Friday, September 18, 2020

A Close and Personal Reading of the Cultural Narrative Surrounding WAP

In the summer of 2020, during a pandemic and a heated social and political climate, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released a banger that quickly became a cultural sensation. It was the banger we needed: a playful and humorous song about vaginal secretion. (I am two sentences in, and I think I've already made it unsexy. You can always count on an asexual to do that.) While it certainly has not become a favorite, I still appreciate WAP. I appreciate its chutzpah, and I appreciate that it openly discusses a basic, healthy function of the female assigned reproductive system.

Since the song's release, we have truly seen an infinite number of hot takes, and the one that has resonated with me most was an article in The New York Times called "The Glory (and the Taboo) of 'WAP'," written by gynecologist Jen Gunter. She explains that there is a lengthy history of misinformation that crosses cultures and religions, so she has had to inform many patients that vaginal lubrication is normal and healthy. WAP, this ubiquitous song about the glory of vaginal lubrication, will help correct our deeply rooted misunderstanding that a healthy vagina is a dry vagina. Gunter concludes: "I don’t think "WAP” is going to smash the patriarchy, replace sex education or end predatory feminine hygiene practices, but talking about it is an empowering next step." I agree, Jen Gunter! I enjoyed reading Gunter's measured and informative take, especially after seeing pithy one-liners on Twitter that either praised the song in an exaggerated way or used thinly veiled misogyny to criticize it.

Twitter is a nightmare for finding content from a month ago if you don't have the right keywords, so I literally cannot locate most of the tweets that I saw, but I remember there was one that said something to the effect of "I'm going to write in WAP for president." This is clearly meant to be humorous because a song cannot be president, but it is still an exaggerated claim about the song's power. On the flip side, I saw detractors like Ben Shapiro who called the song graphic and said that it is disempowering to women. These detractors are clearly afraid of female assigned anatomy as well as female sexuality, and I'm glad this song exists to freak them out. This is progress.

In addition to the posts praising the song and the posts enumerating its transgressions, I saw some dialogue between the two factions. Some discourse, if you will. And at the center of it all was Ben Shapiro. Before I took matters into my own hands and sought out the kinds of discussions that I wanted to see, like the article by Jen Gunter, most of what I heard in relation to the song was about Ben Shapiro. I heard again and again, in various colorful ways, that he humiliated himself by publicly sharing his thoughts on WAP. If you are unfamiliar with Shapiro, he is a conservative pundit with a huge platform. He is anti abortion and pro Israeli settlements in Palestine. However, you wouldn't know any of this from his recent scandal. I had to look up the actual substance of his views because all I learned from Twitter was that he does not inspire vaginal lubrication.

After reacting to the song's lyrics on his podcast on August 10, he uploaded a video to his YouTube channel with the same content, and it was such a success that he uploaded another video one week later sharing his reaction to the WAP music video. I refuse to watch these Shapiro videos because I do not want to give him more attention than I already am, but I've read enough responses to know that he reacted to the song the way you would expect a socially conservative person to react. As a result, everyone was talking about it. He went viral. There is an amusing contrast between the playful, audacious song and his stuffy, conservative viewpoint. It doesn't quite make me "laugh my 'd-word' off," but I get why it went viral. And I think it is all a bunch of bullshit. Shapiro's prudeness going viral exposed the worst of Twitter and perhaps also the worst of human nature. Allow me to explain.

On August 10, at 4:53 PM, Shapiro tweeted a direct response to the viral mocking, trying to set everyone straight: "Listen, guys. I fully explained on the show that it's misogynistic to question whether graphic depictions of 'wet-ass p****' is empowering for women. 'WAP' is obviously an incredibly profound statement of women's empowerment, a la Susan B. Anthony. As I also discussed on the show, my only real concern is that the women involved -- who apparently require a 'bucket and mop' -- get the medical care they require. My doctor wife's differential diagnosis: bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trichomonis." It is clear based on these tweets that this man is smug asshole who both lacks a sense of humor and an understanding of second through fourth wave feminism. That's why I find these tweets infuriating. (I have a degree in English, so I also have to throw in that he made a subject/verb agreement error.) The majority of Twitter users, on the other hand, took issue with these tweets for an entirely different reason, one that would not have even crossed my mind. 

