By Any Other Name

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

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.

-Maggie McNeill

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40 Responses to “By Any Other Name”

  1. #1 |  Kutani | 

    This post reminds me of one of my favorite jokes:

    Four Oxford dons were taking their evening walk together and as usual were engaged in casual but learned conversation. On this particular evening, their conversation was about the names given to groups of animals, such as a “pride of lions” or a “gaggle of geese.”

    One of the professors noticed a group of prostitutes down the block, and posed the question, “What name would be given to that group?” The four fell into silence for a moment, as they pondered the possibilities.

    At last, one spoke: “How about ‘a Jam of Tarts’?” The others nodded in acknowledgement as they continued to consider the problem. A second professor spoke: “I’d suggest ‘an Essay of Trollops.'” Again, the others nodded. A third spoke: “I propose ‘a Flourish of Strumpets.'”

    They continued their walk in silence, until the first professor remarked to the remaining professor, who was the most senior and learned of the four, “You haven’t suggested a name for our ladies. What are your thoughts?”

    Replied the fourth professors, “‘An Anthology of Prose.'”

  2. #2 |  Psion | 

    A hooker making an obscure Star Trek reference? And people don’t believe in paradise! Since sci-fi has made its way into the discussion, I’m reminded of Inara’s objections to the word “whore” on the show Firefly. Unless I’m mistaken, her preferred word was “companion” — which always fell on my ears as sounding like a PC reference to a pet.

    What did you think of Firefly’s approach to sex for money, Ms. McNeill?

  3. #3 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    The history and culture of Whoredom are interesting.
    In Japan my friend ran a tavern and told me the place around the corner called “Trendy Campus Pub” was a “Blowjob bar.” Full of curiosity, I tried to get in a couple times but was told to go away.
    I finally made it inside one night, past the little gnome with the cell phone. My friend was right. Whiskey, some chips, some banter, and a juicy BJ for about $65. Imagine trying to have one of those places in the Land of the Free.

  4. #4 |  Ted S. | 

    As a Scrabble player, I’m fond of the word “quean”, since it’s just the right length to put the Q on a double letter score and the N on a double word score for big points.

    In real life, however, everybody would confuse it with “queen”.

  5. #5 |  ken | 

    I like Terry Pratchett’s take;

    ‘ladies of negotiable affection’

  6. #6 |  David | 

    Or “seamstresses.”

  7. #7 |  Bramblyspam | 

    Finnish, like French, has a term that literally translates to “joygirl”. I’d nominate that as a suitable term for widespread use, one that sounds pleasant as can be. “Whore” just sounds like scum, and “prostitute” like criminal.

    Then again, there is something to be said for not calling yourself the sex-worker equivalent of “African-American”.

  8. #8 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Let’s not forget : Belle du jour. Preferably one who looks like
    Catherine Deneuve.

  9. #9 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Thanks, Maggie.

    Back when I was more active on the topic of sex-related moronitude, I sensed that hookers didn’t like the word prostitute. It seemed a bit like an inside joke at the time, like when everyone in the room rolls their eyes at something you said, but you haven’t a clue why. I decided not to explore it for fear of looking like an ignorant idiot. Interesting how that trivial matter made me self conscious, even though I was completely at ease posting about the larger topic of women’s rights as if I had it all figured out (which, of course, I had).

  10. #10 |  Windy | 

    How about “potop” short for “purveyors of the oldest profession”? Which, I would add, is probably the most honest profession of all, and which profession should have never been criminalized. When one thinks about it with clarity, most women trade sex for benefits, is that not what marriage is all about, why should those who take money for sexual acts directly be considered criminals when those who take it in other forms, or indirectly, are not?

  11. #11 |  Captain Noble | 

    +1 internets to you, MM, for a Star Trek:TOS reference.

  12. #12 |  Sin | 

    The only name that comes to mind is Lady of the Evening. I may be an odd ball but I have not nor will ever use the services of these Ladies. I’m not religious at all… in fact an atheist for over 50 years but it has always seemed to me that love making should include love and be more than 2 bodies slamming together. On the other hand I have no objection to anyone else using these Ladies services. What really caught my attention was your not allowing words to have power over you. I’m 68 and use that same logic against any form of verbal bullying especially when I was a teen. It works very well. You can’t just use it and suppress your feelings… it has to be believed for it to work and it sounds like you believe it.

