CW: rape

Last month, as the United Kingdom reeled from the murder of Sarah Everard, we found ourselves realising once again what it means to be a woman in modern Britain. Although the viral hurt and frustration of that time was especially acute, feminism is certainly not new to social media. In Twitter threads and Tiktok trends, through the delightful orderliness of Instagram infographics, we are told which birth control to buy, taught what the Madonna/Whore complex is, and informed that “slut shaming is bullshit”. These posts become attached to our digital footprints like badges. That story, that share says: “These are my beliefs. I am a feminist”. This is a good thing, of course. Though Instagram activism definitely has its limits, promoting these messages and attempting to educate the masses can make real change. But such public pronouncements of our beliefs also reveal where we as individuals, and as groups, fall short. I’ve spent the last month thinking a lot about the inconsistency of progressive activism, especially within the feminist movement. Because every night I tap through brightly coloured feminism from the very same women who call me a whore.

“Whore” is the ultimate othering. It conjures images of a thing not quite human, all sex and desperation and cheap eyeliner and loose morals. The “whore” is not three dimensional, she does not have thoughts or feelings or hopes or dreams. She becomes a straw man of everything the patriarchy teaches us to hate and we pretend we don’t (but we really do). For progressive women, the making of a whore is a bonding ritual.

The world is constantly telling women to take up less space, make less noise, be more likeable. So when someone breaks that system, challenges societies rules, “sticks it to the man” – it’s inspiring and amazing but also so infuriating. I can’t count the number of times I’ve realised that my inexplicable dislike of a woman is really jealousy that she has the confidence to challenge the conventions that keep me trapped. We tell ourselves that we are doing the right thing – we are normal, good women, and she is a whore. Because the truth – that she intimidates us, that we are jealous of her freedom, that the patriarchy is so deeply ingrained in our thoughts and feelings that we just hate her and we can’t even explain why – that’s too dark to face.

Yet the bonding power of “whore” extends beyond women-only circles. It works equally well as a pathway to male respect. Many people now see it as unacceptable for a man to call a woman he doesn’t like a whore. However, if the label is given by a woman, it’s suddenly safe – he’s not just hurling insults, he isn’t being a jerk, she just really is a whore. A man will tell a woman about how horrible his ex is, how low cut her tops are, how she sleeps around. He won’t say whore – he can’t, not yet – he’ll simply say everything but. This is where the woman steps in. She can say whore, if she wants to. She’s a woman, it’s hers to use! She’ll preface it with “I’m a feminist but…” or “You know I don’t say this easily…”. Her gender and her feigned hesitancy lend validity to the label. The man is delighted – “whore” pleases his every buried misogynistic instinct. The woman, in turn, “others” herself from the harlot. She saves the rest of womankind from being tainted by the immorality of one. “Do not associate me with her. I am woman; she is whore”.

Viewing “whore” through the lens of bonding and “othering” makes it all the clearer why women who already “stand out” in some way are all the more susceptible to the label. In the bastion of upper middle-class British privilege that is Oxford, being North American was enough to place me in that category.  In the process of labelling me “whore” I was judged to be loud, rude, annoying, incapable of understanding the rules of British society. In my romantic interactions with the middle-class, home counties men that surrounded me, I was determined to be the villain. Overall, the judgement was that I would “just never really be one of them”. I was a prime candidate for the position of “whore”.

Of course, that the most “othering” thing about me is that I immigrated from an economically prosperous, English-speaking country, is an immense privilege. The true power of “othering” is felt by women of colour, disabled women, working class women, and other groups that face harsh and consistent discrimination. Here, sexism intersects with classism, racism, ableism, and so many other prejudices to stick ever-more blameless, powerful women with the label of “whore”. The word is a particularly sharp blade for striking those whom society already treats as outsiders.

You may think, in the grand scheme of things, calling a woman a whore isn’t that bad. If you say it in private, to just your close friends, you’re not hurting anyone. You may think that it’s generally bad to call women whores but in this specific case it’s okay, because “she genuinely is one”. But “whore” is not a word that stays shut behind closed doors. The more we say it the less human the woman whom it describes becomes.

Except she is a person. And words do have consequences. You may think she can’t hear you, but noise travels. It wasn’t until I had the label of “whore” thrust upon me that I realised its power. There’s only so long you can brush something off, get over it, keep your head held high through the whispers.

We need to do better. It’s time to find a new way to bond. I’m not saying that you have to say nice things about every woman. You’re allowed to dislike someone, allowed to complain about them to your friends. But whore is a low blow. It shames a woman for existing in her own skin. It labels her as not only undesirable but unlovable and toxic. It’s irrefutable and irredeemable because, in the end, it doesn’t actually depend on anything a woman does. You can be called a whore whether you’re a virgin or a lover of sex. And yet despite it being a completely made-up label, it has very real consequences. Being called a whore not only makes you uncomfortable in your own body, but it changes the way people see you, and puts you in real danger. You can be disrespected, objectified, because it’s assumed that’s how you want to be seen. You are not worthy of protection. You are dehumanised.

I wonder if the women posting consent infographics know that I never reported my rape because I was scared of what they would say about me?

We cannot be feminists and call each other whores. Every time that word leaves our mouths, we are propping up the patriarchy, the subjugation of women, and rape culture. I know because I am not an innocent in this. Because, to my great shame, “whore”, and its equivalents “slut” and “slag”, have left my mouth more times than I care to remember. But that stops now. I vow, from this moment forward, never to call a woman a whore again. I hope you do the same. We all deserve better.

Image link: <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/photos/woman”>Woman photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com</a>