Jaclyn Friedman: No Pill Will Fix Your Sex Life (Ever) – Transcript
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler.
Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health, and thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this.
BSS: In today’s episode, Caitlin talks to Jaclyn Friedman, writer, sex-educator, and feminist. Her newest book, which is called Unscrewed, just came out in November, 2017 this year and it already has a whopping 4.7 out of 5 rating on Goodreads.
CS: That’s not bad at all!
BSS: Not bad! Yeah. And her other books, Yes Means Yes, and What You Really, Really Want, aren’t bad either!
CS: Definitely, not. They’re actually really good! I’m really excited to share our conversation. We talked about the new book a lot – which has a lot do with sexual empowerment, or lack thereof, which Jaclyn refers to as “fauxpowerment” – but we also got into some nitty-gritty stuff about everything from the Spice Girls to how to talk to your partner about sex.
BSS: Plus, I learned where the term “girl power” comes from.
CS: Yeah, right? I was surprised, too. But I’m going to not explain it here and I don’t want you to either, so that people can hear it from Friedman herself.
BSS: OK. That’s mean, but also smart.
CS: Yeah, I know. So, listen to the interview, and then don’t forget to stick around after the interview, because we will make a book list for anybody who wants to go deeper into good sex (and who doesn’t?!), activism, and more.
BSS: Alright then, let’s roll the tape. Here’s Caitlin Schiller and Jaclyn Friedman. Catch you guys in The Bookend!
Caitlin interviews Jaclyn Friedman
CS: Thanks so much for joining us today. Would you please introduce yourself?
Jaclyn Friedman: Sure! My name is Jaclyn Friedman. I am the author most recently of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.
CS: Excellent! And you also have a podcast of the same name, correct?
JF: I also have a podcast by the same name. Well, the same title. The subtitle is a little unwieldy for a podcast.
CS: OK, I just wanted to make sure that got in there too, because it’s a great podcast and people should listen.
JF: Thank you.
CS: Absolutely. So I’d like to start off with talking about the book in general a little bit and then we’ll move into some other content from within it and your areas of expertise.
So, tell me about the book. You say in the acknowledgements that this book fought you every step of the way. What did you mean by that?
JF: Oh, it was just really hard to get my arms around this project. Right, so, the basic project of Unscrewed is to move our thinking past these individually-defined ideas of female sexual empowerment. Like, I took a pole dancing class and now I feel really empowered, or, you know, whatever it is. When we focus on individual women and sexual empowerment, it’s almost always a temporary fix and it’s not getting us all free. And it’s distracting us from the real issues, which are the institutions and systems that are actually in the way of women being fully sexually sovereign. So, in order to do that, I really wanted to lay out and map out all those interlocking systems. But that’s a lot to cover.
So, even just in the book proposal stage, like, figuring out how to structure the book, you know, I had these constant fears. And I’m sure I have, of like leaving something important out and having people say, “I can’t believe you wrote this book and didn’t talk about X super important issue.” And I’m sure that’s going to happen. You know, and also it just really struggling with tone, and writing about these really sometimes intellectual, academic ideas in a way that feels immediate and accessible to everyone. Because they have these immediate very personal impacts on our lives. I wanted the book to feel personal, but it’s also a book about systems, right?
JF: So, It was just a lot of struggles. I also just had some good old-fashioned writer’s block for a few months, where I just kept writing things and thinking, “this sounds dumb.” It was just a struggle to write it.
CS: So, the premise of the book, or at least in the subtitle, there’s unscrewing the sexual culture. What does that mean to you and why is that important right now?
JF: So, the idea of unscrewing the sexual culture really is about seeing through, what I call, kind of “the matrix” – I coined a term for it in the book, which is “fauxpowerment”– which are all of these ideas that get sold to women as a way to feel sexually powerful. You know, whether that’s the Playboy idea or… you know, in October we lost Hugh Hefner, and there were all these conversations about how he empowered women, and I was like, “He locked women in a house, that’s not empowering them.”
And the idea that if you feel sexy that makes you powerful, or if you pose nude that makes you powerful. And I list a bunch of these things off. In reality, it’s fine to do most of these things, if you feel good and it makes you feel good, that’s fine. But it’s not getting women any closer to real sexual power. If we have this porn star chic culture, but actual sex workers face violence and discrimination on the daily; and any woman, whether she’s a sex worker or not, can be harmed by being accused of being a whore; like, that’s not actual power.
