Interview: Jaclyn FriedmanPosted: February 20, 2012
By Sophie Rae
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, educator, and activist. She is the editor of the book “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape” (one of Publishers’ Weekly’s Top 100 Books of 2009, and #11 on Ms. Magazine’s Top 100 Feminist Nonfiction of All Time list) and the founder and executive director of Women, Action & the Media, a national organization for gender justice in the media. Friedman recently released a book titled “What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety.”
How did you first become interested in feminism and the study of sex and sexuality?
From a young age, I was very interested in social justice. My parents recently moved out of the house I grew up in and were going through a bunch of old papers and came across a report I wrote in 6th grade about how terrible zoos are because they keep animals locked up in cages. So I’ve always been interested in social justice. And my rabbi growing up in my temple was Sally Priesand who was the first woman ordained in any denomination as a rabbi. She was really my first feminist role model, though I wasn’t using the “f-word” back then, I just thought she was really cool. I came to analyze feminism more specifically in college. I was a psychology major so I took classes on the psychology of women, had some proverbial “click” moments, and got involved in feminist organizing on campus. So I came to learn about sexuality really from a point of view of working on the sexual violence issues I’ve been working on for a few decades now. I was getting involved in the issue of sexual violence in a general sense as a part of getting involved in feminist activism in college when I was sexually assaulted myself in my junior year of college. That really radicalized me in a lot of ways.
You recently released a book called What you Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Can you talk a little about the book?
The first thing to know is that it’s a workbook. It’s not a book full of answers, it’s a book full of questions and you’re the one who has to figure out the answers based on the questions, instructions, and exercises in the book. It’s a workbook for women who want to have a stronger relationship with their own sexuality, whatever that means to them. I was on tour for Yes Means Yes, an anthology I edited with Jessica Valenti about the ways in which our culture is toxic around women’s sexuality, the way rape functions in our culture, and how you have to address one if you want to address the other. I heard from a lot of women who told me that they loved the book, loved what I was talking about, and loved the idea of enthusiastic consent, which we talk about a lot in Yes Means Yes. Enthusiastic consent is the principle that it’s not enough to have a partner who’s just not saying no, but that it’s everybody’s responsibility to make sure that their partner is actively into whatever is happening sexually. So these women that I would meet would say that they loved this idea, but that they didn’t actually know what they wanted to say yes to, or how to go about figuring that out. I realized a couple of things through hearing that question phrased over and over again. One was that as women we don’t really know a lot about what we want from our own sexuality because we live in a culture that frames our sexuality as for everybody but us. It’s for the men you’re with, for social value, for selling things, for all the people who tell you you’re going to hell. This idea that sexuality should be for you isn’t one that most women hear growing up. So we have a lot of unpacking to do. I also realized that I had done a lot of that work for myself and I could talk about how I did it and sort of unpack what that framework is so other people could come to their own conclusions for themselves.
What has the response been like to the book?
The response has been amazing. You get really nervous, working on a book all by yourself. A few people look at it and they think it’s good but you don’t really know at the end of the process. I just feel so relieved and gratified that women are really coming to it and finding in the book exactly what I wanted them to find: a roadmap for them to find whatever they want from sexuality. It’s not “Jaclyn’s sexual manifesto.” I know what I want from sexuality but that isn’t going to help you, because you’re different from me. The number one thing I’ve heard is, “I wish I had this when I was younger,” you know, “It would have saved me a lot of heartache.” It’s heartbreaking to hear, but also really encouraging and makes me feel like I’m on the right track.
I’m in high school and it feels like in high school especially topics like sex and sexuality are really taboo. Even in health classes the conversations we have about these topics are really limited. Why do you think it’s important for teenagers to learn about sex and sexuality?