  13. #13 |  el coronado | 

    Am partial to “pro”, myself. As anyone who deals with *any* service-oriented business/employee, it’s always a pleasure when you can deal with a true professional. No muss, no fuss; done right the first time; service with a smile.

  14. #14 |  John | 

    Man, my decision to pretend all articles written by Maggie were written by Radley and vice versa is paying off.

  15. #15 |  Bill | 

    Well, since Radley is listed a a Friend of Whores (which is very cool) dubbed by Maggie, that alone is enough to make it cool. Trollop makes me crack up though each time I hear it, I remember that piece where McCain supposedly called his meal ticket, er, I mean billionairess wife a Trollop. If there’s a bigger ‘whore’ than McCain I don’t know who it is. Problem is, there are many career prostitutes who are good people – being good has nothing to do with your sexual behavior – but I can’t think of a single Good Career Politician – so we need a word to describe the Reprehensible form of ‘whore’ and Senator and Representative are already taken. I just wouldn’t want to good whores of the world getting confused with the wretched ones b/c we don’t have a more distinguishing way of titling.

  16. #16 |  Fishwood | 

    Agreed Bill, if “whore” becomes the preferred word for this profession, we’re left wondering what is the correct metaphorical word for folks who, as you accuse McCain, do other things for money. I thought there might be a vacuum in the other direction, but I suppose “slut” is being reclaimed by women who have lots of sex but do not get paid. (We may still need good words to distinguish between the speaker approving or disapproving of the motivations of such women, between “having a healthy sexual appetite” and “giving it away too cheaply”.)

  17. #17 |  Weird Willy | 

    It’s good to see a mention of Norma Jean Almodovar. Not being up on the latest developments in the various sex workers’ rights organizations, I did not realize that Ms. Almodovar had become a leading voice for reform of laws governing prostitution. I met Norma Jean shortly after her release from prison at a presentation she gave to a local Libertarian group in Van Nuys, California. I remember being taken with her stark, frank, eminently sensible and realistic approach to things. I especially liked the slogan she was then promoting in advocacy of legalized prostitution: “Sell your ass, not your soul!”

    One thing I found surprising about her at that time was that she apparently had a strong aversion to being touched in public. After speaking with her for several minutes, I excused myself from her company and offered her a warm, farewell hug (I figured she could use one in light of her recent ordeal). To say she reacted negatively would be a gross understatement. Her body stiffened, she stammered, her face contorted into the likeness of a demonic Hellion, and she nearly evacuated her bowels. I would have thought that a sex worker would not be so inclined to recoil from another person’s touch. Anyway, I am certainly glad to know that people such as her, and you, Maggie, continue lobbying to repeal the system of senseless and arcane anti-prostitution laws that presently afflicts this country.

  18. #18 |  Xenocles | 


    If I recall correctly, Inara was a member of a class of extensively trained and licensed professionals that bore the name companion. That exclusivity seemed to be the root of her irritation with the label “whore.” When the crew helped a brothel staffed with women who were not so accredited, she called the women there whores with what seemed to be strictly professional judgement.

  19. #19 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Since we’re talking about hookers, I think this video makes an interesting point about the hypocrisy of anti-prostitution laws (courtesy of my son who sent me the link about two minutes ago).

    Also, I am currently (finally) reading Norma Jean Almodovar’s book, “Cop to Call Girl”. I swapped a few messages with her before I started I was instantly impressed with her knowledge and razor sharp arguments against laws and negative attitudes regarding prostitution. When she speaks, she elevates the entire profession and you walk away feeling you’ve learned something.

  20. #20 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #1 – Brilliant!
    #2 – One of these days I’m going to get around to watching Firefly; my best friend owns it, but I just haven’t taken the time to see it yet. I’m told it’s excellent.
    #2 & #11 – ;-)
    #14 – I’m trying to wrap my brain around that!

  21. #21 |  johnl | 

    The fille de joie has a really good sound and the remark in #7 that there is a Finnish word similar suggests a universal appeal. Not to mix English and French, fungirl would work instead of joygirl.

  22. #22 |  Ted S. | 

    Finnish, like French, has a term that literally translates to “joygirl”. I’d nominate that as a suitable term for widespread use,

    I hope you mean “joygirl” and not the Finnish “ilotyttö”, which I presume non-Finns would have trouble pronouncing. ;-) If memory serves, Finnish also has the word “ilotalo” which literally translates to “joyhouse” but means “brothel”.

