By Katie Booth
“Only a mama can talk like that. You know what I’m saying? And only a wife can talk like that. That’s your strength! When does a mother and a wife do that? I mean you just ran through jail and let all the women out…You set women free!!”
Such was the enthusiastic praise for Beyonce’s self-titled album, a 14-song/17-video ode to her journey and sexual awakening, as shown on tape in her ongoing art feature/video diary, “Part 5: Honesty”.
Okay, honestly: Can we all agree at this point in time that the sex conversation is pretty explicit? If you are a woman in the Western world, and you are not hailing from some Midwest Bible Belt sect or a victim of some horribly controlling, abusive situation, you are sexually “free,” am I right? It’s March 2015 and we have a major motion picture dedicated to BDSM (although apparently not at all representative of the BDSM community), scientific articles about the origin of the female “squirt”, books dedicated to discovering your ultimate orgasm…and On and On. The female sex is perhaps the most talked about topic in the world, for sure right now. So let’s talk about it.
The Pharrell quote from above (yes, that was Pharrell) tends to rub me the wrong way, because here’s the thing: We are not in sexual jail. We aren’t. Maybe we are shamed, not paid as much, sexualized, objectified, made to be victims. Again, I could go on. We are not, however, un-free. Short of wearing no clothes walking down the street, you can wear pretty much what you want. You can say and do pretty much what you want. You can fuck who you want, as often as you want. You can pursue traditionally male occupations (you won’t get paid as much, but I digress.) I’m not saying there are no inequalities and I’m not saying there aren’t people around the world victimized for doing just that, but in America at least, the sexual conversation is open for business.
I can’t tell you how many articles I have read calling for sexual women to claim themselves. Cameron Diaz is talking about how sex keeps her young and healthy, Elizabeth Banks wants to take the shame out of sex, Miley Cyrus just exists in her current incarnation. And that’s not to mention all the more practical, scientific examples espousing the health benefits of a good romp. It’s cool to be down with sex. It seems to be the cause-du-jour. Or maybe du-year. Find yourself. Let go. In Beyonce’s own words: “Own [your] sexuality.” Whatever the fuck that means. She goes on to say, “I’d like to believe that my music opened up that conversation. There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not.”
I don’t know that “men are free [sexually] and women are not.” I do know that men get away with promiscuous behavior and women typically don’t. I also know this article started out as a piece on feminism. Is Beyonce a feminist? Isn’t she? Is she a hero? Is she a terrorist? I ultimately abandoned that article because I found it irrelevant, and frankly, done. Over done. Beyonce can do what she wants and you know what, she is a feminist. I do believe that. What I don’t believe is that her version of sex is going to “set you free.”
According to The Guardian, Beyonce “has been received as a kind of mission statement about empowerment and third-wave feminism.” I don’t deny that Beyonce is coming from a real place. I didn’t recognize that at first, but upon watching her videos I found her motives to be most thoughtful. But, here’s the thing: I didn’t like Beyonce’s album. With the exception of a few songs, it didn’t speak to me at all. In fact, I found it gross. I found it…more of the same. My first instinct was: this sounds like a woman who comes from a rap-man’s world. This (sexual) dialogue is still inherently, overtly masculine. I believe her experience, as told in this album, is honest, but I don’t think it brings anything new to the table.
This is my fear: In “owning our sexuality” we are playing directly into the dominance of the “male gaze.” For anyone unfamiliar with the term, the male gaze means that our society and our art has, for the most part, been created and controlled by men, and so we see women from their perspective. This explains why “more than one in four women onscreen get partially naked (compared to less than one in ten men.)” And in accordance with the traditional masculine narrative that dominates the Western world, what Man doesn’t want to see a sexy-ass woman “owning her sexuality” by being totally hot to the act of sex and sexual expression. What Man doesn’t want to see a promiscuous woman who’s totally cool with it? Because that’s awesome, right?
Fuck that. To be clear, I am not telling any woman out there “don’t have sex.” Don’t be sexually adventurous. Don’t authentically own your sexuality, in whatever form or manner it takes. I am not saying that. I am also not a prude, for anyone jumping to that conclusion. I have had my fair share of experiences, and my feeling, from experience, is that this is not helping the conversation. Because this has been done before.
