Q & A Sexuality

Getting ‘Unscrewed’ in This Rape Culture: A Q&A With Author Jaclyn Friedman

Stephanie Gilmore

In her new book, Friedman calls for radically re-envisioning the only​ ​model​ ​of​ ​sexuality​ ​we've ​ever​ ​known.​

In recent weeks, heinous allegations of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein and other celebrities fanned the flames of the #MeToo hashtag originated by Tarana Burke more than ten years ago. The campaign raised the big question: What are we going to do about the insidious, pervasive rape culture in which we all live, a culture that normalizes sex as violent and violence as sexy?​ ​

Here’s​ ​where ​feminist author and sexpert Jaclyn​ ​Friedman’s​ ​latest​ ​book,​ Unscrewed:​ ​Women,​ ​Sex,​ ​Power,​ ​and​ ​How​ ​to​ ​Stop Letting​ ​the​ ​System​ ​Screw​ ​Us​ ​All​​ ​comes​ ​in​—​and​ ​right​ ​on​ ​time. ​Unscrewed​​ ​invites​ ​us​ ​to​ ​pick​ ​up​ ​wherever​ ​we​ ​are​ ​and​ ​interrogate​ ​how​ ​we​ ​can actually​ ​change​ ​the​ ​media,​ ​religious,​ ​economic,​ ​political,​ ​and​ ​educational​ ​institutions​ ​that currently​ ​disempower​ ​us.​ ​As​ Brandeis University Professor ​Anita​ ​Hill​ recently​ ​wrote​,​ ​“This​ ​is​ ​a​ ​critical​ ​moment.​ ​It​ ​provides​ ​us the​ ​opportunity,​ ​in​ ​fact​ ​the​ ​obligation,​ ​to​ ​finally​ ​look​ ​seriously​ ​at​ ​the​ ​sexual​ ​harassment​ ​that​ ​45 percent of​ ​employees​—​mostly​ ​women​—​in​ ​the​ ​private​ ​workforce​ ​say​ ​they​ ​experience,​ ​and​ ​recognize how​ ​culture​ ​contributes​ ​to​ ​sexual​ ​misconduct​ ​in​ ​workplaces​ ​and​ ​how​ ​bias​ ​gets​ ​baked​ ​into​ ​our policies.”​ ​

Friedman​ ​aptly​ ​demonstrates​ ​how​ ​we​ ​can​ ​use​ ​this​ ​critical​ ​moment​ ​to​ ​create change.​ ​Putting​ ​the​ ​“move”​ ​in​ ​our​ ​intersectional​ ​feminist​ ​movement​ ​depends​ ​on​ ​all​ ​of​ ​us​. Friedman​ ​has​ ​provided​ ​a​ ​serious,​ ​yet​ ​funny​ ​and​ irreverent ​guide ​that​ ​is​ ​relatable​​ ​and important​ ​for​ ​every​ ​person​ ​in​ ​your​ ​life.​ ​Including​ ​you. ​I​ ​relished​ ​the​ ​opportunity​ ​to​ ​discuss​ ​her​ ​pathbreaking​ ​and​ ​comprehensive​ ​take​ ​on​ ​the culture​ ​of​ ​sexual​ ​violence​ ​that​ ​shapes ​​all ​​of​ ​our​ ​lives.​ ​Below​ ​is​ ​an​ ​interview​ she​​ ​granted​ to​ Rewire.

Rewire:​ ​How​ ​did​ ​you​ ​come​ ​to​ ​write​ ​this​ ​book​, ​and​ ​why​ ​did you​ ​see​ ​the​ ​need​ ​for​ ​it?

