Expanding Consent: An interview with Jaclyn Friedman
Allow me to introduce you to Jaclyn Friedman. A performer, poet, writer, and activist, Jaclyn is most recently co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape. Program Director of the Center for New Words in Central Square, Jaclyn organizes workshops, open-mics, speakers, political discussion, concerts, book groups and a slew of other events and activities all related to creating spaces “where women’s words matter.” Jaclyn also worked as Program Director of the LiveSafe Foundation, which organizes its advocacy around self-defense and reducing violence. I first saw Jaclyn speak when I went to the book reading of her new anthology at the YMCA in Central Square. I left there with tears in my eyes, breathing a little easier. I was overwhelmed by this book’s impact on my own life and its un-apologeticness around positive female power. Yet I also knew I was on the brink of understanding just how pervasively the reverberations of this anthology that wholly re-theorizes our current rape culture would be felt. I quickly contacted Jaclyn for an interview. We met in the yard one rainy Sunday morning, and proceeded on a tour of a variety of freshmen common rooms to find a quiet place to record the interview. After running into studious groups of freshmen sprinkled throughout, we finally found the only quiet, unlocked, unoccupied room in the yard: the garbage room of Weld. That’s right. I interviewed Jaclyn Friedman amongst bags of trash. Jaclyn was an amazing sport, and once I was over my embarrassment, we began one of the most inspiring hours and a half of my thinking life. So sit back, relax, and be prepared to have your mind blown1.
CP: Can you explain the history of your title, “Yes Means Yes”? Where does this framework come from, and what are you trying to suggest with it?
JF: I think most people are familiar with the concept “no means no,” and that’s not an accident. A lot of activists worked a lot of decades to get the concept of “no means no” into the mainstream consciousness. “No means no” is to say that when a person says “no” to a sexual encounter or a sexual advance, you ought to stop. It’s very basic at this point. And still needs work today. I don’t think it’s a fully universally accepted concept unfortunately. But the problem with “no means no,” as important as it is, is that it doesn’t go far enough. And most of the time when we’re talking about “no means no,” we’re talking about men needing to listen to women’s “no’s.” And when we leave it there, it underlines all of the sort of diseased ideas about sex and sexuality that we have in our culture, which is that women are the keeper of the “no,” women want to say “no,” women don’t like sex, only bad women give it up, and men only want “yes.” It leaves all of those messed up dynamics in place. So “yes means yes” is about suggesting that none of us can have a complete independent sexuality – a full healthy sexuality – unless we have access to “yes” and “no” equally.
CP: What is the feminist model of enthusiastic consent and how does it tie into “yes means yes”?
JF: So “no means no” has brought forward this idea that if a woman says “no” – and I’m saying woman here in particular because that’s the construct that most of us imagine around “no means no” – you have to stop. And the corollary to that that you hear very often is, “Well, she didn’t say no.” That leaves what people consider a very blurry area where a lot of people do things that they know their partner isn’t into or doesn’t want, but will do anyway because they can “get away with it.” And what we’re saying is that those things are still sexual assault and rape. Unless you have enthusiastic consent, which is more than just the absence of “no,” consent is not complete. When all you’re relying on is the absence of “no” to equal consent, you leave out coercion, you leave out the possibility that someone is panicked or terrified, or even that the person is confused in the moment about what they want and isn’t given the space to figure it out. A healthy sexual encounter – one that is free of coercion or violence – requires enthusiastic consent, which means it’s your responsibility to make sure your partner is having a great time. Not just that they’re willing or will let you, but that they really are excited about doing whatever it is you want to do with them. And that also is where that “yes meaning yes” comes in. And that requires a culture where women are allowed to want to have sex without being ashamed or blamed for that.
CP: How might extreme gender roles lead to a culture of rape?
