the erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge. - audre lorde
Last summer, I was having drinks with some friends from school when they immediately recognized a song I had never heard with a punchy beat over sensual vocals playing overhead at the local bar.
You say you got a girl
And how you want me
How you want me when you got a girl?
The feelin' is reckless
Of knowin' you're selfish
Knowin' I'm desperate
My female friend affirmed how much she liked the song and album while my male friend rolled his eyes, snarling over how lame it was that females idolized her, dismissing her music as glorifying “side chicks”, and decrying how bizarre it was that her songs were becoming anthems for girls and women alike. I was perplexed by two things: my male friend’s extreme lack of empathy and his use of this derogative term “side chick”- the modern mistress. I was curious to understand what the song was and why, not only my female friend liked it but why I, too, was enamored after listening to the artist’s album for a week straight.
With her song, “The Weekend”, SZA, an American R&B singer and songwriter, expresses without apology the vulnerability mixed with the shame, guilt and excitement that comes with dating someone who is not exclusively hers. The man she sings about acts as a time-share between herself and two other women. Though her sentiments that the dynamic of the situation is “reckless”, the man “selfish” and she “desperate” resonate with several of its listeners, the people most connected today to the complexities of which she sings are twentysomething females trying to remain afloat in the world of modern dating. As a heterosexual female product of Generation Y, I felt a responsibility to identify the ties that millennial women have to millennial men and how those ties are becoming increasingly ambiguous and, dare I say, inconsequential. “You say you got a girl/ And how you want me” she states before she questions, herself, “How you want me when you got a girl?” SZA communicates what many females do in relationships that seem colored in rules and expectations alien to our own- she keeps her questions and her concerns to herself. Though, she continues the relationship with this man, “My man is my man is your man/Her, this her man too”: her choice, while counter to accepted traditional female roles, is congruent with modern dating trends where women inexplicably remain in relationships where they are not provided the love they want in exchange for some semblance of partnership. Though SZA’s choice to do what she wants how she wants with whom she wants can be perceived as sexually empowering, the feeling is two-fold as she remains emotionally wedged between the other females with whom she must share her man.
Upon further reflection and along with various conversations with female friends and older women in my life who reminded me that we women “live in a man’s world”- joined with the sentiments of SZA’s music; I feel that today many millennial women are not only acknowledging and living within their relational limitations, but doing so in an individualized, deliberate and unapologetic way. If the struggle central to women in a modern heterosexual relationship is to find space where she can exist physically if she knows that within a relationship she cannot exist emotionally, then perhaps having a sexual relationship is all she has in order to wield any power. Is SZA’s choice to participate in an affair, shared or undefined relationship empowering in a culture where women are beginning to lose their power to choose their partner?
The shift in modern dating trends has greatly altered the fabric of hetero-relationships, creating the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty within the millennial female. However, before diving into why the romantic climate of today is a tedious one for women, we must first understand the logistics of current trends. According to science writer and communications specialist, Elizabeth Landau’s article, “Commitment for Millennials: Is it okay, Cupid?” Millennials, ranging from ages 20-35, are less likely to get married in their twenties due in part to a rise in cultural individualism where finding happiness is not strictly predicated on having a partner. Additionally, pre-marital sex and casual sex as acceptable behavior has grown 58% by 2012. Landau discerns that the two main culprits for why Millennials are in a commitment slump are “choice overload” and “slow love". In other words, Millennials, both men and women alike, are fraught with more stuff: the indecision resulting from endless possible mates on dating apps and the gradual “slow” pace of dating due to fear of divorce. Perhaps SZA’s decision to date someone who dates other women is representative of “slow love” culture where patience might bring her to ultimately becoming the chosen one. Alternatively, SZA may stay involved because she loves this person thus why she deems her behavior “desperate”.
To understand female behavior in a heterosexual relationship, we must also understand the evolution of modern love and, a word that has become omnipresent in my research, desire. In her 2013 TED Talk, Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, muses to her audience the endless list of conflicting things we expect, want and need from our romantic partners as a modern riposte to sustained desire. Perel presents this paradox as being problematic because “the very ingredients that nurture love- mutuality, reciprocity, protection . . . stifle desire. Because desire comes with a host of feelings that are not such favorites of love: jealousy, possessiveness, aggression, power . . .”. If SZA’s relationship is built on desire, then it’s possible to discern that her feelings are fueled with negativity as suggested in her lyrics with words like “reckless” and “selfish”. Though, it is arguable that in order for desire to exist, love must exist which is possibly why in modern relationships there sits this paradoxical conflict. Because exclusive relationships are becoming increasingly passé, are women who participate in shared relationships mistaking desire for love? My friends feeling that SZA’s song glorified “side chicks” or women who choose to date men in ambiguous relationships begs the question: if a female’s relationship is predicated on sex and desire, why do men feel women should legitimize their behavior to society?
