident in the English language, and ways in which powerful social hierarchy deploys gendered language to demean and undercut women. Today, I am here to dump the foul deposits of the word “whore” into a deep hole I’ve been digging for months, in my hope to bury the word, once and for all. I’ll crowdsource a giant, scarlet “A” for the ceremony.
I can prattle off synonyms for the word “whore” like a party trick: “slut,” “vixen,” “hussy,” “hoe,” “wanton,” “temptress,” “harlot,” “prostitute.” Though, if you asked me to give the antonym— the opposite— of “whore,” I do not think I could. At best, I could gesture to words frequently employed to describe the women literary canon and social normativity deem “not a whore”—words like “virgin,” “chaste,” “pure,” “innocent,” “white” (do not get me started on how problematic these words are, especially the last one)— but describing what a whore is not does not actually bring me any closer actually finding an antonym.
Why is that?
I’m no etymologist, but I theorize the answer partly lies in the history of the aggressive gendering attached to words like “whore” in the English language. A “whore” refers to a female, just as a “slut,” “vixen,” “hussy,” “hoe,” “wanton,” “temptress,” “harlot,” and “prostitute” also reference fallen women. A “prostitute” is a female who sells her body for sex; a male who does the same is a “male prostitute.” All too frequently, women deemed promiscuous by arbitrary social convention and normativity we call a “sluts” or “whores.” A man judged promiscuous (on a completely different standard than his female counterpart, mind you) we decree a “man-slut” or a “man-whore.” Rarely are groups of men referenced with these identifiers. As my terrible acrostic title alludes, the word “whore” problematically and inclusively pertains to all who identify as female. To my critics, such persistent presence of modifiers used to reference men deemed promiscuous should confirm the existence of something far greater than to what I, an individual, can give testament: the longevity of these words and the far-reaching implications of their weight.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) adds further evidence. The first recorded usage of the word “whore” dates to the 1100s, to reference “a woman who prostitutes herself for hire; a prostitute, harlot.” In the 13th century, the word “whore” evolved into what it is today, a general reference to “an unchaste or lewd woman.” Which begs the question, “what or who decides which behavior is ‘chaste’ or ‘unchaste’ and what or who is policed by those decisions?”
I know this article will likely not limit usage of “slut,” “vixen,” “hussy,” “hoe,” “wanton,” “temptress,” “harlot,” “prostitute” on this campus (a few of those words are so archaic they’ve fallen out in favor of less-enunciated, mono-syllabic synonyms anyway). I hope, though, that someone may come across this piece and re-consider the all-to-common phrase “walk of shame,” or the criteria with which society and her people feel compelled or equipped to judge the real or presumed sexual habits of others according to individual standards of morality that are ignorantly and inadequately presumed universal. Regardless, for the future of all—especially for those whose gender leaves them stamped with a scarlet letter—I will continue to write.
- “whore, n.”. OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/228780?rskey=FpyDeA&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed January 30, 2018).