American culture will sexualise anything in order to sell it to young people: cars, hamburgers, and for decades now, voting. In 1990, the awareness-raising non-profit Rock the Vote sought to bring youths to the polls with a TV spot featuring a flag-draped Madonna: “Doctor King, Malcolm X, freedom of speech is as good as sex,” she raps, before throwing open the stars ‘n’ stripes to reveal a red string bikini. The ad ended with a threat, or perhaps a promise, delivered in Madge’s trademark breathy lisp: “If you don’t vote, you’re gonna get a spanking!”
Thirty-two years later, with the 2022 midterm elections looming, these attempts to promote civic engagement have changed their medium but not their message. Youth voter turnout is still seen as a matter of national urgency — only half of people under 30 voted in the most recent presidential election — and multiple organisations are now attempting to follow the Rock the Vote model to lure them to the polls. This brings us to a slick music video entitled “No Voting, No Vucking”, which was released last week. In it, rappers Trina and Saucy Santana narrate the story of a young black woman who matches with a promising-looking man on the dating app BLK. There’s just one, critical red flag: he doesn’t vote!
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This relationship, per the video, is a non-starter: like the song says, no voting, no vucking. (At the risk of stating the obvious, the word “vucking” is phonetically indistinguishable from another, naughtier word.) This withholding — combined with plenty of no-holds-barred dancing — is enough to get the gentleman in question to change his ways. The song ends with an exchange of looks at the ballot box, then cuts to a shot of the awestruck man falling back on a bed, naked from the waist up.
Even by the standards of American raunch culture, this video is extraordinarily racy given the subject matter. (Consider the lyrics: “Don’t stop now, stuff my ballot box again.”) There is erotic cackling, lascivious lip-licking, gyrating bodies and sexual innuendo — but also whatever the opposite of innuendo is, as in the moment when Trina commands the listener to “gerrymander this coochie”, a turn of phrase that manages the remarkable twin achievements of being massively unsubtle while also making no sense. The fact that the audience cannot fail to get the message does not change the fact that the message is embarrassingly reductive.
Predictably, both the marketing of the video and the initial reaction to it focused on its racial (or, perhaps, racist) valences. On the Left, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams lamented the “outrageously insulting sense that this kind of childishness is the authentic way to reach black audiences with political messages”. He has a point: there seems to be an assumption within the awareness-raising machine about what drives black Americans to vote. In 2020, there was a “Get Your Booty to the Polls” campaign featuring scantily-clad strippers and a cringe play on words (polls = poles, get it?). Much has also been made by critics of an apparent partnership between the makers of “No Voting No Fucking” and When We All Vote, a get-out-the-vote organisation founded by Michelle Obama, although the nature of the relationship is unclear. (Within the BLK app, engaging with the video will take users to the When We All Vote registration portal, but the organisation released a statement denying that they were at all involved in its production.)
On the Right, meanwhile, Rod Dreher denounced the video as “filthy”: “There are no depths of depravity too low for progressives.” The video’s evident partisan leanings — implicit in the message is that the target audience will not just vote, but vote blue — also led to much griping about the impossibility of a Right-wing group ever creating a similar advertisement. It’s true that GOP attempts to reach young voters tend to be savaged by Dems for being clueless and, in any assortment of ways, bigoted; a Republican ad implying that black men need to be lured to the polls with promises of sex would almost certainly be met with outrage.
Ah, but wait: this is not depravity, the Left countered, but culture! In response to Dreher’s tweet, actor Wendell Pierce (one of President Obama’s top fundraisers in 2012) replied: “You must know that this message comes directly from the Greek comedy of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, where the woman of Greece refuse sexual intercourse with their husbands until they end their wars. No depravity here. Ancient story.”
With respect to Pierce, “depraved” actually seems like a good word to describe a society in which women could neither vote nor own property; this “ancient story” would have almost certainly worked out differently if the women of ancient Greece weren’t treated like second-class citizens by their government. And defending this trope on the grounds that it’s a classic elides the weirdness of its ubiquity in a society built on equal rights, where “No Voting, No Vucking” is not just an ancient construction but one in perpetual use by contemporary culture warriors. Lysistrata took place in a milieu in which sexual withholding was the last resort of women who would have killed for the kind of power today’s Western women enjoy, yet sex strikes remain an ever-present spectre in the American feminist political discourse, in a way that makes our British counterparts in their “Never Kissed a Tory” T-shirts seem almost quaint.
