The internet is awash with reaction to Cardi B’s new music video for her song Wet-Ass Pussy (WAP), known mainly by its radio ‘clean edit’ version Wet And Gushy. The reaction has largely been one of derision and dismissal though, predictably, the sex-positive left have gallantly made the case for women’s continued sexual exploitation under the guise of ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’.
Popular conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, exhibited the classic right-wing response by characterising these public displays of female sexuality as ‘untoward’ and ‘indecent’. Like all traditionalists, Shapiro is not repelled by the treatment of women as objects of male sexual pleasure per se. Instead, he is repelled by the public sexualisation of women. The bone of contention between conservatives and liberals is not whether women are the sexual property of men, but whether these women are considered private or public property. For Shapiro, women should only be privately sexualised, within marriage and the family. Like all conservative traditionalists, this is how the right-wing conceive of women as primarily private property — domestic servants and carers whose labour is to be consumed inside the home.
Shapiro is so disturbed by this affront to his paternalistic misogyny that he cannot even bring himself to say the word ‘pussy’. To do so would subvert the right-wing notion of women as private property to be consumed within the private sphere. Instead he opts for ‘the p-word’ in order to maintain a particular form of bourgeois politeness. Shapiro’s android-like behaviour — his total unease with female anatomy and crass, sexual imagery — aligns perfectly with the tropes often used by the left to denigrate the right. The ‘sex-positive’ left employ the stereotype of the conservative prude in order to create a false dichotomy between the right and left’s attitude towards sex. We are invited to view the right’s prohibitive approach to sexuality as regressive, old fashioned moralism. In comparison, we naturally reason that the left’s unbridled view of sexuality is progressive, positive and liberating…
Liberals — who scoff at Shapiro’s unease with the word ‘pussy’ — have no problem with the public sexualisation of women. WAP has been widely celebrated in the Guardian and by the left Twitterati. Of course, sex-positive liberals lack any critique of the dehumunisation that women are subjected to — particularly the hypersexualisation and fetishisation of black women. So why does the left have a gaping blindspot when it comes to understanding the public sexual degradation of women?
The liberal left rejects the traditionalist notion of women as the private property of individual men. Instead, they reimagine women as collective public property and as the private property of individual men. The best of both worlds, as it were. Therefore, public, sexualised images of women (such as those in the WAP video) pose no political problem for them. For liberals, women are commodities to be consumed in the public sphere through sexualised media, pornography and prostitution; but (like their conservative counterparts) they also require women to uphold the domestic status quo through cooking, cleaning and childrearing. Neither the left nor the right challenge the core capitalist ideologies which retain control of female reproductive labour. The sexual politics of these seemingly opposed groups are not so different after all.
Ironically, in treating women as public property for public consumption, the sex-positive left replicates 19th century bourgeois criticism of communism which Marx himself derides in Capital:
The bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.Capital Vol I
Evidently, the ‘progressive’ left have glossed over Marx’s declaration that we are to ‘do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production’. They paper over the ideological cracks in their narrative with the insistence that female sexual exploitation is fine if the women in question are consenting and willing.
The fact that it is women (Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion) reproducing the cultural discourse of male sexual dominance is used to shroud that WAP is a very classically patriarchal song. Women, of course, reproduce patriarchy (or it would fall apart), but liberal feminist approaches have confused the conversation around that by insisting that anything a woman does is a free ‘choice’ and somehow beyond reproach. Marketing feminism as ‘choice’ makes it palatable and so the sexual politics of capitalist society go unchallenged. Once again, neoliberalism uses the language of ‘choice’ as justification for its ruthless advancement.
Woke commentators also praise Wet-Ass Pussy as a celebration of women’s sexuality — thus betraying that their perception of female sexuality is shaped by the bourgeois conception of women as property. WAP’s depiction of women’s sexuality entirely serves the male fantasy and perpetuates the pornified notion that a woman’s sexual pleasure is derived from the sexual gratification of men — rather than from her own climax. In WAP, female sexuality is viewed through the lens of male sexual pleasure — an invitation to the imagined male listener/viewer.
