Whores and Whores: Sex Work, Corruption, and Colbert’s Cock Holster

Every now and then, you come across words strung together with such writerly virtuosity that they stick with you for a decade, verbatim, like a catchy tune. Back in 2009, in one of his excellent and scathing blog posts about the new administration’s healthcare reform efforts, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone employed a characteristically hilarious description of President Obama’s “healthcare czar”:

“In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle would suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger.”

It’s a particularly vivid variation on an established metaphor: whores are evoked to illustrate the depravity of someone in the business of “selling that which should not be sold,” someone so corrupt that they have lost any semblance of shame.

In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell advises that, in order to use metaphors effectively, a writer must see the mental image they are conjuring. Clumsy and incompatible metaphors are “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” We’ve come close to using the epithet “whore” on this blog but decided against it. Here’s the thing: when I follow Orwell’s advice, when I picture someone reduced to performing oral sex on a stranger to get their next meal, I’m unable to see a multi-millionaire healthcare grifter. To call someone like Tom Daschle a whore is an insult to sex workers.

Prostitution, like the most common types of corruption, resides in a gray area between legal and illegal. As advocates for the rights of sex workers keep pointing out, there are sex workers and there are sex workers: some choose prostitution for a host of complicated reasons, others are victims of circumstances or coercion. Whatever their motives, sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to many dangers, and we are doing none of them any favors by using their profession or their predicament as shorthand for moral corruption and criminality.

On the Left, usage of the word “whore” is almost exclusively reserved for men. Few besides the worst bottom-feeding alt-righters would publicly describe, say, Hillary Clinton with such a slur. The choice stems from an attempt to signal that whores aren’t bad for being women — they are bad for being whores. There’s obviously a lot of dissonance and discomfort underlying this kind of invective.

Jabs and jokes based on metaphorical sex acts can be a minefield of vague implications, with overtones of intended or unintended misogyny and homophobia. At the same time, they are so common in everyday parlance that we hardly notice them. Many are, in the words of the same Orwell essay, “dead” turns of phrase that have “reverted to being ordinary words.”

Last week, comedian Stephen Colbert got into hot water for making a joke about Trump’s mouth being good only for use as “Putin’s cock holster” (or, more discreetly, “Putin’s c—k holster”). Craig Konnoth, an NYU Medical School faculty who writes about law, bioethics, and sexuality, summarized the liberal backlash against Colbert’s comment in The Washington Post:

“The indignity Trump suffers comes from being feminized, from assuming the role that a woman usually fills. Indeed, this is why many scholars and (more recently) courts have suggested that homophobia is rooted in sex discrimination: From an anti-gay perspective, by playing this ‘passive’ role, a gay man betrays his place in the gender hierarchy by doing what a woman should do.”

I’ve written about Colbert before; he’s an excruciating bore and about as progressive as Genesis after Peter Gabriel. (I’m too young to be making that reference.) No doubt something bizarre is going on when liberals’ favorite running gag is “Trump is gay for Putin”. But as happy as I’d be to see CBS #FireColbert, if only to shake up our dreary supply of political comedy, it’s hard to understand why this particular comment was singled out for outrage. It’s the stuff of age-old, constantly repeated jokes that can work just as well (or, as the case may be, just as poorly) even without the anti-gay perspective or any consideration of gender. Who do I have to blow to get this job/this prize/this raise? We all employ “dead metaphors” that are semantically no different: “A kisses B’s ass” or “A brown-noses B”. Even the idiom “to suck up to” has the same origin (The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: “vulgar slang, mid-1800s”).

Oral sex gags can be a form of flattery, too. Quite like mockery of the same species, though, it’s commonly reserved for straight men patting each other’s backs (to mix metaphors). When the same Matt Taibbi was interviewed on Chapo Trap House, host Will Menaker ended his praise of the interviewee with, “Sorry, just needed to wash the taste of his dick out of my mouth there!” No shame nor shaming there, just another way of saying, I sure love Matt’s writing. (I second that, and I don’t even feel the need to gargle.)

Another problem with a reading of the joke as homophobic is that, to those who don’t agree with it, the interpretation itself can be insulting. If someone kept insisting that a steaming pile of dog excrement was “obviously an offensive depiction of Finnish expats,” I would probably not thank them for rushing to my defense. As one angry commenter under Konnoth’s op-ed piece concluded:

“I’m a bit troubled by Mr. Konnoth’s classification of Trump being ‘feminized’ because he would be the person performing the sex act. Mr. Konnoth is, what we call in the gay world, a bottom shamer.”

Many of these outrage-of-the-day scandals seem to be attempts at mind-reading. Perhaps, in this case, people are reading too much into Colbert’s comment because of his Catholicism. Or perhaps Colbert is inadvertently proving what Louis C. K.’s stand-up comedy demonstrates, except in reverse: you can get away with almost anything if you can actually make it funny. Stephen Colbert is not funny, but we can’t really blame him for that.


[Related articles:
Satire and Free Speech
How to Write Your Own John Oliver Monologue
The Art of Mixing Metaphors]

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