Laurie Toby Edison

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Calling a Whore a Whore

Laurie and Debbie say:

We are deeply saddened by the apparent suicide of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “D.C. madam,” earlier this week. Palfrey seems to have killed herself rather than go back to jail. Susie Bright, who interviewed Palfrey last year, says:

I know you swore to me that you’d never serve another term in prison for prostitution, or anything else. You almost lost your eyesight the first time. I’m sure you asked your lawyers if there was any hope for your sentencing, and I guess it must have looked bleak.

I know how pissed you were. This was an act of revenge, and I know who you’re determined to haunt.

You were righteously furious at all the men who “walked away.”

I’m sure that goes quite a ways back, but it certainly includes the esteemed gents on your client list: Louisiana fundamentalist, Senator David Vitter; Abstinence Ambassador Randall Tobias, who squashed AIDS funds all over the world; “Shock and Awe” war profiteer, Harlan Ullman.

And that was just the expendable layer. None of them were charged with anything; all are living quite comfortably, in particular because they have no conscience whatsoever.

Palfrey isn’t the only reason these “esteemed gents” should be feeling ghosts breathing down their necks. As the news article linked above points out:

[Palfrey] was the second suicide related to the case. One of Palfrey’s call girls, Brandy Britton, a former University of Maryland professor, killed herself in January before she could go on trial for prostitution.

Since Susie made our first point so well, let’s just add one thing. Tens of thousands (or more) women and children in this country, and millions around the world, are enslaved as prostitutes, kept in wretched conditions, and treated like slime. Their cases almost never come to light except when a suicide is found. Yet the brothelkeepers who get prosecuted are the Deborah Jeane Palfreys and the Heidi Fleisses: the women who treat their girls (and their clients) with respect and care, as opposed to the (mostly) men who do just the opposite.

But what we really want to write about is the language of sex work. Gina DeVries, blogging at The Bilerico Project, says:

I asked my mother what prostitution was, why someone would do that. She told me that sometimes people need to make money and that prostitution is a reliable way to make it, that prostitution was the “world’s oldest profession.” She told me that my great-grandmother, Francesca, hung out with prostitutes, and had one hooker friend in particular named Maria. My Nana confirmed this fact about her mother very matter-of-factly. “Yeah, Ma would have the whore over,” she said to me, not a trace of malice in her voice.

Apparently, whenever Maria was over, Francesca would call to her children (in Italian), “The whore is over for dinner, set an extra place.”

I’ve always loved that. Francesca called the butcher the butcher and the barber the barber and the baker the baker; it makes sense that she would call the whore the whore. It makes me understand where my grandmother got her no-nonsense attitude.

Maybe Francesca’s friend the whore got called nastier names, or “whore” in a nastier tone of voice, in other parts of her life, but at least there was somewhere where she was just like the butcher or the baker.

We make complicated distinctions: we have whores and hookers, sex workers and call girls. And more and more we have the umbrella term “ho,” which anyone can use to put down, or just to describe any woman at any time. It’s a little like “cunt” that way (and just try to ask a presidential candidate if he called his wife a cunt).

As “ho” settles deeper into the language, it reflects the assumption that men are essentially buyers and women are essentially sellers. (This is one reason that “faggot” is the ultimate male insult, because faggots are seen as potential sellers, and thus less than men.) What’s worse, once you’ve bought from a whore, she knows what you like, how you like it, and how you treat her. She knows your secrets.

Brandy Britton died of the “crime” of selling what men wanted to buy. Deborah Jeane died of the twin crimes of selling what men wanted to buy, and of giving away men’s secrets to buy herself time and–she hoped–freedom. If Vitter and Tobias and Ullman are sleeping well these days, they shouldn’t be.

One Response to “Calling a Whore a Whore”

  1. littlem Says:

    What’s worse, once you’ve bought from a whore, she knows what you like, how you like it, and how you treat her. She knows your secrets.

    And that, I think, is what makes women so dangerous — or so perceived — for their “customer” men.

    Is there a worse circle of hell or karmic punishment for hypocrisy that causes others’ death and suffering? Can we file to request that somewhere?

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