Two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing author, activist, speaker, former Feministe guest-blogger and my friend Jaclyn Friedman. Jaclyn’s latest book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety is out now, and should go on every Smart Girl’s reading list (it also makes for a great gift). It’s a feminist-minded guide to relationships, sex and love without judgment and with lots of exercises to help you figure out what you’re actually looking for. It is fantastic and everyone should read it.
It’s also incredibly rich and complex, and there’s a lot to cover. I asked Jaclyn about a few parts of the book that I found particularly interesting, and our conversation is below. She has some pretty incredible things to say, so I would really recommend checking out the video (transcript is below the fold). And a million thank-yous to Marc Faletti for shooting and editing the thing.
And to make this even more fun, Jaclyn and I are going to speak again, live on video, on Wednesday December 7th at 2pm EST — just come to Feministe for details on how to watch. The purpose of that chat will be to answer reader follow-up questions. So of course feel free to discuss the book and this video in the comments, but also email any follow-up questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at me (@jillfilipovic) with the hashtag #WhatYouWant. I’ll pick a handful of Q’s and address them to Ms. Friedman live. Now, the interview!
Jill: Hi I’m Jill Filipovic the editor of Feministe and I’m here today with Jaclyn Friedman a former Feministe guest blogger and also the author of What You Really Really Want The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. Jaclyn thank you so much for being here.
Jaclyn: Thanks for having me!
Jill: So one of my favourite parts of your book was the discussion of love and your general ethos about relationships and in the book you say that what really defines love is the consistent impulse to be loving to someone else in return. And I thought that definition was very beautiful so I’m curious about a couple things about it. First, how you came to it, how you actually apply it in your real life especially when it is challenged and how you apply it to your non-romantic relationships.
Jaclyn: Sure! I mean I think I came to it by trial and error the way a lot of us come to our own conclusions about sexuality and also about love, you know, I just sort of learned the lesson that I think a lot of us learn along the way which is that someone who says ‘I love you’ you know and even says they feel really pretty things about you, like, ultimately if that’s not coupled with action that’s actually loving toward you, it’s not meaningful, right? Like, maybe they do feel that way, maybe they genuinely feel all the ways they’re saying to you but if they’re also not acting in a loving way toward you then that’s not real love, right? Like, that’s not worth much. And it can be confusing, I mean, we also know that that sort of talk is used to manipulate people all the time. So for me, I really try to look for action, intention as well as sort of follow through on that intention, and hold myself to that same standard.
Jill: And do you apply that to your relationships that aren’t specifically romantic as well?
Jaclyn: I try to. I mean I think that honestly I think it’s easier in non-romantic relationships, isn’t it? I mean, I think we expect less of each other in those relationships, I mean friendships can be amazingly intense but I think there’s a lot more room, there’s a lot more leeway to be like, oh, I’m really busy right now, or distracted, or you know, there’s a lot more leeway for ebb and flow and I think we have these expectations in romantic relationships that we will be like perfect and connected at all times and so sometimes the loving thing to do is to communicate like I don’t have all to give right now like what shall we do about that, or like you know, it’s okay if you need to take some time, or you know whatever, like, that we shouldn’t, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to have more human expectations of each other.
Jill: Another part of your book that I really loved was the section on heartbreak and relationships ending, and specifically the your point about being gentle with yourself and taking the time to do the important self care when a relationship ends. And I was curious about a) what your strategies for self care are and b) how you draw the line between self-care and wallowing in sorrow.
Jaclyn: I don’t necessarily draw a line. I think that wallowing can be okay as long as you don’t take up permanent residence there. I think there’s this tendency for those of us who want to think of ourselves as strong women to reject that wallowing thing, right, to be like I’m not going to wallow, like, here’s the way to get over the breakup the fastest, right? Like, and that’s not useful, I mean ultimately we have to feel our feelings, there’s another section of the book which talks about, like, in terms of feelings, the only way out is through. But also simultaneously not believing that feelings are facts, right? Like for me after a breakup I always go to the like ‘I’ll never find love’ and, you know, and like everything is permanently horrible, right? And it’s okay to let yourself feel that way as long as you don’t confuse that with being true. So I say sometimes you have to steer into the curve, right? Like sometimes you do have to lay on the couch with like Ben and Jerry’s and watch dumb television and like cry on the phone to your friends, or whatever your version of that is. Everyone has their own version of that. As long as you don’t become attached to that as an identity, right? As long as you don’t become the girl who’s talking about the breakup five years later and like hasn’t moved on. Because ultimately, and this gets to the talk in chapter 4 about the difference between intuition and generalized fear, ultimately if you generalize from your breakup that like all people are bad, and everyone will break your heart, like that’s going to lead to misery for you and for your friends [laughs], not incidentally. Instead, to sort of try to let yourself move through your feelings, like don’t become too attached to them but don’t fight them. And that’s the best way to learn specific lessons, like oh, this sort of thing in relationship, it doesn’t work that well for me. I’m going to look for something else in the next one.
Jill: You obviously spend a lot of time in the book talking about sex and sexuality, and especially female sexuality, and there are a million things to talk about, but one of my favourite lines is when you say ‘Is there any clearer evidence that we still live in a culture that’s profoundly confused about female sexuality when it’s easier to talk about porn than about self-pleasure. And that’s part of your introduction to talking about masturbation, which I found very very interesting. So, I’m curious what you would have to say about this idea that female masturbation when you’re younger is kind of like this gross weird girl thing, that at least when I was a young girl or woman nobody talked about, and now I’m an adult woman and we do all talk about it, and it’s very clear that most of us do it, it’s culturally very much situated as kind of a titillating thing for men, and how you think we can sort of reframe the conversation and discussions about female masturbation that don’t make it about ultimately male pleasure.
