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!

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Playing the THOT: A Reflection on a Moment of Dress-Up

Last weekend, over the Labor Day holiday, I was in Miami for my best friend’s bachelorette proceedings. There was plenty of indulgent eating, drinking, partying, and of course a bit of scantily clad dressing because that is de rigueur in Miami. But there was one night that would raise the eyebrows of many, a themed night called, “So You Think You Can Dress…Like a THOT.” To quickly fill you in, THOT stands for “That Hoe Over/Out There” and has swept the nation for the last year or so. You can pretty much consider “THOT” the millennial slut. She is classified as such by her questionable and high quantities of men, “ratchet” behavior, too revealing and tight clothing, and even her teeth. I decided that since my bride-to-be best friend loves dressing up–she met her soon-to-be husband at a Halloween party and she loves dressing up for galas, parties, etc–it would be fun to have the group compete in a THOT dress-up contest complete with prizes for “Most THOTful outfit. I also figured that the act of dressing up  this way would be ripe for social commentary and ethical reflection. What can I say, I love a good social experiment and I’m a slave to my research interests.

I was hesitant about this idea at first because I didn’t know if it would offend the sensibilities of a group of young, professional black women. Surely we have enough odds stacked against us that donning our THOT apparel may not help us. But, much to my surprise, the group was for it. The original plan was to dress up the night we went to Miami’s–and possibly the nation’s largest strip club, King of Diamonds, but a last-minute change of plans resulted in us modeling our outfits for an impromptu photo shoot in the lobby of our hotel. Alas my social experiment was axed but it still left me with something to think about.

Days before this themed night I spoke with a close friend about it and asked her what she thought about my posting the pictures on Instagram. Immediately she told me that it would be a bad idea because it would be a conflict of interest with my professional life. She suggested that the photo might fall into the wrong hands and I may be judged harshly for it. A few days after it was all said and done, I told another close friend that I wanted to post one of the pictures on Facebook to which he said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” He suggested that someone from work might see it and I might get in trouble. To the latter friend I responded that I wish I would get in trouble for posting a picture of myself in a revealing outfit when they know who I am as a person. I am confounded that this would even be an issue and that, once again, what a woman does with her body–independent of harming anyone else–would subject her to judgement.

We all know that the advent of social media makes it more possible to get in trouble for the things we do in our private time. We also know that photos of women in revealing clothing subjects them to harsher judgement than their male peers regardless of what is known about them personally. And of course, over the last few weeks, we have come to know that at this time people’s computers can be hacked and nude photos released for public consumption without permission. So the reality is, women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Our reputation can be put on the line for having scantily clad fun–or for being fully dressed because that’s what fashion critics do–or it can be put on the line during the involuntary release of photos of ourselves. We have no control over whose hands photos fall into and what people will think about those photos when they receive them. Right now it is my prerogative to release a photograph of myself in revealing clothing worn for fun. Conversely, it is another woman’s prerogative to release pictures of herself in revealing clothes that she wears because that is what she likes wearing. Neither of us deserve what could be coming to us in the way of condemnation, judgement, termination from jobs, lascivious attention, rape etc. I had to throw in the latter because before the themed night someone also suggested that we will get unwelcome attention from men and it may be dangerous for us to dress like this. I am personally tired of policing myself based on men’s lack of impulse control–thank you Daily Show’s Jessica Williams for that word. It is rarely other women we have to deal with but men who think they are entitled to certain behavioral outcomes because of the way a woman dresses or men who determine what is respectable and what isn’t. And this leads me to my concluding point, the politics of respectability.

At the end of the day politics of respectability is what this all boils down to. A woman perceived as a THOT or a woman in THOT clothing is not seen as respectable because she doesn’t conform herself to society’s–better yet, the patriarchy’s standard for women–and therefore it is assumed that she doesn’t deserve our respect. But this disregards the humanity of women and their right to choose for themselves whom they will be or in the case of this discussion, what they will look like, and still maintain full integrity of their being. Is a woman not more than the clothes she chooses to puts on her back? Or is she not more than what she chooses to do for money? I am well aware that I speak with a certain privilege because I wore my outfit for entertainment purposes only and I have a certain reputation established, but most of the women we categorize as THOTs don’t have that luxury. And to take it one step further, the term “THOT” was contrived in the minds of men so isn’t it about time the women destroy it somehow? I’m with Madame Noir writer Veronica Well who said,

…as you may imagine the term was originally used to describe sexually promiscuous women. Of course that’s problematic and misogynistic because, once again, women are being punished for being sexually expressive while men, who behave similarly, are given a pass and a pat on the back.

