In the same week that I discovered Nicki Minaj’s new song and watched the video online, I became privy to a blog purporting to showcase a selection of “hoes” from Trinidad. I wanted to think quietly about what all of this meant: this naming and shaming of young women on the internet, ignited by the quick spread of social media.
This coupled with the earlier cacophony of Nicki’s staccato rhymes, verbal whirls, snarls and tics; a slick, kaleidoscope of a diss-rap whose power and futuristic imaginings my third eye surely had to get hip to. And it did, atop and around the sting and caress of the word connecting the two episodes, “hoe.” Although the word makes me uncomfortable and the song makes me hella uncomfortable, for mainly that reason, it was insightful for me to consider why the discomfort was there and acknowledge it.
The title of this blog post is ironic. There is no real way to not be a hoe. Also, context matters and can be relative. And as bell hooks has noted, “any black female risks being labeled a whore whether she is sexually active or not, by sexist black men if she does not conform to their expectations of desirable femininity (178).”
For the West Indian girls featured on the now defunct “Trini Hoes” blog site, there was no requiem or celebration — only retribution it seems. The operative word in the byline was “exposed” which lets us know that the central aim was shame, which leads me to further conclude that with intentions like this, there’s no way to not be a hoe. You could be one; I could be one. Girlchildren are endlessly inundated with the important lessons of everything from comportment to good womanness. Who among us, cisgender, or other female identified women, does not know a litany of:
. . .this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut you are so bent on becoming.
Caribbean girlhood, like those of a myriad of girls in many places is full of these reminders:
this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming. . .
How exactly does one do that? Not become a slut, an “ol’ hoe,” a skettel? And how do you do so easily in a small place? A small place that sufficiently worked to trounce the jamette enough to slink into the shadows? Yet, remains indignant and scandalized every time she reappears, like a phoenix. Furthermore, if it came to it, who can vouch for your sexual history anyway? How?
Around the start of the 2000s, a viral email alleging to be a certain Trinidadian young lady nude, entered my inbox. It was the first time I saw someone attempt to sexually shame another girl like that. Someone I didn’t know personally but I certainly knew “of” through knowing people who knew her. And I never forgot it either. The emails circulating with lightning fast speed — how it reappeared in my inbox and even I, I am certain, forwarded it on to someone. It seemed like every Trinidadian of a certain age either knew about or had viewed the message. And all the tongues that wagged endlessly about it.
It also reminds me that Trinis can have a collective scary underside when points of connection are exploited and bacchanal, sex and sexual attitudes converge on the site of punishing a girl at a strategic point that’s aimed to tarnish, chastise and cause pain. And because we’re indoctrinated to give these notions so much power, few things attack a young woman’s character and standing like suggesting she is bereft of sexual respectability.
In an increasingly connected world, Trinidadian society like many island-states with their penchant for widespread superficiality and quasi-religiosity based judgments of nearly every damn thing, (fueled by our almost incessant psychological need to measure up and be as good as and show and prove; imagine a Napoleon complex for a nation*) makes finding safe spaces for sexual females not necessarily impossible but difficult.
Post colonial psychological reckonings plus heterocentrist, patriarchal norms help make a nice callaloo of much of what’s taking place. Sometimes, how we like to think we define ourselves is shifting, so people constantly complain more each year about the sexualized indecency of women at carnival — those pasties, the thong wearers, the rolls falling out of their rightful hidden places, the wire bras that grip the bosom with an ornate, clawing indecency.
The advent of social media, characterized by increased mobile usage, image and video sharing and untethered access, for those who have it, further shrunk the social space range of Trinbagonian connectivity. It also helped to create a site, loaded with pictures of many of the young women in various states of uncensored undress. There was a horrific amount of identifying information about these girls: names, ages (at least one as young as 17 but all looked young), towns and neighborhoods resided in, schools attended, alleged sexual proclivities and sexual orientations. It was targeted, commodified, societal slut-shaming at its best.
