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[content warning: rape]

It’s the Christmas season. Trees and nativity scenes are going up in houses. Presents are being wrapped. People are watching traditional Christmas movies like Die Hard. And feminists everywhere are practicing our traditional wanky discourse about Baby It’s Cold Outside.

I think it is fucked to try to get people not to listen to Baby It’s Cold Outside. I personally enjoy listening to the Chris Colfer/Darren Criss version, as well as many other songs about behavior I don’t endorse in real life. It is okay for people to enjoy things! At best, I’d suggest that it’s probably inappropriate to play Baby It’s Cold Outside in stores, because rape-culture songs really ought to be opt-in, but there are really many, many more important feminist issues than enthusiastically consenting individuals choosing to listen to Baby It’s Cold Outside of their own free will.

On the other hand, I have also seen people explaining that Baby It’s Cold Outside is not really a rape-culture song. You see– they argue– at the time Baby It’s Cold Outside was written, women couldn’t really say ‘yes’ to sex, because that would mean she wasn’t a good girl; they had to reject men’s advances whether they wanted to or not. So the Mouse is saying token ‘nos’ that she doesn’t expect the man to listen to, and the Wolf is offering her lots of excuses she can tell people. So the song is about her exercising her sexual agency in a culture that didn’t want her to! Feminism!

The problem with this interpretation is that most people– in the early twentieth century and today– don’t say “no! Stop! I don’t want this!” They use soft nos. Think about the last time you turned down something you didn’t want (nonsexually). You might say “this evening has been very nice, but I really must go.” Or “I have to leave, my parents will worry.” Or “I really ought to say no.” For most people who aren’t impaired in social skills, these sentences are still easily parsable as a refusal. Even in ask culture, refusals tend to be fairly soft: we probably wouldn’t say we’d love to do something that we wouldn’t, but we might say “I’m sorry, I just don’t have time.”

The Wolf is blatantly ignoring the Mouse’s soft nos. When a person pushes another person’s boundaries, it’s common for the other person to give in, even if they don’t want to. In this situation, the Mouse is alone with the Wolf. He is probably significantly physically stronger than her. She’s strongly implied to be more innocent than him. If he does hurt her, the general social opinion will be that she asked for it because she was alone with a man. In this situation, a lot of people would give in and do whatever the Wolf says.

So essentially this is a situation where it is very difficult to tell apart a person who’s saying “no” to sex from a person who’s saying “yes” to sex. The technical word for this is “rape culture.”

Now, a lot of people are pretty good at reading other people’s body language and tone of voice. It’s likely that the Wolf actually cares about whether the Mouse wants to be there, and if she sounded scared would help her into her coat and take her home. But that’s dependent on the Wolf’s ability to read body language: if he misreads the Mouse’s signals, he would coerce her into sex.

If the Wolf is a little less scrupulous, the difficulty of distinguishing “yes” and “no” offers him a way to salve his conscience. After all– he might think– women always say “no” when they mean “yes”, so there’s no harm in convincing or even forcing a woman who says “no”. With a little bit of self-deception, he can convince himself that he didn’t notice the signs of her fear, or that those signs were actually eagerness. That means he’s much more likely to commit rape.

Even if the Wolf doesn’t care about whether or not he’s committing rape, his friends might. In that case, “yes” sounding like “no” gives him a way to justify his behavior to others: after all, women always say “no” when they mean “yes”, and she went up to his apartment and took his drinks and didn’t leave, so she definitely wanted it. Many people are not consciously aware of the small signs of anticipation or happiness that they notice in people they’re flirting with; it’d be all too easy for a rapist Wolf to describe his behavior in a way that sounds like what everyone else is doing.

It’s a much better system to assume that when a person says “no” to sex– including soft nos– that they probably actually mean “no” and it is not a good idea to attempt to repeatedly convince them. This system offers no plausible deniability to rapists, either to themselves or to others. And it minimizes risk that someone will misread another person’s signals when by “no” they actually did mean “no”.

In conclusion: depending on how the song is played, it’s very possible the Mouse consented. However, Baby It’s Cold Outside is still a product of a rape culture.