Do Sluts and Whores Matter Anymore?


Dainty. Two Provocative Women in Veils with Cherry Berries. Temptation

By Elizabeth Shore

I was at a weekend writers’ retreat recently and overheard a conversation two women were having about a third woman they both knew who, apparently, is a book collector. I say “apparently” because neither of the women actually used the word “collector” to describe the woman they were talking about. What they actually called her was a book whore.

A book whore. Hmmm. As in, one who acquires lots of books, similar to the old-fashioned kind of whore who just used to “acquire” lots of men. The word “whore” is nowadays thrown around as easily as whores of yesteryear used to throw around their favors. Food whore, work whore, travel whore – we’ve heard it all and more. If you do something in excess or extreme you’re a something-or-other whore. But is that OK?

We’re all familiar with the term “slut shaming.” Yet on the flipside, I don’t see accusations of “whore shaming.” On the contrary, whores are to be celebrated! Being a whore is nothing but a good thing. Food whore, for example. “One who lusts after food,” is a definition I saw. Nothing wrong with that, cause who doesn’t like to eat? There are food whore blogs, food whore Pinterest boards, even a food whore website selling aprons and chefs coats. The word “whore” is used with such proliferation that it’s lost its punch. It’s no longer shocking to attach the word “whore” to ourselves to describe something we do to excess. “I’m an exercise whore!” someone could smugly chirp. Yet if that’s the case, then using the word “whore” on its own, with its original meaning, loses its shock as well, thereby making it easier – even acceptable – to ascribe it to anyone you want.

Some might argue that’s a good thing. If overuse of a word makes us numb to it, then the word no longer has the power to hurt. Right? It’s a kind of lingual immunotherapy. Use a word over and over and we build up a tolerance toward it, like getting allergy shots for ragweed. Take swear words, for example. Once upon a time “dang” used to be banned from use in polite company. But tell that to an African American whose had the N word flung at them over and over. I don’t think they’ve become numb to it.

“Slut” hasn’t quite gotten there, either. It’s still, for the most part, a derogatory term, and folks can get outraged by its use. A recent example comes via Bloomsburg University where one of their baseball players called 13-year-old pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis a slut on Twitter and was promptly ejected from the team. For the most part “slut” is used with its original meaning intact, i.e., a woman (never a man, of course) with numerous sexual partners. So why the Bloomsburg U player would say Mo’Ne is a slut defies comprehension except that he obviously wanted to trash her and latched on to a word that still has the ability to insult and hurt.

So it goes with the power of words. As writers, it’s why we love ’em. Words have the ability to transform the reader, taking her to places of unimaginable joy or unbearable pain simply by properly stringing words together in a way that evokes an emotional response. I find myself troubled when people lightly use these potent weapons without any thought about the pain they can cause. Everyone past age six knows the sticks and stones saying is utter nonsense. Words can hurt far deeper and last far longer than any physical discomfort. But they can also make us feel happy or confident or on top of the world, like when a guy calls us pretty. Or smart. Or whatever word you like.

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12 Comments

  • christineblackthorn
    April 22, 2015 at 5:41 am

    I disagree with you. I think the word and concept of whore has still the same power than it had ten or twenty years ago – it is just in a more hidden format. And I do not think that either word or concept are used – or heard – lightly. No matter how much we would wish there to be a desensitising process, the word itself still holds negative power. Let’s not even speak of the concept.

    Regarding the concept, a very good example is Shades of Grey. She is the epitome of the concept of the virgin whore – the ideal woman: innocent (meaning never having had sex) and nevertheless so skilful in bed that all men foreswear all other women for her. To support and emphasise this every other woman in the book is promiscuous and describes as either vicious or slightly stupid, leaving only her as a “good” woman. No one is called a whore in the book outright, but the concept is still strong: to be a good woman and to save/keep your man you have to be innocent – otherwise you are merely a fleeting distraction, stupid and vicious. You are a whore in truth and that is bad. The “skills” of a whore are desirable but really come automatically to a good woman. No practice needed.

    In regards to the word itself there might be a cultural and national distinction but here in the UK it has retained its negative connotation – even in regards to the use as a food whore etc. Though the connotation often is more in relation to the person who uses the word than the person who is addressed by it. The use of the word whore identifies someone of a certain social or educational class – at best as gauche and nouveau riche. So whilst the listener might be ignoring the value judgement it displays regarding the woman titled a whore – he or she distinctly does not in relation to the speaker.

    Moreover, when a child says about another “she is such a whore” without any concept of what that means – they nevertheless know the underlying sentiment. It is still an insult and by using it without regards for its gravity we are still perpetuating the underlying concept not only that a woman has no right to sell her body if she so wishes – but that enjoying sex as a woman is a bad thing.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      April 22, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      I hear what you’re saying, Christine. I would LIKE it to have the same punch, but when I hear people attaching the word “whore” to something positive I have my doubts. “I’m a teddy bear collector whore!” Really?Why throw “whore” in there at all? And believe me, I find that unfortunate. But at least here in the U.S., it’s used very loosely with frequent associations to something good.