And everyone with internet access who heard about it, had a glimpse for as long as the site was functioning, even as I and other friends visited to steadily report the site to its host platform before its imminent removal. Though access might have depended on one’s proximity to the Trinbagonian diaspora, word definitely got out about it. Added to the recent studies showing that we have the highest presence on Facebook and troll the web for Kim Kardashian, more than anyone else — a dubious honor at best — Trinidadians are clearly poised to participate fully in the shrinking globalized online world and all the problems, benefits and complexities that come along with this.
Trinidad is no different from some segments of contemporary Western society in some ways. We were after all, encouraged to pattern ourselves after the empire and still look lovingly towards some of those models for our cues on some kinds of expression. Yet our shared legacy of slavery, indentureship, empire and colonialisation makes for a uniquely West Indian rendering of female subjectivity, female sexuality and the shame that sometimes accompanies any of it. And similar contradictions are here: select beauty queens are afforded passes for indiscretions by some folks that non-famous black and brown women don’t get — there is no great outpouring of folks rushing to protect their image, urging country people to stop spreading their images.
Recorded sexuality that deviates from the acceptable norm, is also afforded no protective shields. On the Facebook page where I first saw the “Trini Hoes” link, comments were overly unsympathetic to the young women’s situation. These girls were not worthy of sympathy. They looked for it. Who told them to take sexy pics? Too many people were amused and indicated that the taking of sexy pics in and of itself, or having sex, afforded women and girls the right to be maligned and publicly exposed as “hoes.”
We must continue to work to find ways to continuously find spaces for all people to engage in their consensual, sexual selves safely, and with dignity (or, none whatsoever if that’s how you roll). Slut-shaming indicates and reinforces the notion that sexual women are always worthy of disrespect, insult, violence enacted upon them, verbal abuse and all manner of other awfulness because they showed their sexual selves to someone, in private or otherwise. Men and other women sometimes use slut-shame to police other women’s behavior and feel good about themselves from a loftier moral high ground.
How about you don’t just tell me how to be a lady. Or tell me how to cross my legs at the ankles, and how to delicately sweep my skirt between my thighs to cover myself. Tell me how to be my sexual, empowered self if I choose to be; how to own my choices and learn the sweet, winding map of my own desires.
Notes, further reading and references:
*Obviously this is only one aspect of Trinidadian society (in my opinion anyway) not its sole aspect but I believe it’s relevant because while we are so hung up on the “world” giving us kudos, recognizing and acknowledging us — it makes for some bad decision making and even worse cultural policing. Whether it’s in regard to soca going global or carnival or our cosmopolitan mix that everyone loves to scream about — the people that need to know, will know. They will come. And see. And lay flowers at your feet. Praise and further recognition will come. But the rush to focus on that, to acquire, and validate, prevents us from doing necessary work on ourselves as a people for ourselves, and no one else. Jamette carnival is our history and in our collective cultural memory. It’s always been there. Who cares what the world thinks? Someone will always be scandalized.
My point of reference with notions of “jamishness” and the jamette carnival is that I am always surprised how conservatively many Trinis want to view our collective culture (and carnival) when to me, historically, it hasn’t been starched and stuffy and respectable for a long-ass time. At least for as long as I have been alive, there’s been wining and revelry. People wined up on hand held standards for goddess’ sake. Trinis love to draw the line linking carnival to sexual respectability politics too. Respectability too, is relative. Surely, even renditions of that has changed. What does it mean to be a respectable people anyway? And as long as people (women included) have taken to the streets — there was always scandalousness. Beneath the veneer of good Christian-Catholic-Anglican-Presbyterian-Hindu-Islamic facades, something was always there stirring in the sweltering heat of the West Indies. There’s a reason many a white colonial met their ruin once in the isles of the Caribbean. We were a place people came to become unhinged while simultaneously making their ill-gotten fortunes soaked in blood. This too is our legacy.
For historical context on the jamette carnival
On the jamette carnival and other literary aesthetics: http://anthurium.miami.edu/volume_3/issue_2/davis-jamette.htm
Quoted excerpt from Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”
bell hooks quote from Salvation: Black People And Love
Image via google image search and brazenbitch.