(The above image is a slide from a presentation by Marlise Richter, a researcher at the AIDS Law Project, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. It is described at the bottom of this post.)

Stigma is an interesting beastie. Whore stigma is particularly interesting, in part because it makes no sense and falls apart the minute it’s exposed to any rational analysis whatsoever. Yet somehow, even though it makes no sense, it is a constant and often overwhelming social force that shapes the lives of all women.

There’s an old joke about a man who walks up to a woman at a bar and asks, “Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “What about fifty dollars?” and she snaps, “What the hell do you think I am — a whore?” He replies, “We’ve already established that you’re a whore; now we’re just negotiating the price.”

Inherent in this joke, and in the slide I showcase at the top of this post, is the tension and confusion that happens pretty much automatically whenever anyone tries to point out the difference between a “nice girl” and a “whore”. It’s one of the best ways to show that whore stigma makes no sense: the difference is impossible to pin down.

What’s weird about these conversations, though, is that everyone almost always gets caught up in the question of who’s a whore and who’s not a whore — and in the confusion, very few people think to question whether whore stigma itself is ridiculous and divisive and harmful. This even happens during conversations that start with the intent of questioning the very concept of whore stigma, such as this post by sex work researcher Laura Agustín; the post’s whole point is that the concept of whore stigma makes no sense — but commenters on the post immediately start trying to define what a whore is.

Indeed, this even happens among sex workers. My friends at the Sex Workers Outreach Project have told me how complicated it can be to pull different sex workers together, in order to work towards legal rights and societal recognition. One recurring issue is how some sex workers will refuse to associate with other sex workers: for example, professional dominatrixes or strippers may refuse to associate with escorts because “You’re whores, and we’re not whores, and we’re not like you.” This is one more factor making it hard for sex workers’ rights advocates to achieve social momentum. Which may mean that when — for example — the law randomly decides that dominatrixes are actually whores (surprise!), those non-whore sex workers may find themselves without resources.

But of course it happens among non-sex workers, too. Because being an “actual” sex worker is in no way a requirement for being called a whore, or for having whore stigma slammed in your face. Any woman who carries condoms might as well be a whore, right? Not even thirteen-year-old girls are exempt from whore stigma or its twin, slut-shaming, as we learned from Hope Witsell’s suicide last year. Hope sexted a boy who betrayed her and sent her message all over the school — at which point she was punished severely, was socially ostracized, and killed herself.

Examples of whore stigma abound, and none of us are innocent from reinforcing it. I’ll cop to it: before I had a grip on how problematic whore stigma is, I myself called one or two women whores because I felt threatened by them. I hadn’t thought through how easily I myself might be harmed by the label; I hadn’t yet identified my fears of being labeled one myself. I was insensitive — and I was also stupid, because whore stigma could come get me as easily as it could get an “actual” whore. Contributing to it wasn’t just hurting other women, it was also shooting myself in the foot.

Plus, the more effort women put into distinguishing ourselves from whores, the less effort we can put into actually working on the issues that harm women. Or making common cause with, say, sex workers who aren’t women and therefore get completely disappeared during all this anxious finger-pointing.

When we will acknowledge that whore stigma makes no sense, that it’s ridiculous and divisive and harmful? What does it take? All women’s appearance and activities — especially our sexuality — are attacked, limited, and kept in line by the threat of “sluthood” and “whoredom”. In that sense, we all pay. We all have a stake in taking down these social structures.

And we can start by accepting and acknowledging sex work as an honorable job that deserves both legal and social recognition. Today is a fantastic day to do just that. December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and there may just be an event in your area. It’s also worth considering reading up on how to be an ally to sex workers and passing that information on to your friends.

Please note that The Wisdom of Whores, the awesome book by Elizabeth Pisani that I encouraged y’all to read for free on World AIDS Day at the beginning of this month, is still available for free download — all the way through the end of December. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. It’s free! What are you waiting for?

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(The slide at the beginning of this post shows a straight horizontal line with an arrow at each end. At the top, the graphic is labeled “Sex-for-reward continuum”. The right end of the arrow is labeled “Illegitimate”, and the left end is labeled “Legitimate”. From right to left there are five points, labeled as follows:

* “Self-identified sex worker on a street corner?”
* “Woman who has sex at the back of a taxi in exchange for a ride into town?”
* “School girl has sex with her ex-boyfriend for cell phone airtime?” [Note: This slide was used in an African presentation. In Africa, or at least in the parts I'm familiar with, cell phone airtime is a somewhat expensive commodity. A school girl having sex in exchange for airtime is somewhat analogous to having sex in exchange for a nice piece of clothing.]
* “Student sleeps with her lecturer in order to pass?”
* “Wife has sex with her husband as she knows they are going to the mall tomorrow?”

At the bottom of the slide is a triangle pointing up to the line. It is labeled: “Who do we put in jail?”)

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This post was cross-posted at Feministe. This version has a few small edits for the sake of clarity and sensitivity; those edits are lacking from the Feministe version. However, the Feministe version has a hell of a lot more comments.

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