Sex, Miley Cyrus, Amanda Palmer & Me

Let’s talk about sex and women’s liberation. Sex is undeniably part of because we’re human… and half of us, as a result of unplanned sex but well-planned biology, are girls.

If you haven’t seen it yet, join the hundreds of millions who loved watching Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ video. If you’re unlike them, and vomit tickles your tongue, you still have to watch it because it’s one reason for much to come:

The world’s gotten far too serious with itself (and sensitive to itself) which sometimes makes me aim for levity. The constant war between the sexes begs being made fun of.  Earlier this week, after a night of mosquito attacks, I ended a status update on the Love Knysna Facebook page with a dilemma laugh:

1. A Mosquito landed on my wife’s face….easiest decision of my life.
2. A mosquito landed on my balls…hardest decision of my life.

Most took it in the light humour intended but one female subscriber took offense, deciding that i was promoting violence against women and was blinded to their plight by my ‘privilege’ of being male. Ironically, I’m a sensitive male. I’ve taught myself to be brave in situations but there’s still the little boy in me that felt hurt because, despite all I’ve written and enacted, someone accused me of exactly what I’m against.

My father was one of eight kids, my mother one of seven. Yep, poor people had sex as far back as then. Like their parents, it was something for the kids to do too (yes, moms and dads, kids still have sex). I don’t know when my mother started but she got pregnant with my sister at 17 years of age. In contrast, religion ruled our lives like a sex swatter. I remember my 13-year old sister getting a hiding for what may have been her first kiss.  She, like me, got banned from her Matric dance. She, unlike me, obeyed.

Sometimes it’s not nature versus nurture but rather them working hand in hand. I was a questioner at a young age. There was no duality between our large family (I can’t count how many aunts, uncles and cousins) and religion. There was no sense in god’s or my mother’s “because i said so” because sense demanded reasoning. At age 12, the religious education teacher, the one who often never wore panties and sat with her legs open (so that young boys would drop pencils) got so exasperated when she failed to answer my queries that she called me, after my surname, ‘Negative Hampton’, a nickname that stuck among my friends for several years.

Miley Cyrus sex

Suffice to say, by the time I left school i was still a virgin, full of questions and, more importantly, confused about the opposite sex who’d been banned during my childhood. But writing poetry and hanging out in the rock scene helped me find myself and girls. Living near Addington Hospital on South Beach in Durban meant that a lot of nurses became my friends which was good for me because they were more open (topics not legs) which helped me understand women a lot better. Over a decade later, I somehow found myself mostly in the company of  lesbians and even managed, for a short while, what could, in one sense, be called a women’s liberation band. Fox Fyre were folk rock but i called them fem rock. Their song, ‘Jane Doe’, began with:

“I love how you break me. And I love how you take me. And I love how you shape me..again. I  love how you fuck me. And I love how you touch me. And I love how you take me in.”

Those words would make a radical women’s libber cringe. It sounds as if a woman is submitting herself to a man. I have no qualms with anyone submitting to whoever they want but, as a point, it’s about context i.e. the song is about predators in the lesbian scene praying on newcomers who’ve yet to find themselves.

And that’s where women’s liberation often gets it wrong. I’m not talking about women fighting to stop slavery, acid attacks, genital mutilation, nose cuttings and army rapes (applaud those as loud as you can!!!). I’m talking about those women who’ve (sometimes) been damaged and use situations out of context so as to promote misguided justice that runs to close to hate against men.

It’s hard to separate women’s lib from sex. Sex has always been abused, revered and loved. Sex got us to the top of the species chain. Sex is as human as it gets yet society has decided, in such an unnatural manner, when it’s okay and, more often, when it’s wrong.

Society could be partly defined as the medium, the middle, the compromise. But people, whether by nature or nurture, don’t live in between so they’re forced to hide who they are. The degree to which all people are dominants and submissives will govern their lives. Hiding generates shame and guilt which is counter-productive to being a happy human being which should be the holy grail of our short existence. Happy people make more people happy.

Women’s liberation went wrong when it thought that a bunch of women had the right to choose what other women should do i.e. feminism became chauvinism. Instead, women’s liberation should be the right to choose for yourself. There’s no wrong decision if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone. The right to be a priest or a porn star or a Miley-on-a-wrecking-ball is simply a choice. Your choice.

You also have the choice to make fun of it (this video is hilarious).

Spurring this blog was not only my Facebook commentator but the outcry over Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ and the consequent letters from superstars (which I share further down).