As of the moment I am drafting this, Tuesday, September 15 at 8:32 PM, Shapiro's August 10 WAP thread has earned 9.1K likes, 7.9K quote tweets, and 1.3K retweets. The majority of the replies and quote tweets focus on Shapiro's claim that a WAP is something that requires medical attention. Folks have drawn the conclusion that he is unfamiliar with pussy wetness and is therefore both unattractive and very bad at sex. Twitter user @yosoysuede said, "JUST SAY YOU'VE NEVER MADE A WOMAN WET AND GO LMAO." @Morelola said, "I AM SCREAMING. Ben shapiro really just admitted to the whole internet that he's never made a woman wet." A couple of weeks later, Twitter user @4everNeverTrump tweeted at Shapiro and said, "Hey, remember when you admitted that your wife thinks you're terrible in bed?" He is clearly not going to live this down, at least not in the immediate future. 

I've only given you a small sampling of the quote tweets and replies, but I think you get the point. The rest of them are variations of this same idea: They all focus on Shapiro's sexual inadequacy. And I think it is worth interrogating why the Internet is so eager to point and laugh at him for allegedly admitting that he is bad at sex. I'm probably bad at sex too. I wouldn't know, but I can only assume. And I've never made a woman wet either, at least not to my knowledge. These are not skills that I value in myself or others. So I don't agree that everyone should care so goddamn much about Ben Shapiro's ability or inability to arouse his wife, but I understand why they do. I've thought long and hard (no pun intended) about this. While I do not have the stats on how many of these Twitter users are bots and how many are actual humans, this all makes sense to me. People piling onto a prominent media personality for his lack of sexual prowess? This tracks. 

In The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills, she argues that we tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on sexuality when trying to understand ourselves and others. We are taught to view our sexuality as a part of ourselves that reveals the essential truth of who we are. In a chapter called "You Are Not Your Sex Life," she says: "The Sex Myth teaches us that sex is a subject of almost otherworldly importance that matters not just for the pleasure and intimacy it can contribute to our lives but also for its status as a harbinger of 'truth,' a window into who each of us 'really' is." Using this logic, if Ben Shapiro cannot arouse or satisfy his wife, then that's it. That tells us who he really is: someone who cannot get the job done. Someone who disappoints those around him. Someone who is unequivocally ineffective. 

I also noticed that each person who tweets about Shapiro's dry pussy lifestyle is saying a lot about themselves by distancing themselves from him. By making fun of Shapiro for being shocked at the concept of a wet ass pussy, they are placing themselves in a superior position by implying that they are super familiar with vaginal lubrication and sexual arousal in general. They are saying that unlike Shapiro, they have no problem arousing sexual partners. And if we carry over the logic that Rachel Hills introduced, this sexual ability speaks to their intrinsic worth as a human being. This tells us who they really are: They get shit done. They achieve their goals. They are unequivocally effective.

On top of all of this, I would be remiss if I did not mention the cuck factor. In all of these criticisms of Shapiro because of his assumed inability to satisfy his wife, I do not sense genuine concern for his wife's well being. That's not what this is about; rather, it is about the emasculation of Ben Shapiro. Within heteronormative masculinity, some degree of sexual prowess is expected. A man must satisfy his female partner not because she deserves satisfaction and reciprocity but because if he doesn't provide that to her, she will find someone who will. And no man wants his woman to do that, because becoming a cuckold is the ultimate emasculation. The internet is rejoicing because Shapiro has revealed himself to be a prime candidate for cuckoldry. While his intention was to earn conservative cred by blasting an audacious song written and performed by women of color who express their talent and intelligence in ways that are not recognized by conservative institutions, he ended up undermining his own masculinity in the process, and the masculinity enforcement coalition on Twitter Dot Com made sure to inform him of this. 