You know, if Kim Kardashian can post naked selfies and call that empowerment, but your average woman, if she sends a naked selfie to a boyfriend, and then he later sends it out without her consent, he’s going to get congratulated and she’s going to get death threats and rape threats. You know, that’s not real power yet.
So, sure, we get told like “just own it,” “just go out and sexy yourself up and that’s power.” But in reality, we have to look at all of the cultural institutions that will punish us in real ways if we try to do that. And we have to not get distracted by these sort of shiny “you go girl” messages, because they’re covering a much darker reality.
CS: You talked a little bit about fauxpowerment today, but what is the seed of fauxpowerment? Where did this start?
JF: You know, it’s hard to say what the inciting incident is. I can trace it back to “I dreamed I ran for president in my Maidenform bra,” that whole series of ads which I think were in the 1950s. But I bet that you can find examples of it that are earlier than that. The idea of selling women something, oftentimes it’s a literal product or service. Sometimes it’s a song or, you know, a lifestyle idea.
But the idea that, if we have a problem around our sexuality, if we feel afraid, if we feel insecure or inadequate, or not sexy enough, or whatever it is, that the problem is with us. And we have to look within to fix it. And that. at every turn we are discouraged from trying to locate what might be some very real external reasons for the issues we’re having with our sexualities.
You know, I talk in the book about a week I spent on a message board for moms as the sexpert-in-residence. And the question I got asked over, and over, and over, and over again was “I don’t want sex as much as my husband does. Can you give me a pill to fix it?” And, you know, look, is it possible that there are biological roots sometimes to women’s decreased libido? Sure, in some cases. But it’s much more likely that she has a partner who is not that interested in her sexual fulfilment, who’s maybe only interested in his own sexual fulfillment. These were all heterosexual women. It’s possible that she’s working a double shift. She’s doing all the caretaking, and home cleaning, as well as working outside the home, and is just stressed and exhausted. It’s possible she doesn’t feel safe in her relationship. There are a lot of systemic issues to look at.
But when I would ask these questions, they would either just shake them off or they would say, “Yeah, my husband is not that great to me in bed, but still can you give me a pill?” That the idea is, no matter what’s going wrong around sex, like, women are the thing that needs to be fixed and altered.
JF: And it gets sold in a shiny way, like “you can do self-improvement,” but the root assumption is you need to be improved. Like, there’s something broken that needs fixing. It’s very dark underneath the shiny surface.
CS: This is a bit of a divergence, but it struck me that words are really important in your work, specifically precision and the specificity in deploying the right words. And you worked to explore all the insidiousness behind – what seems like a really innocent term that all of us, well, ‘80s kids and after will know – but it’s Girl Power. Even in advertising campaigns today, Girl Power is everywhere. I saw it on a T-shirt that I think they were selling at H&M the other day. Can you talk a little bit about what’s wrong with Girl Power?
JF: I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “Girl Power” inherently. It depends on who is deploying it and for what end. So, the phrase was coined, or at least popularized, by the band Bikini Kill, which is one of the leading bands of the Riot Grrrl movement. And Girl Power became somewhat of a slogan of the Riot Grrrl movement. And the Riot Grrrl movement of the sort of mid-’90s was incredibly political. It was originally about creating space in punk music scenes for women, which were very hostile to women. Women were getting groped in mosh pits, and not treated seriously as musicians, and there was a lot of hostile sexism happening in that scene.
But the movement took off, and they produced zines and they have this very dedicated group of mostly young women fans, who wrote back and forth with the artists, and they would write back and forth to them. And they used nudity and sexuality in really confrontational ways, both in terms of imagery. And their lyrics were like, “I don’t need a dick to fuck” right? Like, “Fuck you!”.
And so the phrase Girl Power was very political when it was popularized. But while that was happening, once that sort of started catching on, almost immediately, I think, Simon Fuller would go on to basically invent Pop Idol and American Idol, started brewing up a girl group in a lab basically, which became the Spice Girls.
And the Spice Girls adopted Girl Power as their slogan. And it does this thing, that the market does quite often to revolutionary ideas, which is find a way to sort of denude it of any political impact, any transformative impact, and sell it back at a markup.
