We live in a world of girl-shaming. In the words of the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we tell girls to shrink themselves, and we tell them that it’s not okay to explore their sexuality. We shame girls for doing something they aren’t supposed to — like playing a sport that was originally dominated by men, not dedicating their spare time to hair removal, or liking or exploring sex. Do we shame boys for any of these things? I think not.
I’ve been doing some thinking about the word “ho.” I’ve never liked it. I’ve never, to my knowledge, called anyone, male or female, by that word. And now that I live in an all-female residence hall (the bottom floor, anyway), I’m spending time with girls from different places and different backgrounds, and I started to wonder what they thought about the word “ho” — especially after I heard one of my friends call a girl that while telling me a story. Boom, article idea.
(For those of you who may not be aware, “ho” is an abbreviated version of the word “whore,” and it is used in most English vernacular.)
So, I conducted three separate interviews with three girls in my hall, all of them with different backgrounds, ages, and races. For the sake of their privacy, I had them pick pseudonyms. As you will see, I followed the same basic framework with my questions, although the conversations diverged in different ways and some interviews were longer, some shorter. The bold text is my speech, and the normal text is theirs.
(Note: she’s not the real Sansa Stark. That would be cool but also impossible because, y’know, fiction.)
***content warning for some PG-13 level swearing and discussion of sexual matters.***
What does the word “ho” mean to you? Oh, wow, okay… I mean, it’s… generally, I understand it to mean a female person who enjoys sex, but there’s definitely a negative connotation with that.
If you could think of a word for a girl who enjoys sex with a positive connotation, do you think there is one? Not currently in existence, other than words that have been co-opted and sort of taken back and changed to have a positive connotation.
Taken back by whom? Women!
Okay. So, have you ever used the word “ho” to refer to a girl? No.
According to UrbanDictionary, the word “ho” means “Prostitute, Whore, Hooker, Tramp, Slut.” But, in talking to other girls, I’ve found that the definition has actually evolved beyond this to mean a girl who’s insensitive about her friends’ crushes or interests, a girl who’s sloppy or inconsiderate of the feelings of people around her, especially when it comes to potential romantic interests. Do you agree with this new definition? Why or why not? I guess if that’s what people are using it as, then that’s a legitimate usage.
But I mean, do you think a woman’s attitude towards sex — for example, “ho” is usually used to refer to girls who have a lot of sex — do you think that particular characteristic is directly linked to her treatment of the other girls in her life? I don’t think it should be, and I don’t think it is, but I think it is often perceived as though it is, just because we have such a negative view of female sexuality of being sort of taboo and not okay, and just quiet about it, that often, sexual or sensual women are just, you know, treated as shitty people, but I don’t think I would say that there’s a direct correlation.
Do you think it’s okay to call a girl a ho? No.
Why not? Okay, wait… I think it depends on how you mean it and what your understanding of your own relationship with that girl is. If you guys are friends, and you both understand that you are taking back this word and its negative connotation and using it as a way to embrace your own sexuality, yeah, go for it! But if you mean it as an insult, maybe not.
Do you think that the word “ho” can ever become a word that has a positive connotation when it comes to sex? Do you that can ever happen? Not fully, I don’t think, but I think we can make progress.
What if it’s a girl calling a girl a ho? Is that okay? I think it also depends on that relationship.
Is it okay for a boy to call a girl a ho? No. I don’t think so. Because there’s a difference between identifying yourself as part of the group that is being insulted or marginalized or treated in a specific way; and, coming from a group that is outside of that marginalized group, I think that is less okay.
Do you think that using the word “ho” is a perpetuation of slut-shaming? Yeah.
If so, should it stop? Yeah.
As per what I said before about the evolving/new definition of “ho,” it seems that we have a problem, because we don’t have anything to call girls who are inconsiderate or insensitive when it comes to others’ feelings, romantic or otherwise. For example, we can call guys “douchebags” even though part of that term is usually associated with female people. Do you think there should be some kind of new word for this type of behaviour so that the word “ho” isn’t used? Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m in favor of creative insults, but I don’t think insults should be based on gender solely or should implicate an entire gender in the use of that insult.
