Slutwalks, Whores, and Broads: What’s In a Word?

The recent controversy over Slutwalks worldwide has gotten everyone atwitter over the terminology used to denigrate women once again, but I tried to stay out of it personally. I kind of love the idea of reclaiming the word “slut” and reveling in the freedom it can afford. In the same way that porn performers often tell me that they find liberation and joy in throwing off social mores about sexual behavior and morality, I think that there can be a certain expulsion of long-held breath in reveling in the use of a word we’ve long avoided because it had power over us. So “slut” means sexually promiscuous–so what? That has nothing to do with our right to sovereignty over our bodies or images. So yeah, I say, Slutwalk away!
For a while now, I’ve felt peaceful about words like “slut” and “whore” because I don’t like the idea of giving simple words power over a group of people. I don’t like thinking that a four- or five-letter word that could injure me any more than I let it. Sure, feelings might get hurt when epithets are thrown around in the right context, but I believe words like that are only as powerful as the person hearing them or the context they’re used in.I have often felt that the more we react to a word used in anger or ignorance, the more power we give it to hurt us. And that seems silly to me. So I like to think I don’t care if people use it about me as long as I know my own truth.
Of course, I’ve never been called one of those words by a Canadian police officer or written off as “deserving of rape” because I might have fallen into one of those categories, so I’m speaking from a privileged position. I’ve never been tested on my philosophical stance, really. But recently, I had the idea brought up to me in a completely unexpected context and it got me thinking. I arrived early for an event for the Poetry Brothel here in New York, of which I’m a member. Being a group of people that is not easily offended, and preferring an in-your-face approach to poetry, we often call the members of the Brothel “poetry whores.” I’ve always felt pretty good about this–we sell our poems for cash. So the title is fitting, it seems to me.
But when I arrived at an event early and introduced myself to some of the women there, one asked me in an uncertain tone, “…are you one of the… um… broads?”
“The what?” I asked, confused.
“The broads. The members of the Brothel.”
“Oh,” I said, smiling. “It’s ok, you can call us whores. We use the word all the time. It is a Brothel, after all.”
She cringed when I said it. “I’m of the generation that doesn’t like that word,” she said. “I’d prefer ‘broads.'”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Call us whatever you want.”
But when she walked away, I gave it a few moments’ reflection and realized that though I don’t find either word particularly offensive, I’d rather be called a whore than a broad. Here’s why: particularly as pertains to the Brothel, “whore” may be an ugly word that can be broadly and incorrectly applied, but its strongest implication is the exchange of sex for money. Selling sex (or in this case, a sexy poetry reading). And while that’s been denigrated by our society for ages, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling sex. Why not? It’s the most obviously sellable thing on the planet, aside from food. Of course there are all kinds of issues that go along with the practice of selling sex–there are problems with consent, slavery, trafficking of human beings, respect, and so much more. But the actual principle of selling sex? The act of being a person who sells sex? I see no problem with it.
Now, “broad,” on the other hand? Personally, once again, I don’t have a particular issue with the word. It’s a mostly-outdated term that doesn’t get used in earnest often enough to make itself too terribly problematic at a practical level. But it is a derogatory term and its power to deride lies in the fact that it is another word for woman. It doesn’t imply anything about sexuality, or the sale of sex–it just implies that women, all of them, are indiscriminately less. And deserve a term that shows this less-ness. And that term is “broad.” I don’t like that one little bit. Call me a woman–that’s what I am. But don’t write me off as a “broad” just because of my gender.
Just a little musing…

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