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?
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 SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, ImMEDIAte Justice, SisterReach, 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.