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Jaclyn Friedman:​ ​Honestly,​ ​when​ ​I​ ​conceived​ ​of​ ​Unscrewed​, ​I​ ​never​ ​thought​ ​we’d​ ​be​ ​living​ ​in​ ​Trumpworld. I​ ​see​ ​this​ ​book​ ​as​ ​the​ ​third​ ​in​ ​a​ ​trilogy​ ​with​ ​my​ ​first​ ​two.​ Yes​ ​Means​ ​Yes​ ​helped​ ​popularize​ ​the affirmative​ ​consent​ ​standard. What does affirmative consent mean? It is, at bottom, a mutual and knowingly voluntary decision to engage in sexual activity. This book ​left​ ​many​ ​women​ ​with​ ​the​ ​question:​ ​When​ ​we​ ​live​ ​in​ ​a​ ​culture that​ ​never​ ​teaches​ ​women​ ​to​ ​see​ ​ourselves​ ​as​ ​sexual​ ​actors,​ ​just​ ​as​ ​sexual​ ​props,​ ​how​ ​do​ ​I​ ​even know​ ​what​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​say​ ​yes​ ​or​ ​no​ ​to​ ​when​ ​it​ ​comes​ ​to​ ​sex?​ My​ ​second​ ​book,​ What​ ​You​ ​Really Really​ ​Want​,​ ​was​ ​an​ ​attempt​ ​to​ ​help​ ​women​ ​find​ ​the​ ​answers​ ​to​ ​that​ ​question,​ ​but​​ ​it had​ ​to​ ​take​ ​as​ ​given​ ​our​ ​current​ ​broken​ ​sexual​ ​culture.​ ​

Unscrewed​ ​asks:​ ​What​ ​if​ ​there​ ​was nothing​ ​inherent​ ​about​ ​this​ ​sexual​ ​culture?​ ​What​ ​if​ ​we​ ​could​ ​make​ ​something​ ​better?​ ​I​ ​believe that​ ​we​ ​can.​ ​The​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​the ​​work​ ​is​ ​now​ ​more​ ​urgent ​​than​ ever​​ ​makes​ ​me​ ​even​ ​more ​​glad​ ​to ​​be putting​ ​it​ ​out​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world.

Rewire:​ ​So​ ​what​ ​does​ ​the​ ​term​ “unscrewed” ​mean​ ​to​ ​you?

JF:​ Unscrewed​ ​is​ ​the​ ​project​ ​of​ ​repairing​ ​(or,​ ​in​ ​some​ ​parts,​ ​tearing​ ​down​ ​and​ ​rebuilding)​ ​the sexual​ ​culture.​ ​We​ ​are​ ​so,​ ​so​ ​screwed​ ​by​ ​the​ ​”fauxpowerment”​ ​model​ ​of​ ​getting​ ​free:​ ​focusing​ ​on individual​ ​quick​ ​fixes​ ​that​ ​only​ ​temporarily​ ​make​ ​individual​ ​women​ ​feel​ ​more​ ​sexy​ ​or​ ​sexually free.​ ​The term “fauxpowerment” is fundamentally the idea that the realities of empowerment are not experienced in ways that are actually empowering to people. Under​ ​fauxpowerment,​ ​if​ ​you​ ​don’t​ ​feel​ ​liberated,​ ​that​ ​means​ ​there’s​ ​something​ ​wrong​ ​with you,​ ​as​ ​a​ ​person,​ ​that​ ​you​ ​have​ ​to​ ​figure​ ​out​ ​how​ ​to​ ​fix.​ ​

Fauxpowerment​ ​keeps​ ​us​ ​believing​ ​the sexual​ ​problems​ ​and​ ​insecurities​ ​we’re​ ​having​ ​lie​ ​with​ ​us​—​that​ ​we​ ​need​ ​to​ ​fix​ ​ourselves.​ ​But mostly​ ​they’re​ ​not.​ ​Fauxpowerment​ ​is​ ​a​ ​distraction​ ​that​ ​keeps​ ​us​ ​from​ ​doing​ ​the​ ​work​ ​of​ ​actual sexual​ ​liberation,​ ​which​ ​requires​ ​us​ ​to​ ​work​ ​together,​ ​in​ ​community​ ​and​ ​solidarity,​ ​to​ ​fix​ ​the systems​ ​that​ ​are​ ​actually​ ​keeping​ ​us​ ​oppressed.​ ​Unscrewed​ ​is​ ​about​ ​locating​ ​the​ ​problem​ ​where it​ ​actually​ ​is​—​in​ ​the​ ​systems​ ​that​ ​make​ ​up​ ​our​ ​sexual​ ​culture​—so​ ​that​ ​we​ ​can​ ​together​ ​build something​ ​that​ ​works​ ​for​ ​everyone.

