The pornification of pop

It’s the way in which pop and rap music embrace the porn and sex industries, elevate the pimp and sexualise male violence that makes it pornographic says Rachel Bell. And it’s not girls we need to be worried about, it’s boys

It’s taken a comment by Mike Stock in The Daily Mail – that ‘Ninety-nine per cent of the charts is R ‘n’ B and 99 per cent of that is soft pornography’ – for the mainstream to decide that the pornifcation of popular culture is worth talking about. Those working to end male violence against women have been pushing for the issue to be taken seriously, and the growing mother movement finally made the likes of Cameron deign to listen. Stock singled out Lady Gaga and Britney to blame for the ‘sexualisation’ of children. While pop stars and sexiness go hand in hand and Britney, like her Mickey Mouse Club peers Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, yawnsomely bang on about how much they’re into sex, it’s the wholesale way in which pop and rap music embrace the porn and sex industries, elevate the pimp and eroticise male sexual violence that makes it pornographic.

Lap-dancing and strip clubs have formed the backdrop to hip hop videos since Pharrell Williams rapped into a woman’s bottom in Lap-dance, Nelly swiped a credit card down a women’s arse crack in Tip Drill and Eminen showed lap-dancing was his accepted form of interacting with women in Ass Like That – so that hyper-masculine ‘stars’ flashing cash at tits and ass is the now normal visual language of hip hop. Then the pop pack jumped on the bandwagon, framing their samey, one-dimensional brand of sexuality and being in with the sex industry as cool and rebellious, just as hip hop stars frame their women-hating as rebellious (when in fact, along with their anti-gay rhetoric, it is deeply conservative.)

So Britney cast herself as a pole dancer in Gimme More, the Pussycat Dolls led the way in making stripper moves the must-have dance form, Kylie and Robbie Williams got the pole dancers in for Kids, Justin Timberlake and Nelly pimped it up with pornographer Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion in Work It, and 50 Cent visited a brothel in Candy Shop, [] where all the women, appear to be luxuriating in their prostitute status, naturally. What with Kate Moss doing her bit for the more arty, middle class crowd by pole-dancing for the White Stripes, the sex industry was officially the oh-so-hip wallpaper to pop culture.

In 2010, Katy Perry sells a far fluffier brand of sexuality (so hetero-male friendly as opposed to Gaga’s Look how subversive and challenging I am but you can still have your gratuitous nudity type) –you but it’s all the more insidious for it. In California Girls [] she gets naked for Snoop Dogg, the notorious former pimp and astoundingly misogynist lyricist. Snoop is also a pornographer – his contribution to the world includes a series of pornographic films called Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style. California Girls rolls out the predictable line-up of one pimp figure surrounded by a group of up-for-it hotties. Katy Perry is one of a long list of female pop stars doing Girl on Girl action, straight out of porn of course, and a firm favourite with lad mags. Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, Madonna snogged Britney, Gaga snogs a butch-lesbian who gropes her crotch in Telephone, Christina Aguilera shows she’ll do lesbo (with gimp masks and cat bowl-licking thrown in) in Not Myself Tonight [] – it’s all so terribly rebellious right now that everybody’s doing it.

As Ariel Levy demonstrated in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, when it comes to female sexuality for today’s girls and young women, it’s all about performance not pleasure. Being up for some pseudo-lesbian action for the lads, being a lap-dancer, a prostitute or a piece of ass among many for a pimp-like male star makes you officially hot. The sex industry is edgy and cool. Embracing it means you like sex. This view that pornography and the sex industry champion sexual liberation and freedom of speech is a tired old one, propagated by pornographers to silence any one who questioned their money-making off women’s backs. Because the porn and sex industry doesn’t care about men (porn addiction is the biggest cause of debt among men while therapists cite growing numbers of porn-addicted men unable to have relationships with women) any more than it cares about women (do porn stars get health insurance or better career prospects for doing gang bangs, double anal or triple penetration by three men or more?) Pur-lease, get with the programme, the porn industry cares about one thing – profit. And to make money, it must commodify sex.

The porn industry has been so successful at entering the mainstream because it has so successfully sold the lie that porn IS sex. And that if you don’t like it, you must be anti-sex. The porn industry is hijacking our sexualities. For men and women. Being anti-porn is the true pro-sex stance. The real rebels in pop would sing about how working in a strip club truly sucks, they’d rhyme about women exploring their sexuality by putting their own desires and pleasure before performance, they’d rap about how real men don’t use violence or need to feel sexual power over women, they’d rap about how much black women are worth as amazing human beings who do upteen things amazingly for black culture besides shake their booty.

While the sexualisation of children has rightly entered mainstream debate, women still don’t count. The narrow version of womanhood that pop spews out affects all women living in patriarchy. It affects how men see us, from not giving our input gravitas at work to one in three people believing a woman is responsible for violence committed against her if she is wearing ‘revealing clothing’. It affects men’s ideas about relationships, from expecting to ejaculate in our eyes on the first shag, to believing women deserve to be gang-raped if they hang out alone with a bunch of guys.

What do so many videos say about women’s worth? How has the negative and limited representation of black women in hip hop, hit by both racism and sexism, been allowed to continue with such ferocity? It is black men who cast their sisters as the highly sexualised, gold-diggin’ stereotype. Isn’t that a debate worth having too?  It seems not, because women, black or white, don’t count. Sexism doesn’t count. Damaging women’s worth in society doesn’t count. It’s only when children are at risk that sexism gets a look in. Like porn, pop music and other art forms are exempt from responsibility to protecting women from harm. Freedom of speech you see. As Richard Goldstein wrote of Eminem in the Village Voice, 2002, ‘At its hardcore, Eminem’s poetics is pornography and it is accorded the same privileges. Just as we’ve declared the XXX zone exempt from social thinking, we refuse to subject sexist rap to moral scrutiny. We crave a space free from the demands of equity, especially when it comes to women, whose rise has inspired much more ambivalence than most men are willing to admit.’

