A photo of Jaclyn Friedman carrying books

Photo Credit: Ashton Lyle


Photo Credit: Ashton Lyle

Jaclyn Friedman Wants to ‘Unscrew’ Systemic Sexism

The 'Unscrewed' author talks with DAME about "fauxpowerment" and Hugh Hefner, the fate of Roe v. Wade, and the inevitability of the current brutal backlash.

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In her work as an activist and writer, Jaclyn Friedman has already taken on issues of rape and rape culture (Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape) and female pleasure (What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety), as well as helping to force Facebook to change its standards for sexist language and images. She’s spoken on college campuses, television and radio shows, and her own podcast, Unscrewed, about issues of sexual liberation. In her new book Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, Friedman tackles all of it—the whole tangled web of entrenched, systemic sexism and all its modern iterations. The book ranges from pop culture (i.e., how empowering is it to post nude selfies?) to the seriously political (how close is the religious right to overturning Roe v. Wade?).

DAME talked with Friedman by phone.

I just finished reading your book, and I have to say, it covers so much ground! Did you know, before you began working on it, what a big job it would be?

I did an enormous amount of research even for the book proposal. This was a really hard project for me. When I sat down to do it, I had several months’ writer’s block. I figured, if I’m going to untangle or at lest map out all of the systems that are hemming in our sexual freedom, where does it take me? As you can tell, it takes you a lot of places! I was in fear I was going to leave out something important. It’s just very sensitive material, and very complex, and I hope that I have adequately wrapped my arms around it.

Your first chapter talks about the idea of “fauxpowerment,” a kind of easily consumed empowerment message that you say is essentially fake. What do you mean by that?

There’s a lot of focus, when we talk about women and sex and power, on the idea of sexual empowerment, and it’s a very individualistic idea that focuses on an individual woman’s choices and behaviors. Even in its most benign iterations, it misses the forest for the trees. Women need actual access to power; we don’t just need to feel happier about ourselves. There’s a story in the book about a young woman who was having body image issues and a friend encouraged her to get a boudoir shoot, a sexy photo shoot, to help her feel better about herself. And it worked! And she felt better enough about herself that she shared it with her boyfriend. And that’s great—that’s the empowerment happy ending, right? But the actual story goes, they broke up, and he published the photos on the internet without her consent and she was deluged with rape threats and became suicidal and didn’t want to leave her house. So she’s not actually being made free by taking those photos, even though they made her feel good about herself in the instance. She’s not actually free until we live in a world where men don’t feel free to completely disregard women’s consent, and where women aren’t shamed for that kind of sexual expression.

You talk about Hugh Hefner as a kind of poster boy of fauxpowerment; that Playboy offered this version of female empowerment that rested on women posing naked for male gratification. But empowerment means nothing if you don’t actually have power.

Exactly. That’s the shift I’m trying to articulate in the book.

What do you make of Roy Moore and his statement about how he only “dated” teen girls with their mother’s permission, and that they were “good girls”? There’s a lot to unpack there about good girls, bad girls, and religion and sex.

It actually reminds me of something Hugh Hefner said once about who the ideal Playboy Playmate was: He talked about her being a simple, natural girl, a “girl next door” type, and he contrasted her with this imaginary sophisticated woman, who has filthy thoughts and wears fancy underwear. And I thought it was so revealing because the male analog to the woman he describes who is the opposite of desirable for him is actually his male customer, who’s sophisticated and probably wears fancy underwear! And so the idea is that the good girl is one who is pliable and unsullied, and I think that’s what Roy Moore is saying, too. Roy Moore doesn’t have any trouble sullying them himself—because in Moore’s worldview, for certain, any kind of sexual contact dirties a woman. It’s very Biblically old-fashioned, and that’s not surprising. He comes out of an Evangelical movement that really does see women as sexual property in a very literal way. It’s the most extreme expression of that that we have in modern American culture.

You have a chapter in the book about how religious fundamentalism affects societal views of sexuality. It really feels lately like we’re in being dragged backwards by these views. Am I crazy, or has there been a pretty big retrenchment in the last few years on things like contraception, which didn’t used to be considered controversial?

There’s no doubt that we’re in a time of backlash. I think a lot about Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream, about how in times of war and fear the culture becomes more socially conservative and how that reflects in a post-9/11 world. And it’s also a response to the idea of progress that Obama symbolized—how much he actually enacted it we can discuss—but Obama symbolized a very radical progress to some people in a way that they felt uncomfortable with. And it made some folks feel like they have to “make America great again,” which is all about nostalgia for an imagined past in which everybody basically knew their place. And that has to do with women and contraception and sexuality just as much as it has to do with race and class.

But then on the other side we’ve got women using their sexuality as if it’s their only route to power.

