Decoding Sex in the Media: There are No Blurred Lines When it Comes to Consent
For many young people, Robin Thicke’s hit single "Blurred Lines" has become the anthem of the summer. Recently topping the Billboard Hot 100 list and rising to the position of most-downloaded song on iTunes, “Blurred Lines” seems to be thumping out of every stereo speaker on the planet. And for good reason -- it’s a very catchy song, with a strong beat and ostensibly fun lyrics. It also comes along with a controversial video full of naked women, which has no doubt amped up its notoriety. Like many artists before him, Thicke sings about a complex topic -- sex -- but he makes the mistake of ignoring a crucial underlying issue: consent.
Throughout the song, Thicke addresses a woman he perceives as a potential sex partner, continuously making assumptions about her sexual intentions. He sings that he’s “gon’ take [have sex with]” her, repeatedly insisting, “I know you want it”. (He also calls said woman a bitch, an animal, and refers to himself as pimping.)
In the middle of the chorus, Thicke seems confused, crooning, "But you’re a good girl,” a label often assigned to girls and women who choose not to engage in sexual activity. He then complains about “these blurred lines [unclear messages]”.
Now, this woman may indeed want to have sex with him, a desire which would not, in fact, make her any less of a "good" girl. Good people, including women, can and do certainly experience sexual desire and engage in sex. But apart from “The way you grab me”, which, as Thicke points out, is a vague message, he hasn’t received any clear indication that she wants to have sex with him. “I know you want it” does not constitute consent.
To know someone wants to engage in sex with us, for real, they've got to tell us. Clearly. If we're not sure and want to invite them to have sex with us? We've got to ask.
Consensual sex isn't something we "take" from someone else or they take from us: it's something where everyone involved is an active agent, doing something together, or, if you prefer, where everyone is giving and accepting, but no one is taking.
Thicke himself said of the song in GQ:
We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, 'We're the perfect guys to make fun of this." People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before.’
But this is just a song, right? It’s not sex ed. It’ll vanish from the pop culture radar in a few months, like any hit single, so why do we care what Robin Thicke sings about?
Because, believe it or not, these lyrics hold an enormous amount of power.
Hundreds of millions of young people listen to “Blurred Lines” on the radio, dance to it at parties, and sing along to it in the shower. How many of these people think critically about the lyrics? How many internalize, either consciously or subconsciously, the idea that consent is an irrelevant aspect of sex?
These questions concern me, both as a sex educator and, more importantly, as a high school student.
For the past two years, I have worked with Planned Parenthood to provide my peers with information about reproductive health. Although I’ve found that peer education is a hugely powerful tool in delivering this information, I also understand that no matter how much accurate, unbiased information sex educators offer, the media will always be the loudest voice in our ears. We constantly receive information about our own sexuality from a vast array of sources: billboards, movie theaters, radios, magazines, whether or not we consciously choose to.
As a sex educator, when I listen to songs like “Blurred Lines,” I recognize that media consumption is often a huge setback for young people when it comes to sexual health. But as a seventeen-year-old, I realize that there’s no way to totally get around it. I know that I don’t want to give up TV, or stop listening to popular music. Even if I tried, I probably couldn’t avoid pop culture altogether. So where do we go from here?
The only way to address this issue, to minimize the negative impact of the media on our lives, is to learn how to think critically about all of the information we consume. I realize that this may seem like a tedious task, but in reality, it’s an empowering way to study and challenge our society’s most deeply-rooted values: consent, apparently, is not one of them.
It’s important to remember, however, that media isn’t inherently bad nor all the same. Media provides us with information and entertainment. It helps create a sense of culture. Most importantly, it has the potential to educate us positively just as well as it can educate us negatively.
Although “Blurred Lines” falls short in the realm of healthy relationship education, a similarly fun and catchy song entitled “Jenny” shows us that consent can be sexy. Written by and performed by Walk the Moon, this song describes the beauty and appeal of a woman’s body, but assures Jenny that her consent will be respected. “I’m not gonna take it from you,” the lead singer croons, “I’ll let you give it to me.”
I have no doubt that if, as a generation, we take charge of our own education, learn to think critically about the media we consume, and recognize that “I’ll let you give it to me” is infinitely more valid than “I know you want it”, we will become smarter, more accountable, and more compassionate members of society who also happen to have healthier, happier and more mutually enjoyable sex lives, too.
Also: Check out this awesome parody song and video from J. Mary Burnet & Kaleigh Trace of Venus Envy, where the image on this page is from. While you're watching, see if you can't spot a surprise -- to us, anyway! -- Scarleteen cameo!