Marie Claire has unveiled its "2017 Fresh Faces" as featured in the May issue coming to newsstands now. Among them is singer, model, and actress Janelle Monáe.
The Kansas City native is something of a modern Renaissance woman. At 31, Monáe has garnered six Grammy nominations over a decade-plus music career, become a CoverGirl spokeswoman, and acted in two Oscar-nominated films in 2016 alone, Hidden Figures and Moonlight. Along the way, she’s sharpened her tongue for cultural commentary that doesn’t shy from taking strong stands.
Most recently, speaking to Marie Claire, Monáe surprised some readers with an exhortation to women to refrain from having sex.
"People have to start respecting the vagina. Until every man is fighting for our rights,” Monáe stated, “we should consider stopping having sex. I love men. But evil men? I will not tolerate that. You don't deserve to be in my presence. If you're going to own this world and this is how you're going to rule this world, I am not going to contribute anymore until you change it. We have to realize our power and our magic.”
"We should consider stopping having sex." I can't help but find this very striking. Some outlets have jumped on Monáe’s comments to criticize her as a modern-day Lysistrata—the character in Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. play of the same name who suggested women withhold sex from their husbands to get them to stop the Peloponnesian War. Others have suggested that she is somehow blind to the fact that women, too, can enjoy sex, so we shouldn't punish ourselves. But I see Monáe’s suggestion less as a cheap bargaining chip or short-sighted remark and more a thought-provoking point—one we might benefit from considering for a second.
The elephant in the room in much of media today is how much women are exploited for their sexuality. Some on one end of the spectrum want to bring attention to it and stop it (and are often called the morality police); others want to embrace it in attempt to level the playing field between men and women. But given the dire state of things today, I read Monáe’s comment as a consideration to scale back on how much we go along with the state of sexual affairs—a call to stop playing the game, so to speak.
We’re not living in the times of Lysistrata’s story, when refraining from sex is described as primarily affecting a husband and wife. We’re living in 2017, an age when mainstream attitudes and behavior suggest far fewer boundaries for intimate affairs. We're also living in an age when risky sexual activity is largely portrayed as empowering and glamorous for women. But the latest research and news shows women regret sex more often than men and that women are getting drunk to be more comfortable to partake in hookups they aren’t initiating. Droves of girls and young women are sending sexual selfies upon pressure from their male peers. Porn is mainstream, and average women are signing up by the thousands for “Sugar Daddy” sexual relationships whereby they receiving material gains—whether for expensive designer gifts or compensation for their education—for their sexual output. Trends like these may have been around, in various forms, for much of history, but the modern twist to view such things as empowering rather than hurtful for women is new.
In sum, we’re living in a time where exploitation of women’s sexuality has become mainstream; it’s even perpetuated by many women themselves, perhaps thinking that the best way to win is to play the same game rather than overthrow it. It’s in the face of this thinking that I find Monáe’s comment so insightful—in the face of a culture that has attached a false sense of power to a woman’s willingness to be used by someone else.
Stopping sex in exploitative situations like those mentioned above might not solve all women's problems, but it may give people a moment to re-evaluate what kind of culture their actions contribute to. If one's sexual activity contributes to a culture that monetizes women's bodies, for instance, or prioritizes male pleasure over women's dignity, it probably isn't the kind of culture we want. It certainly isn't one that will help in the women's rights department. And thinking about these things is a step in the right direction.
In her book Girls & Sex last year, Peggy Orenstein noted, “The average teenager is exposed to nearly 14,000 references to sex each year on television," and "young women who consume more objectifying media [report] more willingness to engage in sexualized behavior . . . such as a wet T-shirt contest, and to find those activities empowering.” With the pro-sex-all-the-time messaging we have all around us, one comment to "consider stopping having sex" is definitely a countercultural one that we could have predicted would create a commotion. I suspect Monáe knew that as well. But in my view, these considerations, and conversations, are just the kind we need to be having if we want to get anywhere close to a healthy balance.
Photo Credit: Aaron Smith