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The W Word: How Language Can Influence Our Choices in Sex and Protection

I recently wrote an article entitled “I'm on Truvada, But I'm Not a Whore;" an article that went viral and which stoked the ongoing war within the gay community about the word “whore.”

 I decided to look up the word “whore” in the online version of Webster’s dictionary. It first talked about women: “a woman who engages in sexual acts for money:  prostitute; also:  a promiscuous or immoral woman.” When it comes to men, the same dictionary stated that a whore is “a male who engages in sexual acts for money.”

 So, if it were the case that all of these gay men, including myself, who are taking Truvada, are in fact “whores,” we would all be driving BMWs and living in fancy apartments in New York City. Personally, I am driving a Hyundai Sonata (with a monthly car payment) and renting a place in Danbury, Connecticut. All of which I afford without selling my body.

 It’s ironic that a lot of gay men who responded to my article got upset because they do, in fact, refer to themselves as whores, even though they do not get paid for sex. They even went so far as to question my credibility for countering their own self-identification with the term “whore.” I happen to have Webster’s dictionary on my side, along with the social understanding of the difference between the negative terms “whore” and “slut,” one of whom gets paid for their actions.

 If you identify yourself as a “whore,” then that’s your decision. But the person who goes on PrEP should not have to address the association with the drug and the “whore” label. The recent attempt to redefine the word through the #TruvadaWhore movement cannot remove the shame and vitriol that it has carried for centuries. However, if anyone should be trying to take back the word, it should be actual sex workers who are still branded as “promiscuous or immoral” without any catchy hashtag to empower them.

 As an example, gay men have struggled for decades with the word “faggot.” If you are a gay or bisexual man, you have probably been called the f-word at least once in your life. If you haven’t, then you are lucky… I have had friends who have had that word etched into their cars, school lockers and workstations. The word is a slur for gay men. Not only is it a hateful and hurtful word, but it should not be redefined by another group who has not been the direct target of that word.

Those who oppose this view might say that there is a difference between the use of the dreaded f-word and whore. Surely there are differences, but the principle is the same.

 No gay man likes to be called the f-word. Although I cannot speak directly to the experiences of sex workers, I would not think anyone would like to be called something that is intended to be demeaning in any way.

Through my advocacy, I have learned so much about the effects of stigma, and how fear only works to deter good people from making good decisions for themselves. I have become awakened, so to speak, to various personal realizations, which have kept me referring to friends or random people as a “slut” or “whore,” even if I’m just joking. Though I haven’t changed my behavior in terms of sexual escapades, I can say that I have evolved in the ways in which I engage sexual partners and the sexual acts that follow. I know that when I am called a “whore” or a “slut,” I turn around and express one of two sayings: “No, Dear. I am just popular” or “Bitch, please. You’re just jealous.” I am also working on my self-respect by not agreeing with people and not judging myself as being a “slut.” I am someone who enjoys sex with multiple partners. And I’m taking the extra step to protect myself through the use of Truvada as PrEP.

This is not about shame. It also isn’t about people who wish to take PrEP and who choose to ignore or put down the #truvadawhore movement or those who proudly identify with it. The use of the word “whore” still perpetuates a negative stereotype for people on PrEP, and even more so for sex workers. And by using a term that invokes the shame of sex that has been around long before Truvada, people who engage in risky behavior may not go on it because they don’t want to be labeled a “whore.”

It isn’t about being ashamed of our behavior or proud of it, it is about choosing our words wisely to encourage the use of PrEP without alienating or insulting anyone in the process. So let’s stop that phrase and come up with something better because, until there is a cure, PrEP is the answer.