Miley, like much of the Walt Disney brigade, used sexuality to shrug off the sweet child image the corporates made for her (so that they could make tons of cash). Discovering one’s sexuality is absolutely human but when it’s watched under a media microscope it’s bound to attract opposites, fans and crazies…and organisations, like messiahs, representing family planning, churches and women’s libbers.

I never lasted 5 minutes watching the crap that was Hannah Montana. If anything, it was proof that the media and big money can twist society into supporting what it wants. When scantily clad photos of Miley Cyrus began filling the internet, I never gave it much thought. Then the hoo-ha over the ‘Wrecking Ball’ vid began…and never stopped so I went to check it out. Hell, on one channel alone it’d been viewed 188 million times. And I was impressed. Which is amazing consideringIi’m not big into pop, repetitive video footage, licking chains or Miley. But, hells bells, if any man says that that’s not sexy then he’s lying. Because it’s sexy, it’s caused a riot.

Enter the superstars…and I hope that you all, particularly, watch the Amanda Palmer video that’s coming up (and listen to the lyrics)…

Miley Cyrus:

Miley told Rolling Stone that she’d used Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compare to U’ video as inspiration for the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video. Sinéad, not only a famous singer but a firm believer in women’s rights, felt that Miley was misguided and so wrote her a letter of advice. Then Amanda Palmer, an independent musicians whose an inspiration to many women for, among many reasons, who acceptance of her body, wrote a letter to Sinéad.

Sex sells. That’s not a new concept. What counts is whose selling it. In this case, I believe it’s Miley herself which is empowerment, women’s lib of a different sort because it doesn’t deny human nature but rather emphasises it by taking control. As Miley said, “I’m a bitch.”

Because of that, as wise as Sinead’s advice is, I’m siding with Amanda Palmer on this one (and leaving coverage of Miley’s childish responses to the tabloids).

Sinéad O’Connor’s letter to Miley Cyrus

Dear Miley,

I wasn’t going to write this letter, but today i’ve been dodging phone calls from various newspapers who wished me to remark upon your having said in Rolling Stone your Wrecking Ball video was designed to be similar to the one for Nothing Compares… So this is what I need to say… And it is said in the spirit of motherliness and with love.

I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether its the music business or yourself doing the pimping.

Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.

I am happy to hear I am somewhat of a role model for you and I hope that because of that you will pay close attention to what I am telling you.

The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.

None of the men oggling you give a shit about you either, do not be fooled. Many’s the woman mistook lust for love. If they want you sexually that doesn’t mean they give a fuck about you. All the more true when you unwittingly give the impression you don’t give much of a fuck about yourself. And when you employ people who give the impression they don’t give much of a fuck about you either. No one who cares about you could support your being pimped…and that includes you yourself.

Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and it’s associated media.

You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal. The world of showbiz doesn’t see things that way, they like things to be seen the other way, whether they are magazines who want you on their cover, or whatever.. Don’t be under any illusions.. ALL of them want you because they’re making money off your youth and your beauty.. which they could not do except for the fact your youth makes you blind to the evils of show business. If you have an innocent heart you can’t recognise those who do not.

I repeat, you have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you. You shouldn’t let them make a fool of you either. Don’t think for a moment that any of them give a flying fuck about you. They’re there for the money.. we’re there for the music. It has always been that way and it will always be that way. The sooner a young lady gets to know that, the sooner she can be REALLY in control.

You also said in Rolling Stone that your look is based on mine. The look I chose, I chose on purpose at a time when my record company were encouraging me to do what you have done. I felt I would rather be judged on my talent and not my looks. I am happy that I made that choice, not least because I do not find myself on the proverbial rag heap now that I am almost 47 yrs of age.. which unfortunately many female artists who have based their image around their sexuality, end up on when they reach middle age.

Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you. I needn’t even ask the question.. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked. Its really not at all cool. And its sending dangerous signals to other young women. Please in future say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself. Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every spunk-spewing dirtbag on the net, or every greedy record company executive to buy his mistresses diamonds with.

As for the shedding of the Hannah Montana image.. whoever is telling you getting naked is the way to do that does absolutely NOT respect your talent, or you as a young lady. Your records are good enough for you not to need any shedding of Hannah Montana. She’s waaaaaaay gone by now.. Not because you got naked but because you make great records.

Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that its somehow cool to be prostituted.. its so not cool Miley.. its dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. we aren’t merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers.. that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career. Kindly fire any motherfucker who hasn’t expressed alarm, because they don’t care about you.

