what’s in a name?
I saw this tweet this morning, and it reminded me to finish writing this blog post. I have several thoughts on the topic of naming when it comes to proheaux discourse. I am specifically saying “proheaux discourse” because, in my mind, proheaux discourse specifically speaks to Black/brown women and femmes and sex workers. When I say femmes I tend to mean all femmes, gender notwithstanding.
I. “sex worker” vs. “prostitute”
The usage of the term sex worker versus prostitute is a point of contention I’ve noted. Colloquially, “sex worker” is used to mean prostitute/escort — a full service sex worker. According to the Introduction to the $pread Magazine anthology:
“While it’s contemporary, popular usage might suggest a polite synonym for “prostitute,” its intended meaning is much broader, encompassing anyone who exchanges money, goods, or services for their sexual or erotic labor. The purpose of the term wasn’t about being polite, although “sex work” does nicely sidestep the stigma embedded in some of the more charged monikers.”
I, and other sex workers and/or sex worker activists, tend to use “sex worker” as an umbrella term. It’s great for organizing, but:
- Our discourse does not exist in a vacuum. The term sex worker is very much aligned in most people’s minds as synonymous with prostitution. Whorerarchy dictates a severe pecking order, and listing “sex worker” in your bio automatically gets you the side eye because of this.
- We also have to remember that “sex worker” is a political alliance, and that because of this whorerarchy, full service sex workers, particularly prostitutes and to a similar extent, escorts, tend to be the most vulnerable to assault and criminalization, with Black, trans, and indigenous sex workers as thee most vulnerable to murder, rape, and assault by police and civilians. This is why the movement tends to focus on full service workers to a greater extent. (In my mind it’s similar to the WOC designation as political alliance, BW as a focus.)
- The “stigma” mentioned in the quote mainly refers to the term “prostitute,” which has been hurled at full service sex workers forever. It could also be referring to “hoe,” “thot,” or “slut.” The latter terms, however, are racialized, compared to prostitute or whore, which tends to simply confer “nasty woman.”
II. escort vs prostitute
An escort is an indoor prostitute. It seems fancier because it’s dressed up. But just because it is in a hotel or someone’s home, and not on the street or in a car, doesn’t mean that escorts are any better than prostitutes who work on the street. Prostitute is a term used to describe full service workers at large but, really, it’s a term used to pinpoint street workers. (Street work=outdoor prostitution, and escorting=indoor prostitution.)
I have had civilians correct me on my use of the word “prostitute,” as if I don’t know it has a negative stigma. They will either correct me to sex worker, or to “escort,” which a lot of people consider to be the “better” of the two. I am not interested in respectability as far as this term is concerned. If an actual sex worker requests not to be called a prostitute, I definitely respect that. However, I find it distasteful that escort is being suggested as an alternative because the only difference between escorting and prostitution is perception.Although these two terms technically aren’t racialized in the way that hoe and thot are, class and race in America tend to be inextricably linked, with whiteness positioned as the default. Being able to work inside is a privilege, especially for non-black and cis women. In certain areas, Black women and trans women are more likely to be targeted by hotel personnel and law enforcement, whether they are sex workers or not. Prostitution is linked to homelessness, and sex workers who work outdoors generally experience higher levels of criminalization and assault, not to mention exposure to the elements. (Note that runaways and children or others who have been coerced into street prostitution are not sex workers, but are affected by these issues as well.)
III. hoe, heaux, & thot
When you say the words “hoe,” and “thot,” it’s probably not a white woman you’re picturing. That’s because hoe and thot are Black American slang, sexual slurs usually reserved to name and shame Black women and girls of all ages, shapes and sexualities. From a very young age we are sexualized and stigmatized simply because of our skin. Thick and full-bodied Black women are made to feel like their bodies are inherently sexual, that [Black] men harass them because of “how they present themselves,” placing the blame on them instead of the misogynists. The words hoe, thot, and heaux are rooted in cultural misogynoir.
White women’s flippant use of these words has always made me feel some type of way, mainly because these words have been used to describe Black women/femmes since we were little “fast” girls. To see white women and white sex workers using all of these terms colloquially bothers me. While heauxdom is something a majority of them (and by them I mean able-bodied, cis white women) can dress to escape, Black women and femmes, whether cis or trans, civilian or sex worker, cannot escape these labels so easily. And white sex workers in particular grind my gears when it comes to discussing race, because many of them are so invested in feeling extra marginalized, and when Black and brown sex workers point out inequalities, we are either dismissed, talked over, or called “divisive.” They don’t like to think of themselves as oppressors (white) within an oppressed minority (sex workers).
I see Black women like me trying to reclaim the word “hoe” and its Frenchified sibling “heaux,” and I wonder why white women, particularly working class white women, don’t just reclaim a word that is actually relevant to them, like “slut?” Slut is also a racialized term, by the way, and it is a classist term. It calls to mind a lower class/working class white woman, i.e. “trailer trash.” I also think it’s very amusing, and telling, that the sexual slurs that usually describe white women are class-identified instead of race-identified. It speaks to the idea of whiteness as default. But whiteness can, and will, claim whatever it wants. Black slang is seaux trendy, ain't it? Our music, our language, is infectious and permeates every corner of the diaspora. Black culture and AAVE has always been fodder for white people, as have our bodies. I have found that cis white women who consider themselves to be part of an oppressed group beyond gender (i.e. poor/sex worker), or white women who have a certain level of proximity to Black people, either adopt a sort of off-brand, performative blackness, or co-opt Black slang and experiences. Some will do this through cultural osmosis. Others will do it through their Black partner/friends/children/colleagues, and sometimes claim they experience racism by proxy.
I doubt that anything I have said here will prevent or dissuade white/non-black women or sex workers from throwing these terms around, nor was that my aim. I suppose I just like picking these things apart, and I don’t generally expect people to change, least of all when that change would prevent them from doing what they want to do. Even as sex workers, white women have more power than Black women, and no one who has any kind of power is keen to give it up easily. A lot of folks will say “it’s just words,” but it’s clear from what I’ve described, that these terms and the way in which we utilize them is important. Their connotations mean something, whether we wanna acknowledge it or nah.
- Despite there being a dearth of writing and work about Black sex workers by actual Black sex workers, ther are some academic pieces that I have enjoyed by Mirielle Miller-Young. Here’s one: Putting Hypersexuality to Work: Black Women and Illicit Eroticism in Pornography. She mainly writes about pornography.
- Sinnamon Love is a retired Black porn actress you should look up. She had a piece in The Feminist Porn Book.
- I will definitely be searching for more Black sex worker blogs, art and writing, and I’ll be doing a blog post on them!