If I tell you I don’t care anymore if you call me a whore, what will you call me now? – Norma Jean Almodovar
In the comments to my Bobbie Gentry video last Friday, Dave Krueger asked:
Speaking of hookers, what are the rules (or traditions among those in the profession) regarding the use of words like whore, hooker, prostitute, street walker, etc? My personal philosophy is that there are no offensive words outside of the context in which they are used. In other words, intention plays a major roll, but alas, society deems that the mere arrangement of letter is all it takes to make a term taboo (which is why some terms are off limits regardless of the context).
So how do hookers feel about the descriptive titles people hang on them?
I started to answer in the comments, but quickly realized it needed a full post. The short answer is, “it depends.” Some women are very uptight about terminology, whereas others (myself included) feel that allowing words to have power over one’s feelings is like giving everyone who can speak a baseball bat and then daring them to hit one. The currently accepted polite term is “sex worker”, but unfortunately it’s much too vague; strippers, phone sex operators, dominatrices, porn actresses, etc are all sex workers as well, so using it to mean “hooker” is rather like using “health care worker” to mean “orthodontist”. That having been said, it’s probably the best choice for anyone outside the sex industry if he doesn’t want to offend; organized Australian hookers have even launched a campaign to get the media to stop using the legalistic “prostitute”, a word positively creaking under the weight of association with criminalization and inane police statements about our trade.
A number of us have decided to appropriate the word “whore” just as homosexuals took over “queer” and “dyke” and American revolutionaries commandeered “Yankee”; IMHO black people would have been much wiser to do the same, but that’s a discussion for another day. When one accepts a label it loses its power to hurt; when one avoids it one ends up being like the wimpy kid who ran crying to the teacher whenever anyone called him “fatty” or “boogers” or whatever. In addition to the social statement, I just like “whore”; it’s a venerable word with roots going back to the ancient Indo-European language, and is related to the Persian houri, the Arabic hur and the Greek porne (from which our word “pornography” is derived). It is of course also cognate to “harlot” (another personal favorite, though it sounds a bit affected nowadays) and may be connected to Har, one of the bynames of the Babylonian whore-goddess Ishtar.
In my experience, “hooker” is the slang term with the most widespread acceptance among American escorts; even most girls who are offended by “whore” seem OK with “hooker”, and one hears expressions like “hooker boards” (escort review websites) thrown about quite often. Other common terms with wide acceptance are “escort” (any mobile hooker), “call girl” (a slightly old-fashioned term for a high-end escort), “working girl” and “provider”, an internet term derived from the expression “provider of services”. I’ve never much cared for that one, as it always reminds me of “The Providers”, the disembodied brains from “The Gamesters of Triskelion”.
Generally speaking, I tend to use the terms interchangeably and even throw in a few archaic or foreign ones such as “harlot”, “doxy”, “demimondaine”, fille de joie, “strumpet”, etc from time to time. This is partly for the sake of variety and partly as a way of undermining the “whorearchy”, the class system which exists among sex workers; though I take a more pragmatic view than some, I also believe we’d be better off with less income-and-legality based snobbishness in our community. Still and all, there are some terms which refer to specific work conditions and are therefore not interchangeable; for example, a brothel girl is not an escort and a streetwalker isn’t a masseuse. Of all the terms I use frequently, “streetwalker” is probably the most contentious in some quarters; the more politically correct advocates feel it’s pejorative and so prefer “street-based sex worker”, but I have a constitutional aversion to artificial multi-word phrases used in place of perfectly good traditional words. Besides, to me “streetwalker” is simply a descriptor rather than a judgment; if I wanted to insult such a woman I’d call her a trollop.