So, you know, the most demanding the Spice Girls ever were was like, “If you want to be my lover you have to get with my friends.” You know, the Spice Girls were fine. I named my second book What You Really Really Want, I’m not like, anti-Spice Girl, but they were the idea of Girl Power denuded of any transformational power. It has just became a product slogan that made girls feel good, but didn’t challenge the status quo going in any way. And it was merched up the yin yang.
And then the next group to come along after that to take up the Girl Power mantle was the Pussycat Dolls. And the Pussycat Dolls threw away the idea of female friendship and instead basically said, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”
And so, we see this – this is a pretty common thing that happens in the relationship of markets and movements – that movements come up with these really impactful cultural ideas that have transformative power. And markets capitalize on them in ways that strip them of their transformative power.
CS: That was a depressing last sentence, Jaclyn.
JF: You know, it is a little depressing. It’s frustrating. I wish I knew the magic way to stop them from doing that. And I think the answer just is we have to keep being creative in our movements. We have to not get attached to any one tool, because if a tool becomes effective it will eventually – marketing will come for it. And we’re going to need a new tool after that.
CS: Oh yeah, of course. What are some of the ramifications of unscrewing the sexual culture. Why is this so important? What’s at stake here?
JF: I think what’s at stake is the idea that women are people. You know, ultimately, that women are fully human, fully equal people.
And, you know, it sounds sort of “duh,” when I say it like that, and there’s probably not a lot of people who would openly say, “I don’t think women are people.” But women are dehumanized specifically using sexuality at every turn in our lives. And women’s sexuality is used to dehumanize others. I’m thinking of an incident where Trump had an entire crowd at a rally during the election turn and scream at the press gaggle, which was sort of penned in, and call them “Whore! Whore! Whore! Whore!” That was the chant. That’s what’s at stake, right? The idea that women are made abject by being sexual, or being wrongly sexual, or not being sexual enough in some cases. Whether we get to run our own bodies and our own lives or not. Our sovereignty is at stake.
CS: Right. And this sounds a lot like what you were dealing with in your second book, which is What You Really Really Want.
JF: That’s not an accident, you know. I came up with the idea for this book, because it’s the other half of the argument. So What You Really Really Want is a book that says, the sexual culture is really fucked up and broken. Here’s how to navigate your own individual sexuality in that broken culture, in a way that, you know, will most help you connect with your own humanity and sovereignty.
But it didn’t take on the idea that that sexual culture could be different. And, in fact, it can. Any culture can be different than it is. The culture is created by humans. We didn’t get here by nature. We didn’t get here in some preordained way. We are all collaborating every day to make the culture, and that means we can make a different one.
And so, I want to take up the unspoken question of What You Really Really Want, which is “Why is the culture so broken and can’t we have a better one, please?”
CS: It strikes me that it is really important for women to understand what they really, really want, when…God, Spice Girls are ringing in my head now.
It strikes me as really important that women know what they want, and important that they can talk about it. Because the more that they talk about it, the more present it becomes in the culture, and people become aware of the problem. Is that sort of how the cycle works?
JF: I think in a culture that wants women to be sexual products and sexual props becoming a sexual subject or a sexual actor or someone who’s running their own agenda is an act of resistance. It’s inherently going to trouble the water if you, as a woman, say, “Actually I’m going to run my own agenda. Thank you very much.” But that also means, unless we do a bunch of structural cultural change, that every individual woman who stands up and insists on that is going to be in grave danger.
You know, I opened the book with a few stories, one about a woman who got hit on by a guy at a bar one night in – I think it was Pittsburgh – and she said no, she wasn’t interested in him. She walked out to her car and he shot her dead. And we don’t even know her name, I don’t remember it off the top of my head, because this kind of thing happens all the time. And it’s barely even news.
You know, and I also told the story of a teacher, who had some racy photos on her phone that she had taken for her husband. A student, a male student, broke into her desk and her phone, sent those pictures around, and the teacher got fired. What did the teacher do wrong? But she was sexual, in a way that was not contained, that was not sanctioned. And she was made to pay.
And so, you know, I’m all for that woman saying no to that guy at the bar and being able to run her own agenda, or to that teacher being able to take racy pictures of herself if she wants to. But I’m also all for changing the culture, so that they’re not punished.
