Sex as “Sacrilege”

I woke up this morning to the gut-punch that was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ new video for their song “Sacrilege.”

The non-linear storyline starts with a woman (British model Lily Cole) being burned with a lover while the town watches. The story rewinds and we see the capture of this man (a preacher) by the townspeople, moving back even further to show the woman having sexual relationships with the people in the town one by one, until it ends (or rather, begins) at a wedding in a church, officiated by the same preacher that she was burned with.

The hypocrisy of the townspeople for punishing the woman for something that they themselves were complicit in is a critique of small-town Christian values. She is punished in the same way that “witches” were in the past by being burned alive, a result of religious condemnation and vindictiveness. The final straw for the townspeople was the sexual relationship with the preacher, a Scarlet Letter relationship that ruins both of them.

What’s interesting is that this video isn’t about the relationship between the woman and the preacher, but the woman and the townspeople – shifting the narrative from religious purity in the context of the preacher being brought down by a woman – into something much more poignant. It isn’t about infidelity or star-crossed lovers, but the ownership and control that the townspeople felt that they had over the woman. She is a possession, passed between them until they feel it’s necessary to discard her– using the preacher as an excuse. Woman-as-commodity is heavily tied into more fundamental aspects of Christianity, and the relationship between a woman’s sexuality and who possesses that woman is central to the video. Purity in women is valued on the surface, but the relationships the townspeople develop with the woman show that they have a different standard when it has the potential to benefit them. Nobody lives up to the idealized standard because everyone is sinning, yet the woman (and the preacher by association) are the only ones to pay the price.

Sex-as-sin casts the woman as the temptress, responsible not only for her own purity but of the men (and other women) around her, and when she fails she is punished. The inevitability of that failure is not closely addressed in the video , but slut-shaming as a hypocritical and gendered concept is. I’m a fan about how this video combines guilt and the feelings of entitlement that the townspeople have about the woman. As a sign of their own sins she must be eradicated, but even more than that, the fact that she cannot be possessed troubles them. With her value being so closely tied to who owns her, she becomes damaged goods – therefore discardable.

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