JF: I think that the commodity model is a good framework for this. The commodity model is this: sex is a thing. It’s something that women have. They have The Sex. And they’re supposed to keep The Sex as long as they possibly can, because they can only give it away once for something of worth. After they give it away once, it has much less value, so they have to make the best trade they possibly can for their Sex, because it’s really valuable, and they only get to give it away once. So they have to play keep-away with The Sex until they find the ultimate trade, which is “a good husband.” That involves money and a ring [ed: thanks Beyonce] and whole bunch of other social constructions. On the other hand, on the other side of the commodity model are the men, and they’re tasked with getting The Sex for as little as they can, because this is a capitalist model. Supply and demand. It’s a very standard market, right? So that is where you get coercion and pressure and all of those “grey areas” because men are trying to trick women into it or sweet talk them into it or get them drunk to sort of convince them to give The Sex away without the sort of “husband” part. Now few men stop to think in this model, “Do I want The Sex? Do I want sex from this particular woman? Do I want sex right now?” Men are told from very early on, “You must get The Sex. Get it however you can. Get the best kind you can.” And that’s about valuing peoples’ looks, peoples’ skin color, peoples’ youth, a whole bunch of stuff. So how a woman looks, and how she presents herself, her race, her body type – those things all play into the value of her Sex as well as whether or not it’s ever been given away.
But her ability to do the Sex never comes into play here. It’s about an object. So men don’t have very much agency in this either – they’re just playing out a script. And women on the other hand, they’re not saying, “Well maybe I want to give away The Sex! Maybe I feel like having The Sex right now!” One of the most insidious things that comes out of it is that once a woman consents to give away The Sex, however tacitly, even if she just leaves it unguarded and does not object if you try to take it, then it’s all fair game. Maybe he sweet talks you into it, or gets you drunk until you say “no” fourteen times but on the fifteenth time you say, “Okay, fine, take it and stop bothering me.” This is all fair game in the commodity model. And then once you’ve said yes, it’s done, it’s a contract, you’ve signed it. You can’t change your mind in the middle, you can’t say “yes” to part of The Sex.
CP: The essay in Yes Means Yes which deals with this is called “Towards a Performance Model of Sex,” and it’s by Thomas Macaulay Millar. In it, he proposes, in contrast to the commodity model of sex, the performance model of sex. What is he getting at?
JF: He says, and what I fully believe in, is that what we ought to have, and what really blows the whole thing open, is a mutual improv performance – a jazz performance, say, although it doesn’t have to be jazz – where two or more people start jamming together, and they’re taking cues from each other, and they’re having a good time, until they stop having a good time, and then they stop jamming. Maybe they’ll jam again, or maybe one person will go jam with someone else now. If somebody kidnapped you and forced you to go play music with them, it would be a musical act in some literal way, but mostly it would be a kidnapping. And that’s what rape is. And when you think of sex as a collaborative performance instead of this crass commodity exchange, it just explodes all of our bad assumptions about sex and rape, and how those interactions work, and shows a world of how they could work. If you’re a huge fan of somebody’s music, you still don’t want their very first performance unless you’re an obsessive completist, because it probably wasn’t that good. They didn’t know what they were doing yet. And yet we have this obsession with virginity and saving it. Which I mean let’s face it – some of us had a pretty good time our first time and some of us didn’t have a great time, but we’ve all had better sex than our first time after our first time, because there are things to learn! Both about what we like, how to communicate, what other people might like, there’s a lot of things. This fetishization of newness and lack of knowledge and lack of experience is really sort of sick and twisted if you think about it from a performance model. The whole slut-shaming thing disappears, because you wouldn’t tell a musician, “You’re a slut because you play with too many people!” You’d think, “Wow, they’re really into music because they’re getting a lot of practice in. They clearly enjoy it.” You’d think either, “I like their music,” or, “I really don’t like their music.” All the baggage that comes along with the commodity model just falls away when you turn it on its head and think about sex for what it is – what it really actually should be – which is a collaborative, enthusiastic performance, between two or more willing partners.
CP: What are the limitations of this model of enthusiastic consent?
