Borrowing insults and adding irony
A singer friend of mine pinged me a few weeks ago after having received feedback about one of her songs; in the song she plays around with the word “hooker” to refer to herself after a guy bought her breakfast the morning after. The feedback was that someone found the song sex worker phobic, and my friend wanted to know what I thought, knowing that I'd heard the song before.
I reminded her that I’m hardly a voice for all sex workers, this is just my opinion, right? And I told her that I knew she is supportive of sex workers, and I applaud her filthy feminist tactics and content, both on stage and off, and she’s got a voice that would make an angel cream in its robe. But yeah, I said, the song always gives me a little pause.
The thing is, she's by far not the only person who uses that word, so I've thought about this for a long time, ever since I starting getting politicized about sex work. Here are my thoughts:
For starters, “hooker” is one of those words that is maybe better left for the people who have been called it, as an insult, by outsiders to their world. The h-word is like “queer." It's a word that has almost always been used in a derogatory or dismissive way. In these cases I have argued, and would do so again, that reclaiming the words has to happen from within the targeted groups. (I don’t even know what happens when we are done reclaiming this linguistic territory. Is it forever protected as a wildlife refuge, or put up on the market for condo developers or what?)
I don’t even say “hooker” out loud—and when I write it I use quotes—but I’m not saying that you can’t say “hooker.” It's a (relatively) free country, at least for a little while yet. You can say whatever you want; go on and say the h-word. Does that feel good? Fine, but it’s not reclaiming. It’s appropriation, of a sort. It’s stealing, or at best borrowing.
Sex work terms get picked up all the time and used for shock value. The h-word, in this case, is used to drizzle a little bit of impropriety over breakfast with a one-night stand. It’s a dusting of irony and a gritty street twist to an otherwise straightforward post hook-up ritual. These are the background thoughts that come bubbling forward when I hear that song, but also every time I hear someone use the h-word and I know they're not actually an h-word.
I have similarly visceral reaction to the use of the word “brothel” in non-sex-worker contexts, especially the Poetry Brothel, which has a chapter in New Orleans and one in NYC. When I first heard of it, four or five years ago, my teeth gritted reflexively and I hissed. Poetry brothels involve poets sitting around and murmuring poetry into your ear, which frankly sounds pretty awesome. But couldn’t they have spent a little more time coming up with a name? No. They sought the feel of illegality and persecution, without feeling the burn. They get the romanticized feel of plying a trade that is economically marginal and socially suspect in this country, but they will never feel the actual fall-out.
Same thing can be said for constructions like “media whore." The speakers are trying to show edge and grit and a certain sort of in-your-faceness that, in their minds, is best exemplified by terms for sex workers. They will even claim it as a badge of honor, but at the end of the day they are not going to be illegal in 49 states and most of Nevada for pursuing media coverage at any cost. Poetry brothels are trying to convey decadence and disrepute—usually of the late 1800s, for some reason, I think it’s the corsetry—but they are not actually in danger of being busted by the cops.
In the end, my friend's song is super popular, and she's had lots of other sex worker friends enjoy it, so my opinion isn't meant to be law. I get the connection that she was drawing, which is one of the reasons why I never said anything to her before she asked for my opinion. Another reason is that I didn't want her to think I was making a petty, unjustifiable stand.
But language isn't petty. It's can be powerful. Who claims it and reclaims it is powerful. I've already had this conversation with my friend, so I'm having it with you: Consider letting the targets keep those words for now.
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