Sex and the Safely Satisfied, with Jaclyn Friedman (Valentine’s Day Special)

February 14, 2016

Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, speaker, and sex education activist, challenging misconceptions about what it means to have consenting, satisfying sex. She’s the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety, and she joins us on this special Valentine’s Day episode to bring some freethought to love and sex.

In addition to having written extensively on the topic of healthy sexuality and the myriad hang-ups and myths surrounding sex and pleasure, she’s also in the process of producing a new multimedia project, including a podcast about female sexual power and freedom.

This is point of inquiry for Sunday, February 14th, 2016. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Jaclyn Friedman. Jaclyn is a well-known sex educator, a prolific writer and a prominent media critic. She’s the author of What You Really, Really Want The Smart Girls Shame Free Guide to Sex and Safety. She’s here today on this special Valentine’s Day edition, a point of inquiry to talk about love, sex and relationships. 

Jacqueline, welcome to the program. Oh, happy to be here. Thanks for having me. I hear you’re undertaking a new project. I am. It’s sort of a multi-media project. As it turns out. I’m I’m writing a new book which is tentatively entitled Unscrewed the Future of Female Sexual Power, which is really about the moment that we are in now, which I talk about as one of Faux PowerMan, where we have all these sort of empty signifiers that we’re supposed to believe signify that women are sexually liberated, but really don’t give us much actual power and how we can get to a world where we actually do have sexual power and are treated as fully fledged human beings. 

And then that actually has inspired me to relaunch my podcast, which was previously the Yes Means Yes show, but have just relaunched it in collaboration with the great Web site, The Establishment. Also, this new show is also called Unscrewed, and we’ll talk about a lot of the same stuff except with real interesting guests from week to week. 

What are some of the some of the ways in which female sexual power has been misconstrued or misappropriated? 

Oh, I mean, you know, the cliche these days is to talk about 50 Shades of gray, but it’s pretty instructive. So it’s theoretic. It’s marketed as this liberating book for women because it signifies it. It has a woman in it who whose sexual desires are in some ways attended to. She’s allowed to be depicted as. Of having them, I suppose. But they’re all completely constructed by this very abusive, in fact, men that she meets. Right. So when he meets her and sorry for your listeners if I’m spoiling the plot of 50 Shades of Gray, but when when they meet, she has no sexual interests at all, really. 

You know, she’s kind of a blank slate. She’s a virgin and doesn’t think about sex very much. And so even though it’s portrayed as her sexual awakening, it’s all on his terms. And he is, in fact, quite controlling and abusive. So it’s sold as this idea of a woman freeing herself sexually when in fact, it’s a woman being shaped and molded by an abusive man. 

Do you feel like in some ways female sexual power has also been commercialized in a way that simply being sexually expressive has become synonymous with liberation when that might or might not be the case? 

Oh, absolutely. And you see examples of that through the decades, right? It started or probably started long before this. But if you look at, you know, the 1960s and the sexual revolution, first of all, about what we think of as a sexual revolution was largely driven by and for men. But as feminism was starting to sort of pick up that mantle and say, hey, also women have suddenly had the rise of Hugh Hefner and sort of lad culture and Playboy, who was selling the idea of women being sexually free. But again, only for the purposes of men and to be consumed by men. And, you know, if you fast forward a couple of decades, you have the riot girls who were very confrontational about sexual agency and their bodies. And they had a motto which was girl power. Right. Well, what happened to girl power? Do you remember that kind of aid itself, as I recall? Well, girl power got sold back to us as the slogan of the Spice Girls. Right. Which was OK. 

That’s a pop culture lacuna. You’ve just exposed my head in shame. 

It didn’t just happen to eat itself. A man put together a girl group that didn’t organically form. And it got sold back to us as this sort of you go, girl. Sort of feel good. Yes. Women content with no actual power to upset the apple cart. So you see that pattern happen over and over again. Do you have plans for Valentine’s Day? I think my sweetie and I will probably have very low key plans. 

