clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” is actually a public health triumph

Women are usually the subject of sexual fantasies, not in control of them. That’s what makes the song so radical.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in “WAP.”
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were told that being locked away from friends, family, and everyone else around us didn’t mean we couldn’t produce something special. You see, back in the dark days of the bubonic plague, a man named William Shakespeare wrote the masterpiece King Lear. Since Shakespeare was a mere human being just like us, the thinking goes, there’s nothing stopping us from creating our own legendary works of art.

But Shakespeare, while he had an unending pandemic to create King Lear, never came close to creating this rhythmic flow of genius from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”:

Put him on his knees, give him somethin’ to believe in
Never lost a fight, but I’m lookin’ for a beating
In the food chain, I’m the one that eat ya
If he ate my ass, he’s a bottom feeder

In four lines, Megan Thee Stallion exalts the privilege of performing cunnilingus on her, before issuing a taunt, a guarantee of endurance from her vagina. Megan is a religious experience, a powerhouse, an apex predator, and a provider.

“WAP” is the acronym for Wet-Ass Pussy, a three-minute, seven-second paean to lubricated vaginas. Cardi and Megan rap a brawny, brassy fantasy about female sexual prowess. They swerve humor (“punani Dasani”) into flashy nastiness (“I wanna gag, I wanna choke / I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat”) and smirking bravado (“Your honor, I’m a freak bitch, handcuffs, leashes / Switch my wig, make him feel like he cheatin’”) and have created the anthem for our pandemic summer.

Since premiering on Friday, the music video — which censors the song title to “Wet and Gushy” — has accumulated more than 85 million views on YouTube. “WAP” debuted at the top of Spotify’s US Streaming charts with 2.3 million plays, and made history as the first female collaboration to do so while breaking records for the highest first-day streams for a women-led rap song.

Music doesn’t often make much room for an anthem like “WAP,” sung unapologetically by two Black women. For every song like “WAP” that gets mainstream play, there are too many to count about straight male escapades.

Critics, predominantly conservative ones, have sprouted up, saying that Cardi and Megan crossed the line. One even dared to say something was physiologically wrong with Cardi’s and Megan’s genitalia. The “think of the children” panic reared its head. And songwriter Diane Warren seemed to shame the women while commemorating Whitney Houston’s birthday:

“People be lying,” Cardi told Apple Music in an interview about the song and its reception. “People will be saying they don’t like hoes and they don’t like that p-ssy talk. People love it.”

Gender is more complicated than biology, but in our reaction, the “wet-ass pussy” serves as a metonym for sexuality of all women and those assigned female at birth. In its success and its backlash, the song exposes America’s scathing double standard. Sex from women is meant to be desired. We’re encouraged to ogle and obsess over their bodies. But when a woman reciprocates that desire and flexes control, she’s crossed a line — too bawdy, too raunchy, too nasty. Suddenly, she needs to think about what she’s said and the example she’s setting.

Americans want wet-ass pussy — we just don’t want to hear from the people who have them.

Pussies are normal and healthy things. Wet-ass pussies are also normal and healthy things.

In the same way Shakespeare used monarchy, kings, and two awful daughters in King Lear to talk about family, mental illness, and fear of old age, Cardi and Megan use hyperbolic, fantastic imagery — even herpetology, the harmless garter snake versus the king cobra — to tell a story about the basic, absolutely human feelings of desire and arousal.

“It’s pretty simple,” Bianca Burke, a porn actress, told me. “When anything sexy is happening — like making out with a cute guy or when you replay last night’s hookup in your head during your 15-minute break at work, your pussy may get aroused, which can lead to it getting wet.”

Burke compared vaginas to a self-cleaning oven, and gynecologists I spoke to echoed that sentiment. Wetness is a normal part of how the vagina works. Doctors explained that vaginal discharge is designed to protect the body from bacteria and fungi — a combination of good bacteria, pH, and a cell-coating mucus. Scientifically speaking, a wet-ass pussy is the body preparing itself for sex.

“The vagina normally [secretes] one to three milliliters of fluid, but up to four milliliters per 24 hours can be normal,” Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN and author of the upcoming book The Vagina Bible, told me. “During sex stimulation or the thought of sexual stimulation, there is increased blood flow to the vaginal and vulva tissues leading to engorgement — swelling, the good kind — and increased production of transudate, a thin liquid that is part of discharge. During intercourse and sexual activity, the increased discharge prevents the friction from causing tissue damage and enhances pleasure.”

Dr. Charlene Brown, a sexual health expert, public health physician, and former Baltimore City Health Department official, put it more directly: “Vaginas exist, and sometimes they get wet. Period.”

Cardi and Megan are using their brilliant words to get that very healthy feeling across. But despite how ordinary arousal is — a vagina getting wet is as common and normal as a penis getting hard — their declaration was met with shock and horror.

The backlash to “WAP” is about shaming women

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in “WAP.”

Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit, posited on Twitter and his podcast that something must be wrong with Cardi and Megan since he was unfamiliar with talk of a very saturated vagina. And his wife is a doctor.

To illustrate his disapproval of and discomfort with the song to the audience of his eponymous Daily Wire podcast, Shapiro didn’t even say the words, using euphemisms like “p-word” to dance around Cardi and Megan’s raps.

Shapiro fixated on the idea of Cardi and Megan needing “buckets and mops” to deal with their arousal, seemingly unable to grasp the idea of exaggeration. He backed this up with his “doctor wife’s” diagnosis of a yeast infection, among other things:

One could see Shapiro’s comments as genuine concern; maybe he truly believes there’s a Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation going on with genitalia. But the comments he made fit a pattern of shame and stigma surrounding vaginas and sexual health.