      I see the same thing with “bitch.” I read a romance paranormal not that long ago in which the heroine, who was supposed to be some kind of kick butt strong, powerful woman, first gets introduced to the readers when she bursts out of a house to greet a group of gal pals gathered outside who were waiting for her. “Listen up, bitches!” was the first sentence out of her mouth. I can say one thing for sure, if a girlfriend called me a bitch, I’d no longer be calling her my friend.

      • christineblackthorn
        May 10, 2015 at 4:30 am

        There is an increasing trend towards using coarse language (such as bitch and whore) in books as if it makes them more real and gritty. I might be showing my stodgy age – but it just annoys me as it automatically means I cannot identify with the character, let alone respect them.

  • Alexa Day
    April 22, 2015 at 9:03 am

    So much of this leans on how we hear things, I think. For instance, I told a friend a while back that I would wear the word “bitch” on a T-shirt because people tended to use it against me when they weren’t getting something they wanted from me. To me, it’s the adult version of a three-year-old’s “I hate you.” You don’t hate me, kid, and you’re still not getting a lollipop, so have a seat.

    In that vein, I’m quietly waiting for “African American” to run its course. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but man, I loathe it. I’d rather self-identify as “bitch.” Casual usage of “African American” is not doing it any favors. But that’s how I hear it.

    In the meantime, I love what Christine says about the casual use of the word “whore”: “by using it without regards for its gravity we are still perpetuating the underlying concept not only that a woman has no right to sell her body if she so wishes – but that enjoying sex as a woman is a bad thing.”

  • Madeline Iva
    April 22, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Yes it matters! What I want to know is why we can’t get across the same shame when we use the term ‘man whore’. I mean, I know I know, it’s always a boast when men are having sex, no matter with how many women, etc. Player is getting there, but just doesn’t have the same shame slap to it.

    And the thing is — if the moral judgement fades away, well and good. But a term that helps define a person who gets around is mighty helpful.

    I think we have those terms because it’s the tribe’s way of giving out advanced warning. You can’t tell somebody is very indiscriminate sexually just by looking. And why the person may be sharing the love all around is up for debate–but sometimes it’s because the person is trying to get as many notches on his bedpost as possible. And people like me — who want to be monogamous — who want to be more than a notch on the bedpost–we benefit from the advanced warning. Because meaningful and casual relationships can start exactly the same way.

    • Alexa Day
      April 22, 2015 at 9:44 am

      But consider:

      As Liz indicates with Mone Davis, it is just as easy to call a monogamous person a slut as it is to call a slut a slut. I think you’re presuming that the tribe is telling the truth.

      And isn’t conversation with the actual person, the slut in question, as it were, the advance warning you’re talking about?

    • christineblackthorn
      April 22, 2015 at 10:32 am

      I had not given the completely different value judgement attached to man whore any thought – very good point. I need to think about it. Though I am not entirely sure I agree with it being a warning as to me it seems to hold too much of the boasting and too little of the negativity element.

      • Elizabeth Shore
        April 22, 2015 at 2:31 pm

        That’s my big problem. I don’t like that suddenly being called a something-whore isn’t necessarily bad. Or at least, the way it’s being used so casually would have us think so. To me, those words DO matter.

    • Kel
      April 22, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Player has the connotation of “user” because not everyone is playing, but it always seemed to be more outwardly focused than either slut or whore to me, so more potentially damaging.

      Player is keeping score.
      Slut is having fun.
      Whore is after something.

      So, players can play together and no one gets hurt, but there aren’t usually enough players for them just to play with other consenting players… and the game requires that they not inform their non-playing partners or they lose, so people get hurt. Sluts harm no one as long as they’re honest, while whores are in it for a particular payout. Whether or not their partner is agreeable is up to both parties… so again it’s not necessarily harmful in any way.

      • christineblackthorn
        April 22, 2015 at 11:27 am

        Interesting – player for me has more of a negative connotation, though an automatically male one. A player is male and a man who has no regard for the interests and needs of their partner – will do whatever, say whatever to get their fun.

  • Kel
    April 22, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Interesting. I very definitely use slut for both sexes. I also use whore in its original context; a slut does it for the love of it, a whore does it for money. (And from my socio-economic background, the second is decidedly worse. Behold, privilege.)

    And perhaps that’s part of it; Whore is a very upper-class-only insult. People who see nothing wrong with selling parts of themselves for money will see nothing wrong with a subtle insult based on “You sell yourself for money of all things, how common. Sell yourself for social advancement like a real person.”

    Which is odd, when I think about the fact that I think people should actually respect people who work in the sex industry. It’s a damn hard job that requires skills. Strange that I have respect for actual professional whores, and utter contempt for “amateur” ones. Possible because I see a professional as selling a service or a skill, and the amateur as selling their self…

    • christineblackthorn
      April 22, 2015 at 11:28 am

      I have a similar reaction to you, Kel – and you might be right that it says more about our socio-economic/cultural background than about the words themselves.

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