JF: Well, there are plenty of contexts in which consent is a non-issue. I mean there’s an essay in the book about immigrant women and how this model does not help many of them because no one cares about their consent. No one is pretending they’re consenting or asking them. That many are getting raped systematically as they enter the border from Mexico is considered by many people a price to pay. So much so that when many women cross the border illegally, they take birth control just so they don’t get pregnant at the very least. And then there’s rape as a weapon of war as well. Enthusiastic consent is not going to solve the question of rape. And I think that’s really important to say. This is mostly about rapes that happen in a purportedly sexual context. What we’re trying to do here is not to educate rapists out of raping. And I think that’s really important to say because I think there’s a sort of a myth that in a lot of rapes, especially those “drunken encounters between people who already know each other,” the hook-up kind of rapes, the “grey rapes” – I hate that term – there’s this common belief that it’s hard to know what happens. Women are confused and men are confused, and it’s totally possible that he thought it was fine and she didn’t think it was fine and there was some miscommunication. But the research doesn’t say that. The research shows that men who rape almost always do it repeatedly. Even in these college, drinking-hook-up contexts. And what that says is that men who do this know they’re doing it. They may not use the word deliberately in their head. But they know that if they asked their partner, their partner would not be saying yes to it. Let’s be clear: you cannot rape someone by accident. These men are under no illusions that the feeling is mutual. So they’re clearly not interested in enthusiastic consent. What we want to do is educate the culture that allows for that to continue. So all the people who are on the juries and making the media and listening to the media and in the public conversation about rape who say, “Well, it was probably a miscommunication, it’s really hard to know, because you know, well, she didn’t say ‘no.’” If we as a culture had enthusiastic consent as a threshold, then those jerks who are raping and saying, “Well, she didn’t say ‘no,’” would stop getting away with it. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. I don’t think you can educate rapists out of it that easily. I don’t think they’re confused.
CP: In your essay entitled “In Defense of Going Wild or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Pleasure (and How You Can, Too,)” you talk about women “policing their own safety.” What problems arise when society puts the burden on women to do this?
JF: I love this question. So, as a culture we have decided that one of the ways that we can keep women safe from rape is to scare them. Most of the time when you hear that a rape has happened, it’s a stranger rape: somebody got grabbed, and they didn’t know the person, and it was in an alley or the bushes. Stranger rape is about 15-20% of the rapes that happen, but we don’t hear about those other ones. But when a stranger rape happens, what do you hear? You hear, “Okay women, here are the safety tips about how to keep yourself safe: don’t go out at night, don’t go out in this area because there’s obviously something dangerous happening.” It’s all that range of stuff that we tell women and girls from when they’re three about how to curtail their own activities in order to imagine that they’re safer. And I say “imagine that they’re safer” because its obviously not stopping rape in any meaningful way. Rape keeps happening, at more or less the same rate. So it’s not working. That’s number one. One of the reasons it’s not working is because that stranger rape scenario that sort of policing of women’s behavior in the public sphere is supposed to prevent, is a fairly rare occurrence compared to rapes that are committed between people who have a preexisting relationship. Which studies show are between 75-85% of all rapes that happen. And so whether or not you wear that dress is really not the point. In any of those situations. It really isn’t in stranger situations either. But beyond the fact that it’s not working, and beyond the basic unfairness that most rapists are men, it is women who are asked to do the actions to keep ourselves safe. Men are not asked to behave responsibly.
CP: You talk in your article about drinking and rape. In what ways are our messages about safe drinking gendered?
JF: When you hear people talking about drinking and rape, you hear people telling women to keep an eye on their drink, keep their drink covered, don’t drink too much, make sure you’re with your friends, make sure a guy walks you home, all that stuff. Well that guy walking you home is more likely to rape you than somebody standing in the bushes, unfortunately. Unless you are smart about choosing your friends. You need to be following signs, not just “I know this person.” “I know this person” does not keep you safe. What they don’t tell you is that when a rape happens and there’s alcohol involved, it’s more statistically likely that the guy has been drinking than the woman has. And yet you never hear men get the message: “Hey guys, be careful, don’t drink too much, because you might lose your ability to judge whether or not you’re raping someone.” Have you? None of us have, and yet it’s statistically more likely that a guy would need that than a woman. It’s simply unfair to ask women to be the people to police their own safety.
CP: How does this self-policing relate to pleasure?