“Women are shamed about their normal, healthy bodies all the time,” Gunter said. “Women have difficulty naming their parts [and] feel ashamed to talk about the horrible and incorrect things men tell them.”

Health officials and medical experts echoed how important normalizing these conversations is.

While people like Shapiro may be attempting to make a facetious point about vulgarity, the way we talk or don’t talk about vaginas and sexual health has real-life health consequences. The cumulative result is that people of all genders — Shapiro’s befuddlement at wet vaginas as an example — become shamed into ignorance of women’s bodies, with the burden falling on those who actually possess those bodies.

“Ask your average 15-year-old what a Pap smear looks for, or how often they should get tested for HPV, or signs of a problem with their vaginal discharge. Then ask a 21-year-old. My guess is that neither will be able to answer all of those questions correctly,” Brown told Vox. “According to data published by the CDC, most sexually active girls say they haven’t had formal sex education before they have sex for the first time. Shockingly, sex education is even less common in schools today than it used to be. I spend a fair amount of time educating people about the fact that at-home tests for STIs even exist.”

Mary Jane Minkin, an OB-GYN at Yale University, echoed those sentiments, explaining that older people with vaginas have questions about their bodies, too, saying it affects people of “all ages.”

“Many are reluctant to talk about any female response issues — for example, at least half of all menopausal women suffer from vaginal dryness and many are reluctant to discuss it at all,” Minkin told me. “We often describe the discussion on vaginal dryness as sort of a ‘doorknob’ moment — just as we gynecologists are ready to leave the exam room, after what we thought was a finished conversation, our patients will say, ‘Well, doctor, there is one more thing … ’ and it is vaginal dryness and sexual issues.”

Brown lauds Megan and Cardi for the song and its positive potential, saying, “It doesn’t surprise me that two strong, sex-positive women, one of whom is in school for health administration, are forcing a conversation around celebrating sexuality.”

Minkin, Brown, and Gunter all were in agreement that “WAP” is actually a force of good. Being uncomfortable with talk about vaginas begets shame, which spirals into health consequences. “WAP” and pieces of sex-positive, women-positive pop culture like it can help make people, women especially, more comfortable talking about topics they weren’t before.

“Vaginas are such an important part of the human body,” Brown told me. “They can experience pain, itchiness, bleeding, and other symptoms that provide clues about sexual, reproductive, and general health. How can we not talk about it? That would be like not talking about our nostrils or our knees.”

She added: “It’s important for each person with a vagina to have a basic understanding of their own vagina at baseline so that it’s easier to determine when something is wrong without shame or confusion.”

In pop culture, women are part of sexual fantasies, not in control of them

As I was writing this story, two things kept popping into my head. The first was a nonsensical reaction from a Republican hopeful, who tweeted on August 7 that he had “accidentally” heard “WAP” and that it made him want to pour holy water into his ear holes.

And the other is something that Dr. Gunter told me. She said: “Making the vagina problematic — especially a sexually excited vagina — is an effective weapon of control.”

Gunter’s analysis helps explain Bradley’s pussy panic in a deeper way. On the surface, it is performative pearl-clutching. But it’s also his attempt to take away Cardi and Megan’s power, painting them and their desires as unnatural affronts to God.

He’s also worrying about a loss of control.

In “WAP,” Megan and Cardi aren’t just rapping about being aroused. They also subvert preconceived ideas about acts of passivity, dominance, and ego. That pops up in the “bottom feeder” verse, where Megan reverses the idea that her partner is doing something to pleasure her; rather, she provides him deep satisfaction; and again when she boasts that men will pay for college, outfits, and phone for just a taste. And toward the end of the song, Megan raps:

You can’t hurt my feelings, but I like pain.
If he fuck me and ask, “Whose is it?”
When I ride the dick, I’mma spell my name.

Asserting selfishness and possession flips the typical gender norms of heterosexual sex. Megan and Cardi adopt traits we tend to issue to masculinity and men (dominance, stoicism, athletic prowess) in the bedroom and leave traits society tends to assign to femininity and women (emotions, vulnerability, passivity) to the men.

Megan and Cardi are rapping raunchy things that subvert the way women, especially Black women, are supposed to act in the bedroom with men. They aren’t the first ones to do so, and they aren’t the first ones to get criticism for it.

Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” was a 2002 hit that doubles as a manual for performing satisfactory cunnilingus. And as Khia told Vice in 2012, she received backlash for the song and witnessed a double standard.

Layered into that is the thorny history of pop culture and society hypersexualizing Black women and their bodies. This played out on America’s biggest musical stage, the Super Bowl halftime show, where in 2004 Janet Jackson’s exposed breast almost ruined her career. (Justin Timberlake, her co-performer, was asked back in 2018.)

Not unlike how Timberlake walked away unscathed after what was touted as a bombastic affront, male rappers don’t often face this kind of scrutiny when rapping about sex. Demetria Lucas wrote on Medium:

Where is all this ire when male entertainers rap about sex? I mean, when the Ying Yang Twins were whispering, “Wait ’til you see my dick” — as if no one had ever seen a penis and it was really something special to behold — no one called them hoes. Akinyele instructing women to “put it in your mouth,” Biggie bragging about “tongue delivering” and women “shivering,” Kendrick Lamar (of all people) crowing, “I know you want this dick”: None of it raised eyebrows.

“Sexual women are seen as worthless trash, while virginal women are seen as respectable women of God who should be worshipped,” Burke, the porn actress, told me, boiling down what she thought of the controversy.

In “WAP,” Cardi and Megan created a sexual power fantasy for women, by women, from a woman’s point of view. That fantasy is about a wet-ass pussy — not something outlandish, just a prerequisite for decent vaginal sex. The song tells a lot about Megan and Cardi’s fantastic sex lives, but the scandalized reaction tells us even more about how we see sex in America.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.