Political Memo: "Whore" Is No "N-Word"

California's gubernatorial race has momentarily shifted from Brown vs. Whitman to slur vs. slur. Go go Oppression Olympics!

At Tuesday night's debate, moderator Tom Brokaw proposed that when a staffer for Jerry Brown's campaign wanted to use the word "whore" to describe opponent Meg Whitman, it was "to many women the same as calling an African American the 'N' word." And so we have ourselves a battle royale! Here comes the reigning American champion, The Word That Bears A Deep and Largely Still Unresolved History of Violence and Injustice ("The N Word"), squaring off against a new contender, The Word You Most Likely Heard Today to Describe Someone Being Sluttier, Showier or Just Something-er More Than You Want To Admit You Are In Public ("Whore!"). In this thrilling competition, there are no winners, but a lot of opinions about how ladies should feel about another lady (maybe) scorned.

Should we be outraged when women are called whores? Even women who support separate-but-equal status for LGBT Americans, who campaign against immigration reform while hiring undocumented workers ? I'm loathe to stir up anger over maybe-slurs cast at politicians when Americans can barely summon a thought for the actual women who sell sex; moreover, "whore" can only be a slur if you accept that selling sex is worst thing ever.

What's undeniable is this: if the Whitman campaign did want to go after Brown with fighting words, they'd be hard-pressed to find a term that compares Brown's sexual availability with his morality (that's kind of how sexism works). Unable to fight fire with fire, they instead had to claim that Brown was relying on misogyny to attack Whitman. What's worse, in moderating the debate, Brokaw amped up the charges, positioning "whore" as parallel to race-based slurs — as if woman-hating and slut-shaming aren't bad enough in their own right.

I just can't find any sympathy for Whitman over this tactic, that being called a "whore" is some legitimate attack on one's politics or ethics. Even being caught hiring and sleeping with a "whore" isn't enough to keep politicians out of office these days; Senator David Vitter (R - LA) has admitted using an escort service and is slated to keep his seat in November. In asking us to share some shame in being called a "whore," Whitman is aligning herself with those who challenge sexism, but only at her convenience. Her own conduct — not having voted for twenty years, allegedly attacking an eBay employee — is a far greater challenge to her pursuit of the governor's office than any maybe-slur.

Whitman should pause before claiming that she or the citizens of California have been smeared in any way by the power of the word, particularly when a member of her own campaign — former California governor Pete Wilson — deployed the same word against all of Congress, calling them "whores" for harboring pro-union sentiments. But when asked to explain that during the debate, Whitman answered, "that's a completely different thing." Is it? If Brown's use of "whore" is worse, why? Is it because it's aimed not at an elected body but at a singular, public woman? ("Public woman" itself is a one-time synonym for "whore.") This isn't to say that Whitman was "asking for it" by running for office on such a shabby record. It's just that on these terms, no woman (whore or not!) should rush to defend her.

Truly, if there's anywhere whores are common in politics, it's the state of California. There is no state in the nation whose political economy has been more shaped and supported by women that even Meg Whitman might also call whores. California's first (white-people) economy was fostered by Gold Rush women, who poured into the state selling sex. Pornography, San Fernando Valley's most enduring contribution to GNP, is always up for debate before California's State Assembly. In San Francisco, a former sex worker was nearly elected to its Board of Supervisors, and in a 2008 election, 41% of San Francisco residents voted to decriminalize prostitution (commonly known as whoring). Ms. Whitman, some of your voters are whores. In a more perfect union, you would be proud to stand among such a passionate portion of the electorate.