“Oh, she’s a whore”: challenging everyday sexism and misogyny

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Whore. Such a simple word; yet it holds a tremendous amount of power. Within the English language there are numerous words designed to shame women for their sexual promiscuity, or simply reduce their confidence, self-worth and credibility in the space of a syllable. Whore. Slut. Hoe. Enter any one of these words into Google and you get an array of examples in which they might be used, and the ‘type’ of woman they describe. Easy. Loose.

Just over a year ago, Speaker John Bercow, accused Boris Johnson of making a “frankly sexist” remark towards Emily Thornberry in the House of Commons, referring to her as “Lady Baroness whatever”. Mr. Bercow curtly pointed out two reasons as to why the reference was inappropriate: “First of all, we don’t name call in this chamber. Secondly, we do not address people by the titles of their spouses”. Speaker John Bercow set an example of directly addressing a display of colloquial sexism that took place within the House of Commons. A year on, it is important we remember how Mr. Bercow swiftly and effectively challenged blatant yet colloquial sexism, and consider how we can do the same in our daily lives.

In my experience, people use ‘slut-shaming’ terms without thinking about the true meaning behind them. A few months ago, “oh, she’s a whore” was a sentence that came out of the mouth of a guy that was in my home. I had never met him before – he was someone my brother knew, sat in a group of about five guys in the kitchen. I was on the other side of the room on my laptop and hadn’t been taking note of their conversation. Yet, the confidence with which this boy said those words caught my attention, and I immediately felt uncomfortable. I remember my brother looking across to me embarrassed and apologetic, but saying nothing.

We are all guilty of allowing people to make controversial and bold statements that we don’t agree with or that make us feel uneasy at times.  We often allow them to slide because we don’t want to cause an issue or go against the crowd, especially amongst friends. However, something about this boy’s casual use of such a strong derogatory term – in my own house – made me speak up and question his statement. Without wanting to make my brother feel awkward, I felt it was necessary to challenge the guy’s transparent misogyny.

“Sorry to interrupt, but what makes her a whore?”

The boy looked up at me; clearly shocked and a little confused. Immediately his body language changed and he became defensive, even screwing up his face and raising his shoulders a little as he angled his body towards me. “Well, she sleeps around a lot and stuff, everyone’s shagged her” he replied, looking at some of the group for support. I paused for a second and then simply replied “I think that’s unfair for you to say, regardless of how many people a girl has slept with, calling her a whore is unnecessary and unkind. As long as she’s not hurting anyone’s feelings by doing it, what’s the harm in her sleeping with who she wants?”.

He looked at me and blushed slightly before muttering some form of response and turning his back to me. I decided that I’d made enough of a point and returned to my laptop, leaving the boys to carry on their conversation as they pleased. Now, I have no false sense of achievement here – calling the boy out on one sexual slur he used will not have magically changed the misogynistic outlook developed over the course of 17 years at once. But importantly, it did make him stop and think about what he said, why he was saying it and whether it was justified (which in my opinion, obviously, it was not).

Furthermore, the reaction of the other boys in our presence was interesting – no one jumped to his defence. None of them could even make eye contact with me, and they were visibly embarrassed. What became apparent was that in challenging the boy’s comment, it made the rest of the group aware of their part in the conversation. I can only hope that it made them consider what had been said, and question the opinions that had been voiced. By interrupting, I had challenged the colloquial misogyny and vocalised my disagreement without it leading to an argument.

A similar situation happened a few weeks ago with another guy I know. He was on Instagram and nudged the friend sat next to him on the sofa, holding out his phone, saying: “Can you believe her mum lets her go out like that?”. Again, I felt really uncomfortable. This person is someone I trust and would consider a good friend and so the comment he made not only disappointed and angered me but also took me by surprise. I turned to look him in the eye and asked “wear what?”, which was enough to catch his attention. I think he’d forgotten I was in the room as I’d been sat quietly on my own phone, and he backtracked quickly: “I mean, it’s not that bad to be fair”.