BSS: Hey guys, it’s Ben. We’re taking a quick break from Caitlin and Jaclyn Friedman to hear from Caitlin. So this season, we’re asking listeners to send in a Voice Memo with their answer to one of your favorite questions which is, “What have you learnt was actually easier than you initially thought it was?” And I figured, why should we ask other people only, when we can also ask you!
CS: Hooray! I feel very special. Thank you for this opportunity.
BSS: So, Caitlin, what is something that you’ve learned was much easier than you initially thought it was?
CS: Believe it or not, this is the yuppiest thing I’m going to say in this podcast I hope: making pickles.
CSS: Yeah! It intimidated me before, but my friend Temi, who also works here, told me the secret. Which is basically you just have to own a mandoline, which is a relatively cheap piece of kitchen equipment that makes really skinny slices. And as long as you can slice something thinly enough, it’s just a matter of, like, mixing vinegar and boiling water and some sugar in a can. And adding what you like. And homemade pickles are really easy, really tasty!
CS: Who knew!
CS: I should have known…
BSS: Thanks, Caitlin.
CS: Pickles! Bye!
BSS: Caitlin’s gone! She just ran out of the studio. So let us know, all you guys out there, let us know what you’ve learnt was much easier than you thought it was. Just send us a Voice Memo at [email protected]
Alright, let’s get back into the interview with Caitlin and Jaclyn Friedman.
CS: So, what do we start saying to ourselves to get away from fauxpowerment? As women, as people, I mean, men and women. What are some questions we should start to ask ourselves about what we see? How do we start to challenge what’s out there?
JF: It’s really important, when thinking about fauxpowerment, not to engage in shaming. A lot of the things that serve as fauxpowerment are enjoyable. Maybe you do like taking sexy photos of yourself, maybe you liked reading 50 Shades of Grey. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the activities that are fauxpowerment. What’s fauxpowerment is believing that they change the status quo in any way.
So, the question is – is this being sold to me as change, as power? And if so, does this actually give me any power? And does it give people who maybe don’t have money to buy this book or take this class, how are their lives? I think the idea really is to shift from the individual to the community level or the collectivist level, if you like. So, it doesn’t mean that you have to stop buying red lipsticks if they make you feel sexy. God knows, I will not stop buying red lipsticks, even though I have way too many red lipsticks.
CS: Oh my God you should see my drawer. I understand.
JF: I am all for red lipsticks or whatever your version of red lipstick is, that makes you feel hot and sexy and powerful. But the question is: “Is this changing something for my life? Is it changing something for other people’s lives?” You know, it’s about not confusing something that makes you feel good with actual social change.
We can all live our individual lives. I’m not saying we all have to become, like, literal communists. It’s just about thinking a little bigger. Like, maybe I feel free to say no to some guy in a bar, but I have self-defense training, and I have a friend waiting. You know, it’s about sort of thinking outside yourself a little. Really. And it’s also about questioning the assumptions you have about what’s wrong with you also.
CS: What do you mean by that?
JF: I think a lot of us internalize issues that aren’t ours. If you don’t feel sexual enough, or if you feel sexual in the wrong way, or whatever that is, it’s about thinking, “Is there actually anything wrong with me? If I’m dissatisfied with my sex life, am I actually to blame? Might there be things outside of me, that are impacting that? How I’ve been raised to expect that partners will want to give me pleasure and also will not hurt me?” You know, just on that basic level, you know, “Do I feel safe? Do I feel stressed out? Do I feel competitive with other women like I’m supposed to perform sexuality in this particular way to be the cool girl?”
You know, one of the other things that fauxpowerment does is, it keeps us fighting with each other. You know, somebody who’s more empowered than you, and you can be cool like her. Because mostly fauxpowerment is a marketing slogan, and marketers are not your friends. Marketers are actually trying to create a feeling of need, and insecurity, and want in you, so they can sell you something that will fill it.
I think actually one that kills me the most, you know, that original Dove “Real Beauty” ad that made all that splash 10-15 years ago. I didn’t realize it, but it was for cellulite cream. It was for cellulite cream! So evidently they sold as much cellulite cream as they can, because now the Dove empowerment, like “raise your hand”, “you’re a powerful woman” ads are about how your underarms are insufficiently smooth. But they have a product for that now.
