what a conservative mp’s ‘sex scandal’ tells us about whorephobia and misogyny
Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy examines the language behind the ‘scandal’ of Conservative MP John Wittingdale’s short relationship with a dominatrix…
This past month, Conservative MP John Wittingdale was at the center of a 'sex scandal,' due to the discovery that he had dated a dominatrix for six months, back in 2013. The divorced politician had signed up for Match.com and met a single woman who he says "was a similar age and lived close to me". Pretty standard stuff, I suppose. But once Wittingdale was informed that his girlfriend was working as a dominatrix on the side, he says he ceased all contact.
Now, Wittingdale doesn't seem exactly the type to abhor women who work in the sex industry. Just last week another story broke, revealing that the politician had been treated to dinner at a lapdancing club, with managers and a couple of the dancers. He claimed it was an "official visit as part of an inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee into new laws cracking down on such establishments". A conflict of interest, to be sure, considering Wittingdale's interest in pushing for more lenient rules, himself, in strip clubs… These facts, along with his two-year relationship with a former page 3 girl, leads one to believe that he is a big supporter of the sex industry and, presumably, the women working in it.
So why the vehement insistence that he dumped his ex-girlfriend the moment he discovered she worked in prostitution? This response brings to light an oft-ignored truth: while it is often feminists who are accused of 'whorephobia,' it's actually men like Wittingdale who are guilty of it.
Men will often say, in defense of their gaze -- the male one, the one that looks a woman up and down as she passes him on the street, that describes a woman based on physical attractiveness above any other quality, that erases women who are over 50 or who aren't thin enough or who aren't fuckable for whatever reason -- "Oh I love women." No. You don't "love" women - you "love" objectifying women. That's not the same thing.
The relationship men have with the sex industry is one of hypocrisy: they want women available, at all times, to be accessible, degradable, to accommodate their egos or their fantasies, through prostitution and pornography, but they don't see these women as valuable human beings. Not quite the classic adage, 'a lady in the streets, but a whore in the sheets,' as, in this case, men want the 'whore' from the streets to remain only that. She can't be seen or treated with respect because the whole point, to men, of prostitution is to not have to treat them as human.
That's the fantasy: the woman who is one-dimensional and therefore doesn't demand respect, care, or accountability.
But women are often blamed for the things men do, and this situation is no different. Women who oppose men's treatment and sense of entitlement to prostituted women and girls are accused of the hatred and stigma expressed by the very men who pay for sex. Women who say the porn industry is racist and abusive are accused of "shaming" women who work in porn. The men who pay for sex with women they call "whores" or masturbate to images of women with tears rolling down their faces due to the "sexual acts" men (apparently) enjoy are never accused of such things.
Last week, Brooke Magnati (whose blog and books, published under the pen name, Belle de Jour, were turned into the television show, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) tweeted, "You can criticise Whittingdale without being whorephobic. No buts. None. IDGAF about your politics. Be. Better. Than. Swerfs.". This is what I'm getting at. The idea that women who fight for women's humanity are somehow 'afraid' of prostituted women or are worse even than the misogynist men who use and abuse women in the sex trade.
While it's very clear that feminists who are critical of the sex industry are interested in humanising women in prostitution, not dehumanising them, the opposite is true of most men. Yet they remain unmentioned in the 'whorephobia' conversation. Why? Because if we start talking about what whorephobia actually is, we have to address the reasons a sex trade exists and we have to talk about the men who pay for sex and why they do.
Actually, let's do that.
If you pay attention to what johns say or write about the women they pay for sex, you'll learn very quickly how little respect and how much contempt they hold for these women. Some samples:
"The relationship has to stay superficial because they are a person and you're capable of getting to know them. But once you know them, it's a problem, because you can't objectify them anymore" - CATW International
"Well, she certainly knows what she's doing and how to please a man. And there's no damn nonsense about 'don't do this' and 'I don't want it in there' either. So, in a word, a perfect whore." The Invisible Men
"You get to treat a ho like a ho...you can find a ho for any type of need - slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do - you won't do stuff to your girlfriend that will make her lose her self esteem." CATW International
"Some of the girls are lovely but most are just holes to fuck." The Invisible Men
The goal, it's painfully clear, is to avoid humanising prostituted women at all costs. Yet I am willing to bet few of even these men would say they hate women. No, no. They just love women -- certainly they love plenty of things about women, various holes and whatnot….
Our culture seems to have embraced the idea that to criticise a system equates to 'judgement' or to 'shaming' those marginalised within that system, but to remain neutral or to accept oppressive systems, uncritically, is a show of respect.
Society truly does stigmatise and shame prostituted women -- the system that exists forces women to sell sex in order to survive and then punishes them for doing so. When women try to leave and heal, they struggle to do so, stuck with criminal records, little to no access to therapy and support systems, unable to share their traumas with those around them.
Similarly, young men pressure their female peers into sex, then call them 'sluts' when these girls appease them. We learn early on that, in order to be visible and valuable, we must sexualise ourselves, but then are punished in the most vicious ways for appearing 'too sexy,' accused of 'asking' to be raped and harassed.
There is no winning for women and girls in the double-bind our sexist culture has created for us.
In 2010, Thierry Schaffauser wrote, for The Guardian, that "The first step in the fight against whorephobia is to name the oppression". So let's name it: patriarchy.
'Whorephobia' isn't about feminists' 'fear' of women in prostitution, it's about men's contempt for women. Men like Wittingdale clearly want a sex industry to exist -- one that men (himself included) have easy access to. But he doesn't want -- god forbid -- anyone to think that he might actually care for or respect the women who are commodified within it. He doesn't respect those women himself. Which, of course, means he doesn't respect women, as women in the sex industry are no different than any other woman on the planet; they simply have been made to sell a male fantasy in order to pay their rent.
Men don't respect the women they masturbate to in porn or the women they pay for sex, they hate them. So let's call 'whorephobia' what is really is: misogyny.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.
Text Megan Murphy