(The following is from Justin Laing, a Pittsburgh-area educator and activist. This is a version of a piece originally published on his blog, Hillombo.)
I had a thought-provoking and somewhat troubling conversation with a broad range of Black men at my barbershop a couple Saturdays ago. New to me and a few of the men was THOTS — an acronym for “that ho over there” that young people (primarily young men) are using with increasing frequency.
In the course of the discussion, I remarked that the term was terrible and likely to boomerang. A young man responded that what was terrible was that young women do the things that make them worthy of such names. Obviously, there is no mystery in what makes a young woman supposedly “worthy” of that dehumanizing distinction: either engaging in sex with a number of partners that young men determine excessive, or “acting” like you do. And, as is often the case with terms like this, sometimes all a young woman has to do to be referred to as a “THOT” is…exist.
It felt good that the young man later followed up his comment with some empathy, reflecting that there could be a reason for the young woman’s behavior. Interestingly enough, no mention was made, explanation was given, or word was created about the sexual behavior of the men these THOTs are involved with. After all, you can’t be a THOT without willing male partners.
The young man who made the comment was by no means expressing a viewpoint unique to him or even a minority view. We live in a White supremacist, patriarchal culture (literally, rule of the father) so the image and identity of Black women and girls are under regular assault. So, I guess what really struck me about the this term was that it was even more dismissive and dehumanizing than what I normally hear, but it’s important to consider it because the language of youth tells us a lot about where we stand as culture. Who did they learn it from? Also, I have to reflect on why the term might be striking to me when I’m aware of the culture we live in.
There is this term, “middle class subterfuge,” that a former professor of mine taught to explain how middle class people hide their ideas, particularly around power, with all kinds of euphemisms. So, I shouldn’t be surprised at hearing a term like “THOTS” in a community that is largely working class and less prone to euphemisms, but still the dehumanizing language literally sent a shockwave of fear through me. Fear, because we dehumanize classes of people to justify all kinds of things that are done to them, very often violent things, and so dehumanizing women and girls in language is simply a stage in a continuum of violence. And, I have seen on one occasion walking with my daughter at Kennard Field, how the idea that young women are little more than sexual props sits very present in the minds of boys not even 14 years old.
This got me to thinking about where does the desire to prevent male violence against women show up in neighborhood planning beyond well lit streets? When we talk about building on the cultural legacies we often are thinking about supporting our identities in racial and ethnic terms, but what about in gender terms? What kinds of design choices would we make if we wanted to build on a cultural legacy that challenged the thinking behind THOTS? The thinking that leaves women and girls vulnerable to rape and abuse and traps men and boys in ideas of manhood and boyhood that encourages unprotected sex with multiple partners and all of the consequences that can follow when we are still very young.
What part of Master Planning and neighborhood revitalization asks questions about the impact of the environment on the identities of men and boys and how those identities can be engaged with to prevent violence and the dehumanizing of women and girls, even if we are “only” talking about dehumanizing language?
(You can follow Justin at @jdlaing)