Should real love hurt? The eroticisation of dominance, submission and coercive control in contemporary pop music

Natasha Mulvihill*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

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A recurrent cultural trope in Western culture is that ‘real’ love hurts. Great love affairs are tempestuous: they can involve suffocating intensity, emotional and perhaps physical pain. The giddying see-saw of highs and lows can hollow out one or both partners, yet, it is believed, also makes them whole.

In 2015, the UK enacted legislation to criminalise ‘coercive control’. Drawing on the foundational work of Stark (2009), the term refers to the use of coercion, isolation, threats or similar behaviours to control an intimate partner or family member. There are wider societal shifts too in challenging both sexual harassment and abuse (#MeToo, Everyday Sexism Project) and constraining gender norms such as toxic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005; Kupers, 2005) or indeed toxic femininity.

It is interesting then that dominance, submission and coercive control continue to be eroticised in the lyrics of contemporary pop music. This may on the one hand reflect the steadfastness of patriarchal thinking and practice (MacKinnon, 1989; Millett, 1970), or it may signal a social and cultural resonance in dominance and in submission, which does not equate simply with abuse or coercion. These varying accounts in part mirror the fault lines between current feminist narratives on the nature of empowerment and agency.

This chapter presents an analysis of five recent Top 20 UK tracks and draws on Ryle’s (1949) concept of a ‘category mistake’ to argue that coercive control and abuse are mis-labelled as ‘willing masochism’ or ‘female empowerment’. I argue that castigating the writers and performers of such music neglects how we are all subject to, and potentially co-creators of, the patriarchal practices which eroticise dominance and submission
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMisogyny, toxic masculinity, and heteronormativity in post-2000 popular music
EditorsGlenn Fosbraey, Nicola Puckey
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-65189-3
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-65188-6
Publication statusPublished - 22 Apr 2021

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISSN (Print)2662-9364
ISSN (Electronic)2662-9372

Structured keywords

  • SPS Centre for Gender and Violence Research


  • Coercive control
  • Songs
  • Popular music
  • Dominance
  • Eroticisation
  • Submission
  • Abuse
  • Popular Culture
  • Domestic abuse


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