I don’t know what you’re getting in your high school, but almost every kid in the U.S. gets either abstinence-only sex-ed, which is like “just don’t do it, let’s not talk about it,” or what’s called “disaster prevention” sex-ed which is sort of like, “you shouldn’t do it but if you’re going to do it here’s how not to get somebody pregnant or get an STD.” It all comes from this framework that sex is bad. And that’s really alienating because as a teenager, whether or not you’re being actively sexual with another person, you can already feel that sex is going to be pleasurable. And what that means is that kids are going to get their information somewhere else. So a lot of kids are getting their information from mainstream, free, internet porn. I’m not anti-porn, but it’s not really the best sex educator. There are so many damaging messages. We’re saturated with sexualizing messages which say, especially to young women, that the most important thing about you is what you’re doing or not doing with your body. And the reason it’s the most important thing about you is because it’s everyone else’s agenda. Saying that someone is “too slutty to get a man” assumes that the person even wants a man. Saying “if you’re not a virgin, you’re going to hell” is sexualizing too. That says that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good person, if you’re smart, or good at sports, or a great friend, or anything else, it says that the most important thing is what you are or aren’t doing with your body. Or on the flip side, you have the idea that a woman should be as slutty as possible, or as sexualized as possible, in order to get attention from the culture or from guys or your friends or whoever. What’s really important in sex-ed is to talk about how sex can be a positive force for you. And that’s the reason to resist these messages, because otherwise it seems like these messages are the only things that are true, and these messages are so damaging. So healthy sex-ed should really be about talking to people of all ages, but young people especially, about what sex can be like in your life and how it can be a positive force.
I started a feminism club at my school this year and something that comes up a lot in our meetings is the common use of words like “slut” and “whore” to describe girls, mostly based on the way they dress. What is your opinion on these types of words?
I’d like to see them exposed for as meaningless as they are. Everyone uses the word “slut” or “hoe” really differently but they’re almost always used to mean “this person is more sexual than me, or they’re sexual in a way that I don’t approve of”. So again, it’s about someone forcing their agenda on you. But the interesting thing is, so is “prude.” I had a bunch of women working through the book with me the first time through and their voices are in the book. About half of them had the experience of feeling like they were too slutty and they were ashamed of being slutty. The other half felt ashamed because they weren’t sexual enough, but it was the same shame. I get both accusations, which tells you everything you need to know about it. I simultaneously get accused of being a wanton slut who’s ruining it for the good girls, and then when I talk about the need for enthusiastic consent and actually communicating with your partner I get accused of being a prude who doesn’t know how sex works. All that tells you is that these words are about somebody else imposing their agenda on you. And that’s why this kind of sex education, the kind that’s in What You Really Really Want, is an act of resistance against those messages. It says, “no, sexuality is for you, it’s not about somebody else’s agenda”. The best thing you can do for yourself do is figure out what you want to do with your sexuality and what works for you and what’s strengthening and makes your life better. What kinds of things can you do with your sexuality that are good for you, on your own terms?
Do you think there is any type of woman in our society that isn’t shamed sexually, that doesn’t get accused of anything?
No. I think it’s impossible for a woman to be the “appropriate” amount sexual.
How do you see these issues of sex and sexuality as related to and relevant to feminism?
They’re very connected for feminism. I really do see the process of rejecting the sexualization of our culture— the idea that our sexuality should be run by somebody else’s agenda—and resisting that by creating your own agenda for your own sexuality is a basic act of feminist resistance. It’s at the core of becoming in control of our own bodies. And from a more positive point of view, when we feel more secure in our bodies, we know where our boundaries are, how to get our needs met, or at least what our needs are, we have more head space to do the work of activism. The less you’re stressed about whether or not you’re a slut or a prude or all the other stuff people try to put on us, the more head space we have to do the crucial work of activism
You founded an organization called Women, Action, and the Media (WAM). Could you talk a bit about that?
WAM is an organization that’s working to promote gender justice in the media. We’re working on addressing four levels of gender discrimination in the media: what kinds of media people have access to, what is the representation of women and gender issues in the media, who gets to work in the media, and who owns the media. It’s an organization of mostly women, but people of all genders are welcome, of people who are coming to it from all points of views: activists, journalists, filmmakers, academics, anyone who’s interested in improving gender justice in the media. It’s a place for all of us to converse, get educated, and take action together.
What do you think is the effect on society of how women are represented in the media?
It’s impossible to measure. One of the things that the representation of women in the media does is that we don’t connect with each other, we don’t know about each other. If only one or two types of stories about women gets told, then we aren’t going to hear about other women who are doing the same kind of work we’re doing and we won’t be able to connect with each other. That makes the work of feminism a lot more difficult. It also creates self-fulfilling prophecies, it creates limited opportunities for women. Most of us can only be something we see modeled—it takes an enormous amount of creativity and strength to create a life for yourself that no one is modeling yet. If there were more models of womanhood represented in the media, we would all have fuller lives. Then there’s the profound fact that if you’re leaving half the population out of the story, we all have poorer lives for it.