Over the last two decades, few music videos have hit mainstream television promoting sexual health. Everything from HIV to unplanned pregnancies has been a topic for pop culture discussion, but the framing around these issues often remains problematic for women. It’s easy to simply praise an artist for talking about sex outside of just pleasure. But it’s also important that artists create discourses that don’t simply rely on stereotypes or promote unrealistic solutions to the masses.
In 2006, Lyfe Jennings’ “S.E.X.” told the story of a 17-year-old girl going through puberty and coming into her sexuality. As her body developed and attracted male attention, Lyfe Jennings and songstress LaLa Brown warned the young woman to hold on to her innocence and not to have sex until she was ready. According to the song’s lyrics, there was a young man in her neighborhood who was pressuring her, and using the same tired line of “you’ll do it if you love me.” While this certainly is a reality for many young women, what about the others that want to have sex at an earlier age? It’s an old stereotype that young women are unwilling and uncapable of handling sex during youth. But the truth is that not every young woman wants or should have to pursue abstinence until she’s an adult. And while it may make adults uncomfortable, young people, both boys and girls, need to be informed about all of their options when it comes to sex, not just the ones that make adults sleep easier at night. That being said, why does the “think before you let it go” discourse always end up as a lecture for just young women? While Lyfe Jennings certainly deserves a pat on the back for making a “conscious” video, it would’ve been revolutionary if he actually geared his message to young men.
Speaking of gender dynamics, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” (1991) completely shocked the nation with sexually empowered women discussing various scenarios of female sexuality. The music video is filled with fun, flirtatious, sensual shots of the group, clearly indicating that they’re in touch with their sexuality and it’s acceptable for other women to feel the same. The song touches upon the century long conundrum of sex versus love, but it also discusses some of the consequences of unprotected sex. Unlike most contemporary music videos discussing sexual health, the group talked about herpes as a potential result of unsafe sex when a woman let’s a man get some without a condom.
On the flipside of a similar scenario, TLC’s “Waterfalls” (1994) provides an alternative gender discourse in which a man ends up with HIV as a result of his wife’s promiscuity. The video repositioned unprotected sex as more than simply man’s desire when his wife took the condom out of his hand. It reinforced that women have sexual agency, and sometimes make irresponsible decisions with their sexual health. In contrast to the contemporary discourse pushing the bisexual man as the culprit for heterosexual women’s HIV rates, it reaffirms that women also have the power to be promiscuous and are in control of the fate of their sexual health. The video also serves as a sexual health lesson to men, and not just another sermon to women.
Most recently, Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” (2011) music video brought a ton of controversy to television screens for its sexual health message to women. The video starts with a mother preparing to get an abortion on a table at a medical facility. But of course, it draws from a popular stereotype pushed by the Black pro-life community: there is a white male doctor and a white female doctor ready to perform the procedure. The mother chooses to not go through with the abortion, runs out the clinic, and then the scene cuts to a baby in a car seat with the mother on the floor being beat by her daughter’s father, a tragic circumstance for both mother and child.
After leaving her abusive boyfriend, the mother moves in with a new man who ends up making sexual advances to her pre-teen daughter. The video implies that the young girl ends up being molested as her mother sleeps, and thus, begins seeking sexual attention at an early age. She ends up getting a boyfriend in high school, and consequently, having two children. Of course, the relationship becomes dysfunctional, and she is left to find a way to financially support her children. She becomes a sex worker, and ends up with HIV as a result of her career.
In this first half of the video alone, the sexual health narrative once again revolves around young women and stereotypical scenarios when it comes to female sexuality. It’s the typical “baby mama drama” story of abuse, misfortune, and multigenerational dysfunction, once again implying that women are incapable of childrearing on their own. Instead of showing the original mother as a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman, it makes her relationship with men a dependency, and a catalyst for the calamities of her daughter’s life.
Of course, it’s admirable that the second half of the video cuts back to the original mother leaving her daughter’s abusive father, and instead of becoming involved with a child-molesting boyfriend, moving back in with her mother. This scenario exemplifies multigenerational support for younger parents, an important reality that many families face. The mother then marries a respectable stepfather, which leads to her daughter having a more stable life. The daughter doesn’t get involved with the young man who would have given her two children. But instead, she graduates from school as a beautician, ends up dating a more respectable young man, and in the end scene, she happily finds out that she’s pregnant with his child. Lil Wayne did a great service in presenting multiple depictions of men as good and bad fathers. But he did a great disservice in presenting women as incapable of raising strong, successful, healthy children without the help of a man.
When it comes to sexual health discourse in music videos, all of these artists’ expressions undeniably shape the conversations occurring across the nation. It’s great to see more music videos that attempt to serve as a form of activism, and not just another four minutes of eye candy. If art is supposed to be created for a purpose, these artists’ certainly deserve applause for intent. But it’s also important that viewers consume this content with a critical eye and converse about the multiple realities of sex, particularly related to women. Unfortunately, the playing field still isn’t level when it comes to gender and sexual empowerment. If only there were more Salt-N-Pepa’s in the world.
How do you feel about sexual health awareness depicted in the music videos above? Do any other videos come to mind that promote sexual health? Weigh in.