Sluts, Whores, and Slutty Whores

I was just thinking about the importance of a novel’s (or, to a lesser degree, blog post’s) title. We learn that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (nor, probably, its title), but we all do anyway. Doubly guilty. To explain the title of this post, I was thinking about the research I conducted for Heart of a Dove, which is after all a story about a former prostitute. I learned a great deal about the etymology of words such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore.’ ‘Whore,’ especially, is a loaded word with a long and prestigious history, laced with double meaning, negative connotation. It’s a word that, once applied, sticks, perhaps unalterably. An ugly demonstration of the power of words.

To me, the word brings immediately to mind Miss Lorena (a.k.a. the whore) from Lonesome Dove, who is arguably the strongest and most intriguing character in the series. In the book, the word ‘whore’ is used as both a matter-of-fact descriptor of her (the way you might casually say, “My mom is a professor”) and as a sharp-edged weapon meant to hurt her. From the time I first read Lonesome Dove, I have adored Lorena. (Other than Gus, she is my favorite character in the book.) The story would not be the same without her. And it’s BECAUSE she is a whore that she is so darn interesting. I want to read about her and her experiences because I truly feel for her. And because they are fascinating.

Lorena’s experiences give her insight into human nature that few possess. Hardship forming your character, that’s what that is; the reshaping, testing and eventual strengthening of a soul. Many of the books I’ve read featuring or mentioning a woman of “easy virtue” often go on to underscore the idea that not only are these women so much more interesting than other women, but that they have a deeper understanding of humanity. And probably they aren’t going to judge YOU. Further, when researching the lives of actual prostitutes (in my book’s case, women who lived in the 1860s-70s) I read about and then reflected upon the judgment heaped atop these women, the loathing directed their way; on the one hand, it wasn’t surprising (although it was grossly unfair and hurts my soul on some level), but on the other, it was so completely hypocritical.

Even to this day, a woman labeled as a ‘whore’ is often hard-pressed to shed the reputation that inevitably also attaches to her. As though she’s somehow tainted?In the 19th century, whores were vilified by various groups (can I also take a moment to reflect upon how much I personally loathe sanctimonious people) and relegated to the lowest levels of “polite” society. Why? Why were they so feared and hated? What threat did they pose? As though all of society just might come crumbling down if they were allowed to be acknowledged as having a place in it. It hurts me, the way in which prostitutes remain without a real voice in history, when so much of history was shaped BECAUSE of them. Like it or not, it’s true. They were there (willingly or not) in the building of cities and countries, through wars and human migrations, the settling of new lands. Besides, they wouldn’t have been kept in business without the male element of the population, but somehow the scores/droves/hordes of their male customers haven’t been likewise degraded.

We’re so quick to judge the women; maybe we should fuck off. I’m also reminded of a Dolly Parton interview I once read. Not because I think the word applies to her, but because she told a great story relating to it. Dolly spoke of her roots, of being a child in a small, southern community, where people attended church OR ELSE, no matter how you behaved the other six days of the week. She went on to mention a member of the congregation, a woman who the other (sanctimonious with a capital S) women gossiped about. Dolly’s words about this woman who dared to dress and act differently – “I liked her style.” Even though I don’t know this woman, I think I like her style too. I like that she dared to ruffle the feathers of that congregation. Nice work.

My current work-in-progress is Grace of a Hawk, book three in my historical fiction series. I am encountering a great deal of incredibly amazing characters as I write, and further pondering the strange and fascinating world of 19th century prostitutes. And illusionists and sexy, dangerous outlaws (“lean as a drought year” but with broad, powerful shoulders, my favorite male build) and fiddle makers and ruthless sheriffs and one-eyed seers and horses that are in some ways more human than their owners. Sun setting long and low over the prairie and love being made in secret desperation, risking everything. I’m so very deeply sunk into this world. And I love it. Had to take a break from writing to post my thoughts about whores and sluts. Thanks for reading all the way through. Don’t be so judgmental in the future, if you have been in the past. You just read a post called Sluts, Whores, and Slutty Whores. haha 😉

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