Sex Talk in Song Then and Now: What Do You Remember Hearing?

This is the first semester of my doctoral studies at Emory University and I have the good fortune of serving as a teaching assistant for Religion & Sexuality. This undergraduate-level course is all about, you guessed it, religion and sexuality and the many ways they are related. Students study the main religious traditions perspectives on sexuality, significant thinkers in the disciplines, media coverage and pop culture. Keeping in line with the latter, yesterday the professor started to dive deep into this discourse by focusing on Freud and Foucault. But, so as not to completely lose the students due to the denseness of these two thinkers matter, he offered a more contemporary resource to help them understand what is at stake in discourses on sex by using, wait for it…

Yes, Salt-n-Pepa’s 1991 hit supplemented a discussion on Foucault’s discourse on sex in the Victorian age and I was here for it. But as the video played and I surveyed the room to observe its reception, I saw many of the students just staring at it blankly. It hit me that no one in the classroom except for me, the other teaching assistant, and the professor, was born when the song dropped. I was 11 when the song came out and I remember it as the first song I’d ever heard that explicitly talked about sex. The students in the class weren’t even zygotes in 1991 and I realized that, to them, a song that explicitly talks about sex could mean something entirely different.

When I say “explicitly talked about sex” I mean that sex talk in song was direct and not reliant on the oftentimes hyper-aggressive, hostile, violent, and sometimes rape-y sex talk in songs today. The students’s experience of sex talk in song is most likely different from my experience of sex talk in the songs that I came of age to such as Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and TLC’s “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” all songs which spoke about sex in plain terms–although the argument can be made that these songs were pushing boundaries at the time. These songs were still tame in nature, didn’t use potentially harmful language, and promoted safe sex either explicitly in the lyrics on in their corresponding videos. This, however, is probably not the reality for young people who were born in 1994–the approximate year I believe most of the students were born in–because by 2005, the sex talk in song sounded something like this,

I’ll take you to the candy shop
I’ll let you lick the lollipop
Go ‘head girl, don’t you stop
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)
[Olivia]
I’ll take you to the candy shop
Boy one taste of what I got
I’ll have you spending all you got
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)

That is an excerpt from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” a song that was number eight on Billboard’s 2005 Year-End list. But this still might not be the first song with sex talk that they’ve heard. There may have been something earlier or later but I’m curious about what they first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. And now I’m curious about what many people first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. So I’m throwing the query out to readers,

What is the first song you recall hearing sex talk in or the first song you heard that was all about sex? How did the song make you feel? What did it make you think about sex? Also be sure to include the approximate decade in which you were born and when the song came out. I may or may not be using this for research. 😉

So…Let’s talk about sex!

#TheEmptyChair: The Numbers Behind NY Mag’s Cosby Accuser Cover

cosby-nymag-cover-1Last night the cover for New York magazine’s issue featuring the stories of 35 of the women raped by Bill Cosby dropped and it left many, myself included, shaken to our cores. The black & white cover, pictured below, features the 35 women and an empty chair symbolic of the women who have yet to come forward. I only read two of the accounts before turning away from it because it was just too heavy but I couldn’t escape it as #TheEmptyChair became a trending discussion on Twitter last night.

There are so many empty chairs. Not only the empty chairs in the Cosby situation but empty chairs in general for the countless number of women who have yet to come forward, report their rape, and share their story. To put some weight on an already heavy story I’d like to share some numbers that, once I saw them, I could not unsee them.

A Department of Justice report on rape indicates that for every white woman who reports her rape, five don’t and for every black woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. Taking those numbers and applying them to this cover to determine the potential number of empty chairs we would end up with approximately 220 empty chairs. That’s 220 unreported incidents of sexual violence against women. 220 stories never told. 220 women still bound by their captors even though their captors have long left them. The trauma that women face after sexual violence remains with them long after their abusers have left the side of the bed, room, the dark alley, the bathroom, and every other domain where sexual violence occurs. Even a story told does not remove the memory and the trauma but for those who are brave enough to come forward it starts them on the process toward healing. But there are at least 220 empty chairs out there that may never be filled which means there are women who may never find any semblance of peace, healing, and wholeness. Though we can proclaim that they are not what happened to them it is what happened to them that is keeping them silent.

