The Beyoncé Dilemma
One of the most beautiful things I have seen in recent years is Beyoncé’s visual album, ‘Lemonade’. I can’t forget the image of Bey, standing by the ocean, motionless against the reflection of an afternoon sun:
The album is an artistic masterpiece which touches so many chords. The heartfelt vocals of Sandcastles, the stunning passion of Hold Up, the Southern charm of All Night — they are extraordinary productions of the human spirit.
I realize, of course, that Beyoncé is not universally popular. To some, she simply does not appeal artistically — they don’t like her voice or her choice of themes. But many others have a deep ambivalence about the way she deploys her body and her sexuality. Indeed, for some, she epitomizes the immoral publicizing of sexuality which has undermined marriage and family values in recent decades.
In 2014, Beyoncé came out with a music video for her new song, ‘Partition’. It is a song about sexual intimacy with her husband. Bill O’Reilly watched it and was appalled. It was “exploitative garbage,” he felt, showing that Beyoncé was heedless of the consequences of premarital sexual intimacy in teens — she cared more about the money which she knew the song would make. For O’Reilly and many others, Beyoncé’s artistic expression routinely disregards the influence she has on young men and young women. She glorifies sexuality, they feel, contributing to an unhealthy culture both by encouraging extramarital teen pregnancy and by confining women to traditional stereotypes as the sexual partners of men.
Beyoncé is not the only artist to provoke such reactions. But she is one of the most prominent. And I think she is generally well liked, other than the way she handles sexuality. So I wanted to start with her, to ask a question which I think troubles our society: How public should sexuality be?
I will call this the Beyoncé Dilemma.
Female Empowerment and Sexual Propriety
Much of the controversy over Beyoncé and similar artists centers on whether their use of sexy outfits and sexual themes empowers women or not. For some, breaking taboos of feminine modesty demonstrates that they are also willing to disregard cultural norms of women being quiet and undemanding. Others feel like a good friend of mine: “We’ve now gone into the territory of teaching that sex appeal is the most important attribute a woman can have. Or that if she doesn’t have that, everything else she does is useless.”
This state of affairs differs significantly from past Western societies. Female sexuality was rarely publicized, and at least in public, a woman was valued for tenderness, loyalty, or even intelligence — not for her ability to attract men. Now, Hollywood and big music labels often advertise the sexy bodies or voices of their big stars. Such appeal is often central to the success of an actress or artist.
On the other hand, it is hard to deny that there has historically been tension between sexual propriety and female empowerment: Western societies which were most concerned with sexual propriety have often been the least successful in empowering women. For many in the United States and Great Britain, this is typified by Victorian England. In that society, sexual boundaries were explicit and social consequences for crossing them were harsh; at the same time, women were often confined to home and children with few rights or privileges independent of their husbands. The link between the rights of women and societal prudishness is not always so strong, but history largely bears it out.
Thus, when a woman like Beyoncé publicly defies traditional norms of sexual propriety, she may reasonably see it as part of a larger fight for female empowerment. Subverting those norms may be a necessary part of removing the power that men traditionally had over their female counterparts.
Take, for example, the #MeToo movement. Some commentators have said that the behavior of men brought down by #MeToo was the inevitable consequence of the recent erosion of sexual morality. The sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, they say, made men think that no sexual behavior was off limits. But what if the connection is reversed? That is, perhaps some men have always behaved predatorily, but the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s empowered women to the point that they can finally publicly condemn such behavior. In other words, the loosening of strict sexual propriety may have enabled a #MeToo reckoning centuries or even millennia in the making.
Sexual Intimacy and the Sacred
Yet it is possible to take sexually explicit art too lightly. We all know that few experiences in life are so powerful or poignant as sexual intimacy, both for evil and for good. We severely punish the sexual molestation of children because the scars created by such abuse are often lifelong. The same applies to sexual assault as an adult. Fortunately, the reverse holds true as well — though most of us prefer to keep our sexually intimate experiences private, it is widely agreed that such experiences can be among the best in life.
Indeed, for many people, we keep such things private because they feel almost sacred. In my own faith tradition, the LDS Church, there is a beautiful 1988 speech by a current church leader describing this sacredness. The speech highlights the foolishness of taking sexual intimacy too lightly: “One toying with the God-given — and satanically coveted — body of another, toys with the very soul of that individual, toys with the central purpose and product of life.” And it continues with this beautiful phrase: “I submit to you that you will never be more like God at any other time in this life than when you are expressing that particular power [of creating human life].”
Our weak human bodies have the incomprehensible ability to create human life. And for some reason, that act (or actions which stimulate those feelings) are some of the most poignant of this life. Whether you believe in God or not, that fact is undeniable. It implies that we must be careful about taking sexually explicit art too lightly.
Sexual Intimacy and Joy
Still, there is another fact which works against privacy in sexuality: joy. Sexual intimacy is, for many people, among the most joyful and euphoric of experiences. And human beings love to share their joy — as a Swedish proverb says, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.” Thus to share the joy of sexual intimacy, through music or film or literature, seems a natural impulse. And to express one’s sexuality in dress or language is a way of referencing the powerful, joyful experiences which one has experienced or anticipates.
I don’t wish to say that we should share every joyful thing publicly. I don’t have to share my child’s accomplishments or my test scores even if they bring me great joy. Some joyful things are best kept and pondered in the heart. But the impulse to share them is not evil. The impulse is human, and joyful.
In Defense of Beyoncé
So we come back to that same question, this Beyoncé Dilemma: How public should sexuality be? Its sacredness and poignancy indicate that it should, to some extent, be kept private. Its joy indicates that it is appropriate, in some circumstances, to share.
Artists like Beyoncé carry their sharing of sexuality beyond the norms which were observed by our society for generations. But they do so, to my knowledge, in good faith. That tension between sexual propriety and female empowerment provides a serious incentive to break down some of the more restrictive norms of discussing sexuality in public. And the inspiration for sexually explicit art, at least many forms of it, is not exploitation or self-gratification or money but the desire to share the poignancy and joy of sexual intimacy.
Does such art cause increased teen pregnancy, as O’Reilly claimed, or does it disempower women more than empower them? Of course we have no way of measuring such things. Bill O’Reilly and Beyoncé and you and I must decide for ourselves, based on experience and judgment. But I can’t help defending Beyoncé. Perhaps there are points on which we would not agree. But the way she approaches her own sexuality as a positive, powerful force strikes me as healthy. In ‘Lemonade’, she sings of betrayal and heartache and forgiveness and love — and sex. It is part of a complete human life. And when properly balanced in that framework, it seems to me that there is a place for sexuality in the public sphere.