How To “Unscrew” Our Deeply, Deeply Screwed Up Sexual Culture

In the span of a few weeks, the tidal wave of sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct allegations has spread from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, taking over Facebook feeds with personal stories of #MeToo, and leading to a widespread cultural reckoning. Not only is Congress considering a “Me Too” bill to overhaul anti-harassment policies, women are marching through the streets of Hollywood; we are even re-litigating the decades-old Clinton scandals. More than 25 years after Anita Hill testified about harassment she endured under Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, here we are all over again, grappling with the insidious effects of men having too much power, and being way too likely to abuse it.
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After so many gains, why are we still living in a world where this is still commonplace? Enter, feminist author and sex educator Jaclyn Friedman’s next book, Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All with the explanation we desperately need. Out this week, Friedman’s latest is an examination of how “the era of fauxpowerment” has led us all to mistake individual sexual empowerment, like the freedom to explore kink or casual sex, for actual equality.
As per her usual, Friedman’s main focus is sex. Unscrewed picks up where her previous works — 2007’s Yes Means Yes, the anthology that popularized affirmative consent, and What You Really, Really Want, a guide to exploring your own sexual desire — left off. The new book tackles the root issues that ultimately lead to power imbalance in the bedroom: the lack of women and queer media creators, the religious right’s hold on our government, our suffocatingly narrow definitions of masculinity, and more. Scintillating, right? After you read her book, you'll realize it should be.
Friedman visited Refinery29’s offices this week for a discussion on the work that really needs be done in this moment, why she doesn’t identify with the sex positivity movement, and why your ‘90s fave, The Spice Girls, are such a painfully good example of the problem.
What is “fauxpowerment” and why did you see a need to focus on this right now?
"What I refer to as 'fauxpowerment' describes these sort of individualistic female sexual empowerment solutions, like buy this thing or take this pole-dancing class or read 50 Shades of Grey and you’ll feel sexually empowered. A lot of the things we do under that rubric are fine, if people like them, there’s nothing wrong with them. But they’re not really making us free because the things that are keeping us from not feeling free sexually are not individual, they’re systemic."
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As a millennial, one of the most heartbreaking examples of “fauxpowement” you call out in the book are The Spice Girls. Why are they such a great example of that trend ?
"First, I just need to say I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about liking the Spice Girls. They’re fun! And to be clear, I took a lyric of theirs — 'what you really, really want' for the title of my second book. A lot of the stuff that falls under this fauxpowerment umbrella is stuff we can enjoy, but we need to not mistake for power. The critique I have of the Spice Girls is honestly less a critique of the individual women in the group; instead, it’s the co-opting of the idea of 'girl power' that was originally a radical slogan of the Riot Grrls, a political movement in music that was confrontational. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that movement was demanding space for women in the punk scene and confronting rape culture very directly. But the Spice Girls took that idea and made it friendly for capitalism. They took the potential for transformation out of it. The most that the Spice Girls really ever ask is, 'If you wanna be my lover, you have to get with my friends.' Their lyrics don’t ask or demand any kind of social change."
You don’t identify with the sex positivity movement, which I find really surprising considering your work. Why not?
"It’s an uncomfortable conversation for me because I know a lot of people who do great work under that umbrella. It’s not like sex positivity is junk. I love Carol Queen. She coined the term, and she meant a really specific thing that I support. But I don’t think in its current iteration it’s doing the work it needs to do. I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel literally not invited to the table when they hear the term 'sex positive.' There are a lot of people for whom sex just hasn’t been positive. And while a lot of the work that gets done under the sex positivity umbrella is really complex and trauma-informed, a lot of it isn’t.
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"This idea that orgasms alone will liberate you is also flawed. That puts pressure on us to have this transformative sex all the time. Sometimes sex is just sex. Sometimes sex is just comforting or fun or a release. It’s not getting you free; it’s just a thing you enjoy. It puts a lot of pressure on women’s sex lives to say you have to fuck your way free."
You were instrumental in popularizing affirmative consent. That was a revolution on its own, but you argue it’s unfinished. What was “Yes Means Yes” successful at doing and where do we need to go from here?
"I think that we’ve been successful at getting people to understand the idea of Yes Means Yes. Most people understand the idea that it’s not enough to just not have your partner protesting you having sex, and that you shouldn’t proceed unless you know your partner is actively into it. At the heart, affirmative consent means we have to show up and pay attention to our sex partners when we’re interacting sexually. We have to show up and pay attention the whole time and we have to care about them as human people. That doesn’t mean we have to marry them. But we do have to care that they are equal human people, and we have to treat them as equal human people.
"But I think because Yes Means Yes was such an exciting and transformative idea people started to expect it to do the work of an entire sexual revolution by itself. I think somewhere along the way, we got the idea that was going to be the magic pill that would end rape culture, and it’s not enough on its own. The conditions in which we’re saying 'yes' and 'no' are completely informed by the power dynamics and oppressions that rule the rest of our lives, whether that’s class-based or economics, gender, or race or ability. All of that is in turn affecting how we can say 'yes' and 'no.'"
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Do you mean that in the context of an individual interaction? What does that look like in practice?
"Yes, on an individual basis, I’m informed by my experiences as a woman and what’s expected of me. Even though I have a partner, and we absolutely practice affirmative consent with each other, I still have all those voices and tracks in my head about what it means to be a woman in terms of sex, right? Whether I’m trying to live up to some porn star ideal or I’m feeling ashamed for some reason, I still have all those gendered tracks. And I still live in a world where men have a lot of power over women when it comes to sex and abuse that power on the regular.