We’ll probably make dinner and last year was a blizzard. So we made dinner at home and we rolled up the carpet in the living room and we did sort of social dancing just by ourselves, which was kind of sweet. 

You know, I’m I’m a romantic and people don’t expect that of me. I like sweet romantic moments, but I don’t like to be forced into them, which is why Valentine’s Day always is very complicated for me. You know, if I’m forced to feel a particular way, I almost always am going to come out. Guns, please. It’s a similar way, although not the romance industrial complex. Why? 

I hate New Year’s Eve. Right. Cause it’s supposed to be the best night of the year and it always, always makes me miserable. So we try to be low key on those days and look for the real romance elsewhere. 

My partner and I have this tradition or we save up all the loose change in our apartment and put it in a special bank account. And then on Valentine’s Day, we take it out and buy a lobster with it. 

Oh, that’s cool. 

So we look forward to it every year. As far as I’m concerned, one of the biggest bullshit things about Valentine’s Day is restaurants like even restaurants that are good. The rest of the time are bad on Valentine’s Day. 

Well, so does inclusion that we don’t want to go to even a restaurant we love on Valentine’s Day because they have a dumb Prefill menu that like is one hundred dollars and you can’t and and it’s less good than what it usually would be. 

I think it’s because they’re catering to people who don’t you don’t really enjoy eating out. They’re just going out for an occasion. And it’s the same same thing with New Year’s. They’re not really catering to people who would ordinarily go. They’re just doing it for the people that feel like they have to put on the big performance. Right. 

And it’s the same thing with flowers, like, look, I am not above enjoying someone giving me flowers. That’s fine with me. I love getting flowers. I love roses. The politics of how those roses are produced or another subject. We can talk about that if you want, but I have forbidden my partner from giving me roses on Valentine’s Day because it’s just a stupid waste of money like he could buy them for me the week following it would be more surprising and therefore more romantic, and it would cost like three times less. 

You’ve written a book about people getting their sexual needs met primarily, but what about people getting their romantic needs? What wisdom can you share with our listeners about how if you want something romantic and it doesn’t have to be flowers, how do you negotiate that? I feel a bit sometimes even harder to negotiate than sex, because with sex you can say, I want this, do this, and usually it doesn’t ruin it. You can just ask. But with romance, there’s this whole script of romance whereby you’re not supposed to ask. 

Yeah. That’s a little tricky, I think. 

It’s for me, it’s useful to drill down into the nugget of what you find romantic, right? So try and set aside the script. You know that red roses are inherently romantic. Well, do you like red roses or maybe you prefer something else. Right. The dining out. You know, we’re talking about these things. I think it’s you start in the same place as you would start in terms of getting your sexual needs met, which is interrogating the strip, the scripts and influences that you’ve been handed and that you’ve been raised with. And you may find that some of them work for you. Right. You may find that actually you don’t want to let go of some of them, and that’s fine. But seizing agency in relationship to those scripts is a great place to start. But it’s also understanding that your partner may have different ideas and capacities and kind of languages around romance. And I think the best relationships are a conversation where you’re both kind of trying to reach toward each other. And for me, what that means is, you know, like do I wish my partner would do some set of things? And I. And here I am. I’m not going to say them all because he’s probably going to listen to this. Right. Do I wish you would do some things that I consider romantic more often or at all? I do. And I’ve dropped hints and he doesn’t always pick them up. But he’s also incredibly thoughtful and romantic in ways that are surprising to me in that I don’t think of as the script, but that I reach toward him and think, OK, well, I can I still hear the same message in this gesture, even though it’s not the same gesture. I would script for you if I were writing a movie about our relationship. Relationships aren’t movies. And so the more we can let go of the idea that it has to be this one way and start to just genuinely understand what our partner is trying to express to us and express what we have to express in in the best ways we can. I think that you can find a beautiful middle there. 

