Interview: 'Unscrewed' Author Jaclyn Friedman on Women's Sexual Power

Jaclyn Friedman author of Unscrewed

Unscrewed cover detailJaclyn Friedman believes we’re in an “era of fauxpowerment, a time when shiny pictures of individual women wielding some symbol of sexual power are used to distract us from the still mostly retrograde and misogynist status quo.” This is the subject of her newest book, Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.

Veronica Arreola will discuss UnscrewedHear her in conversation with professional feminist and writer Veronica Arreola (left) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7 at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St.

I talked to Jaclyn about her book and how we can all help the nation become “unscrewed.”

Jera: You write, “Ultimately, the path to women’s sexual power in an age of backlash is the same as it would be in an age of Girl Power: not cowering or compromise, but articulating an irresistibly bold vision of pleasure and freedom that’s truly for everyone.” This isn’t just sexual power, right? Examples throughout your book show girls and women who, when they grow more comfortable and bold about their bodies, are empowered in other ways. How can we look at the relationship between our bodies, sexuality and holistic selves in a healthier way?

Jaclyn: I think it’s really important to realize that our sexual sovereignty is part of our humanity. It’s a human rights issue. And that’s why the issues and the changes that would make women more sexually free would make us also more free as humans. There’s a whole chapter in “Unscrewed” about the connection between our sexuality and our humanity. And I think at the core of it, the shift that would make us think about sexuality in a healthier way is realizing that our sexual expression and our sovereignty over our body is the core part of our humanity.

And what about men? You talk about how toxic masculinity hurts men, as well. Do men need this bold vision of pleasure and freedom, or is there something more urgent for them to claim? Where do they start in creating a healthier sexuality?

I think men need to re-imagine what it means to be a man with respect to sex and with respect to a lot of other things, obviously, but we all need a new idea about masculinity that doesn’t require the consumption of and domination over women. I think men need that in their own sex lives as well. There’s not a lot of room for men to think about their own sexual pleasure. A lot of the way masculinity is traditionally defined around sex is accomplishing sex or achieving sex, but the questions are rarely asked, Are you enjoying yourself? What actually feels good in your body?  Men get boxed into really narrow ideas around how to perform sex right, as well.

We definitely need bold visions for men’s sexuality, as well. They would also get women free, because they would redefine masculinity in a way that men would no longer need to subjugate women in order to perform sexuality in a manly way.

Sex ed is one of the areas that seems the most scarily behind the times. “Only nine of the twenty-four states that mandate sex ed also require that it be based on fact. … Nine states mandate that sex ed, if taught, must discuss sexual orientation in an inclusive way, and four require that sexual orientation be discussed, but that only negative things should be said about non-hetero people.” Can progress be made without winning over the parents?

That’s going to vary wildly, but in some cases young people can educate their parents who are curious and open to new ideas. It doesn’t have to be oppositional for young people if they get access to places like Scarleteen. They are certainly not getting better education than their parents around sex at school right now, but if they were to access it in some way, that doesn’t necessarily put them in opposition to the parents if their parents are open-minded and interested in their well-being and not just how things have always been.

Now, some people are going to dig in, but honestly that’s always been an issue. Every generation has new ideas about it, and they go back and forth with their parents about it. But I don’t see it as oppositional. In fact, the Planned Parenthood Teen Council that I profile in that chapter, the woman who runs that whole initiative for the region told me she sees it all the time: Young people they educate then go on to educate their own families and change their mind. I think assuming that parents can’t grow and change actually sells older people short.

I believe one of the biggest points the book makes is that there are no easy formulas or simple strategies for sexual empowerment. Reducing our vision to certain representations of sexuality or appropriate perspectives or actions is what got us to the era of fauxpowerment. You write that “sexualities are as diverse as fingerprints.” But people are often drawn to simplicity. We like our taglines, numbered lists to “a new you.” How are you (apart from writing this book) encouraging yourself and others to allow for complexity and no easy answers?  

The number one thing to do is keep your eyes on your own paper. If people are doing sexuality in a way that is foreign to you, but nobody’s getting hurt by it—we’re not talking about sexual abuse or assault—just make it none of your business. That’s the number one baseline place to start from, is just accepting that we all do stuff differently.

When I give talks on college campuses, I often use the example of bungee jumping. I asked students, ‘How many of you did this look like fun to?’ and maybe half the group raises their hand. Then, ‘How many of you think it’s a terrible idea?’ and another whole group of students raise their hand. Then I ask, ‘How many of you judge somebody who answered differently?’ and almost nobody does because they accept that people enjoy different things. And I think that we could see sex the same way if we could address the systems and institutions that I talk about in the book.

At the very beginning of the book, you talk about having issues around the sex-positive movement. What do you think needs to change about it that would make it more accepting for all people?

The name to start with. People who have had less than positive experiences with sex just don’t want to come to stuff that’s labeled sex-positive a lot of the time, even if the content might turn out to be great. There’s a lot of great things being done under the sex-positive umbrella, but I think the main obstacle to entry is the name.

I think of myself as a sexual liberationist or an activist for sexual freedom — that’s something that we all deserve — but the idea that we should all feel positively about sex is kind of directive and cycling anxiety in a different way. I know it’s not meant that way by a lot of people … and I’m at great pains to say that because a lot of my friends and colleagues identify as sex-positive, and they do wonderful work. But there is a lot of also not-nuanced and shady stuff happening under that umbrella, as well.

I don’t know what the answer is, because standardizing comes with its own set of problems. But I think that we do need a lot more adult community-based sex education-type programming that doesn’t assume people already feel comfortable with sex. We need education that is trauma informed and understands that people have deep hurt and taboos and misinformation. There needs to be a lot more spaces and resources for folks who want to heal around sex, and what they don’t need is a blowjob class.

What do you want people to know about ‘Unscrewed’?

I really want the book to give people a sense of hope as well as a bunch of different models about how we can make change so that folks can figure out what works for them. If each person can do a small thing, that’s how change works.

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Jera Brown writes about being a kinky polyamorous Christian on her blog scarletchurch.com and a sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, for Rebellious Magazine. Follow her @thejerabrown.