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Why "Baby, It's Cold Outside" became an annual controversy about date rape and consent

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Frank Loesser’s 1944 “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been a beloved Christmas-song staple for decades, covered by legendary pairings from Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting in 1949 to Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé in 2014.

When you first hear it, the song seems like a cute, flirty call-and-response duet between a man and his lady friend who are debating whether she should stay the night. On the one hand, what would her parents or the neighbors think? On the other hand, it’s just so cold outside. The ending is ambiguous, but it’s implied that she decides to stay after all, keeping them both warm on a cold winter’s night.

But when you listen closer, the song’s lyrics also seem, well ... a little rapey. The guy ignores his date’s protests and badgers her to stay, which feels a lot like sexual coercion. At one point the woman asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” — which is pretty alarming to a modern audience that understands how roofies work. The original score even lists the man’s part as “Wolf” and the woman’s part as “Mouse,” making the predator/prey dynamic creepily explicit.

The song’s legions of defenders argue that those concerns are overblown. They note “What’s in this drink?” was a common joke in the 1930s and ’40s made by people who wanted to make an excuse for something that they knew very well they shouldn’t be doing. And in that more prudish time period, women were expected to turn down sex (at first, anyway) even if they wanted it.

The vastly different ways people hear the same short song have set off an annual internet battle over its feminist merits. For every think piece calling it a “date-rape anthem,” there’s a corresponding “Oh, come on” take about how oversensitive “social justice warriors” are killing romance and seduction and taking the song’s lyrics out of context.

Which reading is right? Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” too problematic to enjoy with a clear conscience anymore, or is our perception of it the real problem?

The answer isn’t totally simple. And it’s also about more than just one Christmas song. The debate gets to the heart of a major culture war over sexual assault, consent, and “political correctness” — a war that came to a head in 2016 when America elected a president who’s been accused of sexual assault.

Are the lyrics rapey, or romantic?

I’ve pasted the lyrics below, with some annotations to help explain why it’s possible to hear the song in two very different — and perhaps equally valid — ways. I’ll call these two different interpretations the “romantic” reading and the “rapey” reading.

In the “romantic” reading, the woman really does want to stay but feels socially pressured to leave. It’s 1944, after all, and it’s scandalous for an unmarried woman to spend the night with a man. But since it’s obvious to her date that she really does want to stay, he feels no compunction about pressuring her — and she’s also more than happy to be given an excuse to do what she wants to do anyway.

Besides, the “romantic” reading argues, Loesser used to perform the song with his wife at parties as entertainment; it’s clearly meant to be a cute story about romance, and we’re doing the song a disservice if we divorce it from its historical context. If you think about it, the song could even be read as a feminist anthem — a subversive celebration of women’s sexual agency in a repressive time.

The “rapey” reading, on the other hand, finds the events of the song troubling given our modern understanding of how sexual consent and sexual assault work. Regardless of what Loesser intended, it’s a lousy model for romance that normalizes sexual coercion and date rape.

The “rapey” reading allows for the possibility that the woman really does want to go — and if that’s the case, it becomes much more obvious why the man’s behavior is a problem. Sure, maybe she’ll end up staying because the man won’t stop bothering her and it seems easier to just give in at a certain point. But just because she gives in doesn’t mean she really wanted it, or that she’ll feel good about it afterward. And whether or not she enjoys herself, and whether or not she feels violated or ashamed afterward, the ends of how she feels about it later still don’t justify the means of how he got her to stay.

It’s a bad, coercive, and common dynamic that many women (and men) have had unpleasant experiences with. And it can very easily lead to, or be used to justify, rape.

The lyrics, annotated

(The woman’s part goes first, and the man’s is in parentheses.)

I really can't stay (but baby, it's cold outside)
I've got to go away (but baby, it's cold outside)
This evening has been (been hoping that you'd drop in)
So very nice (I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice)

ROMANTIC: Aww, she had a nice time and doesn’t really want to leave! And he’s holding her hand!

RAPEY: Yikes, he’s starting to put pressure on her to stay; that’s not cool. Women are socialized to be polite (and even a little flirtatious) when rejecting a man’s advances to avoid making him angry (or even violent). Sure, she said she had a nice time, but does she mean it? We don’t know, and he doesn’t seem interested in finding out.


My mother will start to worry (beautiful, what's your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I'd better scurry (beautiful, please don't hurry)
But maybe just a half a drink more (put some records on while I pour)
The neighbors might think (baby, it's bad out there)
Say, what's in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

RAPEY: WHAT’S IN THIS DRINK?! And no cabs, no way for her to get home?! This is awful. She’s trapped, and he knows it, and he’s basically gloating about it. Plus, “Beautiful, what’s your hurry?” just sounds really creepy and predatory.