"For example, I refuse to have nude pictures taken anymore, since I became a public figure, even though that's something I would otherwise like to do. It's not because I don't trust my partner: It's just that the price I would pay — in rape threats, slut-shaming, and other assaults — if those photos were stolen and published is too steep for me to risk it. That's not something men really ever have to think about, because we don't shame men for being sexual. So I also may come into that relationship — no matter how great that individual guy is — and have some fear or be deferential in ways I’m not even conscious of. All of that is in the bedroom with us, whether or not we’re each individually down with affirmative consent."
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In your book you write quite a bit about Anita Hill, and how incredible that testimony was for creating awareness and a new way of thinking about harassment. And yet, now here we are in the middle of another “revolution.” It’s upsetting to me because it’s hard to see how Anita Hill really had an effect, and scary, like what if we let this moment go, too?
"Well, I think that’s a binary way to think about it. I’ve been asked one bajillion times in the past month, 'Is this a turning point or not?' and I feel like it’s the wrong question. I think we can talk about steps forward and steps backward. Anita Hill — even though Clarence Thomas was still confirmed, which we shouldn’t lose sight of — was a huge step forward. If you look at reports to the EEOC in the years afterward, they went up exponentially. A lot of people started taking sexual harassment more seriously. But of course, it didn’t solve it, the same way affirmative consent hasn’t solved rape culture, or stopped rape from happening. But it’s given us better way to talk about it.
"But overall, social change is glacial. It seems like so much time has passed between Anita Hill and now, but it hasn’t really in the grand scheme of things. I also think that some of this fauxpowerment narrative that has taken off, the idea that’s been sold to women that we need to just empower ourselves has actually made it harder to talk about something like sexual harassment. You have this idea that you’re supposed to be an empowered woman so you feel it’s your problem if someone is harassing you at work. That winds up being isolating. You think, 'I should be able to handle this myself,' or, 'Maybe it’s just me,' or, 'Maybe I should get over it because it shouldn’t be such a big deal.'
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"I think this #MeToo moment is going to be another step forward in the discourse, and that’s good. But I promise you in a year or two there will be think pieces about how, 'Well, I guess #MeToo was bogus because it didn’t solve sexual harassment.' That’s just not how the world works. It’s about incremental change, and I think we’re in the middle of an increment."
Let’s talk about the role of men here, and how masculinity in its current form is… if not totally fucked up, at least dealing with a sickness. How do we get men interested in doing the work to make masculinity better?
"I think the real answer to this question is we have to work on prevention and not intervention. We have to prevent men from developing toxic ideas about masculinity before they become men. One of the stories I love to tell, because I love my nephews, when my nephews were two, my partner and I gave them Rad American Women, A to Z. And by two and a half, they could identify Kate Bornstein and Dolores Huerta on sight, and they thought they were super cool. So the question is: What if we raised boys to identify with girls the way that girls are required to identify with boys? They’re fully capable of doing it. They’re just never asked to, and in fact they’re punished for it.
"It’s a hard sell to men who are already grown because, psychologically, we all have a block against internalizing information that challenges our deeply held beliefs about the world. One of the deeply held beliefs that most of us have is, 'I’m a decent person.' So for guys to really start doing the work to understand what’s going on, a lot of them have to risk discovering that they’ve actually done shitty things to women in the past already.
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"I’m not saying they’re all rapists. But maybe they’ve just been inappropriate or made women uncomfortable or made rape jokes. They’ve done shitty things that have hurt people, and that's not something any of us likes to internalize. My best hope in terms of adult men is honestly that they’ll talk to each other. We need the men who are already engaged, and there are a growing number of them, to pull their buddies in. They’re not going to listen to us.
"And we just have to get it understood that not being a predator yourself is not the bar we’re asking men to clear. Men have to be willing to stick their necks out and risk social status. It really is a critical point of the equation. On one level, I wish we could do this ourselves, without men. We would have already done it by now. But we clearly can’t. We really need men to understand that not being a predator is not enough to make you a good guy."
At the end of the book, you ask some of the experts you’ve interviewed to pretend you’re a genie and make three wishes, no matter how far-fetched. So, if I were the genie, what would your three wishes be?
"My first wish is very nerdy and not sexy, which is that we devise a system in the United States where we can have genuinely free and fair elections. We get rid of gerrymandering and all forms of voter suppression so we can vote out the religious right’s influence on our lives. We have to do that by fixing our voting system because it’s not representational. Right now, our tax dollars are supporting crisis pregnancy centers, they’re also behind the rise of abstinence-only sex education (which doesn’t work), all the anti-LGBT legislation, all the state level and federal level anti-abortion legislation. All of that stuff is because of the religious right and their lust for power.
"Number two: I would then immediately implement comprehensive pleasure-based sex education in public schools starting in kindergarten, every year. Let me give you an example of why that’s so important: What happened in the Brock Turner case, versus what happened in the Steubenville case. In the Steubenville case, they put one of the witnesses on the stand. He was one of the buddies of the perpetrators who was there in the room but didn’t participate in the assault. They asked him: Why didn’t you intervene? And he said, 'I didn’t know that’s what rape looked like. I thought it would look violent.' What he was looking at was a woman lying passively being sexually acted upon by two guys. He saw two men consuming a passive woman and saw nothing wrong with it. Later on, the two guys who intervened in the Brock Turner case saw almost exactly the same thing. They saw a guy acting upon sexually a woman who was lying there passively. And they said, 'This looks completely wrong! We have to intervene.' So what’s the difference between those two examples? The difference is the guys in the Brock Turner case grew up in Sweden where they teach sex ed from kindergarten, every year, and they know what sexual interactions are supposed to look like.
"My third one: I think if could have anything, I would make it so the institutions that create our culture — tech companies and media companies, advertising, all that stuff — had gender parity in all the halls of power. That alone would change a lot."
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