These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but a lot of hip hop songs refer to ‘hoes’. (I know, I know, stay with me.)  What that can mean in any given context varies, of course, but in general terms what we’re talking about are either sexually available women in general, or specifically actual sex workers.

The thing about the hoes is that whether you’re announcing to a woman that she is one (before taking her to a ho-tel), reminding everyone that you can’t trust them, telling them to leave if they can’t accept the basics, or simply wondering where they at – hoes are an integral part of the hip hop landscape.

In many cases the very concept of masculinity is pinned to one’s ability to either attract hoes, or traffic them, a situation which ain’t easy, and makes it hard out here for a select group of men.

Across the board, however, one thing is certain about hoes – they are not worthy of respect, and the fact that men don’t respect them is absolutely paramount to their street cred.  Jay-Z wants you to know he doesn’t eat with them.  Snoop just needs you to understand that G’s are more important than them.  Hoes are women who are available for sex, but don’t have the ability to hold emotional focus or respect from men.

This concept – of a sexually available woman who should have some stigma attached to her as a result of that availability – sits alongside another hip hop trope, that of the bad bitch.  Bad bitches, like hoes, are generally sexual, sexualised, or sexually available.  Unlike hoes, however, who have been pronounced unworthy of love by too many people to name, bad bitches are LOVED.  Kanye is searching the globe for a hotel that hires them as cleaning staff. Nicki Minaj (to whom all praises) has declared herself the badest bitch, though she may also kiss others if you dare her.

So if some women who like having sex are Bad Bitches, and others are hoes, how is the line drawn?

Largely it seems that the ho/bad bitch dichotomy is resolved through masculine control of emotional attachment.  If a bad bitch is not causing problems for a man, but does him the favour of remaining sexually available to him, she retains her status as a bad bitch.  If a woman becomes a problem for someone, she becomes a ho.  The fastest way for a bad bitch to lose her title is for someone to fall in and out of love with her, at which point she is reduced to the level of ho.  Similarly, if a woman is sexually available to one hip hop artist, she’s a bad bitch.  If she’s fucked every one she can, she’s a ho.  Especially if she fucks with Drake.

Of course Drake draws his own distinction, saying that hoes want attention, and women want respect.  Arguably, then, when men are done respecting women it’s at that point that they become hoes, because it is their perception that allows them to state what a woman’s end goal is.

On the whole, then, in the hip hop context bad bitches are good, hoes are bad, and men get to determine who is what and where the line is drawn.

This is exactly the opposite of the perception of sexually available women in the medieval period.

Most people assume, through not much fault of their own, that during the Middle Ages in Europe, sex was considered across the board to be a Very Bad Thing.  Given that the Church and its control of the continent is essentially the over-arching institution of the medieval period, and that the Church on the whole says that sex is quite naughty and should only be done by the marrieds, it would be easy to assume that any sex for funsies was off limits.

This is only half true, however, because the Church whilst announcing that sex is Well Bad, and Definitely Not Holy, also acknowledged that it’s probably sorta kinda necessary.  Not for women of course – don’t go crazy! – but for men.

In fact, it was the Church’s position that men need sex so badly that if they don’t have access to it, they might just burn the goddamn city down.  Any city.  Cuz boys will be boys.

So what are a bunch of unmarried dudes to do?  They can’t have sex, but they will almost certainly go on a violent rampage if denied it.  To this the Church has a solution – prostitutes.

Oh hell yes they bigged up prostitutes.  Saint fucking Augustine started on this line of thought during the Late Antique period.*  In the thirteenth century, Saint fucking Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed that shit in his Summa Theologica**, and basically everyone was just like, ok cool, we’ll get some prostitutes in the joint then.

So since many Church thinkers had acknowledged that prostitutes were pretty useful, and people didn’t want dudes who weren’t getting any to burn the fucker down, most cities had municipally chartered public brothels where you could go get some, and hopefully not riot.

These brothels were usually outside of or near the city walls, because cities knew they needed to have them, but didn’t want to look like they were celebrating that fact.  So, for example, in London brothels had to be across the river in Southwark.

A lot of cities would also legislate what prostitutes had to wear so that everybody would know you were a prostitute.  In London, again, the uniform was a ‘hood of ray’, meaning black and white stripped material.

So normalised was prostitution that it was considered completely acceptable to run a brothel, and intrepid businessmen doing just that in London included the Bishop of Winchester, giving rise to the euphemism ‘Winchester geese’ .  (I dare you to write a rap using that right fucking now.)  A lot of those ladies are buried in the Cross Bones graveyard, which you should go check out next time you’re near Borough Market.

Technically having sex with a prostitute was a sin, but it attracted very little penance.  Similarly, whilst being a prostitute was a sin, if you decided you were over it (and didn’t have the money to join a specialist order of nuns like the Magdalenes – who still exist!) you just had to get married and you were pretty much off the hook.  You were, after all, doing society a service.

All this means that there was a place, both figuratively and literally in medieval society for prostitutes.  The same is not true of bad bitches.

While it was totally legit for a dude to go get off with a prostitute if he was feeling it women pretty much had to STFU.  Are you married?  Then go ahead and have you some sex.  (But not on a Sunday, or during Lent, or while you’re on your period, or, you know what?  Just check this flow chart.)

If you weren’t married?  Nope. Nothing doing.  Absolutely not.  Maybe become a prostitute for a while if you really feel like you need to be having TEH SEX?  In medieval Prague there was even a term for women who liked having a good time (good times being defined as gambling with men, polkaing, and presumably sexing on dudes) – suspect women, or mulieres suspecte.

By being sexually available and interested in, you know, fun, you were considered someone to be wary of.  Someone untrustworthy.  The bad bitch was therefore the one to watch out for, and the prostitute the acceptable individual.

Again, however, you will notice that the good woman/bad woman divide here is determined by dudes.  If women are having sex specifically to take care of the needs of a bunch of men, and are willing to subject themselves to the regulations men determined to control them, then they are fine.  If women are attempting to gain their own ends by having sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to do with catering to the whims of men, then they are problematic.

The point of all this, then, is that from the medieval period to now, Western society has done a 180 in terms of defining which sexually available women are alright.  It used to be ok to be sexual if you were getting money for it, now it’s ok to be sexual if you’re just doing your thing.

What has remained constant, though, is that the permission to be a sexual being is still predicated on catering to the needs of men.  It’s alright to be sexual if a dude says so.  The game may have changed, but the rules are the same.

*De Ordine, in, CSEL, Vol. 63., p. 155.

**Summa Theologica, Iia–IIae, Q.10, A.11.


For more on sex in the medieval period see:
On women and desire
Sex and the (medieval) city 
On power and the entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!

For more hip hop history see:
On the concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
Kanye West is the modern day Peter Abelard

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

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