Before I saw this ad, I never thought one fucking thing about what my underarm looked like. It’s just an armpit!
JF: I shave it, some people don’t. And I put deodorant on, and that’s literally as much as I think about my armpit.
CS: Sometimes I use it to hold onto my phone, when I’m like in the bathroom.
JF: Some people can make fart noises with it.
CS: Right. Talents.
JF: But Dove wants you to think that your armpit has to look and feel a certain way for you to be powerful and attractive. That’s fauxpowerment. And it also means, if you buy the Dove stuff, you’re going to have the power, and those other, you’re going to be able to beat out those other ladies. So, it’s also about making us feel insecure and that insecurity means we wind up feeling competitive with each other.
I have a terrible problem with this. I have all kinds of jealousies. I’m a very like envious person, mostly around career stuff. You know, I see people having successes. People whom I love and who I want to see their work succeed in the world, because their work is wonderful. But I look at them sometimes and I think, “Why don’t I have that?”
CS: But that’s a generative question though, “Why don’t I have that?” And then I assume what comes next for you is “What do I do to get that, if I want it?”
JF: No, it’s more self-pitying than that. I mean I do get to that place, but the impulse is like “Why are they special and not me? Like why is it not me getting that stuff?” I do eventually work through that feeling and think, “All right. You will need to work harder then, or you need to work smarter. If you really want that, you need to not prioritize this other thing, because you’re not made of time.” I do get to that productive place with it eventually. But my initial impulse is kind of bitchy.
CS: We are all only human.
JF: We are all only human and we have our own things and that’s one of mine. Like, my initial impulse, when I see friends succeed, if they’re succeeding in a field, I would also like to succeed in, is not always the most generous. And I feel terrible about that, like I don’t want that to be a feature of me. And I try to work on it. But it’s about sort of being aware of that, that competitive impulse. You know, being competitive to a certain extent can be greatly motivating, but it pits us against each other in ways that we start to tear each other down. And you see this around sex and women a lot: “Oh she’s a slut. She’s a prude. Is she wearing that? Well, I wouldn’t have done that so…”
There’s a lot of that sort of bitchy competitiveness around sex. And I think it’s because we’re all afraid. And we want to believe there’s a list of things we can do right, to get the right outcomes. And if we see somebody suffering, we want to believe they did something to deserve it, because it means that we can do something to not suffer. And we see somebody breaking the rules, and they’re not suffering. And we’ve been trying to play by them, that makes us very angry. Because we’re boxed into this idea that it’s about us, as individuals.
CS: I asked you earlier, “What we should start saying to ourselves to get away from fauxpowerment?” And you answered, we should start questioning, basically, whether or not this is good for only us, or if it is inciting any real social change. But I also wanted to ask, what do we stop saying to ourselves and each other to break free from fauxpowerment?”
JF: Oh. I mean I think we have to stop believing in our own brokenness. We definitely have to stop thinking that there are good girls and bad girls. And whichever category we’re trying to put ourselves in, that’s always going to injure both parties. And we have to start telling ourselves that everybody else is doing sex better than we are. That there’s some ideal, and we need to work harder to be that ideal in terms of sexiness or our sexual behavior.
We also have to stop telling ourselves that our partners define our sex lives. You know, one of the things that I’ve said for a long time and I will say over and over again, probably until I die, is the most important sexual relationship you’re ever going to have, is the one you have with yourself. And you know, if you focus on that, like how do you feel about your body, how do you feel about your sexuality, and the way that it expresses itself, and the way you experience it. Is it satisfying to you?
You know, on Unscrewed the show I take a lot of advice questions, as you know, from listeners. And so often the question is like, Is this something in my partner that I have to put up with? Do I have to suck this up? And the answer so often is just like, “No!” So many women don’t ask, “Is this enough for me?” Like, I got a question recently from a woman who was feeling like not enough from her partner. And whoever was helping me answer that question – and now I’m forgetting who it was – said, “You know, I want you to flip that question around and say, like, ‘Is he enough for you?’”