  23. #23 |  Ted S. | 

    thought there might be a vacuum in the other direction, but I suppose “slut” is being reclaimed by women who have lots of sex but do not get paid.

    I think we need to claim the word “slut” to refer to the Tiger Woodses of the world who sleep around. It shouldn’t just be for women.

  24. #24 |  Other Sean | 


    The Firefly pushers are not misleading you. The Inara character mentioned above is worlds away from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stock character we’ve all been conditioned to expect in dramatic portrayals of the profession.

    The show even describes a more or less libertarian system for providing security in the sex trade, since it’s the clients who have to compete for good ratings and avoid any behavior that might get them blacklisted by a network of self-employed providers.

    Plus, the central government is totally evil…and look, you’ve just got to watch the series.

  25. #25 |  Southern Man | 

    A sex post with a Trek reference? I think I love you. May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet.

    And I’m following your blog now, if for ulterior motives: if I could find an “escort” (my preferred term) in a manner that was safe (that is, wouldn’t get me arrested or beaten up or give me an STD or cost me my job) I’d do it in a heartbeat. Educate me!

  26. #26 |  B | 

    Been reading your posts and trying to imagine myself buying sex. I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t even like buying a girl a drink. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

  27. #27 |  Jason | 

    Oh, Maggie, I’m disappointed you haven’t seen Firefly yet! Firefly references would replace your Star Trek references once you saw it… you’d talk about “a special hell” for the Prohibitionists.

  28. #28 |  Pricknick | 

    Now I can call my wife a whore and not feel bad about expressing myself.
    Luv you!

  29. #29 |  John C. Randolph | 

    I wanted to insult such a woman I’d call her a trollop.

    If I wanted to insult any woman I’d call her a Feinstein, but that’s just me…


  30. #30 |  John C. Randolph | 

    I remember that piece where McCain supposedly called his meal ticket, er, I mean billionairess wife a Trollop.

    Yeah, technically she’s the trick and he’s the gigolo, since the money came from her daddy’s government-supported liquor monopoly.


  31. #31 |  Adrian Ratnapala | 

    I think our guest has good taste in words, but do “harlot”, “doxy” and “strumpet” actually mean “prostitute”. To me they all have different meanings, and none have much of a commercial connatation, but don’t really know their etymology (also I don’t know “demimondaine”, fille de joie).

  32. #32 |  KristenS | 

    I shocked Maggie hasn’t seen Firefly! Wowzah! And it’s only one season + a movie, so it’s not too taxing, time-wise.

    “Whore” just sounds like scum

    I’m wondering if you read the post?

  33. #33 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    Fishwood, Weird Willy might have an answer for you– refer to people who sell what shouldn’t be sold as soul-sellers, or if you prefer a non-metaphysical approach, as people who’ve sold out their ethics.

    Maggie, do you have any theories about why many men are prejudiced against female sex workers? The prejudice seems very weird to me– as though people who love food would be prejudiced against those who cook for money.

    Thanks for the detailed etymology– it was amazing to see similar sounds echoing through so many languages.

  34. #34 |  Goober | 

    Nancy – my guess, in answer to your query, is that people see sex as being quite a bit different from cooking a meal.

    It isn’t even old puritanical beliefs systems at work, in my opinion, making it different. it is 1,000s of years of experience in the matter.

    The fact is that up until pretty recently, a woman having sex with a man was putting herself at risk of pregnancy every time, and that pregnancy without the security of a male breadwinner throughout most of history was a very, very bad thing for women, when back int he day, she was likely not going to be able to win the bread herself as well as take care of her kids (which used to be a full time job just in and of itself – just think about putting up enough food for winter and doing laundry without any modern convenience – it was a daunting task, no doubt).

    Modern society has made this less of an issue, what with reliable birth control and modern conveniences that make it possible for a woman to both win the bread and care for a family, but the hard-wired predilection towards looking at sex a little differently is still there.

    None of this is to be taken as a personal endorsement of single motherhood, since I still believe that two parents (even non-traditional parents) is better than one for a lot of different reasons. It’s just that sex and motherhood don’t have to be tied together anymore, but the old belief systems are still there.

