A "thot" is not a slut: On popular slurs, race, class, and sex.

A Thot Is Not a Slut: The Popular Insult Is More About Race and Class Than Sex

A Thot Is Not a Slut: The Popular Insult Is More About Race and Class Than Sex

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 16 2014 12:39 PM

A Thot Is Not a Slut: The Popular Insult Is More About Race and Class Than Sex

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Miley Cyrus, co-opter of terms.

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

This spring, a lewd Instagram account sprang up in Louisa County, Virginia. Its anonymous administrators had collected dozens of nude selfies that local middle- and high-school girls had sent to friends and boyfriends, exposed them publicly on the site, and branded the girls in the pictures “thots.” If you listen to rap music and follow trending Twitter memes, you have likely heard the word thot before. If you listen to NPR and read the Atlantic—where this week, Hanna Rosin investigates how Louisa County is dealing with the fraught legal and social implications of teenagers taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to one another—you may have heard the term for the first time on Wednesday, when Rosin spoke it aloud on Fresh Air.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

A thot, for the uninitiated, is shorthand for a constellation of riffs on a central theme: “that ho over there,” “that ho out there,” “thirsty hoes out there.” On the surface, it appears to be a synonym for slut. (And for rappers and Internet meme producers, it is conveniently both easy to rhyme and effortless to pun.) But the thot label is wielded to indicate class status as much as it refers to sexual activity. Thots are criticized based on sexual behavior, yes, but they’re more broadly identified via their consumption habits; this makes it possible to denounce them on sight even when their sexual histories remain private.

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Like many linguistic trends widely popular among American teenagers, the thot finds her origins in hip-hop, where the class connotations are clear. In the Game’s “T.H.O.T.,” a thot is “a Coach bag bitch but she follow Chanel.” In Kevin Lavell’s “Love No Thot,” she is “Hanging around with them other little hoes in her best friend’s clothes.” In Chevralet’s “The THOT Song,” she’s “got that DSL,” a double entendre on “dick sucking lips” and a poor Internet connection. The song goes on to compare the woman in question to McDonald’s and a pepperoni Hot Pocket.

The archetypical thot, as constructed through memes circulated on Instagram and Twitter, drinks cheap alcohol, eats Chipotle, uses a Metro PCS phone card, and shops at mall staple Aeropostale. She has a beauty mark piercing on her upper lip, just as the “tramps” who came before her sported tattoos on their lower backs. She is “grocery shopping in heels looking like” she’s “going to the EBT awards.” In their most absurd forms, thot memes position thotness as a quality that’s predestined from birth: A thot is named “Jasmine” or “Sasha,” and she stands 5-foot-1 to 5-foot-5. Most of the time, she’s black.

If women are products, then thots are cheap goods. More than that, they’re knockoffs: low-quality merchandise that attempts to masquerade as luxury items. One iteration of the Instagram meme sums it up: “Quit that high class act, lady. You’re a thot.” Only when the thot’s attempt to transcend class becomes apparent is her sexual behavior called into question. In “Thot 101,” Moon raps about a girl he thought was a “lil cutie,” fell in love with, and provided with emotional support, only to find that she was “around sucking everybody’s dick.” Moon “used to do dates and shit” until he realized “these bitches want money, I ain’t paying for shit.” The fantastical nightmare of the thot is a woman who pretends to be the type of valuable female commodity who rightfully earns male commitment—until the man discovers that she’s just a cheap imitation of a “good girl” who is good only for mindless sex, not relationships or respect.

Slut, too, hinges on a class divide. In their 2013 book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton embedded with 50 white college women over the course of four years and learned about, among other things, their deployment of the term slut against other women. Armstrong and Hamilton found that women from affluent backgrounds, who flocked to the Greek system, used slut to call out girls they deemed “trashy” and not “classy,” while girls from working-class backgrounds wielded slut to impugn “rich bitches in sororities.” The term still connotes a lack of sexual propriety, but that calculation is constructed on signifiers of class background and social status as opposed to nightstand notches. This appears to be the case in Louisa County: “To the elite girls, the girls on Instagram were sluts not necessarily because they were sleeping around but because of what they looked like or how they acted,” Rosin notes. As one girl told her: “Let’s just say people have different body types.”

A thot also draws comparisons with the term basic bitch, which emerged from hip-hop, too, before it entered the lexicon of white kids and became fodder for mainstream comedy of the CollegeHumor stripe. The two memes function similarly in that they pinpoint a woman’s consumption habits in order to impugn her character; one contribution to the thot archive makes the connection, calling out Starbucks Frappuccinos as “thot juice for white girls.” But in contrast to the thot, which takes aim at low-status black women, the basic bitch label now parodies women with mainstream white suburban tastes. As Noreen Malone put it in New York magazine this week, the basic bitch “runs her gel-manicured hands up and down the spine of female-centric popular culture of the last 15 years, and is satisfied with what she feels. She doesn’t, apparently, long for more.” And while the thot’s class status is wrapped up in an association with sluttiness, the basic bitch seems almost asexual: She is a serial monogamist, definitely vanilla, probably boring in bed.

This is partly because white women’s sexuality is normalized, while the sexuality of black women is widely stigmatized. But it’s also because the basic bitch is complacent in her class status, neither vying for luxury nor slumming for hipster cred. That makes her sexually unthreatening: Men needn’t fear they’ll overestimate the basic bitch’s sexual value, because what they see is what they get. But it also makes her desperately uncool: At least sluts are experimenting.  

Perhaps thot will soon follow the course of ratchet, again a rap insult that conflates low-class behavior with female sexuality. As John Ortved detailed in New York last year, ratchet has since been reclaimed by some black women as a marker of fierce, working-class authenticity. Of course, it was then swiftly co-opted by white women like Miley Cyrus who, desperate to look less basic, picked up the term like a cool new accessory before discarding it when the trend passed and its cultural value degraded. Terms designed to criticize black women often become markers of white status. Thot is now being casually deployed as a term of endearment between friends, as in: “Happy 16th birthday to my Alpha Thot.” Miley is likely already on it. As one young, male observer put it on Twitter this week: “She's elite thot.”