POOR Christine Keeler. Her story makes you wish she had born in another time – an era in which her sexual relations with the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, wouldn’t have led to her being branded a “whore” and a “vice queen”. Would Keeler, who died last week, have been so shamed had she been setting out as a young woman now?

In a world of #MeToo campaigns and slutwalks, in which the shaming of women is called out, would she be able to shrug off her caricaturing? Among the most haunting of quotes from the woman who was at the heart of the political scandal that rocked the British establishment in the early 1960s, was a description she delivered in 2012. She said her children were estranged from her because they “don’t want to be associated with that bloody whore Christine Keeler”. It’s the word “whore” that gets to you. One would hope that today, it would be possible to have sex with who you liked and not be treated as something dirty.

But of course, that’s wishful thinking. You only have to scan the last month of news stories to see how the power of the “slut” or “whore” insult hasn’t diminished. When singer Rita Ora posted pictures of herself with boxer Conor McGregor, who has a long-term partner, she was called a “whore” and a “hussy”. A young woman who dressed up for Hallowe’en as Paris Hilton in a skimpy silvery dress was shamed for her outfit over social media. Asia Argento, one of the actors who alleged she was abused by Harvey Weinstein was so attacked in Italy by journalists who said she had “put it out” and was attempting to “justify high-society prostitution”, that she left the country.

The hatred still bubbles away. “Whore” is just one of many labels used to shame a woman and those terms are not going away. They morph and reassemble in fresh new forms, ever carrying within them that same thread of misogyny and humiliation. Harlot, trollop, tart, hooker, ho, slag, slapper, slut, skank.

They also carry, frequently, a dynamic of classism and racism. One of the most recent models of the slut insult, thot, a variation on ho popular in the US (“that ho over there”), tends to be targeted at black and Latina girls. Working-class women, as Keeler was, also frequently get it in the neck for having too much sex, doing it with those in power, or having it with the wrong men.

A University of Michigan study, for instance, found that women in an American university were slut-shaming others as a way of maintaining their social status. So it’s not just men: women too need to ditch this kind of language. When thinktank Demos looked at aggressive uses of words like “slut” and “whore” on Twitter, it found that 50 per cent were delivered by women.

Christine Keeler’s story seems to belong to another time. But little has changed. We’re as haunted by a Madonna-whore complex as ever. Journalist Peggy Orenstein, in her 2016 book Girls & Sex, bemoaned the fact that schoolgirls were still “subjected to the same old double standard, the idea that a sexually active girl is a ‘slut’ while a similar boy is a ‘player’”. And while that remains the case, we’re going to need more hashtags and campaigns. We need to teach our children that this kind of attitude is not acceptable. Slut, whore, or thot, we’re just not having it.


In a bid to address “gender imbalance” in children’s television, CBeebies has had the wisdom to create a new animated series for young children whose central character is a girl engineer called Bitz. This is one of those things that makes me strangely emotional.

When I watched Rey, the female lead in Star Wars The Force Awakens, I felt a zing of elation mixed with a sadness that I hadn’t had a Rey in my childhood. The news about Bitz, and her show Bitz And Bob (yes, she has a brother and boys still exist) gave me a similar feeling. Why so long? Why hadn’t there been Bitz when my boys, now eight and 10, were the right age to watch? For the truth is that Bitz has arrived too late for our family and many of the children I know. And I am well aware of the diet of television that they had to endure. Endless shows whose titles revolved around the names of boys or men: Fireman Sam, Bob The Builder, Thomas The Tank Engine, Tree Fu Tom, Andy’s Wild Adventures, Baby Jake, Peter Rabbit, Postman Pat, Mike The Knight, Louie, Noddy’s Toyland Adventures ... none of which even mentioned any female siblings.

And if you think I’m being selective, you might want to check out the Radio Times poll that in 2014 sought to find the most popular children’s television character in the last 70 years.

Among their selected list of 50 shows was just one that had a lead female character. Hence, I applaud the arrival of Bitz. But really she’s only one little bit of progress. The BBC has a lot of Bitz to go.