Within our increasingly divided political climate in which lines are easily drawn and groups are easily distinguished from one another, it kind of fucked with my brain to see people using reasoning that I strongly disagree with to take down a conservative who I also strongly disagree with. Aren't I supposed to agree with people who oppose conservatives? Why don't I agree with them? What is this complexity? Why don't I love WAP, categorically oppose Ben Shapiro, and support the rest of the Shapiro opposition on Twitter? What in the hell is going on here? 

It has been a challenge to reconcile my reaction to WAP with my political affiliation, and I haven't even told you the worst of it. Thought I can talk about it in a measured, semi-objective way, will defend it when necessary, and do genuinely appreciate aspects of it, there is something about this song that bothers me. To use the language of my liberal snowflake brethren, I find it triggering, and the prude shaming of Ben Shapiro just added fuel to the fire.

I identify as a prude. I am doing my best to reclaim this term and strip it of its pejorative connotation, but back in the day, before I came out as asexual, I got it into my head from numerous sources that prudeness was not a feminist trait. Being a good feminist meant being sexually liberated, and there was only one way to do it. You had to own sex toys, have lots of great sex with lots of different people, masturbate often, and maybe even watch feminist porn. Looking back, it seems highly suspicious that I was presented with a narrow path to liberation and that I had such a specific conception of what liberation looked like. Doesn't quite sound liberatory in hindsight.

In my heterosexual days, I tried to get myself excited about things like vibrators and strip clubs. As you can imagine, it didn't quite work, but my preoccupation with sexual liberation did ultimately get me to where I needed to be. I started listening to the podcast Sex Nerd Sandra because I wanted to be the kind of cool girl who learned about sex in her spare time and was interested in sex and liked to talk about sex and also have lots of it. After a double feature about strippers, during which I tried to convince myself and also maybe told a couple of people I knew that I would enjoy going to a strip club, I listened to the episode about asexuality, and it literally changed my life. Not only did I stay home from the strip club, but I also came out as asexual in August of 2015. Since then, I have been unlearning this false idea of liberation and reconceptualizing it for myself. I am asexual, and I am a prude, and I am progressive, and I am liberated. These things do not contradict one another. 

I know that my experience might sound insane. It might sound like I was being held against my will under the stifling grip of militant feminists who force-fed me sex toys and porn. But the truth is simply that I consumed pop culture. It was songs like WAP, which have existed for quite some time now, that provided me with an understanding of the empowered woman I was supposed to be. It was blogs and fictional characters and media personalities. WAP is nothing new to me; I am deeply familiar with the type of womanhood that Cardi and Megan are performing in this song. They represent the heterosexual woman I wanted to be before I let myself off the hook and came out. 

In an interview on the podcast Just Between Us, journalist Angela Chen, who recently published a book about asexuality, provided a spot-on description of this archetype. She said: 

"I think that there's this really important, well-meaning message which is that women are shamed into not accessing their desires... And all of this is true, but I think it's kind of mutated into the idea that the only reason a woman would not enjoy sex is because she's a tool of the patriarchy, or she's self-repressed... And I think that does a disservice to a lot of people. Not just ace people; anyone who isn't super horny. You're always like, 'Oh, am I not in touch with my internal desires? Have I thrown off the chains of oppression?' And in pop culture, I think there's often this sense that if you have a lot of sex, if you use men, if you're horny, then you're bright and bold and fun and feminist."

I listened to this interview on August 20, during the height of WAP, and I really couldn't believe how relevant this discussion was. In their performance of WAP, Cardi and Megan embody this archetype: they are bright and bold and fun and feminist. They have released themselves from the shackles of modesty and demureness in order to speak openly about their genitals and the sexual activity in which they engage. This is what empowerment looks like, this is the very definition of fun, and critical comments are not permitted. If you critique it, not only will you be an outlier, but there is also a chance that thousands of people and/or bots on Twitter will attack you for being an uptight loser who is bad at sex.

In the Just Between Us interview, Chen goes on to explain that there is an opposite archetype. Those who don't love sex are conservative, prude, and backwards. I hate to say it because I do not otherwise identify with him, but in this whole WAP drama, Shapiro represents this archetype to me. And I guess I identify with this archetype. Sometimes I fear that people will view me this way if I tell them the truth about my relationship with sex, which is that it is not a part of my life. I fear that people will view me as conservative and backwards, rigid and uptight. My impulse is to defend people who are viewed this way, including Ben Shapiro, because it is a vast oversimplification of personality, and the theory behind it is that a person's relationship with sex is an essential part of who they are. Going back to Rachel Hills, the theory behind this archetype positions sex as "a subject of almost otherworldly importance."  