So, if you’re asking “Am I enough, sexually? Or am I too much?” which is sometimes my question, but either question is the wrong question. Like, “Is my partner or is this situation enough for me? Or too much for me?” Like centering yourself, getting to be a sexual subject, instead of just a sexual object. Your sexual satisfaction should be your sexual satisfaction, not somebody else’s, not, like, whether you’re doing it well enough.
You know, there’s this great book called American Hookup by the sociologist Lisa Wade, which I quote pretty extensively in the chapter about our school systems, and the way we teach sex, and our schools interact around sexuality. And she had a bunch of students keep journals around their sexual interactions, and their sexual thoughts, while they were undergraduates. And she found that the girls, they considered a good sexual interaction – if they were heterosexual – if the guy was satisfied, like they wanted to blow his mind. And if they were satisfied, like, that was sort of extra bonus. And I think that is really common for women. Especially women who sleep with men.
There was a bisexual guy in that study, that Lisa Wade did, who told her in the journal straight up, like, “When I sleep with women, I focus on my pleasure. And when I sleep with men, I still focus on his pleasure.”
CS: Wow. That is fascinating. I wanted to ask you – so we’ve covered what we start saying to ourselves to avoid the fauxpowerment. What we stop saying to ourselves. What can we start telling our partners and lovers to change this conversation a little bit?
JF: I mean that depends wildly on what our partners and lovers are doing. I think that the first thing to do, is to open a conversation with them, that you’re thinking about this stuff, and see how they respond. Maybe they think about this stuff too, and they’re really excited to have that conversation. If you have a partner and you don’t feel like that they focus adequately on your satisfaction, you have to gently find a way to say, “This is not enough for me anymore.” And if this is true, you say, like, “I want to stay with you, and I want to make this work, I love you,” if that’s true, you know, whatever is true for you. You don’t have to be confrontational about it. You can be as gentle as you can be. And I recommend having this conversation with the clothes on. Not in the middle of sex. Just in terms of not helping them to be as little defensive as possible.
But before that, you have to think about what do you want to change. And so, again that comes back to your most important sexual relationship with yourself. So once you figure that out, you have to say to your partner, like, “There are some things that I’m not satisfied with. Can we work on changing them?”
And you either have a partner who is going to say, “Hey. OK, great. I want to make sure you’re satisfied. Let’s figure it out.” And it may not be perfect right away. They might feel insecure themselves. They may have a bunch of their own reactions that they need to work through first. But hopefully they come to a place where they say, “Let’s work on that.”
Or you discover that you have a partner who’s not interested in working on that. And, you know, for me that would not be acceptable. That would be a deal breaker. I will not tell anyone what has to be a deal breaker for you. But for me that would be a deal breaker.
CS: Before we close out, I wanted to ask you for a couple of book recommendations – things you’re reading now, things that have inspired you lately, things that people should read, if they want to understand more about representations of women in the media. Or maybe books that were really influential to your writing process for Unscrewed.
JF: Sure, I definitely will recommend, which I’ve already mentioned, Lisa Wade’s book American Hookup. I think it’s fantastic and so illuminating. And it’s also a great read. And I know you are also having on Rebecca Traister, and I can’t recommend All the Single Ladies enough. Her thinking about single woman in America definitely influenced me.
I’ve been influenced for a long time by bell hooks series on love. She has a trio of books about love, from a feminist perspective, and relationships, and they definitely shifted the art of the possible in my brain.
CS: The art of the possible. I like it. OK.
JF: Sady Doyle’s book Trainwreck is fantastic. She writes about women that get written off as trainwrecks, basically, like Britney Spears kind of situation, and what that narrative does in the culture, and how we need to take a different look at it. And also Sady’s just a brilliant writer.
I mean, Roxane Gay, but I feel like that’s so boring. Because everyone loves Roxane Gay. But Hunger is just – I mean I just feel like I wish every human would read it. It was just so powerful.
CS: Yeah. It was really great. So, if you could offer a single piece of advice or a piece of wisdom to people who want to start changing the sexual culture for the better, what would it be?
JF: Start small. So, find some tiny sub-issue of the sexual culture that you care about, and figure out how to have an impact on it in your community.
