Thinking consent: Top 40 music, sex, and you

  • Published
  • By Capt. Maribel Jarzabek & Capt. Michael Hertzog II
  • Air Force Legal Operations Agency
You've probably heard before that you are the sum of your experiences. In the nature versus nurture debate to explain why people are the way they are and why they do what they do, this maxim is a fairly concise and complete way to capture the essence of both perspectives. Our biological experience--the events from our conception to our birth--accounts for the "nature" side. The experiences of our waking moments from birth to the present account for the "nurture" side. One of the key aspects of our nurture is how we are shaped to think and feel about sexual encounters.

Our Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, talked about challenges the Air Force faces with accessioning Airmen who come from a culture rife with a "hookup mentality." In a May 17 interview with Air Force Times, he elaborated on this challenge: "If you have people who come into the military who come from a lifestyle where they don't typically respect -- in the same way we in the military would respect -- the feelings, the concerns, the issues of others, then you have people that if they get in a bad situation will take advantage of others."

What are some of the influences that shape this "lifestyle" that Welsh is describing? I'll offer popular music as a start. In 2008, Tara Parker-Pope wrote for the New York Times that the average American teenager listens to 2.5 hours of music each day. The listening rate is only slightly lower for working age Americans. Arthur Conley had a simple question for us in 1967: "Do you like good music?" For most of us, that answer is still yes, and yet we seldom pause to examine the content of some of the lyrics we're frequently exposed to when we tune in to our favorite station to hear the hits of the day.

In 1988--before most of us joined the Air Force--Patty Loveless recorded a No. 1 hit single called "Timber (I'm falling in love)." In it, Loveless sings: "It started slow, it's coming fast/I got a feelin it's gonna last/Timber I'm falling in love." The romantic experience described here isn't a one night stand, but something with a bit more staying power, and, more importantly, it's one that both parties are voluntary participants in.

Let's fast forward to 2013. A collaboration between Pitbull and Ke$ha yielded another chart topper of the same name that most of us have heard many times. Pitbull raps: "clothes off twerking with my bras and thongs/Face down, booty up/That's the way we like to what/I'm slicker than an oil spill/she say she won't, but I bet she will," and Ke$ha sings in reply: "Let's make a night you won't remember/I'll be the one you won't forget."

Assuming Pitbull and Ke$ha are both drinking together, the shot count has reached five by the end of the song (hence "a night you won't remember"), and while "she say she won't" doesn't unqualifiedly rule out consent later in the night, current reticence combined with alcoholic consumption definitely has the hallmark warning signs of non-consent.

Article 120 of the UCMJ states that a service member commits a sexual assault when he or she: "commits a sexual act upon another person when the other person is incapable of consenting to the sexual act due to impairment by any drug, intoxicant, or other similar substance, and that condition is known or reasonably should be known by the person."

This commentary isn't about what AFN should or should not be playing on Hot AC, nor is it about the content of your iPod or Pandora playlists. But when you listen, know that your character is being shaped by the messages--both overt and subliminal--that you are encountering. A 2008 article in the Journal of American Medicine states that: "Human beings learn not only by direct experience but also by exposure to modeled behavior, such as that represented in popular music." A quick web search for the controversy surrounding Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" demonstrates just how polarizing modeled behavior that glorifies non-consent can be. Growing our understanding of consent is a critical part of our nurture, and we must remember that without explicit consent given free of impairment by any substance, "a night you won't remember" can turn into a haunting and tragically unforgettable experience.

For a more lighthearted but still instructive take on this song and issues of consent, I'd recommend this blog entry here. If you have further questions about Article 120, please contact the base legal office at 480-5911 or Mr. Appel-Schumacher at the USAFE Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office at DSN 480-6519. If you would like to report a sexual assault or are interested in legal representation as a victim of a sexual assault, please contact the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) at DSN 480-5597 or the Special Victims' Counsel Office (SVC Office) at DSN 478-4782.