Rewire:​ ​We​ ​both​ ​know​ ​that​ ​you​ ​don’t​ ​need​ ​a​ ​man​ ​present​ ​for​ ​patriarchy​ ​to​ ​operate​ ​at​ ​full​ ​speed. Can​ ​you​ ​explain​ ​how​ Unscrewed​​ ​helps​ ​women​ ​and​ ​femmes​ ​who​ ​identify​ ​so​ ​strongly​ ​with patriarchy​ ​and​ ​men’s​ ​rights​ ​associations​ to​ ​see​ ​how​ ​they​ ​are​ ​contributing​ ​to​ ​their own​ ​exploitation?

JF:​ ​I​ ​think​ ​there’s​ ​a​ ​tendency​ ​among​ ​many​ ​women​ ​to​ ​identify​ ​with​ ​the​ ​men​ ​in​ ​power​ ​in​ ​the hopes​ ​that​ ​those​ ​men​ ​will ​protect​​ ​them.​ ​Or​ ​they​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​bad​ ​things​ ​only​ ​happen​ ​to​ ​women who​ ​”break​ ​the​ ​rules,”​ ​so​ ​that​ they​​ ​can​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​they’re ​​safe​ ​if​ ​they​ ​follow​ ​them.​ ​

On​ ​a​ ​more basic​ ​level,​ ​it​ ​can​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​see​ ​that​ ​another​ ​world,​ ​another​ ​culture,​ ​another​ ​way​ ​of​ ​being​ ​is possible​ ​when​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​model​ ​of​ ​sexuality​ ​you’ve​ ​ever​ ​known.​ ​It​ ​can​ ​be​ ​like​ ​suggesting​ ​to someone​ ​that​ ​there’s​ ​something​ ​you​ ​can​ ​breathe​ ​other​ ​than​ ​air.​ ​My​ ​hope​ ​is​ ​that​ ​Unscrewed​ ​will help​ ​them​ ​see​ ​The​ ​Matrix,​ ​basically.

Rewire:​ ​I​ ​love​ ​a​ ​Matrix ​reference!​ ​An​ ​important​ ​part​ ​of​ ​getting​ ​“unscrewed”​ ​is​ ​reinvesting in​ ​sisterhood.​ ​The term sisterhood,​ ​as​ ​we​ ​both​ ​know,​ ​has​ ​a​ ​troubled​ ​past,​ ​so​ ​can​ ​you​ ​elaborate​ ​what​ ​it means​ ​to​ ​you?

JF:​ ​It’s​ ​true​ ​that​ ​the​ ​word​ “​sisterhood”​ ​has​ ​been​ ​used​ ​for​ ​many​ ​purposes,​ ​sometimes​ ​as​ ​a​ ​blunt instrument​ ​with​ ​which​ ​to​ ​shame​ ​women​ ​who​ ​are​ ​rightly​ ​criticizing​ ​other​ ​women.​ ​Sisterhood doesn’t​ ​mean​ ​you​ ​have​ ​to​ ​support​ ​everything​ ​every​ ​other​ ​woman​ ​ever​ ​does.​ ​I​ ​mean,​ ​you​ ​couldn’t even​ ​if​ ​you​ ​wanted​ ​to,​ ​but​ ​also​ ​that​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​sisterhood​ ​is​ ​about​ ​an​ ​impossible,​ ​idealized​ ​kind​ ​of womanhood,​ ​and​ ​I’m​ ​never​ ​here​ ​for​ ​that.​

​I’m​ ​not​ ​particularly​ ​attached​ ​to​ ​the​ ​word,​ ​if​ ​I’m perfectly​ ​honest.​ ​What​ ​I​ ​am​ ​passionately​ ​attached​ ​to​ ​is​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​we​ ​have​ ​to​ ​look​ ​out​ ​for​ ​each other.​ ​ Fauxpowerment​ ​wants​ ​to​ ​pit​ ​us​ ​against​ ​each​ ​other.​ ​But​ ​it’s​ ​rooted​ ​in​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​some of​ ​us​ ​who​ ​are​ ​”good”​ ​can​ ​get​ ​access​ ​to​ ​power​ ​because​ ​we’re​ ​exceptional,​ ​not​ ​just​ ​because​ ​we’re human.​ ​That​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​power​ ​isn’t​ ​just​ ​shitty​ ​to​ ​other​ ​people,​ ​it’s​ ​revocable.​ ​If​ ​you​ ​have​ ​to​ ​”earn” the​ ​right​ ​for​ ​someone​ ​to​ ​acknowledge​ ​your​ ​sovereign​ ​humanity,​ ​they​ ​can​ ​later​ ​decide​ ​you’ve fucked​ ​up​ ​and​ ​use​ ​that​ ​to​ ​justify​ ​dehumanizing​ ​you.​ ​Our​ ​real​ ​power​ ​lies​ ​in​ ​working​ ​together.​ ​For that​ ​to​ ​happen,​ ​we​ ​have​ ​to​ ​be​ ​genuinely​ ​looking​ ​out​ ​for​ ​each​ ​other’s​ ​interests.

