Sex and shame and the merry-go-round of outrage

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https://www.smh.com.au-By Samantha Selinger-Morris

It was the twerking heard – and seen – around the world.

And, after tens of millions tuned in to watch the video for chart-busting hip hop singer Cardi B’s new single, WAP, many of them appeared to lose their mind.

Standing for “Wet Ass Pussy”, the song – and video, which features Cardi B and multiple female singers writhing, dancing and caressing themselves, each other and, in some cases, tigers – is an ecstatic ode to telling your partner exactly how you want to be pleased sexually.

Cardi B, left, with fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallion, seen here in a still from the video for Cardi B’s single, “WAP”, ignited a social media firestorm about sexual double standards.Credit:CardiBOfficial.com

The insults and accusations – from the left and the right alike – started flying almost immediately.

Congressional Republican candidates DeAnna Lorraine and James P. Bradley let rip: the former tweeting that Cardi B and her co-singer Megan Thee Stallion “just set the entire female gender back by 100 years with their disgusting & vile WAP song”, and the latter tweeting that the song “made me want to pour holy water in my ears”.

Left-leaning actor Russell Brand chipped in, too, releasing a video in which he derided Cardi B for being duped, a victim “of capitalist objectification and commodification”.

Forgetting even, for a minute, that this last criticism comes from a man once crowned “Shagger of the Year” by The Sun, the shame inextricably linked to Cardi B’s desire to express her sexual needs – nearly 60 years after the sexual revolution – is worth a closer look.

It’s perhaps especially surprising, given that we are living in arguably the most anti-shame period in recent memory, with self-described “shame researcher” Dr Brene Brown (of “The Power of Vulnerability” TED talk), American therapist Allyson Dinneen (and her 277,000-follower-strong Instagram account Notes From Your Therapist) and Untamed author Glennon Doyle gathering millions of fans for railing against shame, and how it cripples women by convincing them to internalise misogyny (among other toxic impacts).

“I think we can take the moral outrage with a grain of salt, if it’s coming from Republicans,” says James Phillips, associate professor of philosophy at The University of NSW, noting that they are likely “posturing” to gain votes ahead of November’s presidential election, and that Cardi B is a Democrats supporter. (Indeed, she just interviewed American democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the latest issue of US Elle.) “They’re trying to whip up a section of the electorate in the US that can’t be reached by other appeals,” says Phillips. “So if they’re not going to vote for the Republicans on the basis of tax breaks, maybe they can be mobilised in the name of social conservatism.”

There’s also the reality that the sexual double standard – which sees women, but not men, being punished for expressing their sexuality – has been around for about 10,000 years, and is therefore difficult to budge, says Dr Khandis Blake, director of the Evolution, Conflict and Equality Lab at the University of Melbourne.

“It’s been around since kind of, hunter and gatherer [times],” says Dr Blake, noting that when people started owning land, “there is this huge preoccupation with restrained female sexuality, so you can make sure who you pass the land to is your genetic offspring, and not the milkman’s”.

And as for that sexual revolution? Not as revolutionary as we like to think, says Dr Meagan Tyler, a senior lecturer at RMIT who specialises in gender inequality.

“We have to confront that, yes, of course it freed up some things for some women, but on whose terms,” she says, adding that the revolution primarily benefited heterosexual women, enabling them to have sex with men without getting pregnant via the birth control pill, but that it didn’t achieve a wider, long-lasting, and nuanced investigation into what women’s sexuality can look like beyond that narrow frame, or lead to open, public discussions on the matter.

Actor Russell Brand, in his video, “WAP: Feminist Masterpiece or Porn?”, is among many who have accused Cardi B of being a victim, rather than a feminist hero.

The legacy of that is, she says, “a merry-go-round, you can probably set your watch by, at least once a year, there’s going to be one thing that sets people off, [regarding] women and sex”.

Cultural anthropology studies have shown that leaner economies – such as we are experiencing now, with unprecedented unemployment in many parts of the globe, with women disproportionately affected – lead both women and men to view perceived promiscuity more harshly, says Dr Blake.

“They showed that economic indicators of female dependence, like women on welfare, who earn less than men, predict anti-promiscuity morality,” says Dr Blake, referring to a 2014 study, “Female Economic Dependence and the Morality of Promiscuity”, published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour. (In a nutshell, the study found that, in environments in which the rates of women depending economically on men are higher than usual, male “parental investment” is viewed as more crucial, and as a result both men and women value paternity more, and object more to promiscuity than they otherwise would.)

And, adds Dr Blake: “It’s not just men who shame women about their sexuality, women do it a lot. Women can be the harshest critics.”

There are other indications that woman-upon-woman shame is still thriving, often unchecked.

In The Space Between, a new book by Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald, the 20-something duo behind the Australian podcast Shameless, Andrews explores the phenomenon of women targeting other women, for instance getting Botox, and pleads for less judgment. “It seems particularly cruel that, after all the efforts to dodge the arrows, women are judged the second they give in to the pressure that encircles them, as if they are letting the sisterhood down when they wave their hands in the air and ask for a little respite,” she writes.

And so Dr Blake celebrates WAP, particularly for the song’s female collaborative aspect: Cardi B not only teams with Megan Thee Stallion, another high-profile rapper, but also features numerous other female singers in the video including Rosalia, Mulatto, Rubi Rose and Normani, and has vocally championed the inclusion in the video of the oft-derided Kylie Jenner, after more than 60,000 people signed a Change.org petition to remove Jenner from the video.

“That’s not very common [in rap], it’s very common for a lot of women [in this segment of the music industry] to take each other down … and [the song] has done especially well in the charts,” says Dr Blake. (The song debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and, according to Nielsen Music, broke records after it racked up 93 million streams in the US in the week after its release – the highest ever for a week-long period.)

Dr Blake isn’t the only one celebrating.

After Cardi B tweeted that Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “better run for president when she turns 35”, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted back: “Women Against Patriarchy (WAP) 2020”.

And American gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter wrote in The New York Times that the song might even help counteract “predatory feminine hygiene practices” (like douching) that convince women their genitals are problematic, when they are normal, and dispel the “cruel” and “damaging” myth that a “wet vagina” is shameful, noting that the view that women’s bodies are inferior to men’s because of their “wetness” has been around since the time of Hippocrates more than 2000 years ago.

There are signs that we can use all the help we can get. Many newly launched brands selling products for women that purport to fix various genital-based “problems” – like the vulva hydrating mask by new brand Fig Femme, by Lindy Rama-Ellis (formerly Klim), which claims to reduce vulva “wrinkles” and produce “better texture” – are founded by women. (Other brands by women that make similar claims include Lady Suite Beauty and Fur.)

But there are also signs of progress. Comedian Dulce Sloan told The Daily Show host Trevor Noah that WAP is the “sex-positive song of the summer”, adding, “only in a repressed, patriarchal society would people consider a woman’s pleasure graphic”. And this week, Neighbours actor Olympia Valance spoke out after falling victim to cyber crime that saw photos stolen from her mobile phone shared online.

“Taking intimate photos for yourself, or to share with a partner is not a shameful thing to do,” she wrote in a statement. “Stealing them and sharing them online without consent is.”

But, perhaps, the final word should go to Cardi B.

Not only has she remained impervious to criticism – “they keep talking and the numbers keep going up,” she told i-D magazine – but she recently released her WAP-related merchandise.

In among the expected fare, like sweatpants and sports bras? An umbrella.

Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

 

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