Jaclyn: Well, I mean, in order to do that we really have to reframe the whole conversation about sexuality to make it so that it’s not all about male pleasure. So the book is hopefully a tool for that, but I don’t think it’s going to be a magic bullet, or a magic wand if we want to have a less violent metaphor. So I mean I think that the most important thing to do is for us to get comfortable for it for ourselves in whatever relationship we want to have to masturbation and then when we talk about it or when we hear other people talk about it it will sound more normal. I think that it has to happen internally first, we have to make that shift ourselves, and that’s part of why I do have a section on masturbation because it is this weird female taboo, I mean, I still remember when Joycelyn Elders in the 90s said that, you know masturbation is a great way to practice safer sex, and I was like, that’s a great message, and then she was fired, right? For saying that we self-pleasure, which is first of all not promoting promiscuity or you know, any of the things that the family values people object to, and is in fact a really safe way not only to not get diseases and experience your sexuality, but to learn about our sexuality, what do we like, what do we not like, what are our fantasies like. It’s a very safe spaces to explore our sexuality. So I don’t know, I don’t have, I don’t have a magic strategy for changing that conversation, but I do think that it’s incredibly important and it, it starts with us changing the conversation internally for ourselves. So whatever we can do to get over that, first for ourselves, and then I would say, like, practice with your friends, right? Like, maybe make this a thing that you can talk about with one person, and then with a group of people, in ways that don’t sound like, oh heeheeheehee, right?
Jill: If you could wave a magic wand and change a certain policy or even shift pop culture, what would you like to see happen?
Jaclyn: I would like to see pleasure-based sex ed mandated in all schools. So that not only are we getting rid of abstinence-only education, which of course I don’t think we have to talk about right here about all the things that are wrong and dangerous about it. But even right now, what’s considered the good kind of sex education is sort of disaster prevention sex ed, right? Like, if you must do it, here’s some things so you don’t get diseases or pregnant. And when we leave pleasure out of sex ed, we leave masturbation out, right, all of these things, but we also leave out female pleasure altogether, because we don’t need to talk about the clitoris when you’re only doing things about preventing diseases, you know, it’s all this, right? [mimes penis-in-vagina intercourse with hands] So, if were to be actually able to talk about hey, sex is a thing, and under the right circumstances, and we can talk about what might be the right circumstances for you, that really can feel great, and there’s nothing, and can be a really healthy part of your life, that would be a really, a transformative policy, I think.
Jill: So enthusiastic consent is a concept that you have obviously been writing about for a long time now, in the book Yes Means Yes which you edited with Jessica Valenti, and then obviously also in the new book, and I’ve noticed especially after Yes Means Yes but also in the wake of this book, there seems to be – I don’t know if it’s confusion or critique, but a variety of perspectives on the enthusiastic consent concept. And specifically this idea that maybe it’s not realistic that every single sex act will be completely, enthusiastically, overwhelmingly consented to, a), and then b) from the asexual community that there are people that are not going to be enthusiastic for sex, that are maybe doing it because it pleases their partner, or because it makes someone else happy. And is the idea then that those individuals can’t consent, and what does that do to individual autonomy?
Jaclyn: Well, Jill, you’re not having sex, which where every second of the day, you’re just like having your mind blown?
Jill: I am. [raises hand, laughs]
Jaclyn: I mean, I know, I don’t know what everyone else’s problem is. No, kidding… I think there’s some confusion about enthusiastic consent on two levels. The first is what enthusiasm means, and sort of how it can defined, so you can be enthusiastic about pleasing your partner, and that’s enthusiastic consent, right? You can be enthusiastic about trying something even though you don’t know if you’ll be into it, that’s enthusiastic consent. So, it’s not just about like whether or not you’re having a peak physical experience at any given moment, there are a lot of different ways to feel enthusiasm. The question is, are you freely engaging in whatever the activity is, are you happy to be doing it, right? So, to sort of broaden out our concept of what enthusiasm looks like in bed. But beyond that, people sometimes I think are confused about what enthusiastic consent as a idea, as a concept and a principle, is for. Right? Enthusiastic consent is not about policing whether or not you are adequately having a good enough time in bed, right? It’s not about any of that. It’s, everything I do is about removing shame and pressure from sexuality, and making a place where you can feel comfortable being wherever you’re at. What it’s about is actually making sure that we’re doing right by our partners, and that our partners are doing right by us. So enthusiastic consent is an obligation, right, it’s an obligation that we make sure that our partners are freely and happily coming to bed with us and doing whatever it is that we’re doing. Or the couch or wherever it’s happening. So it’s not about, like, are you enthusiastic enough and if not you’re failing, right, it’s about making sure that we’re checking in with our partners to make sure that they’re not just putting up with whatever is happening, that they’re freely and happily coming to it. And if you’re not freely and happily coming to what is happening, either out of wanting to please your partner or a sense of experimentation, or physical pleasure, any of those things, then you may in fact need to re-evaluate whether or not that’s a sexual partnership for you.
Jill: Well, Jaclyn, thank you so much for speaking with me, and for agreeing to post this video so the Feministe community can hear more about your book. I hope you will join us in the comments.
Jaclyn: Happy to, thanks so much for having me.
[And thanks a million to Jay Phoebe, Kevin, Xtina and Thomas for the transcription help. You all are ze best].