It’s December, and you know what that means: it’s time to string up the holiday lights, spike the eggnog, and strike up a debate over sexual consent in Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
You’ve heard the old tune. A couple is cozily sipping cocktails around the fire as the winter storm rages outside. The girl sings all the reasons why she needs to get home, while the guy tries to convince her to stay. When it was written in 1944, it read as a coy, flirty, cat-and-mouse duet. Nowadays, to our modern ears, it sounds kind of, well … rapey.
In some circles, concern about consent has made this vintage carol go from holiday favorite to musica non grata in record time. The song has been pulled from some radio stations. There have been hilarious modern reboots showing what a consensual departure would look like. (“What’s in this drink? Pomegranate La Croix.”) And it’s not December without an anti-Baby-It’s-Cold-Outside post or ten showing up in my Facebook feed.
But is this modern dialogue missing the larger point about how societal constructs support or hinder a culture of consent? Many smart analyses argue so. And after spending the last year thinking about the way we teach consent (or rather, fail to teach consent) to Texas students, the 1940s don’t seem so far away.
In 2020, we’ve pretty well established that when it comes to sex, no firmly means no (and for the record, anything less than enthusiastic yes also means no). But in the 1940s, as women joined the workforce during World War II and social mores were in a fascinating moment of evolution, things were a bit more complex. Rates of premarital sexual activity were rising — but people wouldn’t openly start talking about that for a couple more decades.
And that gets us to the scene of this song. While this 1940s couple was likely to be engaging in, at minimum, some serious canoodling, the female couldn’t openly admit it. And as a nice girl, she certainly couldn’t publicly say that she was interested in anything to do with sex — even if she actually was very interested.
As one analysis notes, “The tension in the song comes from her own desire to stay and society’s expectations that she’ll go.” Most tellingly, all of her reasons for wanting to leave are based on what other people might think or expect (“my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious, my father will be pacing the floor”). But never does she imply that she personally wants to leave — only that she’s expected to: “I ought to say no, no, no sir. At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”
Still, some parts of the song haven’t aged so well. Nowadays, “What’s in this drink?” sounds like a rohypnol-fueled date rape in the making. But in the 1940s, the phrase was an established joke used to winkingly blame bad behavior on booze — and the punchline was often that the drink didn’t have any alcohol in it at all.
All together, then, what emerges is a young woman covertly flexing her sexual agency in one of the only ways allowed — by saying no as a cover to let her say yes. Her beau knows the situation and plays along.
In a world in which the only allowable response is no, no sometimes doesn’t mean no. And in this world, when said with the right amount of coyness, no also can mean yes. Confused? Me too. Clearly, Baby It’s Cold Outside is not a template we should reach for to teach consent to our own kids. Consent can be confusing enough even without layers of double meaning, and we want young people to understand that no really does mean no. But how do we avoid this world where no means yes?
As we’re teaching young people about sex, it can be appealing to only talk about refusing sexual activity. But if we teach kids that the only acceptable answer in any situation is no, then we risk creating a murky world in which yes sounds like no, and no loses its meaning. We can create a culture that supports coyness rather than clearness.
I speak for many parents when I say that I hope my own kids delay sex until they’re older and emotionally ready. But I know they need to understand the concepts of consent long before they actually become sexually active. That’s because we give or withhold consent to so many things other than sexual intercourse. Whether the “yes” or “no” relates to hugging a friend in preschool, flirting on Discord in middle school, kissing in high school, or having sex in college (or for that matter, in the retirement community), consent communication is a skill that people need at every phase of life. We need to know how to formulate our own boundaries; communicate our boundaries clearly; and crucially, respect the boundaries of other people.
Unfortunately, the State Board of Education voted against including consent in the newly updated health education curriculum standards, though they did take the positive step of moving beyond refusal to include education on respecting the boundaries of other people. However, both school districts and individual families can and should teach their kids about consent. It’s a topic that can be confusing and complex — but it’s more important than ever (and there are many resources out there to help).
The couple in Baby It’s Cold Outside were operating under the confusing consent structures of the 1940s, and I can’t really blame the girl for muddling her yes and no, or the guy for badgering the no into a yes. In the meantime, I’m going to keep on enjoying the song with a glass of eggnog in hand (what’s in this drink? That would be bourbon.) — but I’ll be working towards a world in which my own kids have much easier territory to navigate when it comes to communicating and respecting personal boundaries.
I really can’t stay (Baby it’s cold outside)
I gotta go away (Baby it’s cold outside)
This evening has been (Been hoping that you’d dropped in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice)
My mother will start to worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful please don’t hurry)
Well maybe just a half a drink more (I’ll put some records on while I pour)
The neighbors might think (Baby it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there)
I wish I knew how (Your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell) (Why thank you)
I ought to say no, no, no sir (Mind if move in closer?)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?)
I really can’t stay (Baby don’t hold out)
Baby it’s cold outside
Ah, you’re very pushy you know?
I like to think of it as opportunistic
I simply must go (Baby it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (But baby it’s cold outside)
The welcome has been (How lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (Look out the window at that storm)
My sister will be suspicious (Gosh your lips look delicious!)
My brother will be there at the door (Waves upon a tropical shore)
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious (Gosh your lips are delicious!)
Well maybe just a cigarette more (Never such a blizzard before) (And I don’t even smoke)
I’ve got to get home (Baby you’ll freeze out there)
Say lend me a coat? (It’s up to your knees out there!)
You’ve really been grand, (I feel when I touch your hand)
But don’t you see? (How can you do this thing to me?)
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow (Think of my life long sorrow!)
At least there will be plenty implied (If you caught pneumonia and died!)
I really can’t stay (Get over that old out)
Baby it’s cold
Baby it’s cold outside
Okay fine, just another drink then
That took a lot of convincing!
Songwriters: Frank Loesser
Jen Biundo is the Director of Policy and Data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She loves a good data visualization, evidence-based public health priorities, and analyzing ballot returns by precinct. She’s the proud mother of two kids who are enrolled in Texas public schools, including a middle schooler who kind of wishes his mom had a normal job that didn’t involve sex education.