JF: So on the other side of these gendered messages is pleasure as a universal human right. When we tell women, “Don’t act that way, don’t be that way, don’t go that place, don’t go to that place at this time, don’t go to that place wearing that, don’t go to that place and bat your eyes in that way,” first of all it’s not like we don’t all know that stuff. We know it from when we’re very little. But we’re going to do that anyway because we’re human, and most of us chose short-term pleasure over long-term, abstract safety goals at least some of the time. But second of all, we’re also sending a really clear message that women’s pleasure in our own bodies is not as important as men’s. No one asks men to curtail their own behaviors around this stuff, but we do ask women. And that means that women are told that our body, our experiences in our own body, our own pleasure, what makes us happy, what’s fun, what makes us feel alive – that’s not as important. And I consider that a human rights issue. Pleasure is a universal human right, and we need to start treating it as that. Once you start using the human rights framework, it really links together women who are fighting for sexual freedom and against sexual violence, queer people who are fighting for civil rights, and a whole mess of people who have been denied their own pleasure by the culture, or who’s pleasure of any manifestation the culture has deemed is not okay. And that when we come from a standpoint where, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, taking pleasure in your own body and your own life is a human right, it really cuts across a whole lot of that.
CP: You write in your chapter about the importance of learning self-defense. How do we resolve the tension between not policing our own safety, but still preparing ourselves to protect ourselves?
JF: You know how when you get on an airplane, the flight attendants are doing their little safety chat, and they say, “In the event of an emergency and the oxygen masks come down, you should put the oxygen mask over your own face before you go and help somebody sitting next to you, say a child or someone who needs help.” I think taking self-defense is like putting on your oxygen mask first. There’s a huge amount of systemic change we need to do to the culture in order to make it safe for everyone to be sexually equal, sexually free, and sexually safe: huge paradigm shifts, institutions that have to get destroyed, and so on. In the meantime, we’re still living in the current reality. And that means a lot of women are going to face situations where someone is going to try and pull shit on them. And we’re going to be distracted by fear and trauma if we don’t learn to take care of ourselves in those situations first. When we get those skills under our belt we can start focusing more clearly on making systemic changes happen, without living in fear. I took self-defense a long time ago, unfortunately, after I was assaulted. My wish for everyone is that we take it before it happens so that it doesn’t happen. But what it did for me, even though it was a scary experience in some parts of the class, is actually liberate me from fear. It means that I spend so much less mental bandwidth worrying about where I’m walking, or who I’m talking to, or what I wear out in public when, or if I have that drink or not, and all of that stuff that so many women spend so much bandwidth on. I trust my skills, I trust my instinct, I trust what I’ve learned, so I know that if something bad happens, I’ll know how to handle it. And that frees me to focus on the bigger picture. And it also frees me to not fall for all of those fear lines we get from the culture about what I as a woman should or should not be doing or saying in public. So I think self-defense is actually key to making us all ready to make those systemic changes. On a practical level, I also think that it will hasten an end to our rape culture. Because I think that a lot of men will stop raping if they have to think twice about getting hurt. And I think if there were a critical mass of women who were actually trained in real safety skills and real self-defense, you’d see rape drop off pretty dramatically. I would much rather put the fear on the rapists.
CP: So where can we take a self-defense class?
JF: I highly, highly recommend Impact Boston, which is a holistic, feminist grounded self-defense program where you get to do realistic scenarios with a fully padded role-playing assailant, and you get to practice verbal and emotional boundaries as well as physical self-defense in an adrenalized fear state. They actually create a situation that feels real, so that you can learn how to react while you’re freaking out. Because learning how to hit as a technique is really only about a third of it. Learning how you react to fear and how to make clear decisions in that adrenalized space is really the key to self-defense. [ed: http://www.impactboston.com
CP: Rachel Kramer Bussel talks in her essay “Beyond Yes or No: consent as Sexual Process” about “sexualizing consent.” What is she getting at here?