Do you think the same applies to more explicitly sexual stuff in terms of negotiating what you want in a relationship? 

You know, when I wrote what you really, really want, my second book, which is the one about how to get what you want from sex. I worked with a really smart group of women workshopping all the exercises in the chapters as we went along. And one of them said this great thing, which was so smart that, well, I put it in the book and I quote her constantly. Her name is Rebecca Kling. And she said, there are two different ways to compromise. Right. So the good kind of compromise is where you’re building a bridge, right? You’re building a bridge. And you meet in the middle. But if a bridge itself is compromised, you wouldn’t want to cross it. Right. So the question you always need to be asking yourself is, is this a building compromise where we’re connecting, where we’re reaching toward each other? Or is this asking me to compromise something about myself that that doesn’t feel comfortable? And I can’t tell you where that line is for you, nor can you tell me that for me. But I think that that framework is so helpful. Look, none of us like I said, none of us live in the movies, right? We’re not going to get every single thing we want exactly the way we want it when it comes to sex or when it comes to romance or most other things in life. We’re absolutely going to have to be making compromises. But also, you can compromise so much that you’ve compromised yourself away, that you’ve compromised yourself. And I think the important thing to do is ask yourself that question when faced with a compromise. 

So it sort of comes down to introspection and a sort of sense of personal integrity. 

Yeah, exactly. Like, is this something where I can practice accepting what’s being offered instead of demanding it exactly how I want it. Right. Or is this something that’s really core to me where if I don’t get this, it doesn’t work or like it’s not me. I’m compromising myself and pretending to be some one else who won’t be satisfied with this. You know, I was in a relationship a while ago now where we were a real sexual mismatch. And I wanted sex a lot more than heated, which it was difficult to negotiate because it goes against what the social script should be about. A sexual mismatch, of course. Right. 

Because then it’s like a social script says, oh, well, men should want it all the time. So if you’re asking your man for more, there’s some sense that he may be feeling that you’re undermining his manhood instead of just asking for something that might be fun for both of you. 

Right. And it also makes me feel like some monstrous woman. Right. Yeah. What is wrong with me? It really was challenging for both of us. And I stayed in that relationship for a long time. And in fact, he was the one who entered it because I kept telling myself, well, I’m not going to break up over sex. Right. Like, you’re not going to. That’s huge. It just seemed silly, right, when all the other stuff seemed to be working. 

Is that especially women shouldn’t put sex at the center of our lives or towards the center of our lives, that it shouldn’t be something we care enough about to make. Decisions and relationships over. 

Right. Exactly. So I, I really just sort of sucked it up and. 

And then I, I discovered in the healing process after that relationship ended quite painfully, in fact, that I really had been compromising myself and that I didn’t want a sexless relationship, which is what that relationship had become. And that was not OK with me. And that’s not to say that I haven’t been in relationship subsequently where we weren’t exactly on the same page in terms of frequency or the kinds of sex. But there are comprendo. We were close enough together that it felt OK that we could reach toward each other and connect. Whereas in this relationship we really weren’t. We were too far apart to build a bridge. And instead I was compromising myself. Sometimes it’s only after the fact that you learn those things. 

What do you say to people who have sexual desires that are very much at odds with their politics? 

I get asked this question a lot. Yeah. I think that we misinterpret sexual desire. So, for example, the end of the classic extreme example of this is what do you say about a feminist who has rape? Fantasy is right. That’s the super classic example. Well, in fact, rape fantasies can be a great way for some people to explore their fear of sexual assault in a way that feels safe. So there’s a little frisson around it, like you’re touching something that feels terrifying to you in a way that, you know, it actually can’t harm you. So, you know, when when people say, I love watching horror movies, we don’t think, oh, they secretly, genuinely want to be brutally murdered. 

