“Language is an important battle ground in the fight for social equality. As the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argued, ‘language constitutes our world, it doesn’t just record it or label it’. Language is fluid and malleable; it drives social attitudes, rather than simply expressing them.”
— Dr. Kate Lister
To begin, the author and her work.
Kate Lister started the Whores of Yore project in 2015. The project aims to give voice to the voiceless, to start a much-needed conversation on the history of sexuality, the plight of modern sex workers, and, ultimately, to extract the prudish stick from the arse of society. The archive provides a platform for academics, activists, sex workers, and archivists to share their experience, research and stories around sexuality and sex work.
This essay is worth reading in its entirety. I’ll try to sketch the parameters.
“Tis Pity She’s a Whore”: the ‘Whore’ in Whores of Yore, by Dr. Kate Lister (The Whores of Yore)
Germaine Greer once said she would ‘rather be called a whore than a human being’; but, what does the word ‘whore’ actually mean? Where has it come from, and what does someone have to do to earn that particular title? Why was Joan of Arc, who died a virgin, called the ‘French Whore’? And why was Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, attacked as the English Whore’? The revolutionaries called Marie Antoinette the ‘Austrian Whore’; Anne Boleyn was the ‘Great Whore’ and Air America host Randi Rhodes came under fire for calling Hillary Clinton a ‘big whore’ in the 2016 American elections. Perhaps we think we know perfectly well what we mean should we ever choose to drop the w-bomb, but the word is historically and culturally complex. This simple monosyllable is loaded with over a thousand years of attempting to control and shame women by stigmatising their sexuality.
Diving into the deep end …
The truth is that I should not have used ‘whore’ in whores of yore; it’s not my word, and if you’re not a sex worker, it’s not yours either. It’s a term of abuse that sex workers hear every day by those seeking to devalue them and shame them. So, why did I call this project whores of yore? ‘Whore’ is a very old word, with a complex and powerful history, and that’s what I wanted to bring to this project. To my ears, whore is an archaic, slightly humorous word, like strumpet and trollop – but, that simply isn’t the reality for many (and a mistake on my part). I have had feedback from many sex workers questioning my use of the term, and for a while I gave serious consideration to changing it. But, the history of that word is an important one, and one that I want to retain, and emphasise. Debate around what ‘whore’ actually means is a conversation worth having.
The word is so old that its precise origins are lost in the mists of time, but it can be traced to the Proto-Germanic ‘horon’, or “one who desires”. It also links to the Old Norse hora “adulteress,” Danish hore, Swedish hora, Dutch hoer, and Old High German huora. Going back even further to Proto-Indo-European language (the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages), whore has roots in ‘Ka’, meaning ‘to like, desire.’ Ka is a base that has produced words in other languages for ‘lover’, such as the Latin carus ‘dear’; Old Irish cara ‘friend;’ and the Old Persian kama ‘desire.’
‘Whore’ is not a universal word; the indigenous Aborigines, First Nation people and native Hawaiians have no word for ‘whore’, or indeed prostitution, as they do not share the West’s shaming of sexuality. It is interesting too that ‘whore’ is almost exclusively a feminine insult. I accept that ‘man-whore’ has now entered modern language, and certainly ‘son of a whore’ has been an insult historically directed at men; but ‘whore’ is absolutely an insult directed at women. But, ‘whore’ is not the exclusive preserve of men, to hurl at unsuspecting women at will; women have called each other whores all throughout history. Historical court records are full of defamation cases of woman calling each other ‘whores’ and all manner of other sexual insults. Tudor women were regularly brought before the courts for defaming other women as ‘hedge whores’, ‘begger whores’, ‘drunken bitch whores’, ‘black mouthed, witch whores’; and in 1627, Isabel Yaxley complained of a neighbour alledging she was a ‘whore’ who could be ‘fucked for a pennyworth of fish’.
John Webster’s The White Devil (1612) explores narratives around badly behaved women. In one memorable scene, Monticelso defines what a whore is … Monticelso doesn’t admit it, but what is driving this rant is a fear of women, fear that they can wield power over men; they can ‘teach man wherein he is imperfect.’ Here, whore is not a sex worker, she is a woman who has authority over a man, and must be shamed into silence at all costs. Historically, ‘whore’ had been used to attack women who have upset the status quo and asserted themselves, usually in an attempt to reassert sexual control and dominance over her. But, unlike the word ‘prostitute’, whore is not tied to a profession, but rather to a perceived moral state. Which is why many trailblazing women, with no connection to the sex trade, were attacked as ‘whores’; Mary Wollstonecraft, Phulan Devi, even Margaret Thatcher were all labelled whores by those who were angered at their power. Maybe ‘whore’ has less to do with sex than we think.
Let’s end this edition of Shane’s Excellent New Words with a number.