Tag Archives: sex-positive

Do What You Want With My Body: Beyonce, Gaga, and the Pornification of Feminism

[Caveat: this post is rated P-13…at least].

In college I was a part of a group called Sexual Assault Peer Educators. We went to Human Sexuality classes and frat houses and talked about what constitutes rape, how prevalent it is, and how we can all help prevent it. I learned from that experience that it is not self-evident to everyone that nobody deserves to be raped, no matter how they dress. And after actually hearing guys says things like, “Hey, if you wave a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog, you’re gonna get bit,” I came to understand what is now called “rape culture.”

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 And I became even more concerned about how our culture commodifies sex and views the female body as an object of consumption. To me, it seemed relatively obvious that porn culture and rape culture go hand-in-hand. You make sex and the human body something to be bought, owned, and consumed for self-gratification, and you are contributing to a culture in which people think like the dude who made the meat analogy. Right?

Then a few years ago, I participated in a Take Back The Night march that was a response to a serial killing of women in my neighborhood, several of whom had been prostitutes. There was a group of radical feminists at the march, and I was surprised to learn they didn’t share my views about pornography. They thought that sex-work, as they call it, and pornography were actually liberating for women—spaces where woman can take control of their sexuality and actually exert power over the men who desire them. On this view, sex workers and porn stars are liberators, “transgressing” patriarchal norms of modesty and morality that keep women oppressed. And prudes like me—who think prostitution and porn are harmful to women—are actually part of the problem. What we need is not less porn and prostitution, but less stigma surrounding them.

Its not surprising that this line of academic feminist thinking—which lends itself so readily to consumerism—has been taken up by pop singers and their marketing teams. And divas who formerly would’ve been seen as playing for the wrong team are successfully packaging their wares as feminist.

Take for example Beyonce’s latest album, which purportedly contains “strong feminist themes.” The album is referred to both as simply Beyonce and as “the visual album,” which is about right, since it amounts to a video magazine of close-ups and glam shots of Beyonce in all manner of hyper-sexualized scenarios. Almost to a video, Beyonce is teasing, stripping, or telling-all, and almost never while wearing pants. Half the videos are marked “Explicit” on iTunes, and most of the ones that aren’t should be.

The lyrically content of the songs is equally erotic and explicit. Most of the lyrics I can’t even reprint here, but here’s a little sampling of what I can: “Drunk in Love” is actually just about getting drunk and having sex (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me”). “Rocket” is a collection of innuendos (“Climb until you reach my peak, baby/And reach right into the bottom of my fountain”) and not-innuendos (“Punish me, please”) that reads like a string of sexts. “Blow” is about just what it sounds like. “Jealous” is about wanting to cheat for revenge after she “cooked this meal for you naked.” And “Partition”…no, there’s nothing I can reprint here. 

What’s noteworthy about this album is not its visually and lyrically quasi-pornographic nature (though dropping 80 minutes of high-def nearly-naked Beyonce all at once does ratchet this game up a notch). No. What’s interesting is the that two songs that bookend the album that attempt to frame it as a kind of feminist manifesto.

The album opener “Pretty Hurts” indicts our culture for its obsession with physical beauty and its narrow definition thereof (“Perfection is a disease of a nation…Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, ‘Bigger is better,’ South beach, sugar free/Vogue says, ‘Thinner is better”). Pointing up how destructive media images of beauty are to the psyches and self-perceptions of women, Beyonce laments:

It’s my soul that needs surgery

Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far

Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark

You left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past

The solution offered to all this superficiality and pressure to be perfect is to learn self-acceptance. The song asks “When you’re all alone by yourself” (seems a bit redundant) “are you happy with yourself?” And Beyonce finally answers, “Yes” as the song closes. With that, the stage is set for all of the indecent exposure that follows to be understood as a demonstration of the fact that Beyonce doesn’t hate her body like the media tells her that she should.

Now, I don’t doubt the genuineness of Beyonce’s own personal journey with self-image and body-hatred. But the idea that this collection of videos is a) a vehicle through which she discovered her own inner beauty/learned not to find her self-worth in her appearance, and therefore, b) some kind of feminist statement of freedom that should be liberating for other women too, and therefore, c) a work of art that somehow subverts the patriarchal media machine that objectifies the female body—is absolutely, positively ludicrous.