We don’t think that. We think it’s a way to experience fear and to integrate and and think about some of the things that we most fear. That’s also safe. And there can be a pleasurable tension in there. And the idea that our sexual fantasy is somehow mean that we secretly want to be raped, to be, you know, subjugated. It’s just a dishonest argument. And nobody thinks that of any other kinds of fantasies. 

What would you say to a feminist who has really strong egalitarian models in her relationship but also has really strong, dominant fantasies? And we’d like to explore them, but also feels weird because it’s not something she would ever submit to personally like that. It feels ideologically wrong and compromising. Like if the roles were reversed, she would never submit to it for ideological reasons. 

Well, the roles won’t be reversed, at least not without her consent. Is what I would say to her. And that her partner is a different person who has different desires and needs. And if she meets a partner who actually wants and get something out of submitting to her, that’s her partners choice. Right. That she’s not doing. I don’t I don’t feel like we should universalize that question right to your partner. We’re all different people. And you have to recognize that your partner gets to have agency, too. 

So you don’t feel like there’s an ideological conflict in terms of asking for things that you would consider ideologically problematic to submit to yourself? 

I mean, I don’t know that I would consider it ideologically problematic to submit in bed. So I reject the premise of that question, I guess. 

But if somebody does consider it in terms of their own sense of sort of personal integrity, I wouldn’t be ideologically OK for them. But you don’t think it would even so be an issue? 

I mean, it wouldn’t be sexually OK. Like, they wouldn’t enjoy it. It wouldn’t feel safe or good or okay. Or they think it’s morally wrong to do to someone. 

Oh, they think that it’s sort of beyond what they feel is, you know, sort of in keeping with their personal feminist dignity, let’s say, OK. 

But everybody else gets decide their own feminist dignity for themselves. 

No question. I’m just talking about specific. 

But this person, it sounds it is hypothetical person that we’re talking about, I think might want to look at the assumptions that they’ve ingested about what actually confers dignity. I guess that’s what I would say. I don’t believe that there is any one sexual choice that we can make that is degrading or any one sexual choice that we can make that is inherently empowering. Right. It’s all about our relationship to that choice. Do we have genuinely free agency to be making that decision? And so to assign that kind of moral judgment to a particular sex act, I would really push back on that. 

Do you work a lot with young people in terms of talking about sex and consent? And do you notice any trends or anything interesting that’s coming out of younger audiences in terms of what they’re thinking about? 

I do speak on a lot of college campuses. I love talking to young people about sex and consent and healthy sexuality and in preventing sexual violence. I’d love to be working in high schools, but they don’t let me in. And I high school guidance counselor. If you’re listening, please bring me to your school. I promise I’ll make it P.G. 13. I think the thing I noticed is that young people are really hungry for adults who will talk to them directly about sex. Right. Most of them have not had that. They are really shocked when I’m just like, let’s have some real talk. And I don’t shame them and I don’t judge them. And I tell them that I want sex to be good for them, whoever they are, whatever their gender or background. It’s pretty shocking for a lot of them. 

The other thing is that they’re just so relieved to be given some guidance. That makes sense. They’re just getting so much shame and they’re getting these polar opposite messages in school. They mostly either hear nothing because many states don’t mandate that sex ed be taught in schools at all. And of those few states that do mandated it, even fewer mandate that it should be factual. 

Yeah, it just continues to be shocking to me, even though I know that factually to be true. And so they’re either getting terrible misinformation and shame about being about sex or they’re getting just a total information vacuum. And when they do either way wind up with questions that they’re not getting answered, they go to the Internet and what they find is the worst of the worst of porn. Right. Because that’s what’s available for free, which is a whole different story about the economic forces that have made the tube sites so terrible. And so then they see, you know, these real stereotypes. And some of it is quite misogynist, especially with the context stripped away. And we know certainly from all the stuff that came out after Stoya talked about being sexually assaulted onset by James Dean, that some of the porn that they’re looking at is actually the product of some of it actually is sexual wilens. And they can always tell. 