Like the vast majority of contemporary media and pornography, WAP explicitly associates male sexuality with domination. It cements the ideological link between masculinity and sexual dominance; and femininity with sexual subservience. But beyond this, it encourages men to enter into sexual intimacy with a callous detachment, and encourages women to take pride in their ability to withstand emotionally-detached, aggressive treatment and contempt from their sexual partners. This warped, impersonal approach to sexual intimacy leads to alienation, both from oneself and each other. Women — complicit in their own objectification and dehumanisation — become alienated from themselves. Men, meanwhile, are increasingly directed to experience female sexuality as a commodity — an exchange completely devoid of human emotion beyond his own gratification. This impedes the development of interpersonal relationships between men and women, not only in individual romantic or sexual relationships, but also collectively. It is plain to see that the notion of male sexual dominance exists within ruling ideologies precisely to sow divisions and relegate women to their ‘natural’ position of sexual reproducer (mother) and domestic servant.
A closer examination of WAP’s lyrics is revealing. The language of violence is prevalent: ‘beat it up baby, catch a charge’ and ‘never lost a fight, but I’m looking for a beating’. This banalisation of violence against women comes directly from porn: ‘I wanna gag, I wanna choke’; ‘spit in my mouth’. Not only do these lyrics depict acts of willing female submission, but they also suggest that, by willingly submitting to pain and degradation, a woman holds sexual power — a paradoxical line of argument if ever there was one. Woman cannot be liberated as long as her existence is bound to her ability to inspire male desire.
None of the WAP lyrics are subversive — these are standard ways to flatter men sexually. The approval of his large penis; the indication that his penis is so large that it hurts; the implication that his raw, domineering, red-blooded virility cannot be restrained; the notion of great male strength and athleticism: all are topes which are frequently used to laud male sexual prowess. As sex has been increasingly commodified with the advent of internet pornography (today beamed into almost every household) the demands upon the porn market have become progressively more extreme, resulting in porn becoming more violent and the normalised use of sexually violent language in popular culture.
Violence against women (choking, spitting, hurting) is eroticised by men — and increasingly by women themselves. This universalism strongly indicates that these behaviours are ideologically encouraged. We must remember that all the media content that we consume is curated, produced, funded and managed directly or indirectly by the ruling class. Through various forms of media (TV, film, music, advertising) they reinforce the dominant ideological values which reproduce the conditions necessary for exploitation. Truly subversive ideas about sex and sexuality would never be allowed to see the light of day. The liberal notion of an ‘autonomous’ female sexuality which has developed separate from, in spite of, and/or impervious to socially constructed notions of male dominance and female submission is laughable.
The conversation around WAP reveals the left’s blind spot when it comes to women’s oppression. Of course, to acknowledge how women’s oppression is perpetuated (materially and ideologically) would necessitate criticism of how these power structures are replicated and upheld in personal relationships — an area of analysis that most are unwilling to stray into. The left often imagines itself as a collective of revolutionaries who desire a radical reordering of society; yet when a Marxist feminist analysis of women’s oppression calls for a radical reordering of personal, domestic, sexed relationships, the left balks — cries of ‘divisive!’ ring out. In reality, it is the sexist ideologies of the ruling class which divide us — not those of us who criticise them.
We must understand that reproductions of sexual hierarchies do not become ‘progressive’ as soon as women superficially consent to them; nor do they become ‘transgressive’ when women gain materially or financially from them. Whether it is men or women who uphold these hierarchies of male dominance, the effect is the same: women’s reproductive labour remains under the material and ideological control of the ruling class.
The left must develop a critical analysis of the sexed power dynamics which reproduce class society. If we develop a sound, Marxist understanding of women’s material and ideological oppression, we can begin to understand the economic forces which govern why successful female musicians like Cardi B has an Only Fans account, whilst Nick Cave or Tekashi 69 never will. Unless the left develops a Marxist theory of sexual politics, we cannot understand the role of sexual objectification in women’s oppression, and the way in which this maintains the gendered, social relations of capitalism.