I want to argue for a woman retaining her power regardless of how she chooses to dress. That we all owe women and girls that respect and I say this as a lesson I am teaching myself because I will not act like I haven’t seen a women questionably dressed and not judged her. Hell, I saw plenty of questionably dressed women in Miami, I’ve been appalled by Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” I’ve stared in disbelief as women got paid to dance on top of bars in little to nothing or pole danced…I’ve questioned the content of many a woman’s character for how they dressed or acted. Many are the judgements I’ve waged against those women and the pity I’ve had for them, but these women chose that for themselves with the assumption that they would still be treated with respect, just as much respect as the women who came out of the house or the hotel with respectable clothing on, and I get it. I get it. A few minutes of one night that I chose to dress as a so-called THOT, I expected to be respected and taken seriously because I know who I am at my core. This is what all women expect and are entitled to regardless of how much or how little clothing they are wearing because they too know who they are at their core.

picstitch

Same woman, different clothes, respect regardless.

 

Virginity Is Not Just Something to Lose: The Failures of MTV’s Virgin Territory

Last year I vowed to abstain from reality television but three weeks ago I broke that vow in order to indulge in MTV’s Virgin Territory. The show documents the lives of young people who are virgins, most of whom are struggling with their virgin status and looking for someone to lose their virginity to. Each show features four college-aged people trying their hardest not to come off as stereotypical virgins. This means that many of the girls will dress immodestly–according to their perspective of what virgins look like–and many of the guys will spend time in the gym and perform the “playa.” Beyond external appearances these young people roam the streets of their respective cities looking for someone to take their virginity because, you know, virginity is this heavy burden to bear and it gets in the way of so much in life. Talk about a first world problem. On last week’s episode of VT one of the young people finally lost his virginity–the second to lose it during the show’s run–and it broke my heart.

virginterritory-kyle-resize

This is Kyle and, as you can see by the open empty condom wrapper in his hand and his foolish grin, he just had sex. On the show’s first episode 20-year-old Kyle indicated that no one could tell that he was a virgin by looking at him–because he stays in the gym. Moments later he would tearfully explain that he remained a virgin for so long because of the emotional toll his father’s death took on him. All of Kyle’s friends are sexually active and confident about it so much so that Kyle didn’t tell them that he was a virgin until well into the friendship. Young Kyle had a few crushes who he wanted to lose his virginity to; one was a girl who works at the gym and another was a classmate. Both of these crushes fell through but there was a ram in the bush for Kyle, a friend back home by the name of Amanda. They were good friends with some chemistry despite the fact that Amanda was always in a relationship, until now. Fresh on the market, Amanda kept tabs on Kyle and sent him subtle messages about her desire to have sex with him. Unfortunately it seemed that Amanda’s impetus for having sex with Kyle was more about taking his virginity than it was about her burning desire and love for him. So last Wednesday’s episode focused on Kyle’s trip back home and his reunion with Amanda which was wrought with the kind of sexual tension you’d expect from a virgin and a potential serial devirginizer. Their conversations were full of sexual innuendos–including cliche big foot jokes, Kyle’s nervous laughter, and Amanda’s persistent questioning him about being a virgin. All of this came to a head within the last ten minutes of the episode.

amanda-virginterritory-resize

Kyle and Amanda sat on the couch and she once again asked him why he was still a virgin then, in an instant, she invited him into her bedroom. Kyle realized that this is probably going to be it for him and he nervously laughed and told her that he needs to go to the bathroom to “freshen up.” She jokes and says, “What, do you have to shave your legs?” Kyle goes to the bathroom and it appears that he is not ready for what he is about to do, but there is so much pressure on him to do it. Pressure from Amanda, from his friends–who, the night before, were tutoring him on how to test her readiness by caressing her legs and other regions, from a society that largely frowns upon virgins, and of course from the MTV cameras. Finally Kyle got himself together for long enough to take the condom out of his wallet and head toward the bedroom where Amanda was waiting. He laid on the bed, full of nerves, blushing and still looking not quite ready to swipe his “V-card,” but finally he relented and asked her if he could turn the lights off. The last thing virgin Kyle says is something about being anxious to which Amanda responds, “It’s ok.” Post coitus we see a grinning Kyle holding the empty condom wrapper–pictured above–saying, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” and then he walked back into the bedroom. Cue my heartbreak.

Seeing Kyle just moments after his first time having sex say, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” was a big disappointment. I thought to myself, “How dreadfully ordinary, like talking about a bag of your favorite potato chips.” It was yet another moment of extolling the virtues of sex for pleasure’s sake, a message that I think is problematic for MTV’s younger demographic. Kyle’s waving around of his empty condom packet, his Cheshire cat grin, and his base articulation of sex indicates one of the problems with sex in our culture, it’s relegation to a pleasurable event, primarily. Indeed sex is pleasurable but there is more to it at every stage. In his book, “The Meaning of Sex,” J. Budziszewski puts it well when he states:

…although we find pleasure in exercising our sexual powers, pleasure is not their purpose; it only provides a motive for using these powers, and a dangerous one, too, which may at times conflict with their true purposes and steer us wrong. Besides, to think of pleasure as the purpose of intercourse is to treat our bodies merely as tools of sending agreeable sensations to our minds. They are of inestimably greater dignity than that, for they are part of what we are.

