Let’s talk about sex.
More specifically, let’s talk about women who have sex, and why some people want to punish them so much.
Rush Limbaugh thinks a woman who wants affordable birth control—and, by extension, any sexually active woman—is a slut. The problems in his statement are almost too numerous to name. Lauren O’Neal at the Hairpin and Emily Bazelon at Slate, among others, do a good job of unpacking them.
But it’s not just moralizing extremists like Limbaugh who are trying to wrest power away from women by shaming them for what they choose to do with their own bodies. There are more insidious ways that our culture gets people to internalize the idea that women should be judged for their sexuality and sexual activity. From there, it’s an easy move to persuade people that sexually active women don’t deserve to be safe from the threat of violence, or to be treated with respect and decency, or to decide for themselves whether they are physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and circumstantially able to bring a child into the world.
I’m talking about the message that gets sent when someone laughs and calls, say, Courtney from The Bachelor a whore, when what he means is that Courtney is manipulative, or mean, or fake. Or when a smart, educated woman calls her ex’s new girlfriend a slut, when what she means is that she’s hurt and angry, her pride is wounded, and she doesn’t like this new girl at all. Or when campus security announcements about sexual assaults emphasize what women ought to do to protect themselves (stay at home all day long while wearing a Snuggie with all the blinds drawn and a couch shoved up against the door, one imagines) instead of talking about what everyone, men most certainly included, can do to eliminate sexual assault and make the campus safer. Or when people make fun of girls who show cleavage or wear short skirts or get tattoos on the smalls of their backs. Or when the person sitting across from me at a bar last year said casually of a mutual acquaintance, “Even you would think she’s a slut.”
I’m pretty sure my eyes went black with rage, right then. “No. I. Wouldn’t,” I said. At this point I started talking really fast. “I wouldn’t think that, because what do I care who sleeps with who and how much? I don’t care! It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
Whether a person sleeps with zero or three or forty or three hundred people, whether a person has sex in or out of wedlock, whether a person sleeps with someone of the same gender or a different gender or someone who is gender-queer–these things have nothing at all to do with his or her morality and rights and human character, and less than nothing to do with being my or anybody else’s business.
What does have a hell of a lot to do with me are the wars against women that are being waged all over the world, right now. And tossed-off remarks, subtle blame games, and jokes barbed with judgment are a part of those wars.
None of those things are the same as Limbaugh’s extremist brand of misogyny. But precisely because they are less blatant and far less visible, they can (perhaps unintentionally) contribute to producing the kind of culture that gives birth to Limbaugh—a culture that has, up till now, allowed him to go on regular sexist, racist, homophobic rants and get away with it.
Luckily, as in any war, there are opposing forces–dedicated, brilliant, strong, amazing people who are fighting for women’s rights in their words and actions every day. Today I want to put the spotlight on a few musical artists whose songs defend and celebrate women and sex positivity.
These songs matter much in the same way it matters how we talk about Courtney: because every word that gets spoken aloud or written down has the potential to be heard and taken to heart by someone. Popular songs in particular can have an enormous cultural impact. They get played and replayed on our headphones and at clubs, at grocery stores and house parties. People sing along; they learn all the words; they burn CDs for their friends and upload tracks onto their blogs. The difference keeps spreading.
I am saying this with absolutely zero irony: This is why I am so, so grateful for Salt-n-Pepa.
What other songs do you think belong on this list? Spread the good word in the comments.
(A quick note: As I was compiling this list, I realized that many of the songs I wanted to include were hip-hop songs by black or Latina women. This could be a reflection of my own musical preferences, but perhaps there are other factors at play in determining who does and doesn’t choose to sing about these topics. What do you think?)
Salt-n-Pepa, “None of Your Business”
Key lyrics: How many rules am I to break before you understand
That your double-standards don’t mean shit to me?
I know exactly what you say when I turn and walk away
But that’s OK cause I don’t let it get it to me
Now every move I make somebody’s clockin’
Don’t ask me nothin’, will you just leave me alone?
Never mind who’s the guy that I took home…to bone
Salt-n-Pepa, “Let’s Talk About Sex”
Key lyrics: Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it
Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows
Many will know anything goes
Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be
Christina Aguilera ft. Lil’ Kim, “Can’t Hold Us Down”
Key lyrics: Here’s something I just can’t understand
If the guy have three girls then he’s the man
He can even give her some head, or sex her off
But if a girl do the same, she’s a whore
But the tables about to turn
I bet my fame on it
Joan Jett, “Bad Reputation”
Key lyrics: I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation
You’re living in the past it’s a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s
What I’m gonna do
And I don’t give a damn ‘ bout my bad reputation
Missy Elliott, “Work It”
Key lyrics: Girl, girl, get that cash
If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass
Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang
Just make sure you ahead of the game