Is pop culture implying consent to sexual violence?

By Lexie Guistwhite ’15, Hawk Staff

“I know you want it.” These lyrics from the summertime chart-topper by Robin Thicke aren’t just words in a song—they’re a painful reality for victims of sexual violence and a burning reminder of the past.

While the freedom of sexual expression for both women and men is a distinctive part of our current and ever evolving society, using that freedom to normalize sexual violence is not. The more casual and normal sexual objectification and aggression becomes in our culture, the less people understand what actually constitutes sexual violence. Thus, pop culture undermines the importance of sexual safety and distorts people’s understanding of sexual harassment.

The most recent example is the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. After “Blurred Lines” was released, various groups of people, including sexual assault assistance groups, spoke out against the song. The explicit version and music video features half-naked women and contains lyrics such as “I know you want it” and “Do it like it hurt / what you don’t like work?”

Project Unbreakable, a Tumblr founded in 2011, features images of sexual assault survivors holding up posters with quotes from their attackers. The website has featured over two thousand photographs and quotes, with many of the posters reading, “I know you want it.”

While some may argue that the “Blurred Lines” lyrics don’t refer to acts of sexual assault, others argue that the words are inherently implicit and that the lyrics with the beat of the music send an entirely different message than the words would without.

In the CBS Cleveland report, “Portrayals Of Abuse In Pop Culture And The Potentially Harmful Effects On Society,” Daniel Rappaport, sexual assault prevention coordinator at American University, said of Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” “As a culture, we all just listened to the lyrics and kept moving. That teaches generations above and below us that this is acceptable, that this is just the way it is.”

While “Blurred Lines” is not the first controversial song to hit mass media ,it pairs sexually offensive and violent lyrics with an appealing beat and sexually-charged video. And in doing so, people are accepting sexual violence as the evolving normalcy and casual nature of sex in popular culture.

“Everyone thinks what we see in music videos like ‘Blurred Lines’ is OK now and we can push the limits of consent,” stated April Saverese, ’15.

Saverese herself had a personal experience where the lines were unclear. She explained, “I met someone out one night, and when we went back to hang out at my apartment, things escalated quickly. He started saying things like ‘You’re my bad girl’ and ‘Tell me how bad you are.’ It certainly wasn’t what I was used to—or wanted. He made me extremely uncomfortable. At some points I wasn’t sure he was going to stop when I said no. I haven’t gone home with anyone I don’t know since [that experience]. It scarred me.”

Phyllis Anastasio, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University, explained her concerns with the modern media’s portrayal of women.

“There is a constant message that women and girls are valued only if they are sexual,” stated Anastasio. “But also, there is another constant message that media delivers: that men always want sex and cannot help themselves if they see something they want.”

“Note my deliberate usage of the word ‘something’ and not ‘someone.’ That is what happens when women are constantly seen in only one way—as sexual and not as beings in and of themselves,” added Anastasio.

It has been shown through decades of studies that dehumanization is the first step towards violence—sexual or any other kind. Dehumanization generates unrealistic perceptions in both men and women about gender, sex, and sexuality.

In his book, “Gender Advertisements,” sociologist Erving Goffman talks about the relationships between media and the portrayal of women’s bodies. Goffman says, “Women’s bodies are often dismembered and treated as separate parts, perpetuating the concept that a woman’s body is not connected to her mind and emotions.”

But the question now remains: do people, specifically men, imitate what they hear and see?

In an interview with the Center for Literacy’s Media & Values magazine, Neil Malamuth, Ph.D, professor and chairman of communication studies at UCLA, said, “The consumer of this material may never commit an aggressive act. But sexually violent material may affect other aspects of some individuals’ relationships with women.”

A study reported in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, titled, “Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs,” examined whether music videos would produce, in college-aged men, sexually aggressive attitudes, such as adversarial sexual beliefs (the perception that women use their bodies and sexuality to their advantage over men), acceptance of interpersonal violence in sexual relationships, negativity toward sexual harassment, and agreement with the rape myth.

The report stated, “The results showed that exposure to sexually objectifying music videos primed male college students’ adversarial sexual beliefs, acceptance of interpersonal violence, and, at a level of marginal significance, disbelief in the legitimacy of sexual harassment.”

But songs and music videos are not the only media sources receiving the heat for portraying sexual violence too casually.

An Ohio State University study, reported by CBS Cleveland, as previously mentioned, focused on the multiple instances of abuse that character Anastasia Steele suffers in E.L. James’ recently famous erotic novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Michigan State University professor and Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence member Amy Banomi, who ran the study, links character Christian Grey’s actions to real life sexual violence situations.

Banomi said, “Our analysis of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ showed pervasive emotional and sexual abuse in Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. The fact that the book has been the fastest-selling paperback of all time speaks to society’s tolerance of violence against women.”

So, if pop culture continues to make popular such simplified implications of sexual violence, will things continue to get worse? Most researchers and experts think yes—and Anastasio agrees.

“We become desensitized to constant sexual messages, and tolerant of them. [But] that does not mean that the messages are any less potent,” she said. “Actually, they become even more potent the less we are consciously aware of them.”

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