How do we talk about sex when we talk about sex?
One of the most common metaphors for sex is the commodity model, in which sex is guarded by women and men seek to obtain it using various strategies of seduction. Men “get some,” and women “give it up.” Sex is a prize at the end of “the game” that pick-up artists “play.” Like any commodity, a woman’s body is valuable the first time she has sex, and it declines in value as she has more sex. Under this model, rape is akin to a property crime: You’ve taken something away. It is also narrowly defined in that if a woman does not consent, but does not explicitly say no, it’s not considered rape. Under this model, women can be called cheap and slutty—their personhood is conflated with their bodies. Instead of both members gaining something from a mutual fulfilling relationship, the man gains the prize and the woman depreciates.
In an essay in “Yes Means Yes,” a wonderful book about female sexuality and rape, Thomas Macauley Miller proposes a “performance model” of sex, which I think makes a great deal more sense, and actually treats women as agents who also partake in sexual pleasure.
Unlike in the commodity model, under the performance model, women get better at sex the more they do it: “She gets better by learning, by playing a lot, by playing with different people who are better than she is … Her experience and proven talent are precisely why she is valued.”
The performance model is all about affirmative, enthusiastic participation. It’s about collaboration and mutual negotiation, not transaction. You don’t jam with someone who’s just standing there. Sometimes when you’re playing music, it doesn’t sound too good, so you stop and you talk about it with your partner(s), and you guys try to make it better for everyone involved.
There’s no right way to play music, and there’s no good music and bad music. Music is musical because someone enjoys playing it and listening to it and participating in it. No one would ever say that a duet between a piano and a violin is good, but that a duet between two violins goes against nature. Imagine if Julliard only recognized piano–violin pairs as duos. No one would ever say that classical is the only way to do it, or that genres like jazz and pop are abominations. It’s okay to play one instrument, or four, and if after 15 years of playing the flute you want to give the bassoon a shot, that’s okay too. There are unlimited ways to play, and all of them are equally legitimate as long as everyone is enjoying themselves.
No one complains about musicians being musically promiscuous, that after a certain number of performances with different people, you’re a “music slut.” Tickets to concerts don’t depreciate the more a band plays. Your musicality can’t be used up. The first time you play Chopin’s Nocturne in B minor is just as special as the fourth time, or the 15th.
The performance model changes our views on rape. You don’t make beautiful music with someone who doesn’t want to. Without enthusiastic consent, it’s not music; it’s just creepy. Just because you’ve played music with a lot of different people before doesn’t mean anyone is entitled to making music with you. Imagine kidnapping Yo-Yo Ma and forcing him into a cello duet, because he was clearly “asking for it?” And agreeing to play one genre of music doesn’t mean you’ve agreed to play any genre of music. Imagine trying to coax Katie Perry into playing the blues, or the Beatles into doing a cover of Justin Bieber. Imagine a duet between two singers, where one is interested in the music but the other one is just going along because she feels like it’s expected. Imagine one trumpet player complaining to another that they’ve been carpooling to band together for three months and it’s about time they got down to something more. Or aggressively assaulting professional musicians in the street, demanding mix tapes. It just doesn’t work. Each performance, each partner, is a new collaboration, a new work of art.
The commodity model is all about patriarchy and dominance and control over women’s bodies. The performance model gets rid of all that and emphasizes consent, and creativity and collaboration instead. The commodity model presumes that your body is not yours (if you are female), but rather something that can be sold and bought by men. The woman is a passive receptacle that is used repeatedly, worn like a sock or a sweater. In contrast, under a performance model, the woman is an active participant who can develop talents and enjoy the sexual process. The interpretation offered by the performance model is much more conducive of an enjoyable, mutually respectful act than that of the commodity model.
So what do you say we go play some sweet, sweet jazz?
Danica Liu is a Trinity junior.
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