Purity Politics and the American Music Industry

Tomas Ortola

American ideals of sexual purity haunt the land more than people often realize. In the United States it is normal to shame and criticize women who are deemed to be overly sexual, while admiring those who show restraint in their sexual activity, the way they dress, the way they speak, and the way they behave. So too are women in the music industry marginalized. Female artists have received criticism for as little as wearing a tank top. Men receive an opposite treatment; they are pushed to be as sexually active as possible, and risk being humiliated if they fail to do so. Men are trained to engage in the “conquest” of women, creating difficult and sometimes dangerous situations for the women or sometimes all parties. By extension, men in the music industry often have to exhibit a hyper-sexualized image or avoid the topic at all costs. Their only other alternative is to inhabit the “gentleman” archetype, which both furthers the categorization and hierarchization of women based on their sexual purity and is based around a supposedly noble conquest of women. From all this one can gather that one thing is true: American society’s views on sexual purity create unjust gender-based standards for how musicians can present themselves to the public.

In Western countries sexual freedoms and gender politics are often touted as more developed than those in developing countries. However, while purity-related violence is certainly less prevalent in the United States, the values that drive it are still just as present. In Brazilian favelas, a woman’s premarital loss of virginity can lead to ostracization not only from their communities, but even eviction from the family home (Brown). In Guatemala the importance of virginity is such that a small percentage of women still endanger themselves by undergoing “a surgical procedure known as hymen reconstruction, to ensure they are seen as pure” (Roberts). Examples of such extreme situations are, in fact, harder to find in the context of the United States, yet it can be argued that while the social consequences incurred may be different, the values that drive them are the same, and the underlying issues far from mild. In the United States it is estimated that approximately one fifth of US college students will be the victims of rape or attempted rape, yet the reported numbers are much lower. Research on college campuses has uncovered a widespread fear of reporting rape, and it is believed to have to do with slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Slut-shaming involves shaming women who are labelled as “sluts” as a result of being engaged in casual sexual relations. Being labelled a “slut” is unfortunately not difficult, and can be the result of as little as one sexual encounter or even be based entirely on a woman’s wardrobe. “Sex is expected to be tied to love or emotion for women, and casual sexual activity suggests there is not an emotional connection driving the action” (Papp). This renders abstinent women to be seen as more virtuous, mature, and submissive, whereas more sexually active women are seen as impure, and more dangerously, the creators of their own sexual misfortunes. Victim-blaming involves blaming the victim of a sexually abusive situation/event/ encounter for their own abuse.

“I think if you see a girl that’s really drunk, and, like, you know, maybe going home with a guy or something, it is kinda easy to think, I mean “Well she did that” like, you know, “She drank that much,” so maybe just kinda let it happen, ’cause you think, “She did it.”… And not that that’s right, I just think that it’s easy to think that way.” (Cohan).
Women’s sexual activity in the US is still attached to the idea of purity much in the same way as Brazil and Guatemala, but the consequences are simply more verbal than physical or domestic (Hackman). In the music industry, a female performer’s sexuality is always scrutinized much in the same way, and artists will often be judged on their sexuality by the public.

Some performers decide to proudly reclaim their sexual freedoms by making it a part of their image. Beyoncé Knowles has been famously criticized for her stage attire over the course of her entire career, and not in the least by many in the feminist community itself. Many feminists believe that the sexuality of power-femme performers like Beyoncé is a way of giving away their power by restraining their value solely to the more sexualized aspects of their acts. As one controversial feminist figure put it, “why is sexual display part of the job? I might as well ask that question to a barmaid who says she doesn’t get any tips if she doesn’t show cleavage.” (Beaumont-Thomas). This criticism has long existed for power femmes like Beyoncé, and it goes beyond the wardrobe. With the same rationale people have criticized her lyrics, which often involve sexual topics both explicit and subliminal. In fact, most of Beyoncé’s content is in some way sexually charged. However, the way Beyoncé presents herself has not only garnered hate. Many feminists have praised her for violently breaking down American society’s standards of sexual purity in women. Beyoncé’s sexual attitudes directly attack the archetype of a virtuous, abstinent woman by replacing her with a powerful, sexually open woman (Tinsley). It is not the fact that she embraces sexuality in her content and presentation, but rather that she can achieve that while retaining an image of strength, power, and respect; a direct opposition to the tradition of slut-shaming discussed earlier.

