When I first heard it on the car radio, I nearly hit a bus. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but whips and chains excite me”. “S&M”, by the Barbadian popstar, Rihanna, is a celebration of sexual sadism, in which she invites here lover to “give it to me strong”. Her video depicts life in a fetish bar where everyone is dressed in bondage gear and where the chanteuse whips the customers. She ends up literally hogtied and half naked saying how much she loves “sex in the air”.
Now, I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’m all for sexual openness, but I was astonished to learn that this was freely played, even on on BBC radio. Changed days – I remember when Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single “Relax” was banned by the BBC for a reference to coitus interruptus which was so oblique I hadn’t even noticed it. I’m even more astonished that parents haven’t been talking more about this supposedly playful invasion of sadistic bondage into the lives of young girls who learn these lyrics by heart. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to hear pre-teens inviting men to whip them, even if itis ‘ironic’..
Of course, some parents have complained about the sexualisation of children – of which S&M is only a particularly lurid example – like Reg Bailey of the Mothers Union, whose report , commissioned by David Cameron, is published tomorrow. It will recommend tightening up the 9pm watershed, placing age-ratings on music videos, easier blocking of internet porn and placing advertising with sexual imagery away from schools. Normally, I wouldn’t support content restrictions – largely because they’re likely to make much difference – but in the absence of any other ideas, I think parents will have to support them. I’m inclined to agree with David Cameron, when he says that “some businesses are dumping toxic waste on our children”. They need, at least, an umbrella.
Of course, sex is part of life, and children shouldn’t be protected from it as if there were something wrong about enjoying their bodies. We don’t want to go back to the days when sex was something that was only talked about behind the bike sheds. But how exactly to you discuss, in a mature and caring way, the merits of sado masochism with a twelve year old? The answer is – you don’t. You avoid it altogether, not just out of embarrassment, but because you don’t want to appear out of touch, living in the past, censorious and prudish.
Well, I don’t mind any more how I sound. This is not a celebration of human relationships but a vile and venal commercialisation of sex, which is robbing children of their birthright. Which is to discover and explore sexual relations in their own time and at their own pace, and not be assaulted by images of sexual extremism before their still-developing brains can process them. Early teenagers are only just discovering sexual feelings. To expose them to sado masochism isn’t liberal and broadminded, it is a form of sexual exploitation which should not be tolerated. And I don’t care if I sound like Mary Whitehouse.
What particularly offends me about all this, as a middle aged white man, is the hypocrisy and double standards in contemporary sexual culture. If I emailed a picture of a bondage scene to a colleague at work, I would be sacked and probably accused of sexual harassment. But there it is up on the screen in restaurants and bars and no one bats an eye. If I recorded a song about tying up women and whipping them, I would be excoriated, condemned for sanctioning the enslavement of women. But because Rihanna is female, somehow it’s edgy. Self expression.
Once again, if a teacher in school started giving playful lessons on bondage and latex, he or she would be out the door. So what is it, exactly, that makes these things ok so long as if they are part of a packaged commercial product that is sold over the media? These images are projected, 24/7 at young children through YouTube, MTV and any number of internet outlets. S&M is by no means unique. They watch videos like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” which is also saturated with disturbing pornographic imagery. And don’t start on rap music like 50 cent, Snoop Dog, Li’l Kim etc. which is blatanly pornographic
And yes, of course, pop music has always been about sex, ever since the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s spend the night together” forty five years ago. And parents have always been outraged by it. But something has changed in the last decade or so. The mainstream pop charts seem to be dominated today by black rap artists boasting about their sexual performance with their bitches and ho’s. Invariably, these guys strutt around “the club” dressed as pimps and drug dealers, talking about their doggy style and surrounded by scantily clad women role-playing as prostitutes. Even stars like Katy Perry and Ja Lo, in their latest videos, portray themselves willingly as sexual playthings offering themselves to some meat-headed rapper in black glasses and gold chains. Where did this come from?
Katy Perry’s video ET presents her as a kind of extra-terrestrial sex toy for a leering Kanye West, who drones on about how he doesn’t “don’t give a f***” because “Ima disrobe you, then I’ma probe you”. She sings: “Wanna be a victim, ready for abduction. Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison”. Really nice, Katy. And don’t think that just because it’s hard to make out the words that your kids don’t get the lyrics. They know exactly what is going on.
No, I don’t think it is possible simply to ban this stuff. How can you, when the internet is alive with lurid pornography as the click of a mouse. But it’s the lack of outrage that amazes me. Feminists used to demonstrate against Miss World contests, and their campaigning challenged the media portrayal of women as sexual objects. So why aren’t their daughters challenging the objectification of women in contemporary music videos? Our adult relations are policed by an oppressive correctness that sees almost any sexual allusion as a form of sexual harassment. Which treats men as potential paedophiles. Yet we allow the sexual grooming of children by a music industry motivated by commercial gain. This stuff is crack cocaine for the soul. It is f-ing offensive and we should f-ing say so.
And while I’m on the subject, Edinburgh Universtity Students Union would like me to point out that Shagtag, “Edinburgh’s best ever student night” is not run by them, as I suggested in my recent column on rape, but by Stereo Club. That’s meant to be ironic too.