Can you back up and just recap that story for our listeners who might not be familiar with the whole sad James Shaw? 

So Stoya and James Dean are both performers in adult videos. And we’re also a Real-Life couple for a while. And this fall, Stoya took to Twitter and it had decided to break her silence about that, that James Dean had sexually assaulted her. I think it was, she said rape. Yes. Yeah, that’s my recollection. And it was very brave, especially because a lot of people think, oh, sex people who work in the sex industry, especially women, you know, can’t expect to have their bodily autonomy respected. What do they expect? You can expect a lot of shame if you speak up and you’re someone who works in the sex industry. But what happened afterwards, which I think was fantastic, is quite a number of other women who who work in adult film stepped forward and said either me to James Dean also did something like that to me or me, too. 

I’ve also been assaulted as part of my work in porn. And it really has sort of brought some skeletons out of the closet. And a number of the big producers, like Kinky Calm, are starting to introduce new guidelines about what porn actors can expect, what their rights and responsibilities are, and more procedures so that they can hopefully increase security. Now, I don’t want to give COCOM too much praise. I do want to go down a little industry rabbit hole here. But Kinky, I think, was mostly covering their own butts. 

Did you read Amanda Hess’s article about the reaction of James Dean’s young female remix artist fan community? 

I think so. I think what I remember is like they all were like, oh, well. Too bad, yeah. 

We’re going to keep re mixing. I would have really loved about Amanda’s article of you’re talking about these girls who are essentially just completely objectified James Dean away from any actual human James Dean. They’re just like we like these particular clips, not even his home movies, but these clips that we’re just going to keep stringing together because we like his pictures. We don’t. 

Right. He’s not making any money off of it. It doesn’t support him in any way. I you know, I think that. Oh, my gosh. What was the original point when I was going to make when I was talking about Stoian, James Dean, about, oh, young people, a camp of some young people in porn. Sorry. Do you want to go back there? 

Okay, sure. Let’s talk some more about young people and how important is affecting the next generation of hopefully sex positive, educated people. 

Right. So most of them are are either getting nothing or abstinence, misinformation at school, propaganda, Christian propaganda. And then they obviously have curiosities and questions that they can’t get answered from the adults who they look to to answer those things. And they go online and they find porn. And I have no problem with porn. You know, when people ask me, is porn good or bad? I say, you know, that’s like asking, are novels good or bad? Right. There are a lot of crappy not like them are misogynist, but that doesn’t mean novels are bad. But what they find for free. And as the top results is sort of the worst of the worst bottom of the barrel stuff. And so when I come to talk to them, whether it’s at their orientation’s when they’re first starting college or later on in their college careers, so many of them and I think it’s a little bit heartbreaking honestly are just shocked. And you can just see the relief in their faces that someone saying here are some thoughts about how to act ethically with your sex partners and how to ratchet down, you know, like porn is not sex education. If you’re if you’re sex looks like porn. Oftentimes it’s uncomfortable and weird because you’re doing camera angles. Right. Like, even good porn isn’t good sex education most of the time that sex is a human interaction. Right. And I really encourage them to remove it from this idea about getting some and giving it up and this sort of acquisitional attitude we have in the culture toward sex about, you know, knocking on belts and really think about it as a human interaction. It does mean you have to be in love with the person you’re having sex with, but you have to see them as a human equal to you. And and you can expect that from them as well. And the rest is details, right? Yeah. You see what I’m teaching? 

There’s a lot of cultural anxiety right now about sex on campus rape and rape accusations. And like, what’s fueling that? Is there a real crisis in terms of people negotiating consent on campus? Are people just adrift without skills and information that they need? What’s going on? 

I think you’re seeing some real confusion because the standards are changing. 