I believe that we err by treating sex, particularly in this context and to this age group, as primarily a pleasurable event independent of cultivating a desire for lasting union–whether it is a long-term monogamous relationship or marriage–and–dare I say it and sound a little Catholic–procreation. That is creating a safe space where a sexual relationship can flourish and being open to the possibilities that every sexual interaction proffers. But I won’t get into cultivating the desire for union and the procreative possibility of sex because that is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here. Instead I want to focus on two points of contention; the objectification and commodification of the virgin and the external pressures society and church culture place on young people who are virgins.

purityringiphone

The Purity Ring app is a digital reminder of a purity pledge, mimics the wearing of an actual purity ring, and seeks to compliment traditional pledges rather than compete with them.

If you were raised within the church, your virginity and the indefinite keeping of it was established for you before you even learned to write your own name. When you are young you are marked as a virgin which makes you inexperienced but pure. If you are still a virgin when you get older you are inexperienced and awkward. At every turn the virgin is made aware of their status whether negative or positive–even the flood of articles from the Evangelical community harping on the virtue of purity and virginity border on idolization of virginity. All of this focus on the virgin and virginity bolsters the objectification of the person and their sexual status and catalyzes desire to lose virginity by any means necessary. Furthermore, an entire capitalist system has been built around the selling of purity, chastity, and abstinence to young people, their parents, youth group leaders, and so on so forth. There are are rings, mobile apps–see image on the left, t-shirts, books, conferences, and now this show can be added to the list of people who profit off of virgins. These young people may not be making money but MTV/Viacom is, so these young virgins have symbolically sacrificed themselves at the altar of capitalism and will have nothing to show for it except for a casting credit and a video clip.

But aren’t these young people and young people on general more than a virgins or more than a sexually active person you can create a show around and sell stuff too? Is a show about young people who are virgins really a worthwhile and, more importantly, healthy endeavor?

We may be sexual beings, as is exhaustively stated and a bit cliché I might add, but sexual beings are not all we are. Furthermore, far too often we misunderstand what it means to be sexual beings and interpret it to mean that we have a right to have sex when, where, and however we want it. That is not (fully) the case. I suggest that there must be another way that focuses not on virgins or virginity but on the power of these young people and their ability to form an identity for themselves not beholden to anyone or anything. This is not to ignore sex and desire but to rightly order them in the life of the individual for the individual’s sake. What “Virgin Territory” would lead many to believe is that losing virginity is a focal point in the life of a young adult over say, arriving at knowledge of self and construction of identity. It makes “virgin” the constructed identity of cast members until they are so consumed by it that (some of them) grasp at straws to erase that identity. They are constrained by their desire to lose their virginity so they forge relationships for sex and play into prescribed roles in order to appear favorably before their peers. But all isn’t lost on this show because some of the most fruitful and powerful stories come from those who have cycled through their thinking on the matter. They start as people who believe in virginity in the traditional sense, became people who try to lose it by any means necessary, and land at the place of people who abstain for their own sake and no one else’s. These are the stories that give me hope not because of their decision to abstain but because of their thought process in making that decision. Thinking through rather than acting out is an admirable virtue regarding sex and young people.

As I’ve thought about sexual ethics for teenagers and college-aged young adults, I’ve always fallen on the side of abstinence not for religious reasons but because of that population’s lack of knowledge of self and–more often than not–their inability to make decisions that aren’t influenced by external factors–peers, media, etc. This is not to say that young people are incapable of making healthy decisions regarding their sex lives but it is to acknowledge that there are competing interests for their attention that can cloud their objective decision-making ability. For example, a group of young people in a predominantly Christian setting will abstain from sex until marriage because that is the normative ethic of the group. Likewise, another group of young people may make the decision to have sex before marriage because that is what most of their peers are doing–such is the case of the participants on “Virgin Territory.” In both cases, these decisions are always influenced by external factors and not by the individual’s critical thinking process. This is what Lawrence Kohlberg would call, “Conventional Morality,” located on level two of his Stages of Moral Development. This stage’s focus is on conformity and playing “nice” with an eye toward how decisions affect interpersonal relationships. The key question here is about social acceptability, “What must I do to be seen as a good girl/boy?” We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we foster anything other than a conventional morality regarding sex and sexuality among our young people and this must be unlearned. We must give our young people better spaces to make decisions–which probably also includes allowing them to make mistakes–but we can’t decide for them. The church can’t decide, nor can their parents/guardians, MTV, or culture. This is not to condone reckless behavior or establish a false sense of sexual liberation–and this will surely be a post, but it is to allow young people to decide for themselves, apart from external influences, what’s best for their lives. It’s about trust. We must help them move away from the thought that virginity is a burden to be traded or a sacred object to behold and move them into critical thinking through their identities and core needs.

