Writing on the Internet for a living means that certain seasons bring debates that are predictable to the point of becoming traditions. Christmas brings arguments about whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, why it is that “Love Actually,” a profoundly strange movie, has become a holiday staple, and of course, what I’ve come to think of as the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wars. As sexual norms have changed, the 1944 duet, in which a male singer tries to persuade a female guest to use the increasingly bad road conditions as an excuse to spend the night, has become the subject of annual debates about whether it’s a charming narrative of seduction or an uneasy prelude to a not-entirely-consensual sexual encounter.
I tend to fall on the former side of this debate, correcting, of course, for seven decades-worth of changes in what women are permitted to do sexually without ruining their reputations. But at risk of opening a new front in the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wars, it’s worth looking at the song again in the middle of this #MeToo moment, not so much because our modern perspective reveals the sexual culture of 1944 — the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” has not aged well in the post-“roofie” era — but for what hasn’t changed since Frank Loesser wrote it as a closing number for a housewarming party.
A subset of our present conversation about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct has been a debate over whether the rules that govern proper behavior are terribly confusing or actually quite clear, thank you very much. Can you hug a co-worker? Have an office party with alcohol? Ask someone with whom you work for a date? In some cases, these dilemmas can be resolved with simple fixes. It’s not actually terribly disruptive to ask if you can hug someone who has just shared good or bad news, especially if you haven’t hugged them before. For reasons other than sexual harassment, including cost, the possibility of drunk driving, and the fact that not everyone feels comfortable at alcohol-soaked events, companies are perfectly justified in handing out a limited number of drink tickets rather than splurging on open bars. And both in the workplace and out, a decent rule of thumb is that you get one shot at asking someone out, and that persisting after having been turned down is bad form (not to mention the possibility that it can make you look pathetic in addition to menacing).
But the truth is that a certain amount of our communication around sex is indirect, and as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” demonstrates, keeping it that way can be awfully charged and fun.
Between people who don’t know each other well, the decision to ask someone out, or the process of deciding that someone might welcome a physical advance, is always going to rely on a combination of intuition, interpretation of body language and the substance of the prior interactions between the people involved.
Asking if it’s all right to hug or kiss someone (or accepting the initial answer after a request for a date) may mitigate some of the most severe potential consequences of reading a situation wrong. Done right, and as demonstrated by countless film stars of earlier eras, a “May I kiss you?” can be plenty steamy: a pleasure anticipated is a pleasure heightened. But even as these sensible rituals decrease the chance of a slap in the face (or a complaint to HR), they won’t eliminate all possibility of awkwardness or embarrassment.
And between people who have a prior relationship — like the man and woman in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — communication may be even more indirect, and people may talk to each other that way not because they’re unsure how to speak with each other directly, but because they enjoy it. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” captures a couple playing a game in which each has a clearly defined part. She wants to be talked into staying even though she knows her family and friends, from a worried mother to a “suspicious” sister and a “maiden aunt” whose “mind is vicious,” are likely to be irksome about it. And he wants the joy of persuading her with everything from compliments “Your hair looks swell” to exaggerated concerns about her health: “Think of my lifelong sorrow / If you got pneumonia and died.” It’s all a way of getting the pair warmed up, and by that I don’t mean the snow and freezing temperatures that they’re singing about.
Would the interaction in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” meet the standards of contemporary consent education? Absolutely not, but it also seems like the point of such consent education is either to smooth the conduct of one-off sexual encounters, or to help a couple get to a place where they know each other well enough to dispense with routine negotiations. That this point sometimes gets lost in contemporary discussions of consent and communication doesn’t make it any less true. The banter of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may be seven decades old, but it’s still a goal to aspire to, not a dangerous ambiguity to be eliminated.