However, it is not easy to establish such an image. Taylor Swift famously regrets going in the opposite direction in her pursuit of stardom and embracing the image of the sexually pure “good girl”. Swift was pushed both socially and by her business partners to present this image, later recounting that, “The main thing that I always tried to be was a good girl… I became the person who everyone wanted me to be.” (Wilson). In contrast to Beyoncé, her early lyrics go no further than handholding, maybe the occasional kiss. It is important to note that a lack of sexuality is not in itself the issue but that it was done out of a pressure to conform to a standard instead of by Swift’s own volition. “Throughout my whole career, label executives would just say, ‘A nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you.’ I became the person everyone wanted me to be.” (Wilson). This reveals another aspect of the purity politics of the U.S., wherein a pure, virtuous, woman also must be submissive, not causing too much disturbance.

Billie Eilish was famous upon her debut for wearing baggy clothes. The musician spoke publicly about her decision to keep her body away from the view of others to avoid the scrutiny that other female artists have faced in the past as has been discussed. Still, when photographs emerged of Eilish wearing a tank top and began circulating the internet, she had to make a stand for herself:

“My boobs were trending on Twitter! At number one! What is that?! Every outlet wrote about my boobs!” […] “I was born with fucking boobs, bro. I was born with DNA that was gonna give me big-ass boobs.” […] “Someone with smaller boobs could wear a tank top, and I could put on that exact tank top and get slut-shamed because my boobs are big. That is stupid.” (Bate)
What this uncovers is that even while trying to remain outside the circle of slut-shaming and toxic purity politics, Eilish was already being scrutinized, and was punished the minute she was found to have fallen out of line with her reserved image.

Lady Gaga’s example presents one of the most dangerous aspects of America’s views on sexual purity. When she was just 19, Lady Gaga was raped and left pregnant by a producer. It was a horribly traumatic experience for her, and she was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder years after. Gaga said this about her experience, “Because of the way that I dress, and the way that I’m provocative as a person, I thought that I had brought it on myself in some way”. (Owoseje) The social understanding of sexual abuse and purity are so toxic that even Gaga felt compelled to engage in her self-inflicted victim-blaming. Verbal abuse is easy to ignore even when it hurts us, but it is particularly difficult to hear that Gaga herself was led to believe her own rape was her fault because she did not present significant enough sexual restraint in her public appearances.

Men in American society are often pushed to engage in sexual situations by their peers. It is seen as a necessity that young men sexually debut in order to fully attain adulthood. This 18-year-old described it to his interviewer:

“I: And does he get—How do the other guys treat him?
R: Well, they don’t treat him bad. It’s like, they try to find girls that will have sex with him so that he can finally have sex [Int laughs] because it’s something that we all feel he needs to do, just because he’s the only one that hasn’t.” (Cohen)
A sexual debut for men often equates to an initiation ceremony for entering manhood, which comes with its own social benefits. “Virginity loss Provides proof that a boy belongs in his male fraternity” (Cohen). This toxic view of masculinity creates a dangerous cycle of the sexually aggressive man seeking out the aforementioned sexually repressed woman. There is a discourse of “conquest” in which women are “categorized, objectified, demonized, and marginalized rhetorically” (Cohen), via a goal-oriented approach towards heterosexual sexual activity with women. This manifests in two ways in the music industry. The first and most obvious is the sexualization of men. Men do not face the same criticisms as women when it comes to presenting a more sexual image. This contrast not only makes the content of male performers often more erotic, but more importantly it creates an industry wide push for toxic masculinity. Often these sexualized songs will engage in any or all of the aforementioned misconducts, categorizing, objectifying, demonizing, and marginalizing sexually active women. In “Gold Digger” by Kanye West, Kanye describes a story in which a woman supposedly enters relationships solely for monetary purposes, reinforcing the notion that a virtuous woman must engage only in emotionally motivated sexual activity, while simultaneously painting the entire fictitious premise as the fault of the woman for tricking the man into an impure relationship. Notably, there is no scrutiny of Kanye’s own sexual appetite in the song. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” contains a similar double standard, with violently sexist lyrics that present the man as composed and as “allowing” the woman in question to engage in sexual activity with them, while painting the woman as an untamed “animal” who somehow curiously simultaneously does not want any part in the engagement. Even with that barely subliminal implication of sexual assault, the song did not become infamous until one of the dancers in the music video accused Thicke of sexual assault (Mulligan).

