Recent comment discussions at the Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives blogs have examined the propriety (or impropriety) of using terms like “slut” and “whore.” A few male commenters used those terms in comments; in response, female commenters, making an argument I tend to agree with, have asserted that there is no place for these words in general discussion. I think that’s right; people should not use these kinds of terms in general conversation. And yet, how can I make that argument with a straight face, given the frequent usage of these kinds of terms in scripture?
First, the case against words like “slut” and “whore.” It’s not too hard to make, really. As AmyB notes at X2, they are terms that tend to objectify and degrade women; they are terms that focus on a woman’s past sexual experiences (or even on her sartorial choices) to make conclusions about her value as a person; they focus on her first as a sexual object rather than as a human being.
They are terms that are terribly offensive to women (and men) because they label and devalue women in that way. They also link to harmful cultural messages that do the same. Women already face a barrage of negative messages tied to their bodies and to their status as objects of sexual desire; followers of Christ should not use words that link to those labels. And they are terms that create a terrible gender-based double standard: There is no male equivalent of a slut; that is, there is no universally degrading term applied to a (straight) man based on his sexual history.
Because these are gender-skewed terms that seek to give primacy to women’s status as sex objects, they are problematic and should be avoided. They may be discussed in examination of the cultural concept (as in this post) but should not be used in a way that affirms that cultural concept, such as in the blog comments at X2 and FMH that drew the initial criticism (“People get labeled as sluts, and treated like sluts, because they dress and act like sluts” and “we are raising a whole generation of girls who start to dress like sluts from the time they enter kindergarten”).
Now, the tricky part. My first inclination, on seeing the X2 comment a few days ago, was to write essentially the above: A post about why church members should avoid terms like “slut” and “whore.” But as I thought it through, a much larger problem occurred to me: Those kinds of terms are used frequently in scripture. A word search at lds.org for the term “whore” in scripture gives 32 different results, ranging from the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants.
And suddenly, I’m stuck with a disjunct of sorts. I tend to feel that people should avoid using epithets that degrade and objectify women; yet these terms seem to be ones that God uses regularly. This raises all sorts of hard questions. I can’t say I know the answers, but let me set out a few of the questions that come to mind:
Why in the world is God so apparently comfortable using terms that reduce women to sex objects? Why is God willing to use “whore” as a general-purpose epithet (as in D&C 29:21, and many other verses)? Is God unaware of the cultural problems (objectification of women) that arise from using words like “whore” in this way; does he not care? Does God hate women?
Are these perhaps just particularly ugly cases of God-working-within-existing-cultural-limitations-of-the-time? (But if so, then how should we treat conference talks from the past ten and twenty years that reiterate the usage?)
And finally, what does the existence of these scriptural passages mean for my own initial thoughts on the usage of these words? Does the use of these terms in scripture mean I should stop caring so much about their use in other contexts? How can I suggest that rank-and-file church members avoid terms that objectify women, when our scriptures seem to be a record of God using such terms regularly? Is the answer that feminists are wrong, and women are supposed to be objectified?
Or is there a way to read these passages, consistent with the ideas that women generally should not be objectified, and that words that tend to objectify women generally should be avoided?