I asked to see the picture anyway. Reluctantly he showed me, and it was a picture of a girl dressed in a Lara Croft outfit. Passing back the phone, I asked him if he really thought what she was wearing was unacceptable. I pointed out that it was a costume worn frequently to parties, that the girl looked great, and that in all honesty I didn’t think it was his place to make a judgement. And as for the criticism of her mother? This girl was eighteen. A legally responsible adult, capable of buying alcohol, getting married, joining the military and voting, all without parental consent – but wearing a Lara Croft outfit? The comment made by my friend implied that the girl was incapable of making her own choice about what she wore; that she needed to seek permission.

“Can you believe her mum lets her go out like that?”

Looking at the picture again, my friend nodded at me, apologised and agreed that the comment he had made was unfair. Regardless of whether or not he truly thought I was right and that he had spoken out of turn, again he had been made to think about what he had said and the message behind it.

As with any form of prejudice, sexism and misogyny are learnt. They become a part of our thought process through the absorption of messages from society, peers, friends and family. It can easily become inherent in our beliefs, meaning that comments such as “oh, she’s a whore” or “can you believe her mum lets her go out like that?” casually slip out in conversation, with very little consideration of the implications. In both situations, I did not know the girls being talked about. If you overhear a conversation in which your friend is being spoken about in a derogatory way, it is more likely that you will step in and say something because you feel a sense of loyalty and connection to them.

However, I think it is increasingly important that we step up and raise our voices when we hear people making sexual slurs towards others that we don’t know. In a way it is more powerful; despite our lack of affinity, we still believe this person is worthy of respect and consideration, regardless of whether their “body count” is 0 or 100. Pacifism towards these statements can be just as harmful as actively voicing them because it allows misogynistic and sexist views to be normalised.

I think it is increasingly important that we step up and raise our voices when we hear people making sexual slurs towards others that we don’t know

I know that I wouldn’t have been able to address such harmful comments made around me when I was younger. Within the past year, my awareness of how to tactfully respond to controversial comments without exacerbating the situation has developed, meaning I have felt comfortable and confident in speaking up. Whilst it’s important to address wider gender discrimination issues present in society, simple challenges to sexism and misogyny that take place on a daily basis, often amongst peers, is equally as important in changing mindset and culture. This goes for women too, who are often passive and sometimes active in contributing to the degradation of each other.

I have three rules for challenging sexist comments in a non-aggressive fashion:

1) Ask a question that addresses the opinion voiced in their statement. This opens up discussion and causes someone to think about what they have actually said.

2) Give your own opinion. If you respond with ‘I’ as a pronoun, it reduces the likelihood of the situation escalating because you are simply giving your own opinion in return. Whilst this can be argued with, you can’t be told that you are wrong. Often when people have voiced controversial comments they are keen to move on without drawing further attention to it if it’s clear someone disagrees.

3) Be polite. Now, this might seem to be an odd one. You hear someone calling a girl a whore, and the way to respond is to be polite? Talk about ironic. But being polite when responding does three important things: Firstly, it demonstrates your response is controlled and logical rather than outwardly emotional which. Secondly, it shows assertion rather than aggression, meaning consequently. And finally, they are more likely to consider what you have said rather than laugh it off.

This goes for women too, who are often passive and sometimes active in contributing to the degradation of each other

No matter what you say, it is better to say something than to let a comment slip past unchallenged. Changing people’s beliefs does not happen in an instant. In the same way that prejudice is learnt, it has to be unlearnt. The more often simple, colloquial comments are called out on, the more people will remember the negative reactions their statements generated, and therefore the less likely they are to make them in the future. Humans are social beings who seek acceptance from those around us, and if you make it clear sexist comments are unacceptable, it reduces the likelihood that a person will do it again. Excuses for comments voiced by our friends, family and peers have to stop being made. As Mr. Bercow asserted to the House of Commons when Mr. Johnson belittled Ms. Thornberry: “No matter how senior a member, that parlance is not legitimate, it will not be allowed and it will be called out”.

Sexist and misogynistic comments should not be tolerated, regardless of the person whose mouth they flow from. Short, sharp, direct challenges to colloquial misogynistic and sexist statements, as demonstrated by Mr. Bercow, can sometimes be more effective than in depth conversations because they provoke an immediate emotional response; be it shock, embarrassment, protectiveness/defence, shame, regret or repentance. As Maya Angelou said: “people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. Although people may forget the exact dialogue that took place, it is unlikely that the subject of sexism, misogyny and degradation by sexual slur will be completely forgotten, which is the key part.