I don’t know that there’s a left/right paradigm, but I do think there are two narratives that are both flawed. One is that girls and women should empower themselves by being as sexy as possible: That’s the Kim Kardashian school of empowerment, when she posts a naked selfie and says “this is empowerment.” I have no concern about her posting a naked selfie, if that makes her happy; that’s her business. I literally have no judgment of that. But I don’t think it’s giving women any power to be consumed as a naked image. It’s not very revolutionary. And there are also the folks—you hear them on the right, but you also hear them on the left, like in Ariel Levy’s work—who say women shouldn’t participate in sexualizing ourselves, we need to not participate in being so sexy. But both of those arguments are focusing on individual women’s choices. What I’d like to see is a world where I can post a naked selfie or not post a naked selfie and no one’s going to abuse me either way, and it’s genuinely a choice I get to make based on my personal expression, and doesn’t have to do with social stigma, and I don’t have to worry about violence and reprisal. That would be actual power.

When you were saying that, I found myself thinking, I don’t know if we’re ever going to live in that world.

I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, if I’m being perfectly frank. But I think we could get a lot closer than we are now.

The heart of your book is you talking to a number of people who are trying to get us closer to that world. One chapter visits the project headed by Tani Ikeda, with young women of color making videos about their lives. Is it stuff like this that gives you hope?

I take hope from those young women, absolutely. But I also take hope from Loretta Ross, who has seen and made enormous change in her lifetime. Things are far from great now, but they are a lot better than when she started in the 1970s. I take hope from all of us—that’s the point of including the multiplicity of stories of folks that are doing good work to make the sexual culture better. That hope can take a million different forms: it can be a pastor training clergy to defend reproductive justice using the Bible, or it can be a bunch of queer kids in a basement in Harvard Square. I take hope from the fact that we’re all still working on it.

Was there anyone that just blew your mind when you were researching the book?

I think a lot about Cherisse Scott, the Memphis pastor who runs Sister Reach, who’s working on repro justice from a Christian perspective. As a Jew, I didn’t know a lot about that world—I didn’t even know that it doesn’t mention abortion in the Bible, which you certainly wouldn’t know from modern American discourse. Here’s this woman, this bisexual woman of color who came up in the church and had her own incredible struggles, both within the church and outside of it, in terms of sexual violence and her own identity, and who’s found her voice and her place. And she’s just refusing to cede Christianity to the folks who want to use it to control and instrumentalize women. And I think that’s profoundly revolutionary.

You write about your own life a bit in the book, too. You get pretty personal in the chapter that takes place in the orgasm lab—

Orgasm lab! I love that.

I was really freaked out reading that chapter, just imagining the chair with the towels on it, and the porn You also describe growing up in a family that relentlessly tried to keep you safe from boys and sex. And that you grew up feeling like you liked sex but not knowing how to have an orgasm. How much do you think that played into your interest in the subject?

I came to this subject originally as an anti-rape activist, through my experience of being sexually assaulted in college. I was already a feminist activist on campus when it happened. But it certainly radicalized me, and made me a lifelong activist on the issue of sexual violence. And the more I did that work from a bunch of different angles, the more I began to understand that you can’t address sexual violence without addressing the sexual culture. And I think that realization inspired me to unpack a lot of my own history. I didn’t write about this in the book, but after I was sexually assaulted, I felt like I had to reconstruct my sexuality from square one. All of my assumptions about how I was in my body were violated. So I really had to start over, I questioned everything about my sexuality. And I think that put me in a good position to start thinking bigger thoughts about the sexual culture as well. I’m always reluctant to talk about that because I never want to make it sound like it was a good thing I was sexually assaulted, but I have made an enormous amount of meaning from that horrible experience.

So where do you think feminism goes now? Your book walks us through second- and third-wave feminism, Riot Grrrls, and Slut Walks. Do you think there’s a new era of feminism dawning, or a new way we need to approach how we think about feminism?

I do think there’s a lot of feminist energy this year, not just the Women’s March, but women at the head of Indivisible and Black Lives Matter. This past month has been extraordinary in terms of feminist activism. We are in season of feminist rage. I don’t really love wave theory, I think it only holds so far, but there could be a feminist renewal happening right now. And my hope is that we go back to thinking about systems, and to resisting the idea that feminism just means being nice to other women, that whatever women do is empowering. Feminism is not a sorority. Feminism is a social movement that stands for things. Feminism isn’t concerned about whether you wear lipstick or not, or whether you take pole-dancing classes or not. You should be free to do those things, but that doesn’t make that feminist acts. Feminism is concerned with the society standing of women, and our social freedom, and whether or not women get to be perceived ultimately as three-dimensional full human beings, citizens of the world. And I feel like feminism is like digging deeper again, and that makes me really happy.

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