The notoriously shallow, fairly bro-focused site College Humour has produced a viral video entitled ‘Sexually Enlightened R&B song’ featuring a black heterosexual couple, both stereotypically attractive, in which the man serenades the woman with a standard-composition 90’s R&B tune about having a fair and equal sexual encounter with her that evening. At face value, this content should not be at all humorous, but I found myself laughing out loud, not at the ideas being shared, but at the ridiculous thought that a mainstream cultural product would ever seriously espouse such blatantly feminist values from the mouth of a man.
I liked it and laughed despite the basing of the piece upon clearly heteronormative, liberal feminist views (not the radical queer intersectional feminist approach I try to take. As I commented to my friend, hard feminist porn producer Nikki Swarm, it’s important for the singer to clarify that although his woman is experienced, she is not a ho, because it would be going too far to — gasp — humanise sex workers! and they are getting married, so clearly she can’t be a ho! I disagree with versions of feminism where some women do not receive feminist protection, where those who have made ‘bad choices’ about themselves and their bodies, including sex work, casual sex and abortions are demonised, and the line between good and bad girls is tightly upheld. Instead, I believe that everyone has the agency to make their own choices under structural systems in which the options for oppressed people (in this case, make money from sex work, be in debt and unemployed, or work shit jobs and make peanuts for hard, stressful labour) are all problematic.
Nevertheless, despite all this, the feminist principles articulated in the song were still far enough from the androcentric social norm around heteroromantic, sexual and intimate relationships to be highly unusual, and worthy of attention. The ideas it introduces, such as sexual reciprocity (‘I’ll go down on you / You’ll go down on me) and a woman having a healthy human sexuality (In my opinion / your sexual liberation / is healthy and normal / and makes you human), as simple and pedestrian as they should be, are presented as alien to the misogynistic norm, so far-fetched and impossible as to be funny.
As of current writing, the video, which came out 5 days ago, had over 5 million views on Facebook and 1 million on YouTube. At first glance, comments seem to be generally divided between butt-hurt, i-worship-hegemonic-masculinity men and feminists who are brave enough to point out that it’s a shame we have to wait until a humour site makes fun of the work we have done to teach men how to walk a path of allyship for these ideas to be shared virally. We educate our communities however we can, not only for the benefit of those around us but also to create a world in which we can survive. We do this with the aim of building a world in which thriving is possible, and we keep our spirits up as every enslaved person does, by focusing on dreams of liberation. After we have burnt ourselves out as baby feminists repeatedly trying to convince everyone we encounter of women’s equality, making ourselves sick and tired (of being sick and tired) in the process, we tend to regroup at some point in our 30s and concentrate our precious feminist energy on three key functions: loving ourselves, uplifting other women (including trans women), and teaching people of any gender (mostly men) who we perceive, with our keen feminist eye, to have allyship intentions, because of course this is the subset of men whose minds you have a chance to actually change. (A good litmus test for this is if they have longstanding female friends that they haven’t slept with — this is a sign he views women as individuals with agency, personalities and preferences, rather than sexual objects). Although I don’t have the evidence, I suspect it is men like this — let’s call them ‘possible allies’ — who created this video.
Therefore, I want to officially acknowledge the collective work of feminists from every background, but particularly black womanists and women of colour who created a contemporary feminist culture which widened our sphere of possible allies and enabled the creation of a video like this, joke though it may be. Sometimes the hardest truths can be told through humour (see also: Richard Pryor and Robin Williams). I also recognise the countless individual women who have had draining and soul-destroying arguments with men about things like rape culture, the ‘natural’ aspects of gender roles, how a privileged (often white) male’s experience gives him access to the truth of the social world, and why women who have lots of sex, for fun, love or money, should be treated equally and with respect. Forget ‘behind every great man, there is a great woman’ — we say ‘behind every enlightened man, there is a burnt out feminist.’
Evidence of fourth wave, 21st century, digital feminist-derived terminology is scattered throughout the piece.
I won’t try to tell you how to run the women’s movement
but I’ll be an ally in every way I can
So here’s to the trailblazing feminists who invented these words and concepts to describe lived experiences of oppression, highlight and challenge them in order to break down social structures, conceptually and materially. This timely, surprising, and interesting cultural product is the direct result of their daily work for a world that is safe for women, physically and emotionally, in which we are fully human, not property, playthings, or prizes to be won.
However, when I replayed it a few more times, I laughed less and less. I felt, instead, a sadness that dominant culture is not actually more like this, and that even stating this very basic level of feminism that portrays women as equals, not even the cutting-edge feminisms literally reconfiguring the landscape of gender norms and expectations, is for many an object of ridicule. The world of interpersonal and in particular romantic relationships is a primary battlefield of my personal and professional journey as a feminist, as an artist, as a human. The reason I was able to laugh seeing the video for the first time is that I recognised that language as things I have actually said. Asks I have actually asked. Pleas I have actually pleaded when, for the nth time, the man I am talking to says, for example, #NotAllMen. I have had so many of the same, socially scripted conversations with skeptics at the minimum end of the anti-feminist spectrum, and dyed-in-the-wool misogynists at the maximum end, that I have learned to handle almost anything they throw at me — see example points and counterpoints below:
P: Women always put me into the friend zone.