The less overt effect of the conquest ideal is that of the “gentleman” archetype. In categorizing women, those viewed as more pure are favorable to those who are not, particularly if they are virgins:

“Within the conquest discourse, women are judged and valued first and foremost on the basis of their perceived suitability as sex partners. Categorization and objectification serve to sort them and document their value in this regard. […] ‘‘Nice girls’’ are suitable sex partners because they are believed to be clean or pure, meaning they have a limited sexual appetite and, therefore, are presumed to carry a low risk of transmitting an STD. In fact, they are often presumed to be virgins.” (Cohan)
The Gentleman archetype is born from this notion. A man who is selective on his romantic endeavors based on the sexual purity of the woman, linked with other traditional ideas about manhood and how men should present themselves. The Gentleman is presented as someone not preoccupied with the approaches of all but the women he deems worthy. These are always those women who embody the “good girl” archetype and thus fulfill the notion that sex is supposed to be tied exclusively to emotion for them. It also is common to see the “good girl” archetype be expressed as something rare or difficult to find, implying that most women are not “good”. Some examples include “99 problems” by Jay Z, in which he lists a multitude of issues from police brutality to gang violence and finishes by stating that of these problems “a bitch ain’t one” (Jay Z). By “bitch” Jay Z is referring to the archetype of the impure woman, sometimes manifested as the aforementioned “gold digger”.

The Gentleman is particularly popular in country music, and it contributes to the pressure for women to present themselves as “good girls”. Dustin Lynch, for example, sings in his song “Good Girl” about his significant other and wanting to marry them because they are a “good girl”. While this pales in comparison to the overt sexism in “Blurred Lines” there is a clear perpetration of the notions discussed earlier. The unnamed woman’s only requirement for Lynch to want to marry her seems to be that she be a “good girl”, given that apparently, he still can’t believe he found her. This implies the notion that the supposed “good girl” is a rare encounter, thus prompting her description by Lynch as “the kind of thing you gotta lock down” (Lynch). Aside from referring to the woman as a “thing”, the lyric is particularly problematic because it is another example of the complete removal of agency for the woman. The lock is strongly symbolic of a revoking of freedom, and the grammar of the phrase implies that this is something that is done to the woman, not as a mutual decision. While often presented as the honest, good man, The Gentleman does not see the woman as an equal. She is still held to the same double standards and scrutiny, just without the public belittlement.

The Gentleman subsequently makes his counterpart, the “good girl”, more popular, and thus perpetrates a cycle which can push performers like Taylor Swift to push that very archetype themselves. As discussed before, Swift reluctantly subscribed herself to the image of the “good girl” for years, and it is evident in her early work. As an emerging country singer her early music represents how in the industry even women have to perpetrate this ideal, because the music comes from the culture that funds that very music and it must thus reflect that culture if the artist wishes to make significant sales. “Bob Hope and Bing wouldn’t let their politics dent ticket sales 50 percent” (Wilson). Look at this lyric from one of her early songs, Love Story:
“Romeo save me
I’ve been feelin’ so alone
I keep waiting for you
But you never come
Is this in my head?
I don’t know what to think
He knelt to the ground
And pulled out a ring” (Swift, Love Story)
Swift is perfectly defining The Gentleman here. He must save her by offering his own love, it is not her choice but his. Furthermore, the symbolism of marriage is important. Sex within wedlock is not seen as impure as sex out of wedlock is, and thus the symbolism of marriage pushes the imagery of sexual purity further. On another song titled You Belong With Me, Swift presents herself as the archetypical “good girl” and argues that she deserves her love interest’s love more than another woman because she is more agreeable. The chorus is particularly relevant:
“But she wears high heels
I wear sneakers
She’s cheer captain
I’m on the bleachers
Dreaming about the day
When you wake up and find
That what you’re looking for
Has been here the whole time” (Swift, You Belong With Me)
Swift compares herself to the supposed less worthy girl by noting that she dresses more conservatively and is more reserved or shy, thus presenting herself as the sexually pure “good girl” and citing that she is the better romantic choice for this man due to these traits. It is also once again purely a choice the man can make, and she has no agency in the situation.

It is evident the ways in which American society views and polices sexual purity, and how that directly performers based on their gender. I should be noted that further discussion of this topic also reveals that within these issues lie homophobic and racist traditions as well, but that is not the scope of this paper. The American music industry holds unjust gender-based standards for how musicians can present themselves to the public based on American society’s views on sexual purity. While we are no longer burning women at the stake, it is clear we are still far from gender equality in the industry.

Works Cited

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