When the Fight Against Slut-Shaming Overlooks Victim-Blaming

Although I’m thrilled that so many people are fighting back against slut-shaming, I’ve been disturbed to see a significant gap in the discussion. When some asshole says something typically misogynist like, “She’s dressed like a prostitute; she can’t expect men to respect her,” there are plenty of feminists willing to step up to defend a woman’s right to wear whatever the hell she wants without becoming “fair game.”

But where are the people taking issue with that tiny little phrase “like a prostitute”?

Nobody, at least no one I’ve seen, ever brings up the whore-shaming, which is what I’m going to call the “permissible” slut-shaming of sex workers. No one even bats an eye at it. We take issue with sexually active women being called whores, but no one ever tries to defend the “whore” herself.

That bothers me—a lot!

Over the weekend, I made the mistake of paying attention to a discussion amongst some Christians. Normally I try to stay away from things like that because my stupid-tolerance meter quickly overloads, but I hung around and watched for a while. The topic was on lying, so it made some sense to bring up Rahab, the prostitute in the Old Testament who helped two Jewish spies escape from Jericho before that famous non-battle where they knocked down the walls of the city by blowing trumpets (why did that sound so much more believable when I was locked away in funderland?). However, just as quickly as she was brought up, someone else dismissed her as “a whore who did God’s will.”

Just like that everything about her was summed up—she was a whore, aka a piece of filth not worthy of anyone’s attention, who redeemed herself by doing a really good deed. And her life revolved around her whoredom/shame and her obedience/redemption.

I was the only one who pointed out that it was offensive.

Other people tried to defend her with suggestions like maybe she wasn’t a prostitute or she was one but then she stopped. But the attitude that she, as a sex-worker, was somehow “less than” was accepted silently.

It’s not so different from Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a disciple of Jesus—except that there is no indication that she was ever a prostitute in any of the gospels. The rumor that she was a prostitute was completely fabricated to discredit her and remove some of her power as a close female follower of Jesus . . . because somehow spreading a rumor about her selling sex is the worst insult you can give to this feminist Christian icon. As a prostitute, everything in her life suddenly becomes shameful and tainted except for the part about Jesus taking her under his wing. (Notice it defames her, but Jesus’ purity never comes into question for hanging out with a prostitute.)

But it’s not just Bible characters who are being whore-shamed. Real people are experiencing this. Just this past week, a court in Texas ruled that a man was not guilty of murder after fatally shooting a call girl who refused to have sex with him. The reason? He was just trying to get what he paid for.

And if you thought the victim-blaming was bad for “promiscuous” rape victims, it’s nothing compared to what sex workers go through. They’re much less likely to be believed if they report that they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped because, as a society, we have this idea in our heads that being a sex worker means you don’t get to say “no.” (Which is stupid and a little bit like saying a store owner can’t get robbed because he has stuff for sale.)

But why? Why do we view sex workers as the scum of the earth? Why are they the most insulting thing to compare other women to? Why is their entire life defined by their work? Why are their choices revoked because of their day–er–night job?

As far as historical judgment, Rahab making a living by getting money for sex isn’t all that different from the other form of “making a living” that was open to women at the time—you know, getting married and having sex with a man so he would put a roof over her head and feed her. Marriage wasn’t about love in the past. It was about ownership of women—kind of like buying a permanent prostitute for the home. If anything Rahab should be a feminist hero for choosing a slightly more independent life!

For that matter, you never see David or Solomon dismissed as “womanizers who did God’s will.” No, they’re biblical heroes who “messed up.” The fact that David’s mess-up was murder and sexual coercion seems to be largely overlooked. The “good” far outweighs the “bad” . . . as long as you’re a man.

Modernly, we seem to be capable of making strides towards allowing women the same sexual freedom as men, but we’re still hung up on the idea of them making money that way (even though we don’t seem to have a problem with men hiring prostitutes–again typical double standard).

Who cares if a woman is a sex worker? If she thinks being a prostitute or a stripper is the best job ever, that’s her free choice. I will fight for her right to do as she pleases with her body. I will fight for her right to be viewed as a human being, treated with respect, given access to health care and protection under the law. No matter what her profession is (no matter whether I like her profession or not), it doesn’t diminish her humanity.