It​ ​is​ ​important​ ​to​ ​me​ ​to​ ​underscore​ ​that​ ​sisterhood​ ​is​ ​an​ ​expression​ ​of​ ​intersectionality, a term that originates with Black feminist thought and action.​ ​We​ ​have to​ ​recognize​ ​other​ ​women​ ​as​ ​their​ ​full​ ​selves,​ ​with​ ​all​ ​of​ ​their​ ​intersecting​ ​identities,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​each have​ ​to​ ​leverage​ ​whatever​ ​powers​ ​and​ ​privileges​ ​we​ ​have​ ​to​ ​make​ ​sure​ ​we​ ​all​ ​get​ ​free​ ​together. Ultimately,​ ​unscrewing​ ​the​ ​sexual​ ​culture​ ​is​ ​about​ ​creating​ ​a​ ​world​ ​in​ ​which​ ​all​ ​of​ ​us​ ​can​ ​be recognized​ ​as​ ​fully,​ ​equally​ ​human.

Rewire: What do you mean by sovereignty? What does a sovereign woman look like?

JF: A sovereign woman is the ruler of her own body, and her right to that rule is not questioned, threatened, or undermined by any individual or institution.

Rewire:​ ​In​ ​the​ ​book,​ ​you​ ​talk​ ​about​ ​there​ ​being​ ​no​ ​special​ ​magic​ ​beyond​ ​our​ ​refusal to believe that​ ​change is​ ​impossible.​ ​What​ ​do​ ​you​ ​see​ ​as​ ​women’s​ ​barriers,​ ​and​ ​how​ ​can​ ​we​ ​unscrew​ ​ourselves​ ​in​ ​a daily​ ​way?

JF:​ ​We​ ​just​ ​have​ ​to​ ​start​ ​with​ ​interrogating​ ​what​ ​we​ ​accept​ ​as​ ​immutable.​ ​If​ ​your​ ​sex​ ​life isn’t​ ​satisfying,​ ​consider​ ​that​ ​there​ ​may​ ​be​ ​reasons​ ​that​ ​aren’t​ ​”you’re​ ​broken​ ​and​ ​need​ ​fixing,” and​ ​start​ ​to​ ​identify​ ​them.​ ​Do​ ​you​ ​have​ ​a​ ​partner​ ​who​ ​doesn’t​ ​prioritize​ ​your​ ​pleasure?​ ​Do​ ​you feel​ ​shame​ ​about​ ​the​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​your​ ​sexuality​ ​doesn’t​ ​conform​ ​to​ ​some​ ​fauxpowerment norm?​ ​Are​ ​you​ ​afraid​ ​you’ll​ ​be​ ​hurt​ ​or​ ​punished​ ​because​ ​of​ ​something​ ​about​ ​your​ ​sexuality​ ​or your​ ​sexual​ ​choices?​ ​Did​ ​you​ ​and​ ​your​ ​partner(s)​ ​get​ ​comprehensive,​ ​accurate,​ ​shame-free, pleasure-based​ ​sex​ ​ed​ ​in​ ​school?​ ​Were​ ​the​ ​men​ ​in​ ​your​ ​life​ ​raised​ ​to​ ​see​ ​women​ ​as​ ​inherently interesting​ ​and​ ​inherently​ ​sovereign?​ ​Is​ ​it​ ​hard​ ​for​ ​you​ ​to​ ​access​ ​birth​ ​control​ ​or​ ​an​ ​abortion​ ​if you​ ​want​ ​one?