    That being said, my personal predilection is towards monogamy and marriage, since that is what I went after, have, and am quite happy living with. However, I’m not ignorant enough to think that my way is the only way to live, nor am I trying to say that marrying someone without first determining that you’re sexually compatible is a good idea, either. i had partners before I got married, so I’m certainly not a “save yourself for marriage” type of person.

    As for men who are prejudiced against sex workers, i think I can speak to that, also. I do not think that i could have married my wife had she been a prostitute prior to our meeting, and I certainly would not have been okay with her being one after we got together, and the reason for that is entirely selfish – I want to be special to my special person because I am still tied up in the belief that sex is special, and a special thing that a man and wife share. I want intimacy to be between me and her, and no one else, because my ego could not withstand her sharing her body with another man. Period. It is entirely selfish. Her turning our special intimacy into a commodity that could be bought and sold would degrade the quality of that special intimacy between us in my eyes, and would probably result in the relationship not working out. i have no doubt that my wife feels the same way. it’s why we chose monogamy and marriage, and why straying from that monogamy would result in an end to our relationship. I’m having trouble explaining it, so I hope you understand that men’s disrespect for working girls springs from her commoditizing something that they (subconsciously, at least) think should be theirs, and theirs alone.

    Guys like Maggie’s husband are either wired differently than guys like me to not have that hangup, or their ego is strong enough to withstand that selfish desire to have her all to himself.

    yes, it is kind of terrible in a way, but I can live with that as long as she can, also. They say that one must “know thyself” and I am willing to accept me for all my flaws and faults, and one of those is that I am simply too insecure to allow my wife to sleep with another man, nor be involved with a woman who does so for a living. So far, we’ve been together happily for 15 years and it is working for us.

    Did any of that make sense?

  35. #35 |  Deoxy | 

    What I thought was funny about the Star Trek reference was the placement of the picture, such that I just saw the top of it at first, and there were these “hooker” references, and I thought, “Hmm, I didn’t think TJ Hooker had any scenes of him dressed like that…”. And then it was a ST reference instead… heh.

    Been reading your posts and trying to imagine myself buying sex.

    I’m the same – heck, I don’t even enjoy it as much with my wife if she’s just doing it for my benefit.

  36. #36 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    Goober, what you say is reasonable in a “one person’s ramble inside their head” sort of way, but it doesn’t explain the degree of contempt (“whore” has to be reclaimed because it’s a serious insult for a lot of people) and sometimes violence, even from men who are customers for prostitutes.

  37. #37 |  MPH | 

    I recall a friend of mine bragging that he “had never paid for it in his life”. So I pointed out that meant that every woman he’d had sex with he hadn’t bought them dinner, or a drink, or entertainment, etc., or provided them with anything of value.

    I’d gladly bet with every man reading this that they’ve paid for sex with every woman they’ve had it with, just the payment wasn’t necessarily in cash. I know I’d come out ahead overall. Because unless every sexual encounter you had was what the author of “The Fear of Flying” called a “zipless fuck” (you meet, you have sex, you go your separate ways never to see each other again, in that order and about that fast), you paid for it.

    But as to Maggie’s question about what term to use, don’t forget tart (mentioned above in the joke told by #1)., which means “a prostitute or a promiscuous woman. “

  38. #38 |  Other Sean | 


    My favorite retort to anyone who says he never paid for it is: “Oh, so you prefer to get your sex exclusively by begging and lying?”

  39. #39 |  Goober | 

    but it doesn’t explain the degree of contempt (“whore” has to be reclaimed because it’s a serious insult for a lot of people) and sometimes violence, even from men who are customers for prostitutes.

    See, this can easily be explained, too. it has nothing to do with the woman being a prostitute and everything to do with the fact that some men hate women and do things to hurt them. Wives get beat. Girlfriends have to take out restraining orders. Daughters learn to put on mascara heavily to hide the bruises. These things happen, unfortunately, all the damned time.

    Some men are just bastards, and the fact that working girls typically can’t go to the police to get redress from an abusive john for fear of being prosecuted, herself, just leads to them being easier targets for these a-holes. The violence and so forth has nothing to do with their being a prostitute and everything with their being an easy target.

    Statistically speaking, a prostitute is less likely to have family that will miss her if she doesn’t come home. She is less likely to be able to go to the police to get help. She is less likely to GET any help even if she does go to the police (you can’t rape a whore, they will say). See what I mean?

    Generally speaking, I don’t think that you are seeing rage against whores, per se, but rage against women in general, and whores are just an easy target.

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