In the same way that prejudice is learnt, it has to be unlearnt

I’m aware from personal experience that it can be particularly intimidating to call out people’s comments when in a group, especially a group of guys. But often people laugh along because it is the path of least resistance, regardless of whether they agree or not. More importantly perhaps, people make statements that they believe other people want to hear, or because it makes them appear a certain way. Worryingly, people frequently do not consider the implications of what they are communicating. In the case of my friend, I can vouch for him being a good guy and don’t believe he truly holds those views of women. He’s been there for me many times when other guys have made comments or done unacceptable things towards me. But whether it’s a comment made out of character or not, it is still important to make people question what they are saying and the message implied behind it. And if you think it is their true belief and mindset, or if their response to you challenging their comment is to laugh, then ask yourself this question. Why surround yourself with people who can belittle and degrade you when there are so many more out there that will support you?

 

Photo by Chase Carter via Flickr

4 thoughts on ““Oh, she’s a whore”: challenging everyday sexism and misogyny

  • Calling people out on unacceptable behaviour is hard, even frightening in some circumstances. If unacceptable behaviour is not challenged, by definition, it is accepted. The new standard for acceptable behaviour includes what was previously unacceptable.

    Reply
    • Yeah lol, imagine calling 999 struggling to breathe and they say so ummm I’ve just got a few questions for you….. are you diagnosed with any a b c d e f g h I j k l m n o and are your pregnant? No I’m a virgin because I’ve managed crippling anxiety my whole life by smiling through the pain because if I started crying when would I stop? Lol so basically to be healthy, add to the NHS you take medication. Um no. To be happy you have to feel like a human being who lives on Planet Earth, in a 1st world country, with a health system funded by the tax payer, and the tax payer hates paying tax because they’re stealing my money to pay randomers. Hey there, I’m a randomer, my guy on the phone was like I suffer from panic attacks too, and it was like omg am I making a new friend rn?? So cute, but like currently I’m finding breathing diffult so um instead of trying to relate maybe just call a flipping ambulance like I wanted? Anyway lol 6 999 calls later, some made inside a hospital in Darlington lmao and the girl who can’t breathe but more importantly isn’t pregnant is feeling a little low in self esteem so she starts crying because, she’s worse off than Britney Spears. Where’s my Freedom campaign, ah that’s right, it’s my flat mates who text Hope you’re okay xx and then don’t see your message until 3 days later. Is time ticking faster for me, do we agree there are 24 hrs in the day and it is currently 4.35 am and I haven’t eaten since 2pm yesterday because I’ve forgotten because the 4* hospital in Darlington forgot to hire the nurse who’s job it was to check that the self isolating patient who had got covid a month previously and just arrived kicking and screaming onto the ward had had anything more than one Weetabix. So um clap clap clap NHS you gave me an eating disorder, more anxiety and made me realise that you hate the 50% who bleed through their vaginas every month. Kinda sounds like medieval times when you put it like that isn’t it. But hey I’m doing fine, I’m just anonymously posting on the internet because when I told my story to the NHS staff and my parents they slammed doors in my face, literally, and said ‘oh darling, you’re not well’.

      In the words of Taylor Swift: ‘”She would’ve made such a lovely bride
      What a shame she’s fucked in her head, ” they said.’
      Reference: Champagne Problems by Taylor Alison Swift & William Bowery

      Reply
  • Thank you so much for this enlightening article. You express beautifully the hostility toward woman the word “whore” when directed at a woman possesses. I’ve questioned people when I’ve heard them categorizing a woman as “whore.” They often defend themselves by saying “oh I say that about men too.” That does’t justify anything. And it’s a word that is 99.9% of time directed at a woman. Thank you for pointing out it’s blatant sexism and misogyny. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. That word was commonplace. I can’t believe it still is.

    Reply
  • The word whore makes you uncomfortable? Constantly putting boobs and butts in my face on Instagram makes me uncomfortable guess girls just get free passes

    Reply

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