For the past week, serious accusations of rape and harassment from 1999 against Nate Parker and his collaborator and college classmate Jean Celestin sparked intense and contentious conversations about sexual violence. From people asserting Parker and Celestin’s guilt or innocence to folks wrestling with whether to support Parker’s forthcoming and historic film, Birth of A Nation, it’s been intense and often troubling.

Discussions of the allegations against Parker and Celestin have revealed a disturbing lack of understanding as it relates to consent, particularly the multiple “yeses” required in sexual encounters involving multiple partners. That ignorance is perpetuated by social norms that permeate every aspect of our society, even some of our favorite songs.

“Running a train,” a sexual act typically involving one woman and multiple male partners in a successive sexual encounter is often heralded in our society as a sexual rites of passage for heterosexual men. Even more, running a train has been presented over the years within popular culture as a desirable and pleasurable sex act. Rap music has been one of many pop culture arenas in which running a train is fetishized. From Nate Dogg crooning, “It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none,” in 1993 to Big Sean rapping,“I might let my crew bang” on “Clique” in 2012, rap songs with lyrics about a group of male friends having sex with one woman are quite common. Hidden in plain sight alongside the catchiness and supposed playfulness of these lyrics, however, is a troubling and possibly criminal understanding of consent. 

Kurupt raps in “It Ain’t No Fun,” “I know the pussy's mines, I'ma fuck a couple more times. And then I'm through with it, there's nothing else to do with it. Pass it to the homie, now you hit it.”

The very idea of “passing the pussy” does not account for women’s sexual desires or pleasure. It reduces a woman to a sexual organ without any agency. She becomes her pussy. The reduction to a thing does excite some women, but for others, this objectification erases their humanity and sexual autonomy. The “passing” of the “it” further removes the woman at the center of Kurupt’s verse from actively consenting to a sex act with another person. In short: a man cannot decide to let his “crew bang,” as Big Sean put it. A woman is the sole arbiter of who can and cannot “bang” her and each person in the crew must decide if they want to have sex as well.

The scenarios described in rap songs like “Aint No Fun” and “Clique” should give us pause. For all their supposed harmlessness, they sound more like sexual acts happening to women than with them. And to be clear, the absence of consent and agency in any sexual encounter is an act of sexual violence. Non-consensual sex does not exist- that’s rape. 

Besides the objectification, denigration, and dominance illustrated in some rap lyrics, real life “trains” are scenarios sometimes guided by coercion, fear, and the voluntary and involuntary complicity that can occur when there are more than two people involved in a sexual encounter.

A “no” should be possible at any stage of any sexual act and, in most cases, running a train does not provide optimal conditions for that response to unwanted sexual activity or unwanted participants. For example, when a woman consents to one or some partners, but not others, her sexual behavior with those she consented to can be used to invalidate the need for consent to all participants. In a “train” situation, she also might fear the possibility of violence from a refused participant, or perhaps even the loss of relationship with one or some of the men she engaged with consent if she denies other men desiring to be part of the act. 

To be sure, some women can and do consent to sexual encounters involving more than one sexual partner. A woman can derive pleasure from this act, as can the multiple partners. Still, running a train outside of spaces where consent is formally sought such as pornography or sex clubs and communities with strict and enforced rules about consent can easily devolve into a coercive, non-consensual, or violent sexual encounter. 

When revisiting the available details of the Parker and Celestin case, we must consider the circumstances under which their accuser could or could not render her consent. Aside from being, according to reports, heavily intoxicated, she was in a scenario that complicated and likely compromised her ability to say “yes.” And while not all “trains” result in a rape or act of sexual violence, we must think more carefully about the potentially harmful and criminal aspects of running a train in general. 

Despite the numerous problematic aspects of running a train, fascination with it among men rarely evokes conversations about coercion, consent, or female pleasure. As presented in popular culture, it’s a given that the woman involved or rapped about is willing and that men are ultimately the arbiters of what happens to her body. 

That framing is undeniably dangerous and contributes to a culture in which gang rape is normalized. When talking about sex, sexual violence, and consent, we should probably combat this normalization with the mantra, "it still can be fun even if the homies can't have none."

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