It is my hope that women who have yet to sit in the chair will be encouraged not only by the 34 women on this week’s cover but that they will also be encouraged by the scores of people, myself included, who believe and support them. Even though I don’t see you, I want you to know that you are seen. Even though you haven’t spoken, I hear you. Until then, I pray for peace in the midst of this storm and for your courage to come forward at the right time for you. Know that there is no statute of limitation on your freedom and recovery so whenever you do come forward–whether within the ridiculous limits of our legal system or not–freedom and wholeness are there for the taking. Also, until then:

And for those of you have who have come forward, particularly those who were courageous enough to come out on the cover, I will honor you and read your story. Thank you for your courage.

Video: How to Stay A Virgin

Things have been fairly heavy on Sex & the Sanctuary so I figured I’d lighten things up a bit on this Humpday. Earlier this week I asked on Facebook how people who have committed to abstinence, either as a premarital principle or for another reason, maintain that commitment. I wanted to know the practical and impractical measures people take to remain chaste. Unfortunately only one person responded with the tip that she stops shaving and waxing “the naughty bits.” I was disappointed because I know I have friends who are practicing abstinence but another friend alerted me to the fact that my question might be a little more complex than I realize–and also that people might not feel comfortable answering that question in a public space. Point taken.

Interestingly enough though, a response to my question landed in my inbox yesterday. Granted this isn’t a direct response–I don’t know this guy in real or virtual life–and he is addressing a young woman who is a virgin, but I do appreciate his advice to her. It isn’t the Evangelical Christian clichés rattled off to young people about remaining chaste–which means it isn’t full of that rhetoric. It’s real, practical advice guided by one person’s experience and a good sense of humor.  So here it is:

What do you think? Are daytime dates and unshaven naughty bits what you would suggest to someone? If you or someone you know is abstinent or celibate, how is that personal commitment maintained? What are the practical measures taken to remain abstinent if such a lifestyle is chosen? (There is no wrong answer, additional I’m not an undercover agent for Purity Culture or Pro-Abstinence, I’m just a writer/researcher interested in the topic and what people really do when they are abstinent.)

Rape Culture, Race, and the Privileged Voices, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: I understand that by writing this many may interpret this work as me victim blaming and/or shaming, that isn’t my intention. My intention is to start a dialogue on an issue that has confused to me, namely how we define rape and nonconsensual sex in the midst of a society consumed by rape culture. My impetus for this discussion are two stories that I came across in recent weeks which made me question not only what I understand about rape and non-consensual sex but who is dominating those discussions and shifting perspectives on the matter. I will take up this discussion in two parts, the first of which is below and the second which will be published tomorrow–I promise.

**********TRIGGER WARNING**********

The first article entitled “Is It Possible That There Is Something in Between Consensual Sex and Rape…And That It Happens to Almost Every Girl Out There?” details a sexual encounter between two people who had spent a substantial amount of time drinking together. The young woman went home with the young man, in the morning she ended up in his bedroom where they had a heart-to-heart discussion, and then things went seemingly downhill from there. While they were talking the young man said, “I feel like you want me to make a move, just so you can turn me down.” And following those words they began to make out and making out escalated into sex. Here is how she describes it,

Before I even had a chance to decide if he was right, we were making out. In my state of extreme intoxication, my mind was racing in search of a decision. This was exciting. This was fun. But this was also really, really weird, and ultimately, not a road I wanted to go down. I couldn’t decide if the excitement and lust in the air would win over the pit in my stomach. It wasn’t until he grabbed a condom that I really knew how I felt. I was not okay with this. I did not want to have sex with him.

But I did.

She goes on to describe the internal conflict she had throughout the entire encounter, wrestling with the fact that she was uncomfortable with the situation but conceding to it. She says,

It was easier to just do it. Besides, we were already in bed, and this is what people in bed do. I felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.

It is in retrospect that she realizes that what happened to her may have been a violation to her. She struggled with this because there are no clear words for what happened, it wasn’t rape but it wasn’t consensual sex either and thus it is complicated. She is telling her story to shed light on something that she believes happens all the time to women and as she states in the article, many women replied in the affirmative that they had similar experiences with men. Thus she concludes with this,

It happens to us with consistent hookups, first dates, boyfriends, and one-night stands alike. We have sex with guys, because sometimes it’s just easier to do it than to have the argument about not doing it. But no one talks about it. Talking about it makes it a big deal. It makes us feel like we’re whining. It makes us feel like we’re being dramatic. And we don’t want it to be dramatic. We don’t feel entirely violated. It doesn’t affect us forever. We just feel like we got the short end of the stick, and that sometimes, we have to do something we don’t want to do, out of politeness or social obligation. So why bring it up? Why risk wrongfully tagging a guy with a serious, heavy label he doesn’t deserve? And more importantly, why risk being wrongfully tagged as “the girl who cried rape,” when we’re not trying to say it was rape at all? We’re saying we don’t know what it was. We just didn’t like it. But by refusing to acknowledge the existence of these rape-ish situations, we’re continuing to subject ourselves to them indefinitely.