Anybody remember Janet Jackson or Madonna or Salt-n-Pepa or Trina or Samantha Jones or now Nicki Minaj? Graphic sexual expression has been done, A LOT. By men and women alike. But it’s important to note–by women, too. Is Beyonce’s conversation so different because she’s a mother? Or is it different because the whole world knows her husband and damn they get down (purportedly). Would a casual listener of Beyonce get her message of empowerment, or would they just get yet another sign telling them sex is cool and not a big deal?
For anyone who hasn’t sat down and listened to Beyonce’s album, it is beyond graphic. It is truly shocking. I commend her for her boldness, for sure. But is this genuine conversation? Because some of her words don’t strike me as female expression. They strike me as the dominant male sexual influence. For a full list of Beyonce’s most explicit lyrics, proceed here, although the best example would be, of course, to listen to the album itself. (I’m aware of the irony of my endorsement.)
In owning our sexuality, how are we talking about it? Are we talking about it with compassion, consideration, depth? Are we talking about it like a man? Is that what ownership means? I know that it doesn’t, but sometimes it sure feels like it does. Because here’s the thing: I’m not a man. I will never experience sex like a man does. And frankly, I have no interest. I am a woman and I will experience sex like a woman. I will never call my boobs “tits.” They are my boobs. I will never call my butt “ass.” I just won’t. That’s not me. It feels disingenuous to myself to do that. And if I ever did, it would be because I was conditioned to think of my body in those objectifying terms, conditioned to think that was okay with me.
I consider myself a pretty typical, run-of-the-mill female. I don’t pretend there aren’t highly sexual women out there that pursue sex with a single-minded doggedness similar to the alpha-male pursuit as characterized in the media. I also don’t pretend those same women feel some remorse for their behavior (which they shouldn’t.) I just know that for most women this isn’t the case and that’s okay.
If we are going to own our sexuality, and we should, we should own it authentically. For the same reason lesbians don’t watch “lesbian porn” (because it wasn’t made for them, it was made for horny dudes who want to get off on girls) I am not inspired by overtly masculine, objectifying sexual conversation (which is what this album sounds like). In an interview with GQ last year, Beyonce said, “[Men] define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.” If men define femininity, and it has been traditionally defined as modest, submissive and fragile, then in now experiencing sex like a man and talking about it like a man, aren’t we still dismissing the female experience? We’re only switching one definition for another, neither of which women came up with and all in the effort to prove we are just the same, when we are not, in fact, the same.
The sad thing is, I can’t even say how we should talk about it. I don’t have a vocabulary for that yet. I only have my intuition which tells me when something is a genuine act of discourse and when it isn’t.
If a person doesn’t feel sexual by pop music standards, they shouldn’t be made to feel like there is something wrong with them. And I say this because that’s where I feel this media is headed. In our quest to free women, we’re going to force them even harder in the direction of promiscuity, which may not be where they want to go. Girls already feel pressure, intense pressure, to be sexual. To be “free” and “open” with their bodies. To be “sluts” that will then be shamed for that same act. There is nothing wrong with the female experience, loud or quiet, fast or slow, chains and whips or missionary.
Sex can be everything it’s lauded to be. Invigorating, satisfying, make you feel like you’re experiencing the world; bring you a deeper sense of connection and understanding. But flip over that coin, because sex is fucking dangerous. It can be psychologically and physically unhealthy. A traumatizing sexual experience can affect you for years, can permanently change the way you feel about yourself, and it happens every day. It can give you a disease that will affect you the rest of your life. What our popular culture does, what this graphically sexualized content and call to arms for sexual freedom is doing is promoting casualness and normalization of sexual behavior. It’s taking an intimate thing, a complex issue that requires compassion and depth and completely trivializing it. It might even potentially be feeding into the rape culture. If it’s so cool and healthy to be sexually adventurous, then why would anyone say no, why should they? The people most influenced by popular media (young people) are the same ones least equipped to navigate these hair-fine distinctions.
Ultimately, this article is not about Beyonce. She just happens to be the shining beacon around which all of this appears to be centered. For clarity, one last time, I am not saying she is a whore or too sexual or disingenuous. What I am saying is this conversation is open and has been opened for a long time. Before her and after her. With all the pressure, all the subjection to images/music/movies/books on what it means to be sexy and sexual, each person should truly define it for themselves. Being more explicit, more graphic, more sexual is not going to set us free. But honest and comprehensive conversation might.