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Does Your Mother Know? – With great sexual power comes great sexual responsibility

June 19, 2015

But girl, you’re only a child… I can dance with you honey, if you think it’s funny, does your mother know that you’re out?”

Does Your Mother Know? is a song that is liked by many men who don’t especially like other ABBA songs. The reason is basic enough; many of the most famous ABBA songs are written and sung from a female perspective, including the ones about romance, love and sexuality. Does Your Mother Know? however, is certainly from the male perspective.

I don’t know how carefully your average man listens to the lyrics of this song, or thinks about them when he’s singing along, but let’s say he listens enough to have a general understanding of the lyrical meaning, which is not complicated. In that case, it’s possible that the underlying message of the song appeals to men as well.

The underlying message is knowing when to say no to a woman (or girl) when there is a good reason to do so. This is a sexually empowering message, but in the opposite direction to what we usually mean when we talk about sexual empowerment. In feminism, it is recognised that a woman has the right to express herself in terms of clothes or behaviour without it being assumed she is free to take by men for sex, but this doesn’t quite come under the umbrella of “empowerment”, which is more directly to do with using sexual indicators to remind people of women’s sexual desires and freedom. Furthermore, we don’t usually talk about empowerment of men, because we recognise that we continue to live under patriarchy and thus, men as the dominant culture don’t need empowering.

However, we should be careful to separate social power structures from individual perception of personal power. Whereas (white, straight) men in our society are certainly bestowed with myriad opportunities, entitlements and privileges that they may not be aware of, that is not to say that all men have an individual sense of their own power. This is a more fragile thing that is easily interfered with, or varies due to nature and nurture factors.

Personal power is what we strive towards more than societal power, because its effects are immediate and self-gratifying; being assertive enough to demand what you want is more likely to get it for you. Societal power creates conditions that increase the likelihood of personal power, but does not guarantee it. The result is that there is, and always has been, a significant proportion of men who react strongly and positively to demonstrations of pro-active displays of power and control by other men, hoping to emulate this for their own betterment.

This can be both positive and negative. On the one hand, the aggressive antics of Julien Blanc appeal to men who confuse bravado and bluster with genuine confidence. This approach wouldn’t be so influential if it wasn’t for the continuing perception that it is a man’s role to be assertive. We take cues from our peers – peers being people around our age, and people slightly older, whom we can identify with but still look up to as role models. Men’s attitude towards women and sexuality is affected by these pressures; usually applied by men, but women also contribute by constantly talking about sexually preferring the classical “strong” man. Hollywood also plays a part, representing men who are not assertive as weak losers, who only succeed in life when they learn to be assertive – in other words, to be a “real man.” Hollywood, and those who think like it, confuse “not aggressive” with “meek.” Meek people melt into the floor when spoken to. Non aggressive people can mingle in mixed sex groups without leering or launching themselves onto some unsuspecting object of their desire.

This veritable storm of propaganda in favour of alpha males causes a problem by providing its own conflict. If men have become the dominant culture because they are the more assertive, the same assertiveness makes them the people whose job it is to make sexual advances, as it is a job not for the faint of heart. But this is the wrong way round; the culture with the more social power should attempt to be less sexually assertive. Otherwise, the dominant will unintentionally use their dominance as an instrument of influence to coerce the less dominant into engaging in sexual activity. Hence the growing realisation that there is a distinct difference in comfort levels between men and women in environments conducive to sexual advances.

Does Your Mother Know is a song which expresses a sentiment directly contrary to the general attitudes put forward in popular media. Whereas most pop songs promote a culture of sexual assertiveness and its overwhelming positivity, this song gently and with a sense of fun instead advises caution, responsibility and consideration – all to be undertaken by men. This challenges the idea that it is a man’s job to be the determined accelerator of sexual encounters and a woman’s job to be the breaks.

As it currently stands, even the undeniably feminist drive towards free and easily available female contraceptives is built on an assumption that puts pressure solely on women; that men are reckless with sex and women must be cautious, because it is women that stand to lose most by mistakes made in haste. I consider this view to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it is thought that only women have the sense of maturity and responsibility to make control of sexual situations to make them safe, men are then liberated (if it can be called liberty) from the need to worry about it.

Whereas in theory it sounds idyllic to be freed from anxiety, in reality this causes more tension, because men and women then have to second guess each others’ intentions and behaviours. If I use a condom, will she think I think she’s dirty? Will I look presumptuous? If I offer him a condom, will he think I’m a slut? Will he agree to wear it? The upshot of this is that both parties ignore the whole situation and neither comes equipped with precautions against infections. Conversely, if everyone expected that it was everyone‘s responsibility to think of everything, responsibility is equally shared, which in turn empowers people to be assertive with decisions they know to be sensible. Songs like Does Your Mother Know appeals to the substantial number of men who consider themselves to be responsible, and don’t get on with the idea that leaping on people in reckless abandon is the way forward.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Uncle Ben, in Spiderman. One way to interpret this is that responsibility is power, or empowerment; knowing that you have the power to be the responsible party is a cornerstone of high self-esteem and resilience to pressure. What Does Your Mother Know shoes you is a man who knows that responsibility falls on him to turn down an offer of sex. Moreover, he does so against his initial instinct, yet still with ease, with courtesy, conscientiousness and sensitivity. He doesn’t say: “I don’t want no jailbait skank crackwhore bitch anyways.”

This is not a Mr Nice Guy song, either; by the same token “You’re so hot, teasing me… But I can’t take a chance on a chick like you,” is not an especially angelic utterance. This is song about regular guys, invoking not merely their right but their responsibility to say no to offers of sex, when to take such an offer would be inappropriate. This is one of a handful of forms of empowerment that does need to be given to men and not women, for the simple reason that it is the change in men that would best serve equality between men and women. Feminism is often about women changing themselves to gain, whereas actually men’s positive alterations to their own culture could have a vastly more effective result on women’s liberation.

At the moment, there is only one concept that closely resembles the Does Your Mother Know point of view, and it is now unpopular: chivalry. Particularly the abstention-based chivalry promoted by the conservative wing of the Abrahamic religions; ideas about averting your eyes from women’s flesh or hair until you are married, or that you debase your partner by having any kind of sexual entanglement with them that is not in a particular formation. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t go down well in secular societies which are enjoying increasing sexual liberation.

This has translated into the idea that not pursuing sex makes you uptight, including saying no when one ought to say no. This extends beyond sleeping with people who are under age, out towards people who are overly intoxicated, on the rebound or suffering from some other kind of upset or trauma. The perceived responsibility to say no has been so far eroded, that the right to say no has almost gone with it. The result of this is, at best, bad sex – at worst, encounters which lead one or both parties to feel guilty, ashamed, taken advantaged of or abused.

Male responsibility is the same as female responsibility. It is human, civil, social responsibility. It does not have to be overly-protective, possessive and patriarchal. The reason that male concern is often interpreted that way is because it is ill-directed; brothers, husbands, boyfriends and fathers can be seen to be intervening directly in the lives of their female loved ones in order to “protect” them. When asked “what from?” the answer comes “men”. The obvious objection here is that if men are the problem, men need to change – starting with said brothers, husbands, boyfriends and fathers.

I would like to see more recognition in popular culture that responsibility starts with oneself, for women and for men. Something like caring for children requires self-control, restraint and self-sacrifice on the part of parents, all internally focussed aspects of responsibility. Seasoned parents, who are typically older, generally understand this, but younger people can be helped to understand it as well, in different contexts more related to their every day lives. So let’s crack out the ABBA and dance the “Be Nice and say No” dance, equipped with a rubber duck, Johnny English style.


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