And here’s why: First, the idea that Beyonce does not conform to traditional conceptions of beauty, or that in “celebrating” her particular body, she is somehow challenging or subverting the media’s definition beauty/femininity, is just laughable. Who doesn’t think this woman is beautiful? She is, as Jay-Z told us when she started “wearing his chain,” “the hottest chic in the game.” True, skinny, white 15-year-olds are still used in Ralph Lauren ads and high fashion runway shows, but that is not the “dominant paradigm” of beauty in our culture. Beyonce is. Huge eyes, thick lips, flawless skin, toned stomach, big curves in all the right places. Beyonce possesses not a single feature that lies outside of the ideal of what the media was already telling women is beautiful. I can’t imagine that women who are overweight or abnormally tall or have problems with acne suddenly felt permission to love themselves in way they never had before when they first saw these videos.

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Second, even if Beyonce were “ugly” or “fat” by media standards, the idea that she is doing something liberating or feminist by proudly displaying to the world every nook and cranny of herself is, again, just ridiculous.

Now, I’m all for people being comfortable with their bodies and agree that those of us who don’t or can’t look like some media proffered ideal should still love ourselves and our bodies. But proudly exposing and flaunting a body that (supposedly) doesn’t conform to the media ideal is no less superficial than flaunting one that does. Beyonce doesn’t say or do anything on this album to demonstrate she’s found her value or self-worth in something other than physical beauty and shallow sexuality. Her answer to “pretty hurts” is not “You are loved because you are a child of God” or “Your value comes from your whole person,” it’s simply to redefine “pretty” (which we have already established she does not actually do). So when Beyonce brags to us in “Rocket” that she’s “proud of all this bass” [camera shot: close-up of her butt], she’s still a woman finding her self-worth in her ass.

This becomes glaringly clear in the other bookend. Near the end of the album, the song “Flawless” incorporates a long sample from the TED talk of African feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she laments, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…” I don’t know how Adichi intended these comments, but as they are appropriated by Beyonce, they end up a kind of self-contradictory mess.

The song’s title is a mantra of self-affirmation. It tells us that Beyonce, now through to the other side of her journey of self-acceptance and sexual empowerment embraces herself just the way she is (“I’m flawless!”). And she wants other women to be able to do this too, inviting them: “Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’”

But ultimately she can’t resist framing her flawlessness in comparison to other women: “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world,/ Bow down b*tches.” Well, maybe that’s because the kind of sexuality Beyonce is trying to claim for women, the kind that’s like what men have, is inherently competitive, superficial, and destructive.

Bow down, b*tches? So Beyonce’s journey of feminist self-actualization ultimately arrives at a place where she can call other women b*tches because of how flawless she is. Hm.   

Despite Beyonce’s reporting that “this album is all about honesty,” these videos, and their accompanying lyrics, are all about objectification, which is actually a form of dishonesty. Regardless of Beyonce’s own role in the writing of these songs and production of these videos, their effect is to separate her body from the rest of her and turn it into an object of desire for consumers to purchase and use to their own ends. This is fundamentally dishonest. And ultimately, Beyonce isn’t being honest with herself if she thinks that just because she is the agent of her own body-hawking she is somehow empowered by it. This makes about as much sense as saying that cutting or eating disorders or suicide are empowering. Self-harm is still harm. Self-objectification is still objectification.

Which brings us to Lady Gaga. Gaga has built an empire on dressing and undressing her body in various transgressive ways that shock and provoke (oh my, a meat dress!) And because of this, she’s hailed as a smart, self-aware feminist of the future. (There’s even a whole book written about this). But if we scratch beneath the patina of avant-garde affectation and irony, Gaga’s just as guilty of self-objectification.

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Let’s take “Do What U Want,” the second single off of her latest album, Artpop, as an example. The song is supposedly smart because it operates on two levels. On one level, it’s a thumper of a club song about drinking and sex, with Gaga giving us permission over and over again to “do what [we] want with [her] body.” On another level, it’s Gaga critiquing the media for objectifying and misrepresenting her.

Write what you want/Say what you want about me/

If you want to know/I’m not sorry

…You can’t stop my voice/Cause you don’t own my life/

But do what you want with my body

So she wants us to know that she’s in control here. Even though we can buy her body and use to our own ends, she’s the one who decided that. And she won’t give us the stuff that really matters (her heart, etc). “Do What U Want” is supposedly Gaga asserting her autonomy over an oppressive media machine that would seek to subjugate her.

