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Whore, Prostitute, Hooker, or Sex Worker? What Should You Say?

The New York Post is being sued for calling DSK's accuser a "hooker." Should they have called her a "prostitute" instead?


Prostitutes and the clients who frequent them are back in the news after the woman accusing French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape was herself accused of being an escort. DSK is rumored to be a big fan of prostitutes, which is perhaps what led the New York Post to report that the Guinean Sofitel maid, who claims he orally raped her in his hotel room in May, was "doing double duty as a prostitute, collecting cash on the side from male guests." The maid maintains that the Post is lying, and she filed a libel suit this week that says as much.

You already know how we feel about DSK and the charges against him. We've also talked at length about the ugly media coverage of his case. Of greater interest to me now is "prostitutes"—not the people who have sex with other people for money, the actual word.


It's telling to examine when and how different people and organizations use prostitute and its various synonyms. The Post called DSK's accuser a "hooker" on its cover, but in the story itself they mostly used the less cutting "prostitute." And in 2008, when then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught paying Ashley Dupré for sex, the Post editors again used "hooker." As the story progressed, they would eventually use both "ho" and "call girl," too.

But everyone expects that sort of language from the Post, about which New Yorkers often say, "That's low, even for the Post." What about the highbrow New York Times? How does The Paper of Record, which still refuses to print words like "fuck" or "shit," refer to people who have sex for money? According to a search of its online archives, since 1981, Times editors have only used "hooker" to describe prostitutes in four headlines, three of which, strangely, were arts pieces. In its actual articles, the Times is not so staid, with instances of "hooker" turning up here, here, here, and many places elsewhere. Even President Bill Clinton has been quoted in the Times using "hooker" to describe all the wild things he saw his first time in New York City. Nevertheless, in most stories where it's relevant, the Times consistently favors "prostitute" or "escort" over "hooker."

Making "hooker" seem downright family friendly is "whore." Though you might think a term so rude wouldn't be tossed around in most media, you might be surprised. The Post's Andrea Peyser loves "whore," which she has used to slander everyone from a prostitute-turned-teacher ("This is one whore with chutzpah") to disgraced politician John Edwards ("whore hound"). A legal brothel in Nevada is a "whorehouse" in the Post, while its purveyor is a "whoremonger." Over at the Times, once again, things are a bit cleaner. "Whore" is used primarily in direct quotes, and, as with "hooker," pretty much every use of "whore" to mean prostitute is in the Arts section, often for theater reviews.

Lots of other outlets use "whore," too, including The Daily Beast, National Review, Fox News, and NPR. Even so-called progressive publications like The American Prospect have dabbled in the crassness of "whore," with Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner recently chiding a Republican senator who "visited whores."

I'm not so much offended by these words as I am offended by all the linguistic inconsistency. Is "whore" as misogynistic as we've always thought it was, or is it perfectly acceptable to use when discussing prostitutes and promiscuous people (e.g. "manwhore")? Is "prostitute" actually nicer than "hooker," or are they equally ugly? Is an "escort" the most politically correct term for those of us looking to not offend, or is that "sex worker"? Then again, "sex worker" seems too broad a term, and could include strippers, phone sex workers, Playboy Playmates, etc.

For now, for me, I think I'll stick with "prostitute" when talking about people whose job is to have sex. Anything else seems intentionally degrading ("whore"), inaccurate ("sex worker") or archaic ("woman of the night"). You should continue to use whatever word you'd like, of course, but it's probably important to consider the context in which you're using it. If, for instance, you say a Democratic politician "visited prostitutes" while simultaneously saying a Republican politician "visited whores," the difference in your language is telling—you don't judge prostitutes, unless your enemies are visiting the filthy whores.

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