It was when 50 Cent teamed up with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland to make Ayo Technology [] rapping ‘She work it girl, she work the pole / I’ll be in this bitch til the club close’, with JT moaning ‘I’m tired of using technology, why don’t you sit down on top of me’ and grand pimp Timbaland appearing to manipulate the women from a control room, that many feminists like me noticed something else was going on. Pop’s biggest pin-up and hip hop ‘hero’ 50 Cent weren’t just normalising pole and lap dancing, they were saying that stalking women is sexy. They pointed sniper rifles at women and spied on them from their cars with binoculars. Funnily enough, the women were in their underwear and found it all very arousing. It’s a criminal offense to be a peeping tom, whatever the front page of The Sport and its upskirt shots might lead many men to believe. Stalking is a form of sexual violence that causes millions of women and girls lasting trauma each year.

But Justin Timberlake clearly has a thing for stalking. In Cry Me A River, [] he creeps around in his ex’s house, following her to the shower, then forcing her to watch a sex tape. Dance music, which has served up some of the most laughably gratuitous tits and ass over the last decade, got in on the stalking act with Uninvited, [] a hit by the Freemasons. The video featured a woman stalked by a shadowy aggressor as she got on with the obligatory bed writhing in a negligee. Her victim status is sexualised. Many female pop stars such as Nadine Coyle have talked about the stalking crimes against them, and Rihanna’s battering at the hands of her then boyfriend Chris Brown was lived out in public. Rihanna dumped her violent boyfriend and helped to bring domestic violence and teen relationship abuse into the spotlight. She teamed up with Eminem for Love The Way You Lie – featuring a controversial video and lyrics about domestic violence. [] Rihanna’s choice of collaborator got rich on lyrics like ‘Now shut the fuck up and get what’s coming to you. You were supposed to love me (Kim choking) NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!’  Rihanna sings, ‘stand there and watch me burn/But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts.’  Whatever the disagreements over the meaning behind the lyrics and video, all these videos are likely to be interpreted by many as women getting off on male sexual violence.

When voices in the mainstream talk about their concerns over the ‘sexualisation’ of children, they invariably mean girls. For feminists ‘sexualisation’ means being sexually objectified, it means commodifying female sexuality and it’s a concern because it feeds into rape culture.  But it is boys and men who are sexually abusing girls and women. They are the ones girls need protection from, not their own sexuality, as the term ‘sexualisation’ implies for some. What messages are boys and men getting about girls, women and sex, and what it means to be a man from their role models in hip hop? From the representation of women in pop? Why is teen relationship abuse and gang rape so prolific? Why is there a rape crisis? Why do juries think women asked for it all the time? It’s boys and men who are committing these crimes. Go to YouTube and watch Dispatches: Rape in the City. Listen to the young black men talk about linking. Listen to the young black guy who thinks a girl is ‘giving herself the opportunity to get raped’ if she goes to a house with more than one boy there.

Despite the mythmakers in pop and hip hop, the porn and sex industries are harmful to the women involved and the women not. It’s time the profitable myths were smashed and joe public understood how lap-dancing clubs, porn and prostitution are inextricably linked. Why consuming porn and visiting lap-dancing clubs makes you a john. It’s time it was widely recognised that 75% of women in prostitution started as children, children who were abused and became drug users, groomed or pimped into it, and over half have been raped or sexually assaulted. Object’s campaign to re-license lap-dancing clubs got lap-dancers testifying just how foul the ‘job’ is. But the media doesn’t like to hear from the lap dancers and women in hip hop videos who were abused, degraded and raped. And they usually don’t want to speak up about their misery. Object [] challenge sex object culture because it feeds into women being seen as less, which makes male violence against them easier. Their campaign work is based on the fact that most young people learn about sex and relationships through the media, and today that includes porn. The United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has repeatedly identified the links between the portrayal of women as sex objects by the media and sex industry with attitudes that underpin violence and discrimination against women.

The more porn informs pop culture, the more it affects boys and men, girls and women in the same way as porn. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, documents the difficulties male porn users have in forming close relationships with women, how they prefer porn sex to actual sex with a human being. Shouldn’t the debate about the sexualisation of children ask what about the boys who are likely to be violent in their relationships? Boys who buy into a hyper-masculine version of manhood and are essentially missing out on humanity. Meanwhile girls and women are expected to take violent practices routine in porn. The way girls and women they think about their bodies, their sexuality and their relationships is at stake. As Dines said in her interview with Julie Bindel, “Every group that has fought for liberation understands that media images are part and parcel of the systematic dehumanisation of an oppressed group . . . The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects. This has a terrible effect on girls’ sexual identity because it robs them of their own sexual desire.”

One thought on “The pornification of pop

  1. WOW-What an amazing piece of writing! I agree with everything you wrote! Couldn’t have said it better myself. I am absolutely shocked at the “music videos” I have seen on MTV. I am no prude-but I will never watch that channel again. All of these nightmarish videos are created at the woman’s expense. Ever see “Monster” by Kanye West. He claims his deplorable video is “art” when it is a misogynistic horror show. These men have no hearts. Don’t they love their sisters-Mothers-girlfriends..I am surprised any woman would want to be with them anyways. Pimps are now glamourized-it is officially the beginning of the end for women…


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