So, if you feel overwhelmed by the task, just keep breaking it down, until you find a piece that you feel like you can do. Maybe that’s going to talk to the school board about the way sex ed is taught in your school. Maybe that’s hiring a sex worker next time you have a position open, because there’s a lot of stigma for sex workers trying to get hired. Maybe that’s raising boys differently from the time that they’re little babies, raising them to admire girls as three-dimensional human beings and enjoy girl stories. Maybe that’s about making different choices about the media you consume, or making some media of your own, even if it’s just something you show around to friends and family in your community.
I think people get really overwhelmed, when they think about social change. They’re like, “This is such a big intractable problem. I’m just a person.” And in reality social change happens at the granular level. It just takes a lot of grains.
CS: Indeed. One last thing: I was wondering if – we talked about this at the top of the interview a little bit – but why unscrewing the sexual culture now especially? Why does it matter right now? Why do we need to do this and start this project?
JF: Well, first of all, I don’t think we’re starting the project. You know, I profile in the book, like, lots of people who are already doing this work, in one way or another. So, I’m hoping to level it up, to sort of get a lot more people involved in the work and to boost its power. In this moment of social and political backlash, it’s very tempting to just play defence and just say, “We have to defend, so that they don’t take away the things we already have,” like birth control, which they just took away. You know, and things like that. And it’s a really understandable impulse.
But if all we do right now is play defense. Two things happen. One is, we’re definitely going to backslide in terms of our rights and freedoms, because we’re not going to be perfect at defence, and we’re not going on all offence and gaining the thing. So all we do is lose. The best case is we only lose a little, but we definitely are losing. And the second is, we allow them to move the Overton window.
CS: I have never heard of the Overton window.
JF: The Overton window is basically what is normal or acceptable in a culture. And it’s very shiftable. Basically you’re shifting the center, because you’re saying that the best case scenario is what we already have. And so it shifts, if you allow that to be true, you accept that as true, you only play defence, you’re actually shifting everything in the way, in a backlash way, in a regressive way.
Whereas, if we articulate and work toward bold visions of a future that’s better for everyone, it’s going to motivate people way more than just playing defence. People always want to work toward something and not just against something, if that’s possible. And it keeps the discourse moving in the direction we want it to.
CS: Great. Thank you so much. It’s been so great to talk with you.
JF: It was a really fun conversation.
JF: Thanks so much.
BSS: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end with books.
BSS: So, ok. We just heard your conversation with Jaclyn Friedman. That was cool! There’s a lot to unpack in there, way more than we have time for, if we’re going to also make a book list here – so let’s get straight to it, why did you want Friedman on Simplify?
CS: You know, it felt like the right time. In light of what’s been going on in the news lately—I mean, all of the sexual assault cases that have come to light—we’ve been kind of collectively dumbfounded, asking ourselves, “How could we let this happen? How could women let this happen? How could men let this happen? How can this all be real?”
BSS: These feel like big, messy questions with no real one answer—or way too many answers to be manageable. So, when I heard, you’re thinking about Jaclyn Friedman, I was like, “Yes! Perfect! Sounds like something for Simplify.”
CS: Right, and I mean nobody wants to be reductive about this at all, which is why actually I chose Jaclyn, because her work addresses these questions by really homing in on where it starts—and it’s not just with one woman or one man.
Jaclyn says, “Look, here’s the reason things like this are not surprising: this isn’t a case of lone bad actors, it’s a case of a culture in which women have been systemically disempowered in sometimes really insidious, invisible ways. So, of course there’s room for this to happen.” And I think that big-picture thinking is really useful when it comes to looking at headlines and going, “Oh my God, so many things!” – it’s not many things, it’s one root thing, which is a sexual culture that doesn’t get anybody really free.
BSS: So, of all of that, like, all that you wanted her to talk about, what’s the one thing that we should remember? What’s the one thing that we should learn from this conversation?
CS: Well, I keep boiling it down to this: start small, think big. She talks about the small ways in which you can start changing the sexual culture, which frees up so much else in daily life, by tiny things, like noticing where you buy your goods to just, I don’t know, giving your new nephew a book that details the lives of really cool interesting women not just heroes that are dudes, you know. Dude heroes, of course!
And then think big! So, Jaclyn also talks about how there’s this tendency to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? What I do wrong?” And maybe you do do something wrong, but she encourages us to look outside of the problem with me and my tiny life and look at a larger system in which maybe there could be things that could be working better for everyone, it’s not just the individual.
BSS: Right. And then to keep going. If you want to fix it, you can start small by just doing one act.