The notion of sex as a political weapon for Left-wing women has been prevalent for at least as long as the notion that Republicans, with their hostility to gender equality and reproductive freedom, are engaged in a War on Women. By this logic, women must necessarily be Democrats — and must also necessarily have the power (or perhaps the responsibility) to extort the votes of less-enlightened men by any means possible.
The call for political change via sexual blackmail had its most recent resurgence after the fall of Roe v. Wade. Outraged women vowing sex strikes caused “abstinence” to trend on Twitter (the irony of this was not lost on conservatives). But this was only the latest iteration of a conversation that has been a fixture of the landscape since at least 2010, when it took the form of earnest questions as to whether cross-political pairings were even possible — questions which have since been answered with increasingly shrill iterations of the word “no”. The message is abundantly clear: a good feminist does not sleep with Republicans, or date them. Is your boyfriend a Trump voter? Dump him. Your husband? Divorce him. This is a war, ladies: which side are you on?
For a group of people who ostensibly believe in female agency and empowerment, the feminists preaching political sex strikes seem to miss several key points. For one thing, sexually blackmailing men into the voting booth does not guarantee that they’ll pull the lever for your preferred party, a problem to which the “no vucking” video seems particularly oblivious. One of the most closely-watched midterm elections is the Georgia governor’s race, in which Democratic hopeful Stacey Abrams is beginning to flail due to a marked lack of support from black men, who prefer the (white, male) incumbent. And the longtime Left-wing belief that racial and ethnic minorities can be relied upon to vote blue by default is beginning to look like dangerous overconfidence: the party has been haemorrhaging Hispanic voters in states like Florida and Texas.
But more broadly, the women willing to abstain from sex on political grounds are vastly outnumbered by women who feel no compunction about schtupping Republicans — because they want to, because they don’t care about politics, or even because they’re Republicans themselves. And with Democrats now facing the consequences of their pandemic policies, which included closing schools and forcibly masking toddlers — policies which were deeply and disproportionately disruptive to the lives of women in Left-leaning areas — it’s hardly guaranteed that the majority of women will support Dems this year.
Meanwhile, despite the apparently widespread conviction that men can be led to the voting booth by the promise of sex, there are plenty of men for whom this sort of sexual manipulation is in itself a red flag. For every woman who has a personal policy of trying to sexually blackmail her partners into voting for her preferred candidate, there’s a guy whose personal policy is to avoid sleeping with self-advertised partisan lunatics — and the fragmentation of the dating landscape along party lines means that it’s only getting easier for people to match exclusively with those who share their political views. It’s not unusual for liberal users to filter matches by not just party affiliation but Covid vaccination status; meanwhile, Right-wing singles are gravitating to new apps designed just for conservatives. At some point, the question arises as to whether women passionately progressive enough to barter their bodies for their politics would even encounter Right-wing (or politically agnostic) men at all, let alone have the opportunity to sexually extort their votes.
But completely separate from being illogical, the calls for sex strikes — gendered as they are — are deeply and despicably sexist. This is something more than a gag T-shirt that says “WILL SUCK DICK FOR SOCIALISM”; it’s a slickly-produced political message that dresses up sexual quid pro quo as a form of feminist civic engagement. Here is a portrait of a world in which women are at once utterly Machiavellian yet completely neutered, in which sex is something they use but never desire, in which the physical act of love exists purely as a means to an end, and in which sexual availability is the ultimate (if not only) power a woman has in her arsenal. It’s a new riff on the old (and inane) notion that men have sex because they want sex, while women have sex because it helps them get something else: social status, a romantic commitment, a reassuring sense of their own desirability.
In this view, women are too something — smart, or cool, or elevated, or sophisticated — to feel anything so embarrassing as sexual desire, especially for that basest of creatures, the human male. In this view, in other words, women are not exactly people. That is, yes, an ancient story. But as a model for women’s lives in the year 2022, it’s not an especially good one.