Virginity is not just something to lose but it is also not something to keep the traditional views on that haven’t served us well for a long time. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and help our young people THINK through their lives and sex–not just their sex lives. Allow them the space to think through who they are and what they want and need in this life and not just cheaply sell them the, “We are sexual beings” line. We ARE sexual beings but that is not all we are and for that reason it’s time to stop holding people’s sexual status over their heads and pressuring them with expectations to maintain a certain sexual status or sexuality. It’s their sex lives but, overall, it’s their lives. Let’s give them the proper space to figure things out. Preferably without the cameras…

 

 

 

The New Porn

As some of you may know I’ve been reading a book entitled “The Paradox of Love” by Pascal Bruckner, a French philosopher. Some people may find it strange that I would agree with anything a Frenchman has to say about sex because their view on sex and sexuality is quite different from those of Americans, but that is exactly why I am reading this book. I am taking my cues from Margaret Farley who, in her book on fire, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics” encourages those truly interested in the discipline to vest themselves in cross-cultural studies. As someone who is planning a magnum opus on sex it is important for me to read Bruckner as it will be important for me to read Foucault’s History of Sexuality.  So let’s get down to business.

I have entered the section of the book where Bruckner writes about sex or the “Carnal Wonder” as he calls it. The first chapter in this section deals with Bruckner’s question of whether we are in the midst of a sexual revolution and he has spent a good portion of this chapter on pornography. Bruckner contends that pornography is, first of all, mediocre entertainment because it depends on the same cinematic moves from enlarged anatomic parts and second it almost normalizes sexual activity to the point of doldrums. He says,

The fall of prohibitions seems also to have contributed to the depreciation of the objects of desire. Porn tends to transform obscenity into a cliché: a decline in the rate of excitation, a rise in the rate of saturation. The most outrageous positions, the crudest expressions do not long remain and go stale like a wine that has been open too long. The vulgarity of a certain sexual lexicon, which has entered into ordinary language, ends by seizing up and sinking into kitsch. A dreary, mass-produced shamelessness that loses in intensity what it gains in extension.

When I read this my mind immediately went to some of the most popular songs being played on urban radio stations. Songs like, “I’ll Beat the Pussy Up”, “Birthday Cake”, “Strip”, “Wet the Bed”, “Motivation”, most anything by Trey Songz, and the list goes on, is the new porn. It depends on making the obscene cliché and therefore the norm for sexual activity. Most of the music you hear on those stations–at any time of the day–has a central theme that focuses on the sexual proficiency of a man or, as of late, that of a woman. They rap and sing about said proficiency using the “certain sexual lexicon” that Bruckner speaks of, and this lexicon, in many ways, has become a way of life in our culture. Realized or not or not, the repeated messages of men beating women’s pussies up; women singing about men coming to put their name on it–read that closely; men singing about wanting women to drip like leaky faucets and all other manner of explicit sexual talk, has turned our culture into one that trivializes sex.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt and I dare argue that the aforementioned music, dependent on familiarizing people with sex and sexual prowess, has created a contempt of sex. The contempt is shown in the manner in which said artists approach the topic in their music. Sex is not a privilege but a right and with the right comes the desire to show others how well it can be done regardless of how licentious it is. At the point that the message is disseminated, over and over again, these images and views of sex cement themselves into the subconscious of our culture. Now the woman is concerned about how to keep her man going and the man is concerned about how to break world records. Now, lest you think I am being puritanical, I do believe it is important for both partners to focus on pleasing each other before, during, and after the sexual event. What I don’t believe in is how some music–and probably pop culture at large–trivializes sex and possibly has or could create a culture of people who believe this is a normative understanding of sex and then are altogether too inadequate to have the kind of sex they hear about day in and day out. My concern is about the effect of repetition of the obscene sexual lexicon and how that weighs upon the minds and the sexual expectations of people. I could go on about this, but I don’t want to take time away from the floor for discussion. So, here it is:

What do you think about this concept of urban music as the new porn and its influence on the sexual drive and the images it creates of sexual prowess? If you listen to this music, what does it do for and to you? Has the advent of this “pornpular” music changed the way you view or have sex? Should the music change? Should we change? Let’s talk about sex.