Jaclyn Friedman, Sex Activist On Our 'Broken' Culture And What Women 'Really Really Want'

03/07/2014 04:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2014
Jaclynfriedman.com

This International Women's Day, we're joining HuffPost outposts around the world to talk Conversation Changers -- women who are not just successful in their chosen fields, but who are fundamentally transforming the world for future generations.

Jaclyn Friedman is exactly that kind of woman -- a writer, activist and executive director of Women, Action and the Media (a non-profit pushing for gender equality in the media), who speaks out against the sexualization of women -- and in favor of them owning their personal sexuality however it feels right to them.

Friedman spoke with The Huffington Post about sex, shame and the path forward.

Your last book was called "What You Really, Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide To Sex And Safety". So what do us ladies really (really) want?
To get to run their own sex lives. What I really really want is for people to stop thinking there's one answer to that question -- we're all different people.

Why focus on shame?
Shame is one of the main tools that institutions and people use to keep us from knowing and pursuing what we want from our sex lives. There's this idea that there are some things that are OK to want (which is mostly sex in the context of a marriage to a dude), and that there are all kinds of things that are "shameful" to pursue if you're a woman (including, but not limited to, casual sex, sex with multiple partners, sex with people who aren't men -- pretty much anything out of the very narrow lane given to women to be "appropriate" sexually).

Not only is that just unfair, and not only does that make people miserable for no good reason, it also gives room for a lot of victim-blaming if a woman is sexual, and she colors outside of those very narrow lines.

How can we vanquish the guilt?
A lot of self-help books start from the assumption that the reader is broken or defective and offers to fix them. I'm starting from the assumption that the culture is broken, there's nothing wrong with you. But here's how to navigate the messed up messages you may have absorbed.

One of the exercises in the book is to develop a sexual mission statement, to say, "What is it that I want? What do I never want to seek from sex? What are my rights and responsibilities as a sexual partner, and what are my partner's rights and responsibilities?" If you start to feel shame, and you've got that mission statement worked out, you can go back to it and say, "Am I behaving in a way that violates my values?" and if not, this shame is coming from somewhere outside you.

But how do you figure all of that (values, goals, etc.) out?
In every other area of life we tell people, including women, "Go out! Be bold! Take risks! Fail up!" But if a woman does something [sexually] that she has some funny, negative feeling about, it's like a catastrophe.

I'm a big believer that bad sex is good. When I say that, I mean consensual sex, I do not mean coercion. I mean like, "Huh. I wouldn't like to do that again. It was not awesome for me." That's great because one of the only ways to actually learn what you want is through trial and error. Sex can be playful. Sex can be an experiment. It should be on your own terms. We have to learn that pleasure is OK.

Another exercise in the book is to make a list of simple, non-sexual things you could do to feel pleasure in your body. Whether it's brushing your hair, or running your feet through the grass. You'd be surprised by how difficult that is for most women to come up with things that make their bodies feel good, but don't make them feel weird or uncomfortable at the same time.

You've been at this for a while. Are things getting better in terms of women being able to embrace sex in a safe, shame-free way?
There are some small improvements. As much as the internet sort of empowers horrible misogynists to express themselves more freely, it also allows women to find each other, and to push back against that. Knowing you're not alone [helps] push back against sexual shame in your own life.

Fast-forward to International Women's Day 2064. What do you hope will be different?
I'd like to see equal representation of women and people of color across all media -- on screen, behind the camera and at the ownership level as well. It's much harder to be what you can't see. Lupita Nyong'o's amazing speech at the Women in Hollywood event addressed that -- how seeing a model who had dark skin like hers was transformative for her. What we see presented as authority, or as valued, really shapes what we imagine is possible.

Number two, I'd like to see the dominant paradigm of sexuality be a creative collaborative model instead of a commodity model. Right now, women have the "product." Men are supposed to pursue it and "pay" as little as possible for it (ideally they don't give their phone number), while women are supposed to hold out for the best deal they can get -- which is a dude and a diamond. This serves nobody. It insists that women do not want sex for their own purposes, and that men don't want intimacy. It's insulting to everybody. If we shifted to a model that assumed that sex is a collaborative act between two or more people, like having a jam session musically, then we could really heal a lot of our assumptions.

Do you think we'll get there in the next 50 years?
I like to think we'll be closer by then, but no, I don't think the job will be finished. I think there's going to be plenty for future generations to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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