Yes means yes is a new idea for a lot of people. The idea that affirmative consent is the only real consent when you explain what that means. A lot of times the Hang-Up is in not in young people or older people not feeling like they know how to do sexual communication. Right. And they’re like, you want us to actually talk about it? But that’s not because that’s not that’s an unreasonable standard. It’s because no one has taught them how to do sexual communication. They don’t see it modeled in the culture. Right. On TV and movies and video games, you see all this wordless stuff where the man and the woman their eyes meet. And it’s always a man and a woman. Right. And they just wordlessly know and they fall into bed. 

It’s magical thinking when you come right down to it. It’s completely magical thinking. 

And so the fact that there’s some confusion as we’re trying to shift the standard is not surprising. Right. That’s pretty normal. And what hasn’t been developed yet are effective programs that can be evaluated and shown to demonstrate effectiveness where we can actually teach that. I’m trying to do that stuff. I know a lot of other people are engaged in that work. So it’s a bit of a transition time. But I don’t think that there’s a crisis. And I hear from a lot of students who are very relieved, honestly. And young men as well as young women. I remember one of my favorite pieces of fan mail after our talk was after I gave an orientation talk a few years ago and talked about how it was really okay if you weren’t wanting to have sex or if you weren’t super experienced in that many of your classmates are in the same position. Right. The idea that all college students are hooking up all the time is a total myth. In fact, this generation is having less casual sex than the generation before them, sort of aggregate, and they have fewer aggregate partners. But everybody thinks if you ask college students, they think that everyone around them is having lots of casual sex. So they feel this mythological peer pressure, even though that’s not factually what’s happening. So some of what I do also. Tell them, I mean, if you want to have casual sex, please go ahead. And here’s how to think about it ethically and that you deserve pleasure. But. 

Also, don’t feel pressure to do that. Like, that’s not, in fact, what everyone is doing and you you genuinely should do you. And I heard from this young man who said that he was so relieved, you know, he was 17 or 18 and he had very little sexual experience. He’d maybe kiss someone once or twice. And he was really nervous about how that was going to play out of college. And he said, now, after hearing you, I realized that if I’m nervous, I can just tell the person that I’m nervous. And if they don’t treat me nicely about it, that that’s information about them. 

And I was like, oh, my God, my work here is done. Nothing can go wrong. And I just felt so happy to have offered that kind of comfort to him that wherever you’re out and whatever you want or don’t want from sex, you know, people should be treating you about like a human being about it. 

Yeah. What do you think is behind these numbers, behind the data that say that, you know, young people today are having less casual sex than the generation before them? Why is that happening? 

I don’t know. I actually genuinely don’t know the answer to that question. I think that there’s a certain pendulum swinging thing. Every generation sort of rebels against the generation in front of them. I could speculate. Right. Is it that the world feels super unstable and so they’re looking to do more stable things in their lives? But I don’t know. I would really be speculating. 

And DePodesta say that kids on average are having, as young people on average are having as much sex, but they’re just having it more in relationships or is sex overall down? 

I don’t know that. I think sexual debut is a little later and that the number of partners is down. But I don’t know about frequency of sex. 

Do you think it has anything to do with restricting reproductive freedom? I mean, there’ve been more anti choice laws passed in this last year than in the last 15 years. I think if memory serves. Do you think that that’s actually putting a damper on the sexual expression of young people? 

I think these numbers that I’m quoting pre-date that that recent trend toward these draconian anti-abortion laws. I also think that a lot of young people are very poorly educated about contraception and pregnancy, which is why the U.S. has such a shockingly high teen pregnancy rate and unwanted pregnancy rate. So I wish I thought enough young people had information about their like real factual information about their pregnancy risk and their options after pregnancy to factor in abortion access. But I don’t I’m a little cynical on that point. So I think the mistake. I think if the abortion restrictions are restricting anyone’s sex life, it’s probably skews a little older. Well, that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Jack. Oh, it’s been a pleasure. I love talking to you. And I hope folks will turn into my podcast unscrewed. Definitely do that. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.