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Why Hoe is Life

In the months leading up to her Slut Walk, Amber Rose and BFF Blac Chyna showed up to the MTV Video Music Awards in outfits donning all of the insults that people hurl at them for being publicly sexy. “Hoe” was prominently featured several times. In October, Aziah “Zola” Wells broke the internet with epic tale about a road trip to Florida. This literary masterpiece addressed the interpersonal workings of strippers and other kinds of sex workers, and included the epic line “So we vibing over our hoeism or whatever.” (She has since launched a line of t-shirts that read ‘hoeism’ which I’m still hoping to get in a 3x). Former stripper Cardi B’s brand of funny hoe has landed her a spot on the new season of Love & Hip Hop and expanded her brand. And on Twitter there are a host of users, like @DivaMonRoe2uHoE and @Passport_cutty who have racked up followers by sharing their hoe stories and hoe politics. People, particularly women, are hungry for alternative narratives about female sexuality. Being a hoe has never been so “cool” and it’s worth exploring why.

I should start by saying that personal experience tells me that the term ‘hoe’ is more popular for women of color. ‘Slut’-shaming has been accepted as the official term for judging and mistreating women who are understood to be having sex outside the boundaries of patriarchal respectability. But for many women of color, slut just doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like hoe does. Using ‘hoe’ is to strategically talk back to the specific vernacular of shame that is directed at women of color. In 2011, when Black women wrote an open letter to Slut Walk organizers they noted the specificity of the term ho as well:

Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a ‘SlutWalk’ we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as ‘sluts’ and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later. Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as ‘sluts’ when we’re still working to annihilate the word ‘ho’, which deriving from the word ‘hooker’ or ‘whore’, as in ‘Jezebel whore’ was meant to dehumanize. Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as ‘sluts’ by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.

There is absolutely a double standard imposed on the way Black women are allowed to express their sexuality, one which was certainly overlooked by many of the white women who took to the streets during Slut Walks. But I think that many of the women of color who are unabashedly proclaiming their sexuality online, myself included, are asking: Is the power of language really static? Is the usage of the word ‘hoe’ as important as the messaging behind it? And if that’s true, what role can we play in changing that message?

Many women of color are doing their part by talking candidly about the pleasures and obstacles to casual, non-monogamous, unwed, and paid sex in public settings. And the terminology that they are using to describe themselves is a word we all know is coming when we talk about women of color’s sexuality: hoe. But the intention behind using hoe as a reclamation is not one of guilt or devaluation. It is a way of neutralizing or lessening the power of a word that has been so often used to harm women. I don’t want to downplay the very real threats that women who dare to be publicly sexual online face. The hoards of women who have had their nude pictures and videos leaked online is testament enough to that. There is still a lot of work to be done to combat the policing of women’s – especially women of color’s – sexuality. But I can’t help but feel like this is a step in the right direction.

For people like me, “hoe” is more of a political identifier than it is a descriptor of my actual sexual practices (although it can certainly be applied to both). In the same way that I publicly use ‘feminist’ to align myself with gendered nuance and resistance, I use hoe to state my position on female sexuality, one of freedom and personal choice. For me it’s a much sexier way of saying that I’m sex-positive and that I believe in the rights of people to safely, sanely, and consensually have sex with whomever they want, whenever they want. When I see other women identifying as hoes, I recognize allyship in the form of acceptance and relativity. Zola’s experience of “vibing over hoeism” is nothing new. Hoeism has acted as a catalyst to, and at other times strengthened the foundation of, many of my closest friendships. I have even witnessed this in my mother’s friendships (in between staying out of grown folks’ business and finding any excuse to get the tea) as well. Under a cloak of societal shame and stigma, many women of color have used their friendship networks to reflect, theorize, and celebrate their sexuality.

Young women of color are publicly and unapologetically claiming that: yes, sex is a part of our lives – and not always within the respectable romance scripts that have been imposed on us by patriarchy, respectability politics, and fuckboys. That is and has always been an integral part of my identity as a feminist and as a woman. So I would have to agree: hoe is life.

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Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

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