Except guess which level of meaning the marketing of the song is based on? The video–which, to be fair, was never actually released, but clips of which were leaked online–looks to me a lot like porn. In it, Gaga plays a (naked) patient to R. Kelly’s doctor, who has a party with a dozen “sexy” nurses and Gaga’s limp, anesthetized body. (Get it? He’s doing what he wants with her body. Clever.) This is intercut with shots of her being photographed wearing a paper dress that she progressively rips apart until she’s naked and writhing on the floor.

The cover art for the single is a close up shot of a G-string-wearing Gaga bent over with her butt in the camera. The shot is slightly overexposed, in the photographical sense. According Gaga, it represents the fact that her “ass is all she chooses to give us.”

Do you see what she did there? As with the song, she wants us to think that the meaning of the cover art is entirely based on her intentions. She can choose what she’s giving us. She’s saying, ”I know that this looks and sounds and smells exactly like the kind of pop music that objectifies women. I know that it contains a duet with a guy who was once arrested for making child pornography  and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. I know that on the surface level the lyrics are about me degrading myself and allowing myself to be degraded in the back of a club. But [wink, wink] if you’re smart, you know that this actually means the exact opposite of all that.”

So the difference between degrading objectification and liberating art boils down to whether or not the author intends it to be ironic?

At the end of the day, avant-garde porn is still porn. And porn is still something that contributes to, rather than helps to dismantle, rape culture. The human body, male or female, is not something that can be objectified or commodified or sold without being degraded and dehumanized. Even if the one doing the objectifying and commodifying and selling is the person to whom the body belongs.

Thank God Sinead O’Connor was willing to speak this truth to Miley Cyrus. In her words, “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”

I know I’ll be accused of slut-shaming and not being sex-positive, but, oh well. Somebody’s got to say it: Nobody is being liberated by the idea that porn is feminist. Nobody is being liberated by these quasi-pornographic pop videos. Not Beyonce, not Lady Gaga, not the other women who watch them or have to live in the culture now poisoned by them.

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Why “Sex-Positive” is My New Least Favorite Word

So I want to explain why, as a Christian, “sex-positive” is my new least favorite word, even though I am myself a very sex-positive guy, and I believe that Christianity is also very sex-positive. But I’m going to need to back up a bit to get there.

Christianity is essentially a form of humanism. That is, at its core it is concerned with the dignity of the individual human being and the flourishing of humanity as a whole. However, unlike secular versions of humanism, Christianity recognizes humans as beings in relation to the transcendent, to something—and, specifically, Someone—beyond the material realm. 

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A truly humanistic humanism must begin with an account of humans that is accurate. And humans are not merely physical/material beings. We have, to use traditional language, souls. We are indwelt by the eternal and we yearn for the eternal. We have a destiny, a telos, that includes, but is not limited to the physical. And so our highest and greatest good, our flourishing both as individuals and as a human community cannot be reduced merely to physical health, material prosperity, and just power relations, however important those things might be.

And yet, in post-Christian, pluralistic Western society, the secular worldview has now set the rules of engagement in the public square. And one of those rules is that moral claims—any “should” or “ought”—must be made without reference to the transcendent. Moral claims must be grounded in empirical evidence and be commonly agreed upon by all (or at least a voting majority). Thus, Christians, who are essentially humanists and have a desire to see human flourishing for all people and not just Christians, are now put in the awkward position of having to make a case for their account of human flourishing in secular terms.

It turns out this is impossible. (Go figure: you can’t explain a vision of human flourishing that is rooted in the transcendent without reference to the transcendent.) But Christians have still been doing their darnedest for the past century or so. At first, it worked…at least some of the time. Because enough of the fumes of transcendence still lingered in the air our culture breathed that even if we didn’t talk directly about God or the bible or the afterlife, we could still sort of pantomime enough in their direction that people picked up on it. But the thinner those fumes got, the harder it got. (Mixed metaphor, I know).

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As it has gotten harder, some Christians have respond by just retreating from the public square, but others have just pushed harder at this impossible task of making a compelling case for the “oughts” of the Christian vision without making reference to the transcendent. And the result has been, well, less than compelling. (Again, big surprise). And in the sphere of sexuality, this has been particularly difficult as the mindset of consumer choice and libertarian freedom has come to exert increasingly influence on our views of sex.

