We could do worse than listen to what Beyonce has to say about sexuality

TIME to stop being coy in this age about the age of consent? Beyoncé’s new ‘visual’ album is, it has to be said, filthy. In a year that saw many public discussions on culture, sexually objectifying imagery, and sexual violence, it is fitting that the year ended with the release of this album.

In the same week as Beyoncé released her album, the final Cabinet meeing of the year tabled the Labour Party’s policy to lower the age of consent to align with ‘current social practices’, to quote Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. The Government could do worse than tune into the Beyoncé album if they wish to know more, for stamped across Beyoncé’s self-titled album, in every song and video are statements about current social practices for girls, for women, about sex, love, and gender.

Current social practice in Ireland is that the majority of children seeking support in Rape Crisis Centers in 2011 in Ireland are abused by someone they know, and 37% of them were abused by another child. Yet much current social practice is to coyly recast the rapes teenage boys commit against teenage girls as romantic, star-crossed love.

The fact is that, in our society, the older child is exceptionally vulnerable to sexual violence and that sexual violence is highly likely to be misunderstood, minimised, and denied. If we are serious about addressing this crisis then lowering the age of consent is altogether the wrong starting point.

Many of the conversations we have had in 2013 were about the ways the female body is objectified, sexualised, visual fodder in particular in pop culture. We have attempted to understand the impact of this phenomenon on young girls (rarely did we ask about the impact on boys). We went to uncomfortable places, yet one aspect we avoided talking about was, oddly enough, sexuality.

We all commented upon that Miley Cyrus twerking incident, how she stripped down and sexually objectified herself with a disinterested man almost twice her age, but we were too coy to discuss how the most uncomfortable part of it all may have been that she did it all so sexlessly.

Enter Beyoncé. In her new album, she takes on race, religion, poverty, misogyny, sexual objectification, and gender but, most of all, she takes on dehumanisation. Beyoncé takes up her position at the heart of one of the most powerful sources of misogynistic sexualisation, and pornographication — modern R&B — and radically simply tells us about her sexuality; raw, explicit, honest, erotic, complicated, holistic, pleasurable, fierce, delirious, fragile, hard, and altogether human.

To say Beyoncé’s album and its imagery is unashamedly sexual feels like a misrepresentation, since such utterings are normally associated with the anodyne misogynistic offerings of the music industry to which we have become inured. Instead, Beyoncé reclaims her sexuality for herself, and perhaps for all of us, in a way that exposes current norms of sexual explicitness as coy and gormless.

Beyoncé, in the video ‘Partition’, explores the erotic sexual fantasies of a woman; in the tender ‘No Angel’, she calls out the dehumanising impacts of poverty and gender with striking images of people all too often stereotyped and either dismissed or feared, and explores the possibility of love in hard places: “Underneath the pretty face is something complicated. I come with a set of trouble but I know that’s why you’re staying, because you are no angel either.”

In the fragile ‘Mine’, she reveals the strain motherhood put on her relationship; In ‘Rocket’, she puts all-but-extinct female sexual pleasure firmly back into the R&B frame.

And she also makes statements about the world in which girls are routinely objectified and diminished.

And throughout Beyoncé is in front of us in a way that would make a pornographer blush, with extreme close-ups which glory in her sexuality but also at times revealing un-airbrushed flaws.

Iin her arguably most political song, she calls out the infrastructure of the current social practices. In hijhab-wearing, midriff-baring, high heel-strutting, thigh-reverberating ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé eschews the patriarchy complicit shades of ‘girl power’, with its false dawn of nihilistic, individual empowerment without consideration for context.

Instead, she chooses ‘Superpower’ to talk about the “laws of the world … a subtle power” (read ‘current social practices’ here) where the revolution will be based on human connectedness, honesty and fragility: “Just like you I can be scared, just like you I hope I’m sparred, it’s tough love.”

Where are we having these conversations in Ireland? Unfortunately, much of our societal, structural, and leadership responses or lack thereof, to teen vulnerability is essentially coy. In Ireland, we have no mandatory sex education in secondary schools. Consent and relationship education is often treated as suspect, while status quo-complicit, victim-blaming safety lists for girls are seen as responsible interventions. There is no national prevalence study of children’s sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours because it was deemed unethical to ask children about the reality of their experiences as recently as 2005.

Where we do measure (adult) cultural knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of sex and sexual health, we are invariable coy about sexual violence.

The opposite of this coyness is to get serious about understanding the world our children are navigating and to do what we can to support, empower and protect them. To engage in this conversation, rather than lowering the age of consent which permits us to disengage further? If we are looking for some pointers and possible rape prevention, safety messages for young girls, they are on this album.

One example is where Jay Z, rap superstar and also Mr Beyoncé, who in the flagrantly erotic ‘Drunk in Love’ duet with his wife, identifies his key attribute as being, ‘Niceeeee.’ In today’s culture that’s a powerful anti-rape message and it’s one for the boys.

Yes, the age of consent is an arbitrary line but, given our current social practices, lowering it is untenable. Instead we must work together to make it redundant. It will be redundant when we have a society in which boys understand that being NICE is the coolest and sexiest thing, where equality is hot, and a female’s body is always her own.

To make that a reality, we need leadership and commitment, and for our education system to support and empower young people towards the possibility of experiencing not only safe but a self-defined and fulfilling sexuality, when and if they so choose.

In short, in the face of social realities we need a leadership that is less coy and more Beyoncé about sex!