ROMANTIC: Historical context matters a lot here. “What’s in this drink?” used to be a stock joke to which the punchline was basically, “Nothing, not even much alcohol.” As one anonymous blogger put it, “It is not a joke about how she’s drunk and about to be raped. It’s a joke about how she’s perfectly sober and about to have awesome consensual sex and use the drink for plausible deniability because she’s living in a society where women aren’t supposed to have sexual agency.”

Plus, getting another drink is her idea; he doesn’t force it on her. She’s clearly looking for excuses to make this feel more socially acceptable. Every time she says she wants to leave, she’s always worrying what other people will think — her parents, her aunt, her neighbors. But what she herself will think is another story.


I wish I knew how (your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell (I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
I ought to say, no, no, no, sir (mind if I move in closer?)
At least I'm gonna say that I tried (what's the sense in hurtin' my pride?)
I really can't stay (oh, baby, don't hold out)
But baby, it's cold outside
I simply must go (but baby, it's cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it's cold outside)
Your welcome has been (how lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (look out the window at this dawn)

ROMANTIC: She’s clearly into him. She’s under the “spell” of attraction, and she knows she ought to say no, but she doesn’t want to. “At least I’m gonna say that I tried” feels like a shrug. She’s put up the socially acceptable amount of resistance, and now she can have the fun she wants to have.

Plus, he actually asks for consent! He asks, “Mind if I move in closer?”

RAPEY: That’s not asking for consent. She says “no, no, no,” but he blatantly ignores that and just swoops in before she has a chance to tell him whether she minds or not. And he seems to care a lot more about his “pride” than her consent.

She does qualify that “no, no, no” with “I ought to” — but again, that could easily be an attempt to refuse him as politely as possible so he doesn’t get pissed off. And later she says flat-out, “The answer is no.” But he doesn’t respect that at all; he just goes back to whining for the 50th time about how it’s soooo cold outside and hoping that this time it’ll change her mind.


My sister will be suspicious (gosh, your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (waves upon the tropical shore)
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious (gosh, your lips are delicious)
But maybe just a cigarette more (never such a blizzard before)

ROMANTIC: Again, it’s all about other people, not her. Also, he goes from saying her lips look delicious to saying they are delicious — which probably means he kisses her. And it’s so hot, and she’s so into it, that she stops worrying about what her family will think and makes yet another excuse to stay for just a little while longer.

RAPEY: So what if she’s worried what other people will think? That’s totally rational; the social consequences for her will be no joke, whereas he will probably face no consequences at all, because patriarchy. Maybe she really does want to sleep over, but maybe she wants even more to avoid being labeled a whore and shunned by her community. Her reasons for saying no don’t matter. They’re still her reasons, and it sucks that he’s not respecting them. He’s putting her in a bad position by trying to coax her into doing something she might really regret, even if she also enjoys herself.


I've gotta get home (but baby, you'd freeze out there)
Say lend me a coat (it's up to your knees out there)
You've really been grand (I thrill when you touch my hand)
But don't you see? (how can you do this thing to me?)
There's bound to be talk tomorrow (think of my lifelong sorrow)
At least there will be plenty implied (if you got pneumonia and died)
I really can't stay (get over that old out)
Baby, it's cold
Baby, it's cold outside

RAPEY: She’s resisting all the way to the end. Given that they sing the final chorus together, it seems like he finally wears her down. But wearing down a woman’s resistance isn’t romantic. It’s rapey — and often, it’s just plain rape.

ROMANTIC: Of course they sing the final chorus together. That’s the point. The whole thing has been a delicious back-and-forth dance of seduction, and it ends in harmony — no more obstacles, no more excuses, just the two of them deciding to have great, consensual sex, like they both knew they wanted to all along.

Why any of this matters

At a certain point, spending hundreds of words close-reading a Christmas song starts to feel a little silly. What’s the point of yelling at people on the internet about this? If you like the song, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.

But here’s the thing: Culture matters. We send and receive signals every day about who we are, who we want to be, or who we ought to be through the books, movies, and music we consume. And people often take offense to the suggestion that something they like is no longer acceptable by the public at large. That offense can manifest as complaints about “political correctness” run amok — and those complaints can become deep resentments, the kind that Trump tapped into masterfully during his successful presidential campaign.

But the debate over this specific song is also really about the deep anxieties our country is facing right now over how to deal with sexual consent.