Amanda Palmer’s open letter to Sinéad O’Connor:

Dear Sinéad,

I love you. I grew up worshiping your music and your bold attitude and, especially, your refusal to sign up to the bullshit beauty standard. You were one of the few women rockstars that was clearly doing things her own way, and you inspired me to no end. I want to thank you for doing that. I listened to your stunning voice and your true, deep lyrics endlessly on my walkman, flipping the tape again, and again, then again, then again…and I know those ingredients still live and breathe inside me every time I write a song of my own. You shaped me.

[on my gosh, there’s nudity in the next vid but it’s absolutely important to watch it and listen to the lyrics]

I read your letter to Miley Cyrus this morning and I wanted to write back to you. I’m writing this on my cell phone in a plane on the way to Dallas, TX to play a benefit tonight for a group called Girls Rock Dallas…a local group that empowers young girls to become brave musicians. The timing is pretty wonderful and I want to talk to them all tonight about Miley and your letter.

As a musician and a songwriter, I grew up alone, writing in solitude. I don’t know how old you were when you signed your major recording contract, but both of us know that we didn’t go through what Miss Miley here went through – growing up in public and never having the golden opportunity to incubate in her own private world of making-art unseen, thoughts and words with no audience, no big public mirror. You and I had this, more or less, or we at least had it more than Miley. For an artist, that time to incubate is a special kind of gift. We should be really grateful for it. I know I am.

I think you’re right on about so many things, and I also applaud you for posting to your own site with a open letter instead of speaking via rolling stone or any of the other journalists who were calling you to comment. For the most part, they really don’t seem to care very much about the real issues at hand and we’re all just click-bait. What are the real issues…? You and I know it – being a female musician/rockstar/whatever is a pretty fucking impossible and mind-bendingly frustrating job. Our male counterparts are given a way wider playing field than we are. It’s a Chinese finger trap that reflects the basic problems of our women-times: we’re either scolded for looking sexy or we’re scolded for not playing the game. Those who manage to find a perfect balance are rare, and the culture at large seems hellbent on undermining our ability to create that balance peacefully within ourselves. And weirdly, it’s generally women scolding other women…we’re our own worst enemies. Which is not to say there aren’t some mean motherfucking men out there. I faced my fair share of that sort when I was at a major label and told that I was too fat to wear a bra on stage for my Leeds United music video. I stood my ground and got my way, but that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with those dudes. (Funny, the irony here: *I* had to FIGHT my label to be half-naked in a video…)

Here’s where I think you’re off target. Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show. She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the board room of label assholes and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked, twerking sexpot. I think that’s All Miley All The Way. Now, would these men ARGUE with her when she comes into the room and throws down her treatment to hop up naked on the proverbial (and literal) wrecking ball? Of course not. Sex sells. We all know it. Miley knows it better than anyone: swinging naked on a big metal ball simply gets you more hits than swinging on a big metal ball wearing clothes. We’re mammals. LOOK BOOBS! And even more tantalizing: LOOK HANNAH MONTANA BOOBS! But none of this means that Miley is following anyone else’s script. In fact, what I see is Miley desperately trying to write her own script; truly trying to be taken seriously (even if its in a nakedly playful way) by the standards of her own peers.

You and I are no strangers to controversy and we both know how it feels to be screamed at by the public, by the music press, to be misunderstood, reviled, ignored, and used as a punching bag for a larger cultural conversation. It is always my fantasy that we can take these painful experiences and feed them back to the upcoming generation of women rockers in a way that creates a larger playing field instead of a smaller one. I want female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS. I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard. But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage, room for Natasha Kahn to pose boldly naked on the cover of her last record, and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.

Do I want a whole generation of teenagers looking at Miley Cyrus to determine that the only way to get hits and hawk your music is to rip your clothes off and wiggle around as violently and loudly as possible? (And while we’re at it – while weighing close to nothing and looking perfectly manicured without a single eyelash or molecule of mascara out of place even when a tear rolls down your face?)

Fuck no. But I don’t want to tell them it’s wrong, either, because like I said: the field has to encompass EVERYTHING. There’s no way Miley is going to read your letter and turn around saying “holy shit, they’ve been taking advantage of me this whole time!” She’s been taking advantage of herself, of her youth, her fame and her sexuality…and she knows it. We females all do this, to some extent, and we just want to feel like it’s our hand on the joystick. Telling her that her team is to blame is telling her that she’s not steering her own career and decisions, and I think she’ll just feel patronized.

