Joan Smith: I don't think less of a women called a whore

When hacks hurl sexual insults at famous women, they're hoping we'll keep quiet about enjoying sex
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The Independent Online

Like most women, I've been called a whore more than once. It happens when you fall foul of a man, whether it''s a guy who's annoyed because you ignored his advances at a bus stop (as happened to me one bright Sunday morning) or a journalist on a sleazy newspaper.

Red-top newspaper editors - I know some of them are women, but bear with me - are currently having a great time with Heather Mills McCartney, whom they accuse of having been a whore - to be exact, a "£5k hooker" - when she was in her 20s.

Mills has said she intends to sue when her divorce from Paul McCartney is settled, and even avid readers of the News of the World must be dimly aware of the paper's hypocrisy in paying for dirt on her from individuals it would in other circumstances despise, namely women who claim to have sold sex and the former secretary of the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. If being a "hooker" is such a terrible thing - and the paper affects to believe it is, having no other justification for publishing this stuff over five pages last weekend - it will be interesting to hear its lawyers explain in court why anyone should take a blind bit of notice of some of its star witnesses.

But the significant thing about what's happening to Mills is that it's an extreme version of what could happen to any woman who hasn't lived her life as a nun. Take Victoria Beckham, for instance: two years ago, the Radio 1 presenter Chris Moyles accused her on his show of being a whore, on the grounds that she became pregnant for the first time before her marriage to the England captain.

Earlier this year Moyles was at it again, describing female listeners to his programme as "dirty whores" - a remark for which, mysteriously, he has been reprimanded by the BBC, rather than sacked. Unlike Mills, Beckham responded to the accusation with a giggle, possibly because she didn't know what else to do. This kind of vile abuse is often presented as harmless joshing or even an endearment, as defenders of gangsta rap will tell you ad nauseam: what's wrong, bitch, haven't you got a sense of humour?

Beckham was in the fortunate position of knowing that Moyles didn't mean it literally, and the even more fortunate position of having an exceptionally powerful male protector. The reason Heather Mills is being hounded in this way is not that the allegations have just come to light - hacks have been sniffing round them for years - but because she's assumed to have lost McCartney''s protection. The News of the World is wary of powerful men; apart from Khashoggi, the men Mills was alleged to have had sex with appeared in its story only as "members of the Maktoum racing dynasty" and"a member of the Saudi royal family". If the paper is so sure of its claims, why didn't it play fair and name them?

In fact, the spate of allegations against Mills shows that she has gone from being an object of envy, particularly for other women - the working-class girl who nabbed a multimillionaire - to a woman whose reputation is seen as an irresistible target. In tabloid terms, she's a fallen woman, geddit?

I think this is a miscalculation. After their split last month, McCartney leapt to the defence of his estranged wife, who is also (let us not forget) the mother of the couple's young daughter. If he continues to support Mills, the biggest obstacle faced by most people who want to bring a libel action - the crippling cost - will not apply in this case. I'm not a fan of this country's defamation laws, but this is one occasion when I look forward to seeing editors trying to justify what amounts to shameless bullying of a disabled woman whose marriage has broken down and who has recently undergone a major operation.

What may be of some comfort to Mills is that the use of words such as whore, hooker, prostitute and slut - another insult Chris Moyles likes, having hurled it at newsreader Georgina Bowman in November - reveals more about whoever's using them than the intended target. In Moyles's case, you don't have to be a genius to work out that a fat, slobbish, deeply unattractive man is acting out his sexual disgust by verbally abusing women; the puzzling bit is that the BBC apparently pays him £630,000 a year to do it. (Are misogynists really that expensive? I thought they were ten a penny.)

When a man calls a woman a whore, he usually means two things: that she enjoys sex too much, and she isn't doing it with him. The same goes for slut, slag and slapper, insults which still have no male equivalent. (Which male pop star or footballer is going to complain about being called a stud?) It's an expression of desire, frustration and anger, as Jane Mills explained in her illuminating book Womanwords: "The way in which whore has been used reveals an ambivalence: there is both an abhorrence of the flesh and a passion for it. These two feelings live side by side, unreconciled."

Ever since the sexual revolution - when, by the way, the quaint term "hooker" came into fashion and quickly disappeared again - women have been caught between two anxieties: being too sexy and not being sexy enough. When a girl or woman says no, she may find herself accused of being frigid or a lesbian; if she is unlucky, she may become the victim of sexual assault of rape. But what insecure men really hate is a woman who is having sex, enjoying it and isn't available to them, which is a fair description of what Heather Mills was assumed to be doing when she was living with the former Beatle.

In that sense, the widespread casual use of words like "whore" suggests a sharpening of the power struggle that began in the Seventies when feminism first challenged the hypocrisies of the sexual revolution. We were supposed to believe a raft of contradictory things, including that prostitutes were the epitome of the sexually liberated woman, loving their jobs and calling themselves happy hookers, when life for most of them remained pretty grim. It's not difficult to work out that what's going on today is yet another attempt to get women back under male control; when seedy DJs and hacks hurl sexual insults at famous women, they're secretly hoping we'll keep quiet about enjoying sex and stop upsetting them with a vision of something they can't attain.

It's a form of scare tactics which didn't work in the Seventies and isn't working now. Plenty of women are fed up with "raunch" culture, which requires us to behave at all times as though we're auditioning for a job at Spearmint Rhino. But we're equally fed up with the sustained verbal abuse of attractive, sexually active women in entertainment and the media. When my friends and I hear women being called whores, we don't think any the less of them. As the lottery slogan goes, it could be you.

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