How 'What Do You Mean' Promotes Rape Culture

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30:  Justin Bieber performs onstage during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards held at Microsoft Theater
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: Justin Bieber performs onstage during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards held at Microsoft Theater on August 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

I'll be the first to admit -- albeit a bit sheepishly -- that I am a Justin Bieber fan. I saw him in concert when I was 15, in the days of "One Less Lonely Girl" and "Baby," but my true fandom hit all-time highs with "Boyfriend," and skyrocketed with "All That Matters." I've tried to deny it because he's admittedly a bit gross and would probably creep me out if I met him in person, but every time a new Bieber song comes out, I get addicted all over again and have to face the facts: I am a Belieber. So you can imagine my elation when I discovered that Bieber had released a new song, "What Do You Mean," that was not only popular, but the fastest single on record to reach #1 on iTunes. Obviously, I bought it immediately and got ready to be impressed.

Upon listening, however, my usual dance-crazed, Bieber-obsessed glee quickly dissipated as I tuned into the lyrics. With each verse, I felt a sense of uneasiness that I couldn't quite place. I itched in my skin at the connotation of Bieber's words, despite the uplifting and summery pop beat with which he sang them. The lyrics hit home in a way that made me uncomfortable, the way I'm sure they do for hundreds of other women: imagining -- or rather, remembering -- being in bed with a man and trying to say that you didn't want to go any further, but hearing the inevitable, surprised, and sometimes angry, "what do you mean?"

Like so many other billboard hits, the catchy pop beat carefully masks a much more unsettling message: that there is a sexual gray area of sorts, where a man can presume to know what a woman is thinking, despite what she says. The song which immediately comes to mind is "Blurred Lines," which was Billboard's #1 song of the summer in 2013 as well as the all-time most-downloaded track in the UK by April 2014, but was later slammed by the media as a "rape anthem" for it's sexually aggressive lyrics. For those who heard nothing of this, let me break it down. "Rape culture" is a term which describes the ways in which society victim-blames and normalizes sexual violence through the use of popular culture -- most often music and films. In the case of "Blurred Lines," Thicke's lyrics contributed to society's victim-blaming mentality by claiming that you can "know" a woman wants it, based on how she dresses or her (perceived) sexual actions.

Bieber's newest hit, for me at least, had a similar effect. "What do you mean, when you nod your head yes/ But you wanna say no?" Bieber croons in the chorus. "When you don't want me to move/ But you tell me to go." What does she mean when she tells you to go Justin? It sounds to me like she wants you to go, because that's exactly what she said. "What Do You Mean," like "Blurred Lines," points to a consensual ambiguity where a woman's partner takes interpretation into his own hands by presuming (incorrectly) to know what she's thinking -- even when she says otherwise. This can become incredibly dangerous when applied to sexual situations, where a "yes means yes" mentality is imperative: the lyrics perpetuate the idea that unwanted advances or sexual misperceptions are at the fault of the woman because she wasn't clear about her intentions or a man thought she wanted it because she couldn't "make up her mind."

What I found even more troubling than Bieber's unwarranted assumptions, however, was the last powerful line of each chorus: "Better make up your mind / what do you mean?" Something about the authoritative, commanding nature of the lyric just doesn't sit right with me, especially when coupled with "You're so confusing / be more straightforward" later in the song. Suddenly what could have been a genuine inquiry becomes a question that demands an immediate answer; he doesn't just wonder what she's thinking, he wants her to make up her mind now. Even the ticking-clock sound, which opens the song, lends to its sense of urgency. And for good measure, he tops it off with a little bit of criticism -- "you're so confusing" -- to speed up the process. These lyrics invoke an all-too-common situation in which a woman semi-consents to sex because she feels pressure from her partner to continue, such as being worried there's a time-limit on her decision, or that she will be disparaged for being a tease -- or as Bieber puts it, "indecisive." While it may seem harmless in an upbeat summer single, this pressure is a form of sexual coercion.

Here's the thing: when it comes to sex, things aren't always black and white. We're allowed to engage in some sexual activities, but not want to go any further. We're allowed to start having sex, and then decide to stop. We're allowed to sleep together sometimes but not want to other times. We're allowed to be indecisive. And moreover, we're allowed these rights without having to face pressure from our partners to immediately "make up our minds." So Bieber, if you still don't know what your girl means, let me give you this answer: you'll know she means "yes" when she explicitly says it.