by Ness Fraser

I started out with a plan to write about the recent controversy caused by Rihanna’s S&M song and video, and how the world seems to be outraged that a woman is singing so frankly about sex. But the more I researched, the more I realized that the outrage surrounding Rihanna is only a small piece to a much larger puzzle.

Some people are pointing at Rihanna’s experience with domestic abuse and claiming that a survivor shouldn’t be singing about how much they enjoy to be rough in sexual situations. Of course, the first issue there is telling a survivor what they should or shouldn’t do. Secondly, the difference is that BDSM is consensual and domestic abuse is not. Whether or not Rihanna sings, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me” is largely irrelevant and incomparable to the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of Chris Brown.

As far as I’m concerned, Rihanna is a grown woman and can sing about whatever she likes — even when it comes to sex. From a feminist perspective, what worries me isn’t what’s going on in the video, or what she’s singing about, but rather that thousands of lyrics and videos that are just as graphic (if not worse) have been portrayed by men in hip-hop and largely ignored. Rapper 50 Cent proudly sang about how he was a “P.I.M.P.“– you know, someone who acts in a position of power over women, often forcing them to sell their bodies and then taking a cut of the money. More recently, Lil’ Wayne sings in his song 6 foot 7 that “two bitches at the same time/synchronized swimmers/ got the girl twisted ’cause she open when you twist her/never met the bitch, but I f-ck her like I missed her.”

Sex and sexual expression are both major themes in media—in hip hop and other music— but I have to wonder why it’s a big deal now. If Rihanna’s video is so inappropriate, then why haven’t we drawn the line for male-led videos that feature women in constantly submissive roles? Why is it more acceptable to view a female being sexual in a submissive role rather than a woman who is choosing to be dominanted and confidently sexual? And why is it scarier for a woman to be sexually empowered than it is for men to constantly call us “bitches,” “hoes,” and “sluts”? Because striving towards sexual equality—even in music— is one more step towards living in an egalitarian world. And like so many other facets of equality in mainstream media, we’re not quite there yet.