In 2017, singer and actor Janelle Monáe made headlines for stating her opinion that women should stop giving sex to men if they continue to mistreat women.
“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.”
Not a bad suggestion, I thought at the time.
A couple years later, I noticed her statements change a bit from the emphasis on respecting women toward more of a literal focus on the vagina. At the 2019 Grammys, Monáe performed her song “Make Me Feel” while surrounded by dancers in pink wearing “vagina pants” moving to the beat of her sexual anthem. The implication seemed to be one encouraging self-pleasure and women-to-women pleasure as an alternate to depending on men for sex and intimate relationships. “Fans were thrilled with the female-focused performance,” Insider reported.
At one point on the Grammy stage, Monáe took the opportunity to quote another one of her songs, saying “Let the vagina have a monologue.”
I am all about empowering women’s voices, and I get the reference to Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, which has become a cult classic among college-aged folks. In encouraging people to shout “vagina” and hear human stories about the oft-hushed body part, Ensler was aiming to remove shame from women’s bodies and raise awareness in the fight against domestic violence. But something always seemed off to me in how the Monologues spent much airtime on the vagina’s role in sexual pleasure and an afterthought on its power in childbirth.
Within a subtext of protecting women from domestic violence, and the acknowledgment of sexism in the world in general (women’s sexual parts and behavior being viewed far more negatively than men’s in society), personal sexual exploration became something of a life raft for the vagina to find meaning beyond men. Nevermind that male and female reproductive systems working together are necessary ingredients for the continuation of the human race. Maybe, some seemed to suggest, men’s bad behavior in personal relationships and in society at large have disqualified them from a seat at the table.
Distinguishing between a person and problematic behavior
Surely some relationships are irreparable, but to encourage a generalized trend of women giving up on men altogether is different than identifying problematic behavior in male partners. In a way, it is to treat abusive and dysfunctional relationships as the default male-female relationship that women only have the choice to either put up with or abandon. In a way, it suggests an underlying thinking that male-female relationships are irreparable as a whole, and that no-partner or female-partner relationships are the two only options available to women who want sexual flourishing and love.
While modern male-female relationships are indeed plagued by some significant dysfunctions that need addressing, I take issue with this generalized throw-in-the-towel view because it fails to identify dysfunctional relationship behaviors but instead tosses out the entire sex altogether.
Social worker and shame scholar Brené Brown counsels readers of her books with basic helpful tidbits for relationships. Among Brown’s recommendations, I’ve learned, is when you have a problem with someone, don’t say the problem is with them as a person, but identify the problematic behavior and ask them to change it. If they care about your relationship, they’ll probably work to change it. If they don’t, you can take actions to limit exposure to that behavior and lay boundaries, or separate yourself. But the starting point is to identify the problematic behavior—not to give up on the person at the outset, but to give them a chance to respond rightly with changed behavior.
Some male-female relationships have important reasons to end. But if we fail to identify the dysfunctional behaviors plaguing male-female relationships and instead simplistically pit it all on men as unchangeable evil creatures, we will not learn anything from what went wrong to assist us in building future better relationships.
Identifying some of the things plaguing women-men relationships today
While I obviously cannot give an exhaustive list of the possible relationship problems male-female couples are experiencing today, I can say with some certainty that some of the greatest problems plaguing relationships today have to do with at least one partner objectifying the other and at least one partner not treating the other as an equal person in the relationship whose feelings are worthy of being heard and respected.
While these behaviors have likely always existed in the course of human relationship foibles, there are some social factors today that are normalizing and accelerating these troublesome behaviors. Such factors include our hypersexualized media climate and exposure to pornography from people’s earliest conceptualizations of intimacy and relationships.
Objectifying depictions of male-female interactions have become so common in media that we hardly even notice them, and mainstream attitudes are to treat objectifying behaviors with a wink and a laugh rather than as the relationship poison that they are. While objectification can go both ways between the sexes, it is no secret that by and large women are the subjects of objectification in media, and it isn’t doing us any favors. Why aren’t women taken more seriously in the workplace, we wonder, while women are treated as eye candy all over our advertisements. Why are sexual assaults and sex regret on the rise, when data has shown 90 percent of scenes in pornography depict aggression toward women as pleasurable.
Men who mistreat women are responsible first and foremost for their behavior and should be held accountable for it; they should not be let off the hook for being influenced by bad media. But we can learn something about these relationship-harming trends if we identify the behaviors that are wrong in both objectifying media and in some of the worst social ills facing women today—the behaviors that include viewing and treating women as objects to consume and be pleasured by; not as human beings with equal value, dignity, and feelings that matter.
Removing interpersonal relations from relationships
Some experts on objectifying media and pornography have identified a side-effect of consuming sexually arousing imagery that doesn’t require a real live person to be present—a prevelance and even priority of impersonal sexual behavior over interpersonal sexual behavior.
In a 2018 meta-analytic study published in Human Communication Research, “Pornography consumption was associated with an impersonal approach to sex among both men and women; among both adolescents and adults; and across countries, time, and methods.”
With interpersonal relationships taking a back seat to self-served pleasure, some of the objectifying relationship problems that frustrate many women can be better understood. And once we can see some of these connections, it brings us to the quandary of the way forward for women. If the behaviors plaguing male-female relations are impersonal, objectifying, and pleasure-based sexual behaviors, it leaves room for us to wonder if prioritizing women’s pleasure in impersonal ways may be more of a redirection from than a remedy for modern relationship ills.
So is Janelle Monáe’s and others’ spotlight on the vagina, self-pleasure, and women’s independence from men the answer for solving relationship woes?
In a 2016 essay for Vice titled “What Did Porn Do to Millennials?,” Mike Pearl notes that the porn-consuming generation displays more impersonal and less committed sexual habits than its predecessors. Waxing poetic, Pearl concludes, “Porn gives any person with an open mind and some search engine skills access to dizzying and inspiring array of actions being performed with, by, and around genitals. Meanwhile, if too many images of our own species mating are somehow to blame for societal damage, it's probably going to be years before science can say exactly what that damage is.”
Meanwhile, May has been declared National Masturbation Month, and a whole industry is quick to market sex-based products to women in the name of a positive self-love movement. But I wonder, if we continue down this road, if we’ll see the trends of selfish sexual behavior we hated about men in ourselves.