The​ ​least​ ​obvious​ ​and​ ​perhaps most​ ​impactful​ ​action​ ​we​ ​can​ ​take​ ​to​ ​unscrew​ ​the​ ​sexual​ ​culture​ ​is​ ​to​ ​fight gerrymandering​ ​and​ ​all​ ​forms​ ​of​ ​voter​ ​suppression.​ ​Many​ ​of​ ​the​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​we’re​ ​screwed spring​ ​from​ ​the​ ​intersection​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Religious​ ​Right​ ​and​ ​our​ ​federal,​ ​state, ​and​ ​local​ ​governments.

If​ ​we​ ​had​ ​a​ ​truly​ ​representational​ ​government,​ ​if​ ​we​ ​enabled​ ​high​ ​voter​ ​participation​ ​and demographically​ ​fair​ ​districts,​ ​the​ ​Religious​ ​Right​ ​would​ ​hold​ ​so​ much​​ ​less​ ​sway​ ​over​ ​all​ ​of ​​our lives​ ​than​ ​it​ ​does​ ​now.​ ​Voting​ ​rights​ ​don’t​ ​get​ ​talked​ ​about​ ​much​ ​by​ ​advocates​ ​for​ ​sexual freedom,​ ​but​ ​you’d​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​pressed​ ​to​ ​find​ ​a​ ​single​ ​change​ ​that​ ​would​ ​free​ ​more​ ​people​ ​than​ ​if we​ ​were​ ​to​ ​ensure​ ​that​ ​everyone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​United States​ ​was​ ​properly,​ ​genuinely​ ​enfranchised.​ Just​ ​start​ ​to see​ ​the​ ​systems​ ​that​ ​are​ ​hemming​ ​you​ ​in,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​get​ ​angry​ ​when​ ​you​ ​realize​ ​these​ ​systems​ ​are created​ ​by​ ​people​ ​and​ ​can​ ​be​ ​changed​ ​by​ ​people.​ ​Then​ ​use​ ​that​ ​anger​ ​to​ ​lead​ ​you​ ​to​ ​action.

Rewire:​ ​Anger​ ​is​ ​definitely​ ​a​ ​powerful​ ​impetus​ ​to​ ​action.​ ​But​ ​many​ ​of​ ​us​ ​still​—​in​ ​spite​ ​of​ ​social media​ ​and​ ​real-time​ ​online​ ​connections​ ​to​ ​people​ ​and​ ​organizations​—​still​ ​feel​ ​alone.​ ​In​ ​these​ ​times​ ​of​ ​rolling​ ​back​ ​reproductive​ ​rights,​ ​Title​ ​IX​ ​protections​ ​for student​ ​survivors ​on​ ​college​ ​and​ ​university​ ​campuses,​ ​protections​ ​for​ ​DACA​ ​recipients,​ ​ongoing allegations​ ​of​ ​sexual​ ​violence​ ​against​ ​men​ ​in​ ​positions​ ​of​ ​power,​ ​and​ ​so​ ​much​ ​more​ ​that​ ​is​ ​being done​ ​to​ ​exacerbate​ ​social​ ​injustice,​ ​we​ ​can​ ​often​ ​feel​ ​overwhelmed​ ​and​ ​unsure​ ​of​ ​where​ ​to​ ​start. ​Can​ ​you identify​ ​some​ ​groups​ ​out​ ​there​ ​doing​ ​the​ ​work​ ​of​ ​unscrewing​?

JF:​ ​There​ ​are​ ​so​ ​many!​ ​Some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​ones​ ​I​ ​spotlight​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​book​ ​are​ the Sister​Song Women​ ​of​ ​Color​ ​Reproductive​ ​Justice​ ​Collective,​ ​ImMEDIAte​ ​Justice,​ ​Sister​Reach,​ ​Youth​ ​on Fire,​ ​HIPS,​ ​Scarleteen,​ ​Maine​ ​Boys​ ​to​ ​Men …. I​ ​could​ ​go​ ​on!​ ​There​ ​are​ ​so​ ​many​ ​folks​ ​doing​ ​the hard​ ​work​ ​of​ ​unscrewing​ ​the​ ​sexual​ ​culture,​ ​and​ ​most​ ​of​ ​them​ ​are​ ​happy​ ​for​ ​volunteers, participants,​ ​donors. Just​ ​pick​ ​one​ ​you​ ​dig​ ​and​ ​see​ ​what​ ​they​ ​need.

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