JF: Well I don’t know if folks in your generation know what happened maybe ten years ago with what was called the Antioch code. [ed: I told her we wouldn’t. I now regret that. Google it as you read on.] Well there’s a common cultural belief that getting explicit consent – the kind that’s required for enthusiastic consent – is unsexy. Or that talking about sex at all is unsexy. Which is really laughable! But it’s pretty pervasive. The idea is that it would sound if you did it, something like this: [ed: in a deep, choppy, robotic tone:] “May I / have permission to / touch / your / right / breast / on the side / now?” We have this really schizoid relationship with sex as a culture where everyone should be trying to get it and doing it, sort of like girls-gone-wild, pornification-of-America side of things. On the other hand, you’re not ever supposed to talk about it like an adult. You’re just supposed to instantly know what to do it, psychically. There’s this romantic idea of the guy who’s the perfect lover, who just instinctively always knows what his lover wants, and every woman wants to be with that perfect guy. The assumption is that we’re not supposed to talk about or negotiate consent with our partners. One of the things its going to take to overcome that culture is helping people realize that negotiating consent can be very sexy. It can be hot. You can say things like, “I am dying to kiss your neck, can I please.” You know, you can make a game of it. Rachel in her essay actually talks about a questionnaire that BDSM [ed: Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadomasochism] folks use that can be adapted for any couple or set of partners, where you can literally fill out a questionnaire about what sorts of things are you into, what sorts of things would you never be into, what sorts of things are you maybe going to be into, etc. That’s a great way to spur a conversation with a sexual partner about where you overlap, whether you want to push each other a little, talk about boundaries. That conversation sounds sexy as all hell to me. And the fact that it doesn’t to a lot of people is a symptom of how diseased our culture is about sex.
CP: How can women know when a partner will be safe in bed? What kinds of clues do you suggest that we think about as we’re flirting with a potential partner?
JF: Well I would suggest that we not think of consent as one moment, in that we look in our partners for someone who’s listening to us. And that can be, if we say at the bar – and I’m using a total cliché – if I say I don’t want another drink and somebody goes ahead and buys me another drink. That’s a clue to me that they’re not listening to me, and they have their own agenda and their own script that they’re going to follow regardless of what I want. I am a big fan of setting small boundaries early, to see how somebody responds. For example, “I don’t want another drink.” Or, “Could you wait here a second? I want to go talk to my friend.” Or, “Hey, you’re standing a little too close, could you just step back?” If someone responds badly to those boundaries, it tells you a ton of information. You can get as close as you want later. Just because you want a particular distance in one moment doesn’t mean that’s the distance you have to maintain.
The first step is getting in touch with what we want. And that can be really hard in this culture because we’re told two things sort of simultaneously, with no space in between them. We’re told either: “Be a good girl, save it until marriage, be pure as the driven snow; also be white, able-bodied, skinny, and conventionally pretty.” And then on the other hand we’ve got the girls-gone-wild, Pussycat Dolls, women-are-empowered-by-being-aggressively-sex-objects-for-men side. And you’re not allowed to stand in between those two points. So if you’ve stepped away from that virgin model, or if you never fit what we thought it should be in the first place – for example, if you’re a woman of color you’re not invited to that virgin model because you were always assumed to be oversexed anyway – in either of those positions, you’re already the ho. And you get whatever’s coming to you. So you might as well lay back and enjoy it. You might as well be the freakiest freak who ever freaked, so that you can win the ho competition.
Between these two poles there’s no room for women to know what they actually want in any given moment. So maybe you had sex with someone previously. Maybe you had freaky freaky sex with them. Maybe you don’t want it right now. Maybe you might want it in three hours from now but maybe now you want to go talk to your friend. Maybe you don’t know if you want it with them right now. We get to make those decisions at all times, but the culture is not down with that. And so the first thing and the hardest thing to do to know if your partner is going to be safe in bed, is to know what you want. And that’s an ongoing process. And self-defense training, if I can come back to that, actually helps with that. Because you need to explore what your boundaries are to know when and how to defend them. So working with the assumption that you know at any given moment what you want, the best way to know if a partner is safe is whether they’re listening. And again, pay attention to the small stuff. “Big deal, he bought me that extra drink. I was kind of on the fence about having that extra drink anyway.” The point is they didn’t listen to you, not whether or not you care about the outcome of that particular moment. And that said, you really can’t ever know a hundred percent if somebody new is safe. Listen to your gut, even if you don’t have any evidence. We’re taught as women to sort of override our emotional instincts because we’re always told that women are emotional and irrational. But those feelings and instincts can be very self-protective.
