Jaclyn Friedman gives us the book we didn’t know we desperately needed with What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. In it, she walks us step-by-step through why most of us have no idea what we actually want in bed and offers clear, revealing exercises to help us finally figure it out. We talked to her about making our sex lives more feminist, the prevalence of porn, and the value of submission and rape fantasies.
Your book is really about knowing what we want. Why is that so important?
I consider it an act of political resistance. We live in a culture that uses women’s sexuality to keep us malleable. Everybody wants to run women’s sexuality for their own interests. But you don’t have to access the book from that point. It also just creates a more satisfying sexual life. It’s not accidental that we don’t know. When I was doing talks on college campuses for Yes Means Yes [the anthology she edited with Feministing's Jessica Valenti], I started hearing this question phrased differently: How do I know what I want to say yes to? Themore I thought about that question the more I realized, yes. That is our problem.
Do gay women experience the same difficulties with articulating what they want as straight women do? Or is it specifically a reaction to dealing with a man in the bedroom?
I hesitate to say the same. But I think a lot of the same phenomena play out depending on what sexual messages your partner has absorbed. I don’t think women who sleep with women automatically have an easier time of it.
What can straight women, in particular, do to make their sexual relationships with men more egalitarian?
One thing is refuse to sleep with men who aren’t egalitarian. That sounds flip, but I think there’s a mentality that there’s this scarcity model, that all sexuality has to be run on men’s agenda. You know, “If I want X, he’s going to think I’m too demanding and go somewhere else.” That’s a mass delusion. If we all agreed not to be this way, it wouldn’t work. If we start en masse standing up for our boundaries, men will have to get with the program.
You talk a lot about shame and blame. How do those feelings manifest most in modern women’s sex lives?
It depends on the woman. My process for the book involves this think tank of women who went through the exercises and shared their experiences. One of the things that was so striking was there were 11, and they were split down the middle: some who felt they were too sexual, and some who felt they weren’t sexual enough. They’re not measuring up to some imaginary and impossible ideal. The shame around women’s sexuality is pervasive. That’s all about being the object of someone else’s sexuality.
You also address safety quite a bit—safe sex and safety from sexual assault. Why is it so hard to balance our sexuality and our safety?
I think there’s this mythology of risk-free sexuality. Therefore the reason you’re not happy is you’re doing it wrong. We need to understand what the actual risks are and pay attention to them and learn how to manage them. Is sex risky? Sure. But is it also risky to be in a monogamous relationship with your husband? It can be. The idea that if you play by the rules you’ll be safe leads to denial about our risks. What I advocate is tools, not rules. We teach women how to assess risk and reward for ourselves.
How does the prevalence of porn play into our sexual difficulties?
Most of the mainstream porn that you can get free on the Internet posits women as the sexual object. The women in it are literally props in someone else’s play. There’s nothing wrong with porn. I get so frustrated when I hear people say all porn is bad! It’s just what you do with it. One thing is that there is such a preponderance of one ideal of sexuality. It’s not that that one idea is wrong, it’s that it’s shutting out a lot of the market share. We wind up with this incredibly narrow idea of what sex looks like and what it’s for. We also don’t talk about sex in other parts of the culture. What that means is that kids are getting their sex education through porn. Most educators aren’t even allowed to say sex can be pleasurable. They’re only allowed to do what’s called disaster prevention. When you’re doing disaster prevention, you’re being completely heteronormative: It’s about penis-in-vagina sex. And the clitoris doesn’t get taught at all. It sends a clear message that sex is about men’s pleasure.
There’s a lot of discussion in feminist communities about whether submission in bed is good or bad. What do you think?
I think the only thing feminists freak out more about is blowjobs. I think that sexuality can be a kind of adult playground. It can be a place where we can play out things that scare us in safe ways. A lot of feminists spend all day long fighting against [submission], so the idea that we want a space where we can explore what that feels like feels completely natural to me. Doing it in the context of a safe sexual relationship, it can be really freeing. I’m not saying all feminists need to be submissive. I think what’s important is to discover the impact of whatever you’re doing, because I do know women who felt bad about [being submissive in bed] afterwards. It’s great that you explored that and it’s great that you listened to your feelings about that. There’s no sexual act that you can engage in that’s inherently degrading or inherently liberating. It can feel like a powerful act, for instance, to give blowjobs. It’s actually a very vulnerable position for men to be in.
What about rape fantasies?
I think rape fantasies are fine. They’re really natural in a world in which rape is a public health epidemic. Of course we need to separate out having fantasies and wanting things in the real world. You need to explore it with someone you trust.
How can we best reconcile our feminism with our sexuality?
The idea that we should be the subject of our own lives affects our sexuality. There’s this idea that feminism is bad for sex, that it’s unsexy, because we insist on things like consent. If that’s unsexy [to someone], you probably have a partner who won’t give you very good sex.