Unless you’re living under a rock that can’t connect to Spotify, you’ve likely heard the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion song “WAP,” or at least the discussion around it. It’s boastful and explicit in a way that’s consistent with a lot of rap music. But what’s made it so huge immediately following its release, and what opens it up to criticism from fearful men of all political inclinations, is how candid and explicit it is about female desire.
The first time I heard “WAP,” there were lines that made me gasp. On first listen you’re likely to raise your eyebrows, or even blush a little. It’s a song that Goes There. Even its name, taken from a line that’s repeated over and over, has to be shortened to an acronym in polite conversation. “WAP” is so explicit that cleaning it up for radio play feels nearly nonsensical. The censored title, “Wet and Gushy,” feels almost more graphic than the one it’s replacing. And so many words are removed from Cardi B’s second verse that it’s mostly just verbs: “I don’t wanna [redacted], I wanna [redacted] / I wanna [redacted], I wanna [redacted] / I want you to touch [redacted] that swing in the back of my [redacted] ...”
“WAP” never takes itself too seriously, and at times its exaggerations are trying to make you laugh. But it’s also a personal, thorough and incredibly detailed account of what sexual pleasure looks and feels like. That’s something we’re used to seeing and hearing from male artists, sure. But we very rarely see it from women — and clearly, it’s still subversive enough to freak a lot of people out.
Republican congressman James Bradley said the song is “what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure” and that he feels “sorry for future girls if this is their role model.” Former Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine claimed the song “set the entire female gender back by 100 years.” Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro theorized the physical response to pleasure the song describes may be bacterial vaginosis. (He got roasted on Twitter, naturally, for the apparent lack of that physical response in his own life.)
But it wasn’t just right-wing moralists who objected to “WAP.” Comedian Russell Brand, for some reason, weighed in to call the video “porn.” He said it couldn’t be liberating because it used a “template that had already been established by the former dominator,” in the same way that Margaret Thatcher is not a feminist icon “because the values that she extolled, espoused and conveyed were male values.”
The dubious comparison of “WAP” to Margaret Thatcher’s leadership aside, it’s a flawed hypothesis. As author and university lecturer Kate Lister pointed out, “the underlining premise” of Brand’s response is that enjoying sex is “exclusively for men” and “women couldn’t possibly enjoy that like they do.”
The consistent thread in all of the opposition to the song is that it’s too sexual. None of these people objected when Cardi B posed nude or when Megan Thee Stallion twerked on camera. Their sexuality wasn’t a problem when it was consumable, when their images were to there to be looked at. It crossed a line, apparently, when they became active participants: when they talked about what they liked in bed, or how it made them feel.
And of course, the fact that these are two women of colour being explicit about sex means they face even more criticism, much of it coded.
“Critiquing ‘WAP’ as degrading, dehumanizing art is a camouflage for critiquing Black womanhood as a problematic expression,” Brianna Holt wrote at Complex about the reaction to the song.
“Whether demonstration exists through the form of a protest with signs that read ‘My body, my choice’ or a colourful music video where Megan Thee Stallion is seen doing the splits in a tiger-print bodysuit, all women deserve to express their sexuality how they choose, without the criticism from others... Black women shaking their butts and describing their sex life in music is not what sets Black women back; it’s the people who justify harm toward us because of these actions.”
The whole thing is reminiscent of Bill O’Reilly slamming “Partition,” one of many stunning tracks from Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled 2013 album, and one that’s also about enjoying sex (albeit in a much less graphic way than “WAP”). According to O’Reilly, who has been accused of sexual harassment, “Partition” was irresponsible because “teenage girls look up to Beyoncé, particularly girls of colour,” and the song ignored the “devastation” of “unwanted pregnancies” and “fractured families.”
At the time the album was released, Beyoncé was married and had recently had her first child. By conservative pundit logic, being in a heterosexual marriage is essentially the only time sex is permitted. But to hear O’Reilly explain it, even a married mother enjoying sex with her husband was not okay. He framed female desire as dangerous, a force that could be destructive to society.
The idea that a song about women having pleasurable sex could be harmful to teenage girls is puzzling, even when it isn’t coming from a middle-aged man. Like a lot of art that’s clearly and specifically about sex, no, “WAP” and “Partition” aren’t appropriate for young kids.
But it’s actually really healthy to offer teenage girls a conversation about sex that’s squarely focused on their own pleasure. That’s something that was hard to find when I was a teenager in the early and mid-2000s. The charts were dominated by sexy virgins who bared metres of midriff and excessive cleavage but spoke about preserving their virginity, letting girls know it was important to be sexually desirable but not to actually have any desires themselves.
There was also the casual misogyny of the pop-punk and emo bands I loved, where women were casually referred to as “whores” and male singers who would later be revealed to have inappropriate relationships with underage fans fantasized about girlfriends who dumped them dying violently.
Sure, there was the odd exception. But songs that not only thought about an honest female perspective, let alone considered what female desire felt like, were few and far between. Growing up in a culture so heteronormatively focused on “pleasing your man,” teen girls could definitely benefit from more of that.
What’s new about “WAP” isn’t that it’s sexually graphic. There wasn’t a similar moral panic around The Weeknd’s “Initiation,” or Lil’ Wayne “Lollipop,” or George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” The fact that so many people are scandalized by “WAP” is a clear indication of just how much we need it.