See, a Christian with one hand tied behind her back (the hand that would be pointing up to the transcendent/God) is forced to work with just one hand (the hand that only points around to the material/empirical realm). So she is forced to make the case that the Christian sexual ethic will result in more human flourishing than alternative ethics by pointing to “consequences” and “rewards” on the material/plane plane. I.e., to make the case that this ethic of reserving all sexual activity for marriage and maintaining life-long monogamy will avoid more consequences (unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, emotional trauma, etc.) and net more rewards (fulfilling sex life, fewer abortions, stronger marriage, etc.).

Now, I happen to think that this is true. And I think a fairly persuasive case can be made for it. See for example, Wendell Berry’s classic essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” (which is not entirely without reference to the transcendent, but puts most of the emphasis on how we have lost sight of the inherently communal nature of sex and its “consequences”). However, if someone as skilled and winsome as Mr. Berry can make a case for it, it’s also true that most of the time, the Christian, laboring away one-handed, ends up looking like a fool or a maniac.

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More often than not, this one-handed approach comes off as what has recently come to be called “sex-negative.” Having agreed ahead of time not to use her transcendence hand, she hacks and slashes with her “immanent” hand, hammering on the “consequences” of extra-marital sex and the “rewards” that fornicators, masturbators, and pornography-users will miss out on. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you do X, Y will be the consequence. She appears to be (and maybe often is) using fear and shame, rather than being, well, sex-positive. The non-Christian observing all this feverish pointing at consequences interprets the Christian as saying—to use the words of one recent sex-positive blogger—SEX IS BAD! DON’T DO IT!

Meanwhile, the secularist, whose core moral convictions (self-expression is a moral good, personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations, liberty is increased by maximizing choices, etc.) are not only allowed but do not even have to be argued for because they are just part of the Enlightenment air we all breath (i.e., she’s playing with two hands) can talk about sex in the context of these moral goods and calmly make some suggestions about “moderation” and “safety” and come off looking like a sane, common-sensical person who is just really, you know, sex-positive and has my flourishing at heart.

This so-called sex-positive approach has so much traction in our post-Christian cultural milieu, that even a lot of Christians seem to be jumping on board. Turns out mom and dad were overstating the consequences of premarital sex. Turns out our virginal wedding nights weren’t the awesome experience they built them up to be. Turns out we’ve got all kinds of lingering body-shame and sex-guilt from all the scare tactics of our youth pastors. Maybe this level-headed, be-safe-and-responsible-and-do-what-works-for-you approach is a better ethic than the crazy, ol’ fashioned Christian one.

But here’s the thing: I think that many of us (certainly the Christians, I would hope!) believe that humans are spiritual beings, that we do have a soul. And something as powerful and emotional and holistic as sex must involve that part of us. And so we need to untie that other hand if we’re going to really talk about sex. We need to talk about the transcendent if we’re going to make sense of it.

In particular, I think we need to introduce the word “sacred” to the conversation. See, the real reason the Christian sexual ethic puts such serious boundaries around sex is not because its afraid of the “consequences” of illicit sex. It is because it understands sex to be sacred. Sex is one of the rare and special things God has given us that is sacramental, it is a “thin place,” a portal between the material and the transcendent. Or maybe a better way to say that is: a place where God has promised to take up the material into the transcendent.

And even more than that, Christians believe that marital sex is a kind of “icon of redemption.” That the mutual giving and receiving of the spouses in conjugal love is a kind of lived picture of the love of God in Christ for us, the Bride, the Redeemed. And so a way of participating in the mystery of Redemption. 

If any of that is even half true, then sex is holy ground. It’s a place where we take off our sandals  to acknowledge we are in the presence of something beyond us, something mysterious and powerful and not of our own making. Something sacred.

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This is hardly being sex-negative. Sacred things have lots of boundaries around them and strict rules for how they are used not because they are dirty or because using them is shameful. Just the opposite: because they are holy and wonderful and good. To say the fine china is only for special occasions is not a negative view of the china. To say only the priest can enter the sanctuary is not a negative view of the sanctuary. To say that children should be protected and kept safe is not a negative view of children.

In short, if Christians can talk about sex on both the material and the transcendent planes, then I think we have the most sex-positive account going. (What other tradition recognizes all the aspects of sex—self-expression and bodily pleasure and human love and procreative power—and ties them all to a coherent vision of the world as created and redeemed and sustained by a loving God?) So as a pastor, I’m going to keep telling my people not to use porn or prostitutes, not to have sex before our outside of marriage. Not because I’m afraid of sex or squeamish about it or think its dirty. But because I’m sex-positive. Because sex is sacred. And I want to help them keep it that way.