When I was about 15 (not inconsequentially, right around the time I was listening to your albums non-stop on my long walks to high school every morning), I started having fights with my mother every time I left for school. I’d decided to dress like an oversexed punk and my attire often consisted of sheer lingerie worn over ripped tights and Doc Martens. You remember. This was 1991. My mother would say: “Amanda Palmer, get back in the house and put some real clothes on. You look like a prostitute. I won’t have my daughter walking around town like a harlot.” (I swear to god, my mother actually used the word harlot. Bless.)

I would say: “It’s my life fuck you I didn’t ask to be born etc etc”, grumble back into the house, and throw a flannel dress over my entire ensemble…which I would, of course, remove and stuff back into my bag the minute I got to school.

I know my mother was trying to protect me. She loved me. She didn’t want me to fall into dangerous situations, she didn’t want me to be ridiculed, she didn’t want people to think badly of me. And often they did – the jocks all called me Freak and Lesbo in the halls. But I took it as almost a marker of success – I didn’t want to belong to their club. I took the rolling eyeballs and raised eyebrows of my peers, teachers and parents as a sign that I was on the right track. It was my artist’s uniform, and I was learning how to wear it with pride; I was figuring myself out.

I’m 37 and I’m still trying, and I change my uniform sometimes. Sometimes I play with nudity because it makes people pay attention, sometimes I play with nudity because it makes me loudly vulnerable to those in the room and it turns their brains inside-out as I challenge them to see me for what I am…without clothes.

As much as we may not want to see it this way – because, from a far distant she looks like just another airbrushed hottie from a lite beer commercial – we gotta give Miley (and every female) space to try on her artist’s uniform. It’s like a game of cosmic dress-up, but the stakes are high. If we’re allowed to play it, we’re empowered. If we’re not, we’re still in a cage.

While it may be true that the live-fast-die-young sex-pot female pop stars are washed up and thrown on the “rag heap”, like you say, wouldn’t it be better if we changed the entire plot instead of dealing with it as it’s been handed to us?

Keith Richards and Jagger go out there night after night and shake their asses and everyone oohs and aahs that they’ve managed to age and maintain their spot at the sexy table. Why shouldn’t this be true for women? Who says Miley can’t flip the script anytime she wants?

I want to live in a world where Miley (or any female musician) can twerk wildly at 20, wear a full-cover floral hippie mumu at 37, show up at 47 in see-through latex, and pose semi-naked, like Keith & co, on the cover of rolling stone at 57 and be APPLAUDED for being so comfortable with her body. This is not to say that women have to play the desperate I’M-STILL-SEXY game as they age. Watching Madonna’s plastic surgeries and apparent stubbornness around aging just makes my inner teenager want to scream (YOU’RE MADONNA! YOU COULD HAVE MADE AGING SEXY GODAMMIT AND YOU DIDN’T!!), but the grown-up in me just pauses for a breath and remembers that Madonna is just carving out her section of the playing field. How she chooses to sculpt her face and body is just…her choice. I gotta let her make it and applaud her for being her, even if I’d never make the same choices.

This is a push for more freedom, and in order to make it there, we have to jump massive hurdles and set assumptions. I’ve been following you and the very candid writings on your site about sex and your own sexuality….and I can’t imagine you disagree with me on this point: women need more freedom to say what they want (double entendre there), express what they want (same) and be respected for their bravery, not reprimanded for endangering themselves.

I want to live in a world where the internal dialogue of a woman’s brain has evolved to the point where a female performer can wear a sex-pot outfit and, instead of the all-too-common head-chatter chorus of “UNFAIR! MANIPULATED! WEAK! MANIPULATIVE! EVIL!”, she dons her sexy costume and hears internal voices screaming “FAIR! POWERFUL! PLAYFUL! BRAVE! SEXY!” You know…you go girl. But not “you go girl and be manipulated by the man, or manipulate the men in your wake”. just…”you go girl and wear whatever the fuck you want. And play smart.”

I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze and the starry-eyed hard-ons that can make men so easy to manipulate. But seriously, let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge…so we don’t hurt each other. If men and women don’t have a constantly open dialogue about how we do and don’t (or should and shouldn’t) manipulate and play with each other, we all lose. We are all fragile humans with little time on this beautiful, sexually-charged, ecstatic planet. Let’s share it to the fullest extent that we can and make the playing field for all of us the size of the whole earth.

In other words, let’s give our young women the right weapons to fight with as they charge naked into battle, instead of ordering them to get back in the house and put some goddamn clothes on.

With immense respect,

Amanda Palmer