If you touch someone in a sexual way without her consent, you’ve committed sexual assault or rape. Those are serious crimes — but they’re still not taken as seriously as they should be. Sexual assault is common but underreported, and conviction rates are abysmally low.

But some people seem much more concerned about a much rarer phenomenon: false rape accusations, and the remote possibility that a young man’s life could be ruined by them. As such, survivors who come forward still routinely face vicious character smears from people who sympathize with the accused, or who just don’t want to believe that sexual assault is as common as it is.

It’s taken decades of activism to fight victim-blaming narratives about why rape might really be a woman’s fault, but they’re still pervasive. And some of those narratives, as we saw after the infamous Access Hollywood Trump tapes came out, go even further than blaming the victim: They obscure the definition of sexual assault itself. They deliberately blur the lines between nonconsensual sexual touching, or assault, and alpha-male seduction. That’s why the Trump tapes were dismissed as “locker room talk,” and why some of his surrogates — including, alarmingly, Trump’s attorney general pick, Jeff Sessions — refused to admit that Trump’s boasts described assault.

But a key victory in the fight against victim blaming has been a more evolved understanding of why consent is essential during sex. It’s led to the concept of “affirmative consent” — that instead of putting the burden on women to say “no means no,” it should be the man’s responsibility to understand that “yes means yes,” and to make the effort to learn what that looks like in practice.

This year, Minneapolis singer-songwriter couple Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski decided to record a new version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which emphasized the importance of affirmative consent. When Liza sings that she can’t stay, Lemanski replies, “Baby, I’m cool with that.” He puts no pressure on her, tells her what a nice time he had, and tries to help her get home safely.

Writing for the Federalist, Bre Payton skewered the rewrite as the “unsexiest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” The 1944 original, she said, is “steamy” because “it’s an elaborate dance of subtleties during which a man successfully seduces a woman into staying just a bit longer.” But now millennials, “the ‘can I touch you here’ generation,” want to take all of that away, Payton writes: “[I]n the age of affirmative consent, it’s apparently sexier when a man practically pushes you out the door for fear one might mistake flirting for something sinister.”

These are common objections to “consent culture.” Some worry that men could be unjustly prosecuted under “yes means yes” laws without a notarized form for every kiss — and there’s also a more everyday fear that affirmative consent will kill seduction and romance altogether.

For the most part, as Amanda Taub explained for Vox in 2014, these fears are overblown, because getting affirmative consent isn’t actually that complicated. But more importantly, they miss the reason why affirmative consent is necessary in the first place: The “no means no” standard is exhausting for women, and it’s all too easy for rapists to take advantage of because they can “claim to see consent in everything except continuous, unequivocal rejection”:

From the perspective of actually trying to have a genuinely consensual sex life, there's nothing particularly burdensome here. Don't take advantage of someone else's inebriation. Hold out for enthusiasm instead of resignation. You don't need to be a rocket scientist in order to have a conversation in advance about boundaries or to agree on a safe word. And if your partner sends signals that confuse you, stop. What you lose in nights of passion, you will gain in nights of not being a rapist.

Indeed, the lovers in the Liza/Lemanski rewrite end up losing a night of passion. But, a few awkward phrases like “You reserve the right to say no” aside, it’s not unsexy at all.

The guy isn’t shoving the girl out the door; he’s being a gentleman and taking her desires seriously. Once he takes the pressure off, the “will we, won’t we” tension of the song is still there — but it’s all on her end, as she asks herself whether maybe she should stay, because after all, it’s cold outside. It’s sweet and affectionate, and you feel certain when the song is over that there will be other nights of passion for this couple in the very near future.

Given the historical and musical context, you don’t have to turn in your feminist card if you don’t interpret the original “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” lyrics as a literal description of a date rape. In 1944, affirmative consent wasn’t even an option for the woman in the song; she would have had to protect her reputation by either playing hard to get or not allowing herself to be gotten at all. And the way the song is written — a playful call-and-response duet that resolves harmoniously — definitely sounds like mutual desire.

But every sexual situation is dependent on context. It depends on the relationship two people have, the chemistry between them, the particular verbal or nonverbal communication that’s going on, and the clarity (or lack thereof) that both people want something to happen. Seducing someone and making the first move isn’t sexual assault, but it can be if it’s unwanted.

So it’s also totally fair if the song makes you uncomfortable — because in even a slightly different context, the same dialogue in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” could have easily played out as a bad, coercive experience for the woman. And the man could have very easily justified it after the fact, because the burden wasn’t on him to make sure his partner was comfortable with the experience. It should be, though — and as a culture, we’re only beginning to imagine what that looks and sounds like.