CP: The friend zone is the misogynist name for what women do when they choose not to sleep with you.
P: Some women are sluts/slags. They sleep with anyone and everyone.
CP: There is a double standard. Why are men are seen as studs for sleeping around but women are seen as sluts?
P: Rape culture doesn’t exist. I’ve never raped anyone / No woman has ever told me she has been raped.
CP: 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Are you sure every woman you have ever had sex with has enthusiastically consented? Do you know what coercion looks like? Do you speak to women around you about the ways in which they have been sexually harassed or assaulted? If not, how would you know?
P: She asked for it.
CP: There are no excuses for it, not if she was drunk, or wore a short skirt, approached you first, or anything.
Beyond the basic level are the more developed and nuanced feminist analyses influenced by Black, Marxist and anarchist, queer, global South and post-colonial, and disabled feminisms, where we argue that white supremacy, classism, heterosexism, trans and homophobia, imperialism, shadeism and ableism co-constitute patriarchy and shape heterogeneous conditions for women and LGBTQ+ people all over the world.
P. Lighter-skinned women of colour are ‘prettier’ than dark-skinned women / I am just more ‘attracted’ to white or light skinned women than I am to dark-skinned women.
CP: Preferences are not created in a vacuum. They are shaped and enforced by dominant (read: white supremacist) culture.
P: Men of colour are more oppressed than women of colour.
CP: Men of colour can oppress women of colour just as much, if not more than, white men, because of their general closer proximity to them.
P: Men of the political left are progressive and not sexist.
CP: There is a history of sexism, misogyny and rape culture in left organisations all over the world, from contemporary American Socialists and Democrats, to the Communist Party to the Black Panthers. Likewise, there is a history of feminist resistance and leadership in all of these contexts.
Developing a feminist analysis of the social world is something I have fought long and hard for. I have shed many tears and had many long nights of endless, fevered conversation to establish equal relationships with my intimate partners, partnerships where I received as much as I gave. This is the fairness of which the song speaks: I mean I have my preferences but that’s not really fair. Truly equal relationships work to temper some preferences, try to meet in the middle, and find a place where the give and take seems easy, but is actually a product of deep self-reflection and hard-won negotiation.
We are in the middle of a rupture of the social silence around rape culture, and the underlying social foundation of misogyny and transmisogyny that underpins it. Powerful male public figures, from Catholic priests worldwide, to Jimmy Savile, to Bill Cosby, Huckbee, Trump and their respective camps, opportunistic academics are being outed as sexual abusers, and those defending them are outing themselves as rape apologists. The women they have assaulted are being re-traumatised by the experience of telling their stories. This is of course in the social and cultural context of an environment that still thrives off the degradation and murder of women, the devaluing of women’s work, and in which violence against women is rife. A sustained place at the bottom of the dominant social hierarchy means sex workers and trans women of colour are disproportionately likely to be the victims of violence. As Nikki Swarm continued, “When there is that much evidence, and people still want to argue it, they demonstrate what rape culture is by gaslighting the woman they’re talking to,” by not trusting women, and attempting to make them defend and doubt our own observations and experiences. In response, we are changing the narrative: when people say ‘she asked for it,’ we respond: Did a car crash victim ‘ask for it’ because they were driving? Did an arson victim ‘ask for it’ by living in a flammable house? If you didn’t fear the possibility of being murdered, why were you walking around made out of flesh and bones? What will it take to get people to understand that rape culture is not women’s fault?
But you know I could always do better
So let me know. This is a dialogue
Constructive criticism is appreciated
I respond to the call at the video’s end, to enter into dialogue and continue communication with constructive criticism, with this advice: to engage with and embrace the international community of feminist thinkers, writers, teachers and practitioners who have critiqued and intersectionally advanced the concepts the song puts forward, creating feminisms that are inclusive of women of colour, transwomen and men, queer, genderqueer and nonbinary, LGBTQ+, sex workers, working class and precariat and disabled. We are a networked community powered by an intersectional politics of liberation. We are the feminists and womanists whose worlds of possibility are constantly mocked. We hope for a world where women and little girls are empowered and can live for themselves, rather than as an appendage to men, a where men, straight, gay and bi, are freed from the bonds of patriarchy and heteronormative masculinity; where trans, nonbinary and genderqueer people are given the same opportunities as cis people, while free to express gender as they wish. We do not want our hopes to be a joke. We want them to be reality.
I hope that the video might have an unexpected effect — an effect that happens most when men tell other men things, one that does not automatically happen when women tell men things: they listen. Another friend, the performing poet and writer Danny Sherrard, said that he did not take the video as a joke; that it was necessary, now more than ever. But like me, he found its necessity to be a source of sadness. Nevertheless, I hope the enlightened men who contributed to producing, writing, directing, and starring in this piece continue to talk to others about how they might be contributing to women’s oppression in the bedroom and beyond. Culture is fluid, and global societies are in times of great change. Solidarity is the only way to for us to turn this current rupture into a foundation for an intersectional women’s liberation, and there is no better time than the present.