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!

A Not So Sweet Spot: Questioning the Performance of Sexual Liberation

Note: The following post has strong sexual language and content. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend Sweet Spot, an evening of “high energy, heart pumping, fist pounding, laugh out loud pop erotica performance art.” The evening featured spoken word artists, singers, burlesque dancers, a sexologist, comedians, a miniature sex toy shop and much more all focused on one thing, sex and the acquisition of pleasure. I must admit that from the onset I was hesitant about attending this particularly after I watched a promo video for it. It looked like it was above my sexual pay grade and like it would be filled with moments that would make me clutch and break my non-existent pearls. It turned out that it wasn’t above my sexual pay grade, it was–in my opinion–beneath me and did a particular kind of violence.

The show started out innocently enough with some jokes, a pledge that included putting our hands over our “hearts”–hearts defined as private parts–and the rules of engagement otherwise known as “How Not to Cockblock Yourself.” The host for the evening, a petite young woman wearing a bedazzled ringmaster costume, told the women that the two ways we cockblock ourselves is sitting with either our arms or legs crossed. She directed us to uncross both and allow our “hearts” to breathe and be free. I appreciated this opener for no other reason than it was clever, not for its ability to help a room full of men and women keep their legs open for whatever may come. What followed the opener was a series of performances which started with a woman reading erotic fiction. I’ve never read erotic fiction, so it was interesting to listen to someone do a dramatic reading. It was also the moment when I realized that “dick” and “pussy” were the only words I would hear for the next few hours and it felt like an assault each time I heard it. This was the beginning of what I felt like was a particular kind of violence. But I tried to suspend that judgement until I saw more.

sweetspotphoto

The son of a preacher man reciting erotic poetry–and I’m not talking about Songs of Songs either.

The show continued with a burlesque dancer from Jamaica who was actually pretty good and had the most amazing back tattoo I’d ever seen, so that was a moment of reprieve. After her were two spoken word artists, the first was the son of a preacher reading from, “Fellatio 3:16.” I’m sure you can imagine my shock at the title but that was just the beginning of the profane as he said things such as,

I will read a scripture off your clit.
You can suck Lazarus back to life.

The violence of those words struck me particularly because I am a Christian woman. I understand it was the play on words given his context and upbringing, but I couldn’t help but be bothered. He invoked the homiletic style of charismatic black preachers to get the crowd riled up and aroused, but, to me, it just felt profane and reckless. I teetered between a dropped jaw and nervous laughter, and trying to find something redemptive about what I was hearing.

Another spoken word piece was performed by Sweet Spot Nation founder, Ainsley Burrows, and featured yet more lust-filled allusions such as,

I will eat the magnesium out your cum
I’ve got enough dick to raise your IQ and make you lower your standards at the same damn time.

His performance was slightly more invasive because he stared me and my friend down intently during moments in his routine.  By this time my reactions were part laughter, part silence, and part observing everyone around me to see their reactions.

In the midst of all of this there was also the condom throwing that was off-putting. Yes, condom throwing. A multi-pack of condoms and lubricants sponsored by the Stand Up 2 HIV Atlanta campaign was provided for each seated guest. I thought it was a nice touch for the evening given the public health concern that HIV is within urban cities such as Atlanta. But at no point in my time there–it could have happened after I left–did I hear a plug for the program or even gratitude for contributing the condom gift bags. Instead I saw many of the condoms being thrown at the artists and performers as if it were a form of currency. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the extreme waste of an important resource in the fight against HIV.

Though I’ve mentioned my feelings about the violence instigated through language throughout the night, it actually didn’t occur to me what was taking place until a sexologist hit the stage halfway through the show. She focused on teaching women and men how to get and give the best possible orgasm and she claimed that many don’t get there because of the aggressive nature in which some approach the sexual event. She encouraged men to take their time with women instead of acting like attack dogs and encouraged all to acknowledge the sensitive and delicate nature of our sexual organs and told women to breathe. But it was the juxtaposition of hearing someone talk about how we should be more gentle and patient in sex while hearing coarse, abrasive language that made me realize the entire situation was troubling and mimicked a particular kind of violence.

So what is this violence? I believe that violence is not just in the realm of the physical, it can be verbal and mental. Thus when I speak of the violence at Sweet Spot, it was violence through speech and through making the sacred profane. Whether it was through using Scripture as a template to talk dirty or language that made sex seem like one long rough porn fantasy, I wasn’t convinced of any sexual liberation.

As a culture we’ve long struggled for and against sexual liberation for years. Those who have fought for it are the pioneers and offspring of the sexual revolution. Those against it have primarily been conservative Christians. I want to clarify that though I am Christian–I consider myself progressive–I am not opposed to sexual liberation. I am, however, opposed to sexual liberation that results in uncritical ways of being sexual. I believe in responsible freedom which still requires some limitations and reflection on what is expedient. As it pertains to sex and sexuality narratives, I’m interested in what repeated narratives do and how they form and/or inform us. So, in the case of my time at the Sweet Spot where I was assailed by coarse language–and flying condoms, I wondered what that language did to people. How that language might have been the reason that men attack women in the sexual act–I’m not talking about rape here but the aggressive way that some men descend upon women in the sexual event because they heard that is the way. I thought about what it means to be a black person whose sexuality has almost always been regarded as animalistic and aggressive and I wondered if words such as “dick” and “pussy” play into that or are they part of our culture’s way of expressing ourselves sexually. Are the words our own or did we get them from someone else who is still determining our sexual selves? Are there different ways of speaking about sex that don’t rely on an allusion to violence? (Think about the popularity of the phrase, “I’ll beat the pussy up” in urban music.)