What does the word “ho” mean to you? It’s so strange, I don’t hear it that often, surprisingly.
Really? I don’t! (laughs) Maybe it’s just the people I hang out with, maybe it’s the lack of any kind of social interaction. I don’t hear it that often. When I do hear it, it’s usually very abrasive and very quick, and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way.
Why? The connotation, the tone of voice that’s used when you say it.
What’s the tone? Very… nonchalant, and that has always bothered me.
Why? Because, you’re summing somebody up in a way that can be perceived as offensive and you’re not even bothering to think about it. You become so numb to something that can so easily hurt somebody else, and it’s just normal. It bothers me.
Okay. But what does it mean? The definition? I have no idea!
You don’t know what the word “ho” means?! You hear it so often… is it like…
If you had to peg it in one word? … Umm…. All right, I’ll help you out. According to UrbanDictionary, the word “ho” means “Prostitute, Whore, Hooker, Tramp, Slut.” Yeah.
So you agree with that definition? Yes. But people use it so loosely, just in normal conversation. So then, what does it mean?
So if other people have used it, have you ever used the word “ho” to refer to a girl? No.
Like I said before, “Prostitute, Whore, etc.” is the definition given by UrbanDictionary; but, in talking to other girls, I’ve found that the definition has actually evolved beyond this to mean a girl who’s insensitive about her friends’ crushes or interests, a girl who’s sloppy or inconsiderate of the feelings of people around her, especially when it comes to potential romantic interests. Do you agree with that? Yeah. I’ve always kind of associated it with somebody who just doesn’t care about the feelings of other people in the context of romantic relationships.
Always in that context? Yes.
Do you think it’s okay to call a girl a ho? If so, under what context? I personally wouldn’t, but that’s just because, me as a person, I’m very reserved. But I’ve heard it within friend groups used jokingly.
Does that bother you? Yeah, to some extent, because you become so numb to it.
And should we not be numb to it? I don’t think so. I don’t think you should be numb to words at all. Ever. Especially a word like this that has a negative connotation. Yeah.
Is it more okay if a girl calls a girl a ho than if a boy calls a girl a ho? Yes, but I’m hesitant to say that because of my previous statements.
But is it more okay? When I hear it within the context of friendship, yes. Outside of the context of friendship, when you’re just being nasty, no, because it hurts just as much, and possibly more so because it’s coming from your peers.
So you do think it’s an insult? Yes.
Even when used jokingly among friends? For example, if we were joking, and I would go, “Oh, you’re such a bitch,” and I wouldn’t mean it, obviously, because you’re not, but, would it have the same weight or more weight when used in a joke? Would it be somehow worse? It’s better in a joking context, I’ll admit that.
Because it’s insincere? Because it’s insincere. I still don’t like it.
Do you think that using the word “ho,” regardless of whichever definition you’re following, is a perpetuation of slut-shaming? Yes.
Do you think the usage of the word “ho” should stop? Yeah. I see no reason to keep it going.
As per what I said before about the evolving/new definition of “ho,” it seems that we have some kind of a problem, because we don’t have anything to call girls who are inconsiderate or insensitive when it comes to others’ feelings, romantic or otherwise. Do you think there should be some kind of new word for this type of behaviour so that the word “ho” isn’t used? If it becomes just another insult, then no, there are other words you can use.
So then, do you think the word “ho” should be used in context if a girl is being inconsiderate? I can’t take it away from people that use it and don’t mind it…. I don’t know what to say about that.
But do you think it should stop? I do think it should stop, definitely.
Why? Because it just adds fuel to the fire.
What fire? In society, there’s a very thin line between women and what is deemed appropriate. Just the entire objectification of women in general. When you blur the line with words like “ho” that are both an insult and not, you’re blurring an even bigger overall line that makes it hard for you to say, “This is right,” and, “This is wrong, you shouldn’t do this.”