CS: Yeah, like reading some of these books.
BSS: Right, so let’s get to the books. Cool! Nice transition.
CS: OK. So, Ben, get this: in the US and the UK it was actually considered a wife’s legal obligation to provide sex for her husband whenever he wanted it, no matter what. And guess when this law was finally taken off the books? Wait, don’t guess, I’ll just tell you.
It wasn’t taken off the books until 1991 in the UK, and 1993 in the US, which sounds crazy when you think about it that this happened so recently. It sounds like a really antiquated law, right?
BSS: Yeah, insane.
CS: So, I learnt about this in this great book – which is the first rec – it’s called The Boundaries of Desire by Eric Berkowitz. This book shows just how much systemic injustice—towards women, black people, homosexuals, and children—has been undone in only the last half a century, and how much more we still have to undo.
BSS: And it’s a great start because we talked about this a little bit just now, but Friedman clearly believes in unscrewing the sexual culture, because it has such ramifications for society as a whole. I mean, big picture. And like we said, there are small things that we can get into to affect that big picture, but we still have to have that in mind.
CS: Indeed! Yeah, exactly. And at the end of the podcast, she says to start small—do whatever YOU can do to improve things. That can feel kind of…dinky sometimes, so, for inspiration, we’ve got this book, which is Engines of Liberty by David Cole.
BSS: Oh, yeah. Nice one!
CS: Well, I chose it because it’s an exploration into the influence that citizens can have on their government.
BSS: Beyond voting.
CS. Right, beyond voting. Like, how even the smallest acts of activism can really make a difference.
BSS: Cool, so that’s one on power dynamics, and one on how you can affect them. So, third one, maybe more sexual?
CS: Yeah. I think it makes sense, given Jaclyn’s book and her topics. I chose She Comes First by Ian Kerner.
BSS: She comes first… The title says it all pretty much, right?
CS: Pretty much does! The title is pretty suggestive…and so is the book. It’s basically a no-fail handbook on how to please a vagina-haver to the point of orgasm. Kerner goes into detail about how to do it, but he also addresses the why of it—why equal pleasure matters; why it’s great for the vagina-haver’s sexual partner, too; and he even has 3 affirmations that the pleasure-giver should use throughout the sexual encounter so that they can have a good experience.
It’s pretty wonderful.
BSS: Nice. She Comes First it’s called. Alright, and we should add that he wrote a companion book focused on the male-bodied people out there called, He Comes Next. So, she comes first and he comes next!
CS: Yes, everyone should come!
BSS: Everyone, near and far!
CS: Yes! Overcome the powers that be.
BSS: Thanks for listening to this episode of Simplify. It was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, and Ody Constantinou, who was an extra in the music video for Pearl Jam’s song, Alive.
CS: Oh, fun fact about Ody, cool! So, if you enjoyed this episode or feel that you learned something really interesting, like what Ody did as an extra, could you, please, please do us a favor and send it to one person you like. Especially if this person would particularly get something out of this episode. So, just send it to the one person, spread the word, we really want to have more people get in touch with us and to hear what we’re doing over here. So yeah, send it to one person you like, we’d really appreciate it!
BSS: And a big shout out already to the people who’ve subscribed to us on Google Play, Overcast, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, wherever you listen. Give us a shout out – a star, heart, review, rating – all that really helps and we’re really appreciative. Thanks!
CS: We’re also on Twitter. I’m @CaitlinSchiller and you’re –
CS: Easy. Cool. Also, Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you don’t know, is a learning app that takes insights the world’s bestselling nonfiction books and condenses them into these focused little capsules of knowledge available in audio or text that you can listen to or read in just about 15 minutes.
BSS: And we made another voucher code for this episode. You can get 14 days free if you go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code: unscrewed. Which is the title of Jaclyn Friedman’s new book.
CS: And last thing: thank you so much for sending in Voice Memos about the answer to the question “What have you learnt was much easier than you thought it was?” If you haven’t done this yet and you want to, record a Voice Memo and email it to Ben and I at [email protected].
BSS: Yeah, we’d love to hear some more good stories.. Alright so, we’ll be back next week with another episode of Simplify. In the meantime, be good. This is Ben…
CS: …and Caitlin checking out. See you guys!