I wish I could end my piece there, with the whole “stop being so judgmental” bit, except that there’s a far greater problem with whore-shaming than just judging someone else’s free choices.

Sometimes, there is no choice.

According to Somaly Mam’s website (and some fancy math on my part), approximately 10 million women and girls are sex slaves. In some countries, children as young as three are sold into prostitution. The sex trade here in the United States is devastatingly successful. Since I can’t summarize it better than this handy little bullet list from The Covering House, I’m posting their list here:

  • Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. (United Nations)
  • Approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • The average victim may be forced to have sex up to 20-48 times a day.(Polaris Project)
  • Fewer than 100 beds are available in the United States for underage victims.(Health and Human Services)
  • Department Of Justice has identified the top twenty human trafficking jurisdictions in the country:” Houston
• El Paso
• Los Angeles
• Atlanta
• Chicago
• Charlotte
• Miami
• Las Vegas
• New York
• Long Island
• New Orleans
• Washington, D.C.
• Philadelphia
• Phoenix
• Richmond
• San Diego• San Francisco
• St Louis
• Seattle
• Tampa  (Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • One in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. (National Runaway Hotline)

This is where my biggest beef with whore-shaming lies. NO ONE ever wonders if the prostitutes they are dismissing, devaluing, and dehumanizing even want to be doing what they are doing. No one wonders if they are there of their own free will or if they’ve been forced into this life and don’t see a way out. People are so caught up with what prostitutes symbolize that they can’t even see the human being behind the label; with the numbers of sex slaves out there, consent should be the first question anyone asks.

It’s bad enough that we dehumanize someone for their consensual sexual activity. Victim blaming and slut shaming are never okay. Sex workers deserve as much respect, safety, and protection as any other person. But when dealing with people who don’t even have a choice, the whore-shaming is that much more sinister! Whore-shaming reinforces the sex trafficker’s power over his victims—telling them that they are worthless, they don’t have the right to safety, they don’t have the right to say “no,” they don’t have the right to be treated as a human being. We need to get over the stupid false dichotomies between the virgin vs. whore and sex-for-pleasure vs. sex-for-money and start worrying about the very real difference between consent and rape.

prostittution meme

7 thoughts on “When the Fight Against Slut-Shaming Overlooks Victim-Blaming

  1. Aibird says:

    It’s disturbing how people ignore this issue. Thank you for writing about it. Do you mind if I link it to others? Sometimes people can’t seem to get it until the facts are shoved into their face. I try to bring this topic up, and it’s so frustrating and unsettling how people will try to explain it away like it’s somehow alright. No, it’s never alright.

    • Definitely feel free to share. I’m so frustrated too! I’ve been trying to raise awareness about sex trafficking for years, but as soon as the topic comes up, it’s like people suddenly stop up their ears and lose their tongues. Talk talk talk . . . as much as you can. Until those in the sex industry have access to protection rather than prosecution, we will never be able to fully fight rape culture.

  2. Great article. It’s so rare that I come across anyone who can simultaneously support sex workers’ choices AND acknowledge that probably most women in the sex industry didn’t have free choice. Usually one group is used as a debate point to make the other invisible.

    • Sadly it’s true. When you strip it all down to its bare bones, both the groups fighting for sex worker rights and the groups fighting against sex trafficking are fighting for the same things, but people who support the one seem unable to recognize the potential for an ally in the other. It’s been a learning process for me. A year ago, I would have been adamantly against sex worker rights because I was so horrified about sex trafficking that I assumed it must all be destructive. It’s taken some very patient and open-minded friends to encourage me to think. I hope that since I was able to grow in my awareness of how these issues fit together that others can as well.

  3. […] “When the Fight Against Slut-Shaming Overlooks Victim-Blaming.” (Sometimes Magical, June […]

  4. […] Nobody, at least no one I've seen, ever brings up the whore-shaming, which is what I'm going to call the “permissible” slut-shaming of sex workers. No one even bats …  […]

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