What does the word “ho” mean to you? Jeez. That’s hard. It can mean so many things.
Okay, so tell me one of the many things it can mean. Back home [she lives in a medium-size city], a ho is a girl that sleeps around a lot with a whole bunch of guys — girls that just get around, and they don’t care who, and they don’t care where — outside, in the gym, in the classroom, in the stall, in the hallway, at their mom’s house, in their mom’s bed, they don’t care.
Is that a bad thing? Uh, to have sex in your mother’s bed?
Well, that they don’t care where they have sex? That’s not my business, as long as it’s not in my bed.
I know, but it kind of seems like you think it’s a bad thing to like sex. No, I’m just saying, back home.
Okay. And then, another definition? Um, my mom and my grandmothers would say that a ho is a girl who is, like, more of an adulterer— Oh! Okay! —yeah, that’s a real word right there, that’s deep. It is. And then here [at college], I guess, a ho would also be kinda what it was back home, a girl who had sex with many people.
Have you ever used the word “ho” to refer to a girl? Yes. Yes, yes, I have.
Have you said it to her face? Yes.
In a joking way, or in a more conflict-y way? I’m not much for conflict, so I’ve never been in an argument with a girl where I’ve called her a ho, because my conflicts are not — I don’t fight with people over their ho-ish-ness, if you get what I’m saying. I don’t care if you like to sleep around a lot, really, unless that specifically affects me, like if it were my boyfriend that you were sleeping with. That would be a problem. Like I said, my arguments are never about their sexual lives.
Right, so it’s always been more jokingly? Yeah, with my best friends I’m like, “Oh, you’re such a ho,” like, laughingly.
And what will it mean in that context? Well, it means what it means, but—
You’ll use it in the context of sleeping with people? Yeah, with guys or girls. Or, you know, if you’re going out, me and a friend, and she’ll try on something, and be like, “Well, does this make me look like a ho?” Stuff like that. Never serious.
So would you say that the word “ho” is synonymous with “prostitute?” Mmmm. I don’t connect them.
Would you say that the word “ho” is synonymous with “slut?” Yes.
So the difference between the meaning of the words “slut” and “prostitute” is obligation? Because if you’re a prostitute, usually a female sex worker, you do it as a job, whereas a slut and a ho, those are girls who are doing it because they want to? For FUN! I don’t know, I guess so. I know that if I Googled these words they would be on each others’ synonym lists.
I can actually look it up in the Thesaurus right now. For “slut,” first entry is “prostitute.” Okay. Then for “prostitute,” the first one is “whore,” which is basically “slut.” Jeez. I think “whore” is such a strong word. I would never call anybody a whore.
Really? Because “ho” is just short for “whore.” Yeah, I know, but “ho” doesn’t sound as bad.
Just because of the way it literally sounds? As a sound? Yeah.
According to UrbanDictionary, the word “ho” means “Prostitute, Whore, Hooker, Tramp, Slut.” But, in talking to other girls, I’ve found that the definition has actually evolved beyond this to mean a girl who’s insensitive about her friends’ crushes or interests, a girl who’s sloppy or inconsiderate of the feelings of people around her, especially when it comes to potential romantic interests. Do you agree with this new definition? Um, a girl who… well, that is speaking to a situation in my life right now, honestly, and when I spoke of her, I referred to her as a ho, because she is, and because I was mad at her. And it was the only word I had in my vocabulary to best describe her in that moment of anger. I guess if I had thought about it, it would’ve been another word, because she’s not a ho, not necessarily. According to the second definition, she is.
So do you think the term “ho” can be applied in both contexts? Yeah, people do it every day. Especially back in high school, people would do it. If a girl was dating her best friend’s ex, she was a ho.
Why? Because that’s just how people would refer to her.