Having read this article several times I remain confounded by it and its implications for women and men. To establish this space between rape and consensual sex is confusing to me. What does this continuous expansion of the definition of rape and nonconsensual sex mean in the long run? Who is given the authority to expand definitions of rape and consensual sex? Who are the women and men who are allowed to talk about their experiences most widely in a way that has impact on the general perspectives of this issue? What is the cultural impact of these discussions? The latter question is based on my reading and interpretation of this as a black woman who has observed rape culture and nonconsensual sex discourse as one that is dominated, primarily, by white people–particularly in the public spotlight and spaces.

I thought about if I were in this woman’s shoes and wondered what my friends, most of whom are black women, would say. Having talked to a few of them and explained this article in detail they all believed that it wasn’t rape and it wasn’t non-consensual sex, it was a woman making a mistake and expressing regret. Given this, it seemed to me that interpretation and response may vary based on culture and certainly there is a longstanding tradition that exists. For so long I have watched society set white women up as vestal virgins and blameless persons whose sexuality must be protected while women of color have constantly fought to protect their bodies and their sexuality while being labeled as hypersexual and animalistic by those same protectors of white womanhood. I’ve not had the good fortune of being a part of a race where it is assumed that I am good and pure even as a black Christian woman. I am a part of those darker women who, when their bodies are thrown off an overpass and it is discovered that they were strippers the stories goes, largely, untold. Meanwhile the white sex workers who face a similar fate have their stories plastered everywhere. I see the many ways in which white bodies are protected or how, within their narratives, there is an implicit expectation that someone should protect their bodies for them and thus they give up agency while my sisters and I must always protect ourselves. To be clear, I’m not arguing for the chance to give up agency or claim victimhood, I’m sharing an observation about the highly politicized nature of the black body versus the highly praised white body and how either is protected or not. This leads me to a brief point about perceived lazy womanhood and taking up agency.

The young woman in the aforementioned story embodied what I call a “lazy womanhood” indicated by her giving up agency in favor of surrendering to a man’s needs, particularly in a situation that seemed ripe for her use of agency. Her account suggests that there was room for her to voice her concerns during the encounter but out of fear of disappointing the man she chose not to. Furthermore, when she points out that many other young women had similar experiences it further perpetuates this notion of placing male desire and lust above female need and security. But this can’t be our womanhood.

We should always feel we have the right to say “No” in a sexual encounter, based on what we need and never based things on disappointing someone else. In campus sexual assault situations that are growing more ambiguous than they are obvious it is important for women to believe and know that they still have an upper hand in the situation. Sex is not something that just happens to women, we are not a refuse or mere pleasure hole for men’s pleasure-seeking missiles, we are full-bodied people who should often and always speak up and say “No.” I reiterate this especially in the wake of these beginning gray areas between rape and non-consensual sex. There must be some recourse for women and it cannot be that anytime we enter into a sexual encounter our defenses are down and we become victims before we learn to be conquerors. Especially in these newly exposed gray areas, women need to be as vigilant and outspoken as ever for it seems that this might actually be a case where, more often than not, they could stop an uncomfortable encounter before it starts. Again, I don’t want to be interpreted as shaming or blaming this young women or women like her, I do want us to take a more critical eye toward what we are claiming when it comes to discussions of rape and non-consensual sex and who we are allowing to dominate these discussions.

The story that has grounded this post came from a young white woman and it is also indicative of a trend–or maybe the norm–of these being the stories that dominate discussions on rape and nonconsensual sex. I’m concerned about the influx of these narratives and the way in which they are privileged, shape definitions, perspectives and even policies, all the while coming from white women. Women waving the feminist banner but not evolving beyond the age-old feminist practice of neglecting race and class in their struggle for gender equality. Herein lies the segue for the second article…

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion with the second article in question which further proves the “privileging of white female voices in sexual assault narratives” argument, will highlight work being done among black feminists to give capital to black women’s sexual assault narratives, and finally I will offer a third way of fostering dialogue.