It is important to acknowledge the social complexity in which a heterosexual relationship dynamic exists in order to understand the profundity of a millennial woman’s choice to co-exist in a non-exclusive relationship. The central question is: can a middle-ground exist for the modern female in a society that pressures her to choose between being single or being in an exclusive and monogamous relationship? Patricia Collins meditates on this female predicament in her book, Black Feminist Thought, highlighting the heterosexism that exists within our culture to keep a female’s sexuality regulated by dividing women into "two categories—the asexual, moral women to be protected by marriage and their sexual, immoral counterparts—served as a gender template for constructing ideas about masculinity and femininity”. Here Collins illuminates the very pressures of women today, pressured to place somewhere on a sexual hierarchy where the binaries split women between those of “approved sexual expression” at the top and those with “deviant” sexuality placed at the bottom. Are twentysomething women relating to SZA because she, like them, is living at one end of the hierarchy but aspiring to reach the top? It is possible the deep underlying problem lies in the idea that being moral means monogamous and society’s blanketed understanding that all women want to be monogamous and should be monogamous.
Man is polygamous
Unlike SZA, the philosopher William James exhibited a lyrical but perhaps more direct expression of his matching of relationship preference to gender. This quatrain is quoted by Dr. David J. Ley, author of Why Women Stray, whose research suggests that “Female sexual biology seems to trend away from monogamy in several interesting ways. One way is the female orgasm itself.” The female orgasm transcends any one purpose with its major control coming from the female body’s power to choose which partner with whom to procreate. Like heterosexual men, heterosexual women experience higher pleasure with men who are not their primary partner and are driven to achieve orgasm with men who exhibit better genetic traits. This idea indicates that a single woman, like a single man, engaging in casual sexual behavior is capable of having pleasurable, fulfilling sex. “Female sexual desire is powerful, flexible, complex—and even subversive” states clinical psychologist, Noam Shpancer in his article, “What Do Women Want?” By highlighting the depth of female sexual desire and the female’s relationship to monogamy as a created ideal conceptualized by society, Shpancer introduces a fascinating paradox: unlike their hunter counterparts, promiscuity for women doesn’t promise any “evolutionary advantage”. Additionally, enough evidence suggests women place greater value on intimacy in relationships than men and physically are more prone to pregnancy, STDs, sexual violence and it is more difficult to orgasm; thus, logic tells us women are “bio-programmed” for sexual monogamy. Conversely, Shpancer argues that while intimacy and control are sought after on one hand, the feeling of being “uncontrollably desired, the object of raw, primal lust” exists logically on the other. The research of Shpancer and Ley suggest that a female’s desire and behavior, perhaps, personified by SZA in her song, is not all that dissimilar to men. Like the man she is involved with, SZA may very well enjoy the casual nature of her relationship and how it presents the ability to have other partners without guilt. However, it seems that society, even in the modern age, continues to place women in a role many identify as unnatural.
Examining the systematic ideological problems within a heterosexual relationship dynamic leads us to understand why women suffer in subordination. Why might a woman in a nontraditional relationship, like SZA, struggle to feel confident and secure in her chosen situation? “A man may have less power than his girlfriend or wife, but in the world beyond their relationship, he’s cushioned by a still-intact system of male privilege” concludes Laina Bay-Cheng, an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Buffalo. In the article, “Who wears the pants matters-especially if you’re a woman”, Bay-Cheng analyzes power imbalances within heterosexual relationships of men and women aged 18-25. After asking 59 women and 55 men to conduct a timeline of their relationships ranging from long-term to hook-ups, Cheng asked each person to rate various aspects of the relationships in terms of stability, intimacy and balance of power. What Cheng and her team found was that the idea of modern gender symmetry existed on the surface, and that both genders agreed that an egalitarian approach to a relationship would make for a better, stable relationship; however, based on ratings and descriptions, the women expressed a shift in their sense of stability and even safety when they felt they were the more subordinate of the two. What Cheng’s research tells us is that many women seek control and stability by way of intimacy and equality within a relationship. While it is possible to argue that SZA and the other women in the song share those sentiments, it is also possible that they are capable of co-existing within an open relationship dynamic because society has groomed them to be so emotionally self-sufficient that the only need left is the physical.