So their decision to call her a ho comes more from the fact that this girl had that close tie to her current boyfriend before they were dating, because of that previous relationship. Yeah. And most times when I’ve heard girls be called a ho, it’s not because they sleep around a lot — people don’t really care, because that’s nobody’s business — but when girls or even guys are called hoes, it’s because of how they go about doing it or do it with.
So it more has to do with the choice of person, the person they want to be involved with? Yeah. Like, you know, your best friend’s boyfriend.
And that makes her a ho because she’s betraying her friend. Yeah.
Okay, so in that case the word “ho” doesn’t really mean a “slut,” it just means a mean girl. Yeah, in that case. At my high school, anyway.
So you said that boys are called hoes. Oh, yeah.
Okay, tell me about that, I didn’t know that was a thing. Okay, so, there was this guy from my high school. He had curly hair, and the girls loved that, and he played football, and he was smart, and he had a girlfriend. But, he would hardly ever mention his girlfriend when he met other girls. It would just be like, “You’re a girl. I think you’re cute. We should hook up.” So, he would be with all these different girls, and some of them would know he had a girlfriend and just not care, and some of them would just not know. And they would refer to him as a man-ho.
Oh. But not a “ho?” He could be a ho, too. Guys have ho-ish behavior just as girls do, if you flipped it. It’s not just women.
Okay, but more often than not, it is women? Majority? No, not even. If a guy’s doing the same thing a girls’ doing, yeah. At least, that’s how it is back home. For college, I can’t speak, but back home, for sure.
Do you think it’s okay to call a girl a ho? Do I think it’s okay? No. Do I do it? Yes.
Why, if you don’t think it’s okay? I don’t really put much thought into it, you know? It’s not something that, like, if I’m a point where I’m calling somebody out of their name, it’s because I mean it. And it’s usually because it’s in the moment and I’m upset, and in that moment, it’s the only word I can think of that would describe how I felt about them. Just to put a name on them in that moment.
But why don’t you think it’s okay? Because I think that everybody was given a name. And people’s parents choose their names with great purpose so that people can call people by those names and they can answer and be proud of it. And I don’t really think anyone deserves to be called otherwise, unless they, y’know, say, “You can call me this.” I think that names are very sacred, and I think that they should be respected in every case, even in anger.
If a girl calls a girl a ho, is that somehow better or more acceptable than a boy calling a girl a ho? I don’t know for sure. I know back home, when a girl called a girl a ho, if it was jokingly, there was no problem, but some girls just didn’t like it at all, so that would be a fighting word. And if a guy called a girl a ho, most of the time that would be a fighting word, and other girls would get upset, like, “You can’t talk about her like that.” Because, I guess, they try to stick together? Nobody wants to be called out of their name in a disrespectful manner. It’s different from being called something like, you know, “She’s my baby,” or “She’s my cutie.” But being called a ho, or anything that’s negative, is never anything anybody wants.
Do you think that using the word “ho” is a perpetuation of slut-shaming? I would have to say it can be, for sure. I’ve known people to talk about girls and call them a ho and mean it in every bit of its definition and mean it towards her in that way, but I’ve also heard people use it in the friendliest way. It’s the same thing as saying, “That’s my bitch.”
So it’s turned into a term of endearment, the same way that “bitch” has turned into a term of endearment between girls. Yes. It’s the difference between “She’s a ho” and “That’s my ho.”
So even just the phrasing matters? The phrasing changes everything? Yes.
As per what I said before about the evolving/new definition of “ho,” it seems that we have a problem, because we don’t have anything to call girls who are inconsiderate or insensitive when it comes to others’ feelings, romantic or otherwise. Yeah, there’s no word! Do you think there should be some kind of new word for this type of behaviour so that the word “ho” isn’t used? Yeah, it’d be nice, but then again, I think it’d be hard to get it into popular usage because people are always going to go back to what they know. That’d be a hard habit to break. It’d have to start with our children, which is kind of weird to think about. If I had my children, I would think, “Gosh, I’m going to have to teach them another word for ‘ho!’” That’s where I think it would have to start, or if you made a famous person to drop a new word. That might work.