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Rebecca Sheehan


Rebecca Sheehan
is the director of the Gender Studies program and a lecturer in Sociology at Macquarie University, and a visiting fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is working on a monograph entitled Rise of the Superwoman: How Sex Remade Gender in America’s Long 1970s (under contract with Harvard University Press) and has published articles on gender and rock music, boxing, and the American reception of Germaine Greer.


“‘Little 15’: Pop Music and the Politics of Consent”
This paper explores the ways in which, through its transnational circulation, popular music has established a borderless, imaginary realm of pleasure and danger. In particular, it argues that in this realm, popular music and musicians have shaped extra-legal discourses and attitudes about sexual behavior and have been able to enact practices that resist prosecution. Bronski Beat’s 1984 album The Age of Consent, for example, included an inner sleeve that listed ages of consent for males to engage in homosexual sex in different countries. In the decade of AIDS, the album acted as a call to arms for queer-identified men to claim their sexual sovereignty and defy laws against—or that failed to recognize—homosexuality.


Yet popular music has also influenced problematic notions of desirability and consent. Through their lyrics and behavior, artists from Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry to Depeche Mode and R. Kelly have helped to construct an ideal of girls, and especially underage girls, as sexually desirable, available, and willing. The failure to give the female subject the opportunity to consent is evident in an analysis of Depeche Mode’s music. Violation has been an explicit theme in their music that is expressed as the wounded cry of a suffering man even though much of it is predicated on the body of an underage girl. These musicians have contributed to a broader dynamic of male sexual entitlement and female sexual availability. They have also helped to code statutory rape into popular music, which in turn has shaped sexual expectations for their fans and listeners. The paper concludes by considering the way that twenty-first century women in popular music—including Lady Gaga and Kesha—are reshaping the politics of consent through a combination of direct action and in collaboration with social media users.