A few days ago my friend showed me Ed Sheeran's song Don't. It's catchy, dark and sexy, a nice change from his croon-y, puppy-eyed former album. What struck her after countless addictive replays were the words "I wasn't looking for a promise or commitment; But it was never just fun and I thought you were different".
The song is a bitter reflection on his relationship with Ellie Goulding and its messy end involving One Directioner Niall Horan. Obviously this song doesn't cover the whole story. In fact, my knowledge of their relationship stretches as far as the song goes plus the named suspects (thank you Google), but my judgment of this particular relationship isn't the point here - the point is gender and relationship expectations.
Let's take a closer look at the lyrics:
"I thought you were different". Is there one general characterisation for all women? Are the exceptions the 'better ones'? Doesn't this offhand comment, which is said too often in your usual rom-coms, just feed into demeaning gender stereotypes?
The song begins with boy meets girl. Boy and girl don't really establish a monogamous relationship, and besides, boy admits, "I reckon she was only looking for a lover to burn".
The girl represents the modern woman in this song, "looking for a lover to burn". And yet she is pinned down for 'cheating'. Traditional gender stereotypes make women out to be pure and holy and, without a doubt, they only want to build a strong and faithful relationship with one person. Men are a different species, so they run away as fast as possible from any sign of a strong and solid relationship. The other side of these outdated gender stereotypes is that the 'bad' women sleep around. They're sluts and should be condemned. Men are a different species, so it's no surprise that sex is on their mind every seven seconds according to urban legend, and it's okay for the lads to wear their sexual urges loud and proud.
Ed Sheeran probably doesn't believe in these archaic gender profiles. But given his status as a highly popular singer especially amongst young audiences, what were meant to be merely lyrics in an angry and cathartic song subtly reinforces unrealistic gender and relationship expectations. The lyrics "I thought you were different" slut shames women who embrace their sexuality and have sex with multiple partners. It places the 'traditional', monogamous women on a plinth. Despite just "looking for a lover to burn", there were still expectations for her to embody the traditional, 'good' woman.
In today's Tinder-infused society, non-committal 'relationships', casual friends with benefits, one-night-stands etc. should no longer come as a surprise. Especially if the people concerned are young or still exploring themselves professionally/emotionally/sexually. We no longer live in an age where you're either single and sexless or in a relationship and having sex with just one person.
I'm not advocating exploiting people sexually or treating people disrespectfully. If all parties consent and are sensible about it, a sexual relationship without ties seems congruous with today's fast paced, supposedly forward thinking society. Let's not buy into the friends-can't-have-sex-otherwise-they'll-inevitably-fall-in-love myth propounded by No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits.
The holy process of life is boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl never love anyone else and only 'make love' with each other for the rest of eternity and maybe make some babies along the way (but only after parentally-approved marriage of course). And in the initial stages of courtship, boy and girl are all kinds of shy and cute so don't voice their true feelings to each other, which really helps them fall in love even more. (Apologies for the heterosexual characterisations - this is simply what archaic relationship templates in westernised societies look like.)
'Friend' and 'partner' aren't two sides of a coin, and the expectations one should have at each stage throughout the spectrum from 'friend' to 'partner' shouldn't be a given unless clearly established. Having casual, consensual sex doesn't entail that it'll inevitably lead to a monogamous relationship. Staying in bed all day and watching recaps of Friends doesn't mean you're exclusive. It's great to bum around and share this lazy experience with someone, but it shouldn't imply 'feelings' and one shouldn't expect unspoken commitment. Relationship dynamics have become more four-dimensional and sexual freedom is on the rise.
Anyway, if people are mature enough to consent to safe sex, shouldn't they be mature enough to communicate something along the lines of: "I like you as a person and I like having sex with you but I don't want to be exclusive" OR "I like you as a person and I like having sex with you and I want us to be together exclusively"?
So back to the main lyrics of concern: "I wasn't looking for a promise or commitment; But it was never just fun and I thought you were different"
No commitment was entailed, so how come there was an expectation for monogamy? Certainly, it must be devastating to find out that someone you're invested in (and had sexual experiences with) has performed sexual acts with another (especially "on the same fucking hotel floor", ouch), but that's no reason to slut shame someone.
We're well into the 21st Century - monogamy should no longer be the unspoken rule. Isn't it time for everyone to openly admit that not just men have sexual desires? Women who begin Tinder exchanges are probably more common than you think (it's not just straight white boys). What's the point in being coy and not saying what we really want to say? Sure it'll take out some of the 'mystery of love' and obviously we still have to be respectful of one another's privacy and comfort, but if we were all honest and sincere about how we feel, wouldn't it make life so much easier?