I try to keep up with most of the newer cultural trends in music, fashion, and even language. I like to remain connected with new trends because I’m raising a son in this new cultural landscape. A newer term came to my attention a few months ago, “THOT,” and after seeing how it was being used, I asked my younger folks on social media to explain.
They told me that it means “That Ho Over There.”
Imagine my surprise at the definition when I saw THOT used to describe a toddler girl! I thought of how casually we use the word “ho,” how it’s almost exclusively used to describe women/girls, and, ultimately, how we need to get rid of the word once and for all.
What Is a “Ho,” Exactly?
According to the Urban Dictionary, most of the meanings for the word “ho” refer to a woman and her sexual activity. Pimps from the 1970s were known to call the women who worked for them ho(e)s, and this pimp/ho dynamic was immortalized in classic Blaxploitation movies like The Mack and Foxy Brown. When people use it today, they’re usually describing a woman who has “loose” moral values when it comes to having sex, or who engages in sexual activity deemed unworthy of respect.
That’s a pretty broad scope in terms of attempting to nail down a precise definition, but that seems to be how it’s used most. We see mostly women being called ho(e)s for everything from dating two men at once to having threesomes to brushing their teeth before going to bed—it’s really gotten that ridiculous.
The word is largely rooted in the idea that women are expected to behave in sexual ways that are considered “appropriate” for women. It relies on the belief that women should remain as sexually inactive as possible. The construction of the “ho” concept gives men the power to decide a woman’s value based on her sexual history.
It also almost always relies on double standards about men’s and women’s behaviors, because many of the people calling women ho(e)s are doing a lot of the same things they accuse women of doing. There’s nothing remotely fair about holding women to sexual standards that men aren’t held to. Yet this approach is so pervasive that even women hurl the label at each other, often in attempts to look better than other women.
Salt-N-Pepa (the female hip-hop duo of the ’80s and ’90s) one rapped, “The difference between a hooker and a ho ain’t nothing but a fee.” They were referring to women’s willing participation in “sex work” in the broader context of women’s sexuality being “none of your business” (as their song title suggested). When many use the word “ho,” they’re often invoking the idea of the person being on par with their own negative opinions about sex workers.
Discussions of sex work tend to go sideways, because people have a hard time accepting that some people choose to profit from activities of a sexual nature without being under duress or coerced in any way. Further, we’re more likely to assume that a sex worker is a woman (despite the many male and transgendered sex workers), which also contributes to the demonization of sex work. Women are simply not supposed to promote, use, or engage in overtly sexual behaviors for profit or to advance themselves in any way.
In thinking of “sex worker,” the general assumption is that of a “prostitute,” usually a woman, who exchanges sex for money or material goods. The image is negative—we tend to imagine drug-addicted prostitutes tricking for their next hit, runaways being abused by manipulative pimps, or women having sex for money because they have no choice and have run out of options.
While these types do exist, sex workers are also any people who work in the sex industry, including but not limited to adult movie stars, directors, and producers; erotic/exotic dancers; phone sex operators and webcam models; and adult magazine publishers and writers. There are many willing sex workers who make informed choices to engage in this type of work, and aside from some of these activities being illegal, many don’t think of what they do as being morally wrong.
For some, participating in sex work is an act of asserting body ownership and sexual agency, two things that women struggle with because of sexism. For others, it is a way to earn an income, put food on the table, pay for an education, and keep a roof over the heads of their loved ones.
Calling someone a “ho” as an insult is ascribing your own personal morals and value system on someone else’s life and casting a judgment that’s really not yours to make. Something sounds nasty to you? That’s fine, and you’re allowed preference. But to suggest someone is a ho for participating in and enjoying it is problematic. Calling someone a ho for doing something you watch your favorite porn star do every night on Xtube doesn’t make much sense either. If you enjoy watching one person get paid for doing it, why do you detest someone you know doing it for free?
It’s a complicated issue, because society still largely rejects sex work as respectable employment, and continues to marginalize people who participate as almost being less human. And that’s exactly what calling someone a ho is about—designating her/him less than human and unworthy of respect based on her/his sexual behavior.
When we reach a point when we’re referring to toddlers and young girls as ho(e)s, or sex workers, we have to stop and acknowledge this as a very serious problem. To even think of children in sexual ways is a serious enough problem on its own. To then label them as such, so casually, says more about us… and believe me, it isn’t good.
The highly subjective variations in definitions of the word “ho” alone are enough to call for an end to using it so liberally. People sound utterly ridiculous when they actually try to explain what a ho is in any other way than “a stupid word created to relegate sexually active women to inferior status than everyone else.” I admit it might be my age speaking, or my own experiences as a seasoned sexually active woman who’s sat in many a sista circle talking about sex.
But guess what? If I’m a ho, your mama is a ho, and that’s my general response to this nonsense.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.