There are so many questions that came out of my Sweet Spot experience that made me wonder if the artists and audience were truly sexually liberated or sexually oppressed and just performing an idea of liberation. And of course the question of whether I’m the sexually oppressed or repressed person is up for discussion too. That is another reflection I’m taking up, but that is also much too predictable a conclusion to draw at this point. It’s too easy to say that the person who walks away from an event such as the Sweet Spot feeling anything but aroused and liberated is sexually repressed. It doesn’t leave room for a critique that could be useful to all parties involved. This is not to disregard pop erotica as a genre, but it is to stretch our understandings of the genre’s form and function in our communities, psyches, and selves.

PS: Lest anyone read this and think I had a completely bad experience I did enjoy myself during the break between acts when they played a lot of ratchet Top 40 music and, like I mentioned earlier, the burlesque performer and her awesome back tattoo was great too. Maybe my next excursion should be to a burlesque show. 

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.)

I Almost Lost Focus

I haven’t written in a while for a variety of reasons. I’ve not been sure about how I want to write about sex and sexuality on this blog in the midst of a world that tirelessly talks about sex. I have many drafts from things I’ve written in response to current events such as the Duke Porn Star and the book that incensed a nation of parents, “It’s Perfectly Normal.” I didn’t publish those stories because I felt they were just reactive and I didn’t want to be a part of the multitude of voices that always have something to say with very little qualification or credibility for saying it. So I’ve tried to find my way and think through what is expedient in regards to talking about sex here and beyond and I’m finally getting to the point where I think I’m ready to come back. But this return was almost not.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing for a job I really wanted and all was well until they told me that I wouldn’t be able to speak or write about sexuality or sexual ethics because it would be a conflict of interest with the organization’s work. I was shocked. Even though I don’t write about sexuality all day, everyday–as you can very well tell from the skeletal nature of this blog–I still believe that work in the field is essential to my life’s calling. The CEO of the organization even pointed out that it seems I get a lot of energy out of talking about and thinking through matters of sexuality. But I also wanted the job because I saw it as a really great opportunity to broaden my professional experience in another area. So I told the team that I could deal with not writing or speaking about sexuality in exchange for a larger goal. I even cracked a little joke by saying, “I can still read books about it, can’t I?” They laughed and we continued with the interview, yet the thought of letting go of the opportunity to write and speak about something important to me weighed heavily on me. When I was done with the interview I called a trusted friend and told her about it and she agreed with the answer that I gave them and talked me through my concerns. It seemed more than logical to take a break from writing and speaking about sex in order to get in on the ground level of some really great and important work within its own right. But I was still discouraged about the possibility that lingered. I know I have a long-term commitment to studying, writing, speaking, teaching, reflecting, on matters of sex and sexuality and I know that’s important to me. I didn’t know for sure, however, if I should jettison that for something that I am much less certain about. Sure I was excited about the organization’s work, the possibilities within the position, and even my brilliantly bright future colleagues, but would that be selling myself short? Long story short, I didn’t get the job.

The official reason for not getting it wasn’t even about all the energy I get from talking about sex or my feeble attempt at proving I’d be fine without writing/writing about–at least as they tell it. It was about the organization needing to reassess their staffing needs. I can’t help but think it was also about God trying to keep me on track. I don’t speak in these terms often because I don’t like to presume what God is or isn’t doing in my life, but I am hoping that this is one of those times where God was doing something particular. The last few months have been bleak for me and I haven’t always been certain about where I’m going, so it meant something that someone took an interest in me and felt my experience impressive. I felt like I mattered again. I needed this opportunity in more ways than one. I couldn’t wait to move and start a new life and I was even delaying plans I’ve been talking about for a while. But just like that the plans changed and it seemed like I was being told to stay the course. And so here I am. No regrets. 

Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with a group of people living with HIV/AIDS about faith and sexuality and it was the most vibrant discussion I’ve had. I did the same talk at a church as few months ago and I felt like I was pulling teeth with the congregants, but this week’s group had so much energy around the topic. Interesting because they are a group of people whom some in a church context would say are “marked” because of their deleterious sexual behavior. Yet those people were the most faithful I’ve encountered and the most fearless as well. They didn’t feel entitled to anything. They had no bourgeois Christian laurels to rest on. They just have this lived experience and the certainty that God is still with them. If it wasn’t for not getting that job I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience with the group and to remember what is most important not only to me but to others. So here I go, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. I don’t know where any of this will lead me but I am glad to not have given up so easily.