In The Uses of the Erotic, Audre Lord's 1978 response to second wave feminists debating the subject of pornography as an agent of continued female oppression, urges all women of any sexuality identity to access their inner power because, “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane”. Lorde argues the female erotic is not pornographic but our inner source of power and information- a part of being a woman which we have been taught to fear. What Lorde highlights in her essay is the idea that what makes us biologically and psychologically female is a power to own and embrace the source which is “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings”. By owning our sense of self, we prohibit men from making us feel inferior. By harnessing our personal power, our personal choices henceforth can only be seen as empowering. SZA’s song sounds like a “measure” of her erotic: she knows she has a line but she is pushing past it because of her desire for this man. SZA calls the man “selfish” but in her way, she too is selfish. It is selfish for her date a man who has other girlfriends, selfish to date a man she knows has her in his grip and makes her feel “desperate,” and selfish to be with someone where sex is their strongest arrangement- sex, which, can be shared with many people. Which makes me wonder if SZA is almost boasting about being woman enough to act like a modern man or did women set the standard? I find it informative that SZA wrote her college thesis about building a society of women who cut up men and used the works of Valerie Solanas as her inspiration. SZA was graded a C-: “that paper broke me”, SZA told Leonie Cooper in an interview with NME Magazine, “my teacher just didn’t want to hear that shit.” One must wonder if SZA’s music was somehow fueled and inspired by the bold radical ideas set forth by Solanas.
“The male claim that females find fulfillment through motherhood and sexuality reflects what males think they'd find fulfilling if they were female.” Radical feminist, Valerie Solanas, declares in her hyperbolic critique of patriarchal society, SCUM Manifesto. Solanas boldly expresses her outrage with males in 1968 and her strong opinions that men have “pussy envy” and get close to women to become a less “incomplete woman” which indicate two things: Solanas believes females are the superior gender but also that men are responsible for keeping women boxed into a world of needs that do not exist for every woman. Indeed, her statements are inflammatory but her words are colored with strife and anger of possibly many years feeling misunderstood. Based on the reaction from my male friend, I was led to believe he sees SZA as acting too masculine. I also believe that my male friend would have a similar reaction to the words of Valerie Solanas. To me, both Solanas and SZA embody the challenges of modern women because they are bold and authentic. Like Solanas, SZA’s music is impolite and unapologetic, which makes me believe they have accessed their inner erotic and are prepared to live a life where they can desire without fear.
What I gather from my research is that many twentysomething women, myself included, find themselves in a quandary. The rules that previously governed a woman’s role in heterosexual relationships no longer make sense. We are attracted to SZA and her music because she isn’t trying to be polite for the boys, trying to be together for the family, trying to be prettier and fitter than her girlfriends and trying to be better than her peers. Her words are an honest portrayal of a twentysomething female in a relationship with a man who will never empower her the way she can empower herself. But is sex the only tool she has to wield, and does assuming the caricature of the male gender role (desire without love, commitment or accountability) really convey the parity with men that she seeks? I don’t think so. What will empower her is to learn and know what she is owed in a world where modern dating does not tell women how important, beautiful and precious they are. We now understand our right to power. How do we make new rules for ourselves? Can a meaningful, fulfilling, responsible, non-crippling and productive middle-ground exist for the modern female in a society that pressures her to choose between being single or being in an exclusive and monogamous relationship? It will be a good question to ask when that song starts to play in the bar again.
Bay-Cheng, Laina. “Who wears the pants matters-especially for women.” The Conversation, April 9, 2017.
Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and The Politics of Empowerment. 1990. Routledge Classics. 2000, p. 134
Cooper, Leonie. “R&B’s dazzling new talent talks living in a commune and new album ‘Ctrl’’, NME, August 9, 2017
Fayne, Cody and SZA. “The Weekend.” Ctrl, RCA Records, 2017
Geni, Joseph. Presentation by Esther Perel. “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship.” TEDSalon NY2013, New York, February 2013, Conference Presentation.
James, William. “Hogamous, Higamous.” Linguistlist.org
Landau, Elizabeth. “Commitment for Millennials: Is it okay, Cupid?” Scientific American, February 8, 2016.
J. Ley, David. “Why Do Women Stray?” Psychology Today, July 29, 2010.
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outside. The Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1978.
Shpancer, Noam. “What Do Women Really Want?” Psychology Today. August 22, 2013.
Solanas, Valerie. “The Scum Manifesto” Tom Jennings, Jan 1994