NOTE: this blog post is about a particular type of male-to-female sexual assault. In it, I explore why societal messages directed mostly at straight, cisgendered men and women are one of the most effective tools for promoting this kind of assault. By it’s nature then, this is a pretty heteronormative post, so please treat this as full disclosure, and feel free to add your own voices and perspectives to the conversation below.
Buzzfeed recently posted a list of 7 popular songs that are “too rapey”. There are several classic choices listed - Lionel Ritchie’s stalker anthem, “Hello”, as well as the cheery-yet-undeniably-date-rapish holiday tune, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Buzzfeed is a pop culture criticism website, so it’s nice to see them unabashedly approaching the issue of rape culture, and doing it with a sense of humor. But what really stuck out to me were the comments below (I know, I know. I should stop reading comments if I want to maintain some semblance of faith in humanity, but alas, I always end up reading them anyway, like a moth to a patriarchal flame). While many of the commenters got into the spirit of the post, offering up their own examples of disturbing pop songs celebrating various forms of rape and sexual assault, there were also some who took issue with the assertion that songs like Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On The Alcohol” had anything wrong with it. “Girls play hard to get…The ‘too rapey’ thing is too harsh,” says one commenter. Another: “Brown Sugar, Little Girls, and Hello are the only 3 you can say something about…the other ones have absolutely nothing perverted about them”. As internet commentary about issues of rape and sexual assault goes, this is actually pretty tame. Despite that, I found it interesting that what most people took issue with were the songs that refer to (and glorify) what is commonly known as “date rape”.
During my training as a BARCC CAPS volunteer, a group of fellow volunteers did a presentation on popular songs that deal with the issue of rape and sexual assault. One of those mentioned was Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On The Alcohol”. Full disclosure: I hated this song before I knew the lyrics; autotune is not my thing. But reading the lyrics at that presentation shed a whole new light on my dislike. Lyrics like “Just one more round and you’re down”, “couple more shots you open up like a book”, and “Shawty got drunk thought it all was a dream”, are so blatantly celebratory of rape that it’s almost shocking how much play this song gets in clubs (or not, depending on your familiarity with the pervasiveness of rape culture). Two of the other songs on the list deal with similar themes, namely “Tell Me More” from Grease (“tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (notably “say, what’s in this drink”, and “the answer is no”, followed by more pressure and pouring of alcohol from the man in question). And while some people - i.e. commenters on websites like Buzzfeed - insist that we’‘e reading too much into these lyrics, they shed light on an incredibly prevalent theme in our society. Namely, women don’t want sex (“girls play hard to get”), and have to be persuaded into it by any means necessary.
The blatancy of this message varies across cultural touch-points. I went to a Southern Baptist high school, where the sex ed consisted of analogizing sexually active females to dirty lollipops, and the directives we received were less about using condoms and other forms of birth control, and more about women a) not dressing in sexually suggestive clothing, so as not to tempt men, and b) not allowing ourselves to get into any remotely sexual situations with men, because “they have a harder time controlling themselves”. The message was clear: women were not inherently sexual beings, and were therefore in charge of keeping men’s sexual impulses under control. In other forms of media, this message is perhaps a little less blatant but still unmistakable: in the song “Blame It On The Alcohol”, for instance, you can find the following lyrics: “She say she usually don’t, but I know that she front cause shawty know what she want, but she don’t wanna seem like she easy”. The implication being: of course she wants sex, but she doesn’t want to seem like a slut, so you have to get her drunk first to get rid of those pesky inhibitions. After which point, “no telling what I’m gonna do” (seriously, this song should be put on the sexual predator watch list). You find the same message in multiple films and television shows - women must be convinced into sex, any way possible. The message this reinforces with young men is, don’t look for a yes, because you’ll never get it. Just try to get past a no, whether by dulling a woman’s ability to voice “no” with drugs and alcohol, or just ignoring her because let’s be honest, you know what she wants better than she does.
Here’s why I reject those notions, besides the obvious reason that women have their own sexual agency and should be allowed to exercise it how they see fit: perhaps less obviously, I reject these messages because what they say about men. I don’t believe my Southern Baptist school when they say that men are no better than beasts, unable to control their basest impulses. I don’t believe Jamie Foxx when he asserts that the best way to get a girl into bed is to get her drunk. I have more faith in men than that. The men I know and love are able to treat the women around them with respect. They treat sex not as a power struggle but as a consensual act that both partners should be enthusiastic about (hence the term “enthusiastic consent”). These men (including many of those with whom I volunteer with at BARCC) give me hope that together we can continue to combat rape culture in our communities.
Just one more note: it’s not a crime to have enjoyed any of the songs listed here. I myself am still somewhat heartbroken about the barely hidden messages in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, mostly because Zooey Deschanel’s version is so adorable it makes my teeth hurt. Rape culture has become so pervasive in our society that it is barely noticeable to many people. So this holiday season, don’t condemn your friends and family if “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is featured on their playlist; use it as an opportunity to start a conversation (because who doesn’t want to discuss rape and sexual assault at a holiday party!).
Any thoughts on messages you’ve been receiving lately from pop cultural mediums about rape culture, whether positive or negative? Leave them below.
Written by: Alison, a CAPS volunteer