A so-called feminist “sex strike” proposition is the kind of premium bait that causes a feeding frenzy for competitors in the Cyber Woke Olympics. When the proposition is uttered from the mouth of Janelle Monáe, the megawattage of the star in question is bright enough to blind us to nuance and lead us to click away.
The April issue of Marie Claire proclaims “The Future Is Female,” with five gorgeous actresses adorning the cover, including Monáe. According to the magazine, these five women “capture the spirit of the moment” — which is to say, Marie Claire is capitalizing on the embodiment of young sexy feminist activist intersectional millennial joie de vivre in order to sell more magazines. A similar aim to capture that spirit notoriously imploded in the face of Pepsi this past week. Luckily, Marie Claire, as a long-running women’s magazine, knows enough to not let #tonedeaf dominate its conversation, nor can I imagine someone as smart and talented as Monáe getting into a sticky situation similar to Kendall Jenner’s.
What did get a lot of attention from the cover article was Monáe’s interview in particular, after she declared, "People have to start respecting the vagina. Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”
You couldn’t have written a better pull quote to take out of context and use as a jumping-off point for reductive think pieces.
Most of the sites with a hand in the celeb news game, from People to HuffPo to The Hollywood Reporter, simply went for a clickbaity headline like “Janelle Monáe Has Endorsed a Sex Strike” or “Janelle Monáe Suggests Women Withhold Sex.” Blavity went as far as tweeting “@JanelleMonae thinks all women should stop having sex.”
This, to me, is the problem with our current outrage culture. Every statement made by a public figure is stripped of nuance, reduced to its ugliest form, and then picked apart for its ignorance or offense. We basically demand that any celebrity who dares discuss sensitive topics in an interview have a speechwriter handy at all times who can carefully craft their language to be inclusive yet inoffensive to all people.
Refinery29 quickly published a response piece titled “The Flaws in Janelle Monáe’s Plan to End Sexism,” chiding her for her heteronormative ideas and her lack of inclusivity of trans and gay people.
Of course, as we learn more about each other’s lived experiences, especially those of marginalized communities, we are learning how to shift our language to be more respectful and inclusive — which is a great thing! Especially profound is shifting our language to include all women when we speak of the feminine. That means remembering that not all women have a vagina, nor do all women have sex with men. But we must also remember that many women do have a vagina, and many women do have sex with men, and a cis, heteronormative woman’s experiences and words, like Monáe’s, are important and valid too.
Monáe is currently having a very It Girl moment following her crossover into movie stardom this past year. In both Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Monáe presented characters of strength, compassion, wisdom, and, most important, nuance and flaw.
I’ve adored Monáe since the release of her first album, The ArchAndroid, in 2010. Oh, that glorious first taste of her complex talent — she’s a shapeshifting pop queen who somehow married Afrofuturist funk, psych rock, rap, R&B, sweeping film scores, disco, and professional tuxedo-wearing to create a sci-fi android epic.
We allow for the complications and nuance when describing her indescribable, otherworldly talent in music and film, and yet we get all fired up when the human behind the talent makes a complicated statement about humans.
I don’t see Monáe’s words as actually calling for a sex strike, nor for sex to be used merely as a feminist tool. It’s a Modest Proposal type of hypothetical. Monáe seeks to comment on our current patriarchal and sexist society by way of making a hyperbolic, somewhat satirical statement.
I think she recognizes the reality of our world, a world where words used to describe a woman’s vagina are just about the worst slang in the English language. There’s no magic or divinity acknowledged when I hear terms like “axe-wound," "cum dumpster," or "stench-trench.” The patriarchy is alive and well if the nicest alternative word for vagina I can think of is “fuck hole.”
And though withholding sex is not the key to dismembering the patriarchy, I believe Monáe’s statement is highlighting the power of sex. Sex is a powerful experience. It can inspire people to go to great lengths and accomplish great things. It can also lead people to do many evil things. At a time when rape and sexual assault cases are finally getting media attention and criminal trials, we as a people are having those hard conversations about the power of sex. It would be childish to say that all sexual encounters happen for pure and simple reasons of attraction or love. Sex is powerful and sex is complicated. Sex can be a profession. Sex can be a group activity. Sex can be a transaction. Sex takes many varied forms.
In the interview, Monáe goes on to say, “I love men. But evil men? I will not tolerate that. You don't deserve to be in my presence. If you're going to own this world and this is how you're going to rule this world, I am not going to contribute anymore until you change it. We have to realize our power and our magic.”
In response to the Blavity tweet claiming “@JanelleMonae thinks all women should stop having sex,” the multihyphenate celeb tweeted back “I don’t think that, but I do get frustrated when women’s rights are trampled on and disregarded. And we must demand our agency. <3”
As much as we want to believe, Monáe is not the mythical android heroine of her own science fiction musical, nor is she actually the first black female engineer at NASA, nor the quiet yet compassionate surrogate mother of a young gay black boy. She’s a mere mortal, an earthling like the rest of us, though with an out-of-this-world talent. Her words, though they may not be the solution to misogyny we hoped for, are the authentic words from a human woman who sees the world clearly and has had enough of its patriarchal bullshit.
ERICA M. HART is a Los Angeles–based documentary director, shooter-producer, and editor working primarily in observational nonfiction. Her work often involves themes of social justice, feminism, sustainability, birth, and motherhood. Erica has lived and worked in L.A. since graduating from Northwestern University's radio/television/film program in 2010. She likes to laugh loudly, drink beer, and read books in the bathtub. She has two sons. They are both cats. Follow her on Twitter @Erica_M_Hart.