The commodification of sex should never be celebrated
Media headlines have not been kind to Russell Brand this week. He has been “slammed” in the tabloids, “criticised” in the broadsheets, and accused of “mansplaining” by everyone from The Spectator to NME.
Unusually, the conservative Ben Shapiro and the Left-wing Russell Brand are in the doghouse for exactly the same offence. Both men have been critical of a new music video by the American rappers Cardi B and Megan Three Stallion titled ‘WAP’, a track that takes an already sexualised art form and ramps it to 11, so much so that it has been the subject of fevered worldwide media coverage since its release ten days ago.
An incredulous Shapiro read out the lyrics during last week’s episode of his Daily Wire show (his rendition is available, if you prefer, as a remix), condemning the track as “vulgar” and insisting that it is representative of “what the feminist movement is all about”, which is to say, by Shapiro’s reckoning, nothing good.
Brand’s take was quite different, although just as unpopular with fans of WAP. He suggested that the track and video were in fact anti-feminist. Noting the longstanding obsession in hip hop with hyper-sexualised and often degrading depictions of women, Brand asked a pertinent question “do women achieve equality by aspiring to and replicating the values that have been established by males?”
The clip that went viral on Twitter was just a couple of minutes long and didn’t include the most interesting part of Brand’s argument, in which he made an anti-capitalist point that deserves far more consideration than it has so far received. “That’s a product, what we’re looking at there” he said of the WAP video, and he’s quite right — this is a product that is not only hyper-sexual, but also hyper-capitalist, a fact that has been ignored by the other Leftist commentators who have been naively praising what was described in The Guardian as “an unabashed celebration of female sexuality.”
A strange kind of celebration, I must say. Even if we assume that the repeated use of the word “whore” is to be taken figuratively, not literally, there is plenty else in the track to suggest a transactional attitude towards sex. The male object of lust described in the lyrics is assessed according to two standards: the size of his “king cobra” and the size of his bank balance. “Pay my tuition” pleads Megan to this imagined man, who must “make it rain” if he wants her sexual favours. “Ask for a car” during sex, “spit on his mic” to secure a record deal, “let me tell you how I got this ring” — the sexual generosity described is all in service, not of female pleasure, but material gain. And, as Brand rightly observes, the aesthetic of the video is lifted straight from porn, an industry in which all sex is necessarily transactional.
Porn is to sex as McDonald’s is to food. These two capitalist enterprises take our natural appetites, pluck out the most compulsive and addictive elements, strip away anything truly nutritious, and then encourage us to consume more and more, beyond what our minds and bodies can handle. But while public and government pressure has forced McDonald’s to improve conditions for its workers and animals, the porn industry is subject to no such pressure, and so continues to act with flagrant cruelty, profiting from videos depicting torture, rape, and child abuse. Meanwhile, as Sarah Ditum observed recently in these pages, the anti-capitalists who ought to be leading the charge against this most exploitative of industries are nowhere to be seen.
Russell Brand has been widely condemned as a hypocrite for his criticism of WAP, given his own history of womanising and porn addiction — now, he insists, behind him. But in fact it is the Leftists who defend the sex industry who are the true hypocrites. Whatever his personal history, on this point, the anti-capitalist Brand is at least consistent: the commodification of sex should never be celebrated.