I find myself in an uncomfortable position within the WAP sociocultural landscape. I don't quite agree with its supporters, I definitely don't agree with its detractors, and the detractors of the detractors, aka the Twitter mob lobbing insults at Shapiro, make me want to launch myself into outer space. These Twitter people/bots truly make me feel despair about the state of the human race. (I have since stopped using the website.) 

When it comes to sex and sexuality, I spend a lot of time as an outlier. I don't even have a number on the Kinsey Scale! I am in Group X, the designation that Kinsey created for those outside of the scale. It sounds rather badass and would be a great band name, but the reality of being in Group X is not so glamorous. The reality is that I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I fit in. Sometimes there is a moment when it all clicks, like the moment I listened to that life-changing Sex Nerd Sandra episode, and sometimes there is not. Sometimes, I find myself staring at a sea of tweets in a state of disbelief over the way that everyone is behaving, wondering if this is real life or an episode of Black Mirror. Sometimes I find myself defending a conservative pundit's right to be a prude and not get disparaged for it. Liberals, let's disparage him for better things! If you really want to be sex positive, you've gotta support the prudes too.

I have a lot to say about WAP. I have a whole other essay in me. I didn't even get to the commodification of female sexuality that largely goes unquestioned and the role of coercion in the sexualization of female stars, which Kimberly Foster does a brilliant job of articulating in her video called "WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation." Actually, she does it better than I could, so it's best for me to stay in my lane here. You should just go watch the video, and you should also read Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex, which describes the social context in which WAP and its version of empowerment exists. 

A lot of women are attached to this song. They are attached to the idea of female sexual bravado as empowerment, I guess. I've never disagreed with so many of my friends on an issue, and I am not accustomed to having such a controversial opinion. A stranger on Bumble BFF even unmatched me after I shared some of my thoughts about the song! I knew we disagreed and was curious to hear her point of view, but she shut down the whole conversation. 

We need room for nuance here. WAP is not all good, and it is not all bad. We should not write it in for president, and it will not bring about the downfall of our society. The truth is that it a song that two very smart businesswomen wrote as a part of their job. We should care about it and we should talk about it because pop culture matters, but it is not a grand statement about womanhood, and it is not introducing new ideas about how women can or should be. The fun, bold, sexy, feminist archetype has existed for a while now, and she is the reason why I spent a significant amount of time researching vibrators and learning the names of feminist porn directors in 2014.

I don't think that this sort of depiction of women is categorically bad, but it can be harmful if it is the only option provided. And I think it becomes the only option when people who respond negatively to it are shamed and written off, hence my staunch opposition to the anti-Shapiro Twitter mob. We should oppose Shapiro for the substance of his views, not his level of sexual attractiveness or capability. This is a misguided knee-jerk reaction based on our culture's overvaluing of sex. People, including those who are dead wrong, should not face a chorus of juvenile, prude-shaming insults when they express their views. This doesn't add much to the conversation. Also, in the case of Shapiro, these insults do not end up hurting him. I have no doubt that he does not give a single shit. However, I will say that they hurt me. Seeing this outpouring of prude-shaming tweets made me feel like there was less space in the world for people like me. For a moment, I again felt pushed toward the fun, bold, sexy feminist archetype that I left behind in 2015.

In the end, I guess all of this is good for business. Cardi and Megan wrote a song that hit number 1 on the Billboard charts, and Shapiro is getting some great visibility out of this. It is up to them to build their brand and make a living, and it is up to us to decide which ideas we let shape our lives and our society. In her video, Kimberly Foster expresses a desire for representations of women that reflect the "fullness of our beings." It is sad that I literally cannot imagine what this would look like, but it is also motivating. We can accept WAP as a pop song and support the careers of two massively successful female rappers, but I personally do not accept this as empowerment. I think we can do better. 

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