I once called my mother a whore. We were playing double solitaire. A game that, between the two of us at, was a full contact sport. Slapping our cards down with no mind as to whether the other person’s hand might be in the way. In this particular game, we were neck-a-neck, cards piling up in the center at the speed of light, then we were both going to the same stack with the same card and my mum’s hand was quicksilver, hitting the mark before me. You whore. I shouted loud enough for the house to hear. She laughed with gleeful satisfaction. I wasn’t even grounded. That’s how complicit we were in our intensity. Even calling her a whore was allowed. I don’t know why, but that was one of the insults au-courant between my best friend and I. We felt very dangerous and risqué when we used the word.
Now, I hate the word. I hate all its implications. Of women demeaned. Of the judgment reserved for women and never their client-suitors. So, when a Soul Cycle instructor used the word the other day in class, my whole body snapped to angry attention. Here’s the context. Into the third song of the 45-minute workout he asked, Are you all sweating like a whore in church? ‘Cause if you’re not, you should be working harder.
First, it took me a minute to figure out what the expression even meant. The word whore had sidelined my reasoning capacity. Then, as my mind picked back through the expression, it dawned on me. Oh. She’s sweating, because her work is deemed a sin according to the doctrine of the religious institution, whose pews she’s seated in. Sweating because she has too much to repent. Judgment Day is coming for her. Sweating because she’s a woman who leverages her sexuality. Sweating because the lord on high will be displeased by her presence. Maybe he will smite her.
Why (oh why) would someone use that expression in a room full of strong, modern women? A young gay man, no less. He could have substituted himself into the expression, the implications are the same. And he would, at least, have been making a joke on himself (still not a nice joke, though humor is more excusable when we make ourselves the butt of the humor). Instead, he regurgitated what was, no doubt, an expression he heard in his childhood. Perpetuating values infused with religiosity and thus with patriarchal misogyny. I’m going to hazard a guess that the largest proportion of the women spinning that day did not look to the church as their arbiter of moral values. I doubt that even the instructor looks to the church as his moral beacon. Yet, there he was quipping in support of organized religion’s apparent mandate to control women and their bodies.
I contemplated speaking to him afterward. Trying to make light, yet still make clear what I’d found disturbing. I reasoned that he probably was not even aware of what he was saying, even that he might appreciate me pointing out the dissonance. Then I worried that he’d dismiss me as a cranky older woman. Then I worried that I was a cranky older woman, too easily triggered because my current life circumstance is high stress. And the result is that I have zero tolerance for any demeaning treatment of women.
What did I do? Nothing.
Except canvas various of my friends about their responses. Everyone, except me, had heard the expression before. While they all agreed it was offensive, when considered closely, they were split on whether I should have said something or not. Some agreed with my do nothing approach and others thought it was important to call such things out.
And, in case you think that calling women whores is a relic of church jokes, this happened to me and a woman friend the other day. We were out for a brisk morning walk together in a mixed-use bike-walk lane. Or so we thought. Until a cyclist zipping by said, Slut!
At first, as with the whore joke, we were both perplexed. We verified with each other that we’d heard correctly. Never mind that I was confused by the singular, when there were two of us. Was only one of us a slut? If so, which one? We deduced the angry cyclist thought we were infringing on the bike lane, after studying the available lanes more closely and noticing there was indeed a walking lane further over. I wonder if the insult applies only to women walking in bike lanes, or if it’s any woman doing an activity in an unsanctioned location. Push ups on a tennis court. Cycling in a walking lane. Is any unsanctioned activity by definition slutty? Does slut retain any sexual connotation? Or is the unsanctioned activity viewed as an indicator of loose morals? A gateway to turpitude.
What I’m sure of is that the cyclist wasn’t having a good morning.
There’s no true equivalence for whore and slut to describe a man. They are words with ugly intent. Normally I like to reclaim words and expressions and transmute them into a feminine power expression. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet with these words.