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On Thursday, R&B star Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, was found dead at his Minnesota home at the age of 57. Prince was known as an iconoclast in many different respects: as a musician, as a style icon and as a symbol of what was then the burgeoning gender fluidity movement.
Yet he was also an unabashed advocate for female sexual expression, particularly solo female sexual expression. It's not a stretch to say that Prince instructed a generation of young women (including this author) in the art of masturbation.
It's no secret that Prince built his entire career on embracing human sexuality: pretty much 90% of his oeuvre is about cars or pussy (or a combination of the two). What is not often said, though, is that Prince was one of the few male artists to flip the male gaze on its head, depicting sexual pleasure from the perspective of women — who, up to this point, had rarely been depicted as active agents of desire, much less as people capable of desire to begin with.
Nearly all of Prince's songs feature sexually voracious heroines whose generous proportions are outweighed only by their sexual appetites. From the barbecue ribs-ordering one-night stand in "Gett Off," to Marsha, the blowjob queen in "Let's Pretend We're Married," to the used condom-carrying lady in "Little Red Corvette" (which, ew, but that's beside the point), to the hotel lobby masturbating heroine of "Darling Nikki" (thus prompting a slew of Sheraton gift shop managers to keep a closer eye on their periodical racks), Prince's music is a laundry list of sexual conquests.
If Prince were any other musician, this would be read as an exploitation of female sexuality, if not outright misogynistic — and some have, indeed, interpreted his music that way, as nothing more than a glimpse into the psyche of a man trapped in the throes of extended adolescence.
But given Prince's androgynous aesthetic — recall the flowing blouses, the paisley scarves, the "fuck me" pumps paired with copious amounts of eye makeup — no one would ever accuse Prince of being the embodiment of sexually aggressive machismo. And indeed, his songs play with traditional gender roles, with him adopting the persona of a man considering transitioning to better please his female lover in "If I Was Your Girlfriend."
Unlike the heavy metal acts of the 1980s, or the strutting British cock rockers of the 1970s, Prince wasn't interested in objectifying female sexuality so much as he was interested in celebrating it — with his penis, yes, but also with his music. As BuzzFeed's Nichole Perkins wrote in 2015, "with songs like 'Soft and Wet,' it's easy to think that Prince only sees women as objects made for sexual pleasure. But observed further, his songs show women with the same sexual urges as men" — and with songs preaching the benefits of self-love, such as "Darling Nikki" or Vanity 6's "Vibrator" (which Prince wrote), Prince wanted to give women the tools to get themselves off as needed.
The fact that Prince later became a Jehovah's Witness and started disavowing his outrageous sexual persona (in addition to saying some pretty homophobic shit in the process) certainly complicates his legacy as a champion for female sex positivity. But a generation of women will nonetheless have the same indelible memory of his music: lying in the bathtub or on the bed or, hell, in a hotel lobby, his gauzy falsetto crooning in our ears, urging our hands further southward, telling us exactly what we need to do to gett off.