CP: What advice do you have for men as they decide whether or not to have sex with a woman?
JF: My advice to men, especially men who are thinking about what it’s okay to “get away with” and what it isn’t, or where that line is between raping and not raping, to these men, I would say: Are you really so hard up or believe you are so hard up that you can’t find someone who would be psyched about sleeping with you? I want to say, find someone who is unequivocally psyched about sleeping with you, or don’t have sex. I really feel like it is that simple, and if you are unclear if someone is psyched about sleeping with you, you can ask questions. You can ask sexy questions. And you should listen to the answers. And honestly, this is the advice I’d give to anybody of any gender. It’s just most necessary in certain quarters.
CP: Onto a technicality question, how do we move beyond the heteronormative framework that contains so much conversation about rape and consent?
JF: You know that’s hard. I’ve been talking about these things for a really long time and I still struggle with that because I think there are two truths that compete a little bit that need to be conveyed. One is that the vast majority of rapists are men. This is not a gender-free situation. And I think that treating it as one in order to be inclusive is sort of false. When you look statistically at rape as a whole, it is a gendered act that men perpetrate. I am not saying that all men are rapists because we know that the vast majority of men are not rapists. But the vast majority of rapists are men. As far we know, about 95%. And the majority of victims are women, although the percentages aren’t as stark as they are for the perpetrators. So that bears discussing. But at the same time, I’m a queer person, I’ve had queer relationships, I have a ton of friends who are in queer relationships, and I don’t want to make invisible the fact that men rape men, women rape women, and women rape men. That’s the other truth. I mean rape is an act, and can be perpetrated by anyone, against anyone, regardless of “equipment,” shall we say. Which is, as an aside, why the whole castration-as-punishment thing drives me nuts. That does not prevent someone from raping someone with a broom handle. Like without the penis you can’t rape! Isn’t that nice? Anyway, we need to be able to have complex conversations about it so we can expose both of these truths. I think that we need to have more than just sound bytes.
CP: What can you tell us about understanding rape in specifically queer contexts?
JF: There’s obviously so much to say, but for one, Toni Amato has a really beautiful essay in Yes Means Yes called “Shame is the First Betrayer.” What Tony argues is that when we as queer people are taught that what we want sexually is shameful and horrible and gross, then how can we ever know if we’re being abused? Because we already feel wrong about what we’re doing because the culture’s already taught us to hate our own sexuality. So it makes it so much less clear whether someone is being abusive to us while we’re expressing that sexuality because we already feel awful. So it makes queer people sort of doubly vulnerable in those sorts of relationships, and it can make things very confusing.
CP: What are the dangers of using the words “rape” and “rapist” as descriptive terms too loosely to describe sexual violations of all degrees?
JF: I think it depends on what you’re trying to say. I think that, as far as I’m concerned, there’s a gap between my moral standard of rape and the legal standard of rape. I say that when I was in college I was sexually assaulted because what happened to me did not meet the legal standard of rape. And I’m speaking on the record a lot of times. And I believe that morally it was rape. And that furthermore, it only ended because somebody walked in and stopped it. And it probably would have become the legal standard of rape had that not happened. I’m not a fan of splitting hairs. I leave that question up to the victim in terms of having her describe her own experience. I’m not a big fan of the hierarchy of pain. That, “Oh well, I wasn’t penetrated so I obviously had it less bad than you.” Or, “There was only one person involved in my rape, so…” The ranking of pain is fairly useless because people experience things differently. So I like to leave that question up to the victim. In terms of a society looking in or looking at an example from a distance, my threshold more and more is about enthusiastic consent. Did you proceed without ensuring enthusiastic consent? Is it clear to me from the outside that probably you didn’t have enthusiastic consent and that’s why you didn’t try to acquire it? You are probably a rapist as far as I’m concerned. I know that’s not a legal standard. It’s a moral standard. I don’t think that will become a legal standard for along time. It has to become a cultural standard first before we even think about codifying it, and we’re so far from it being a cultural standard.
I also think that men have to get over themselves when they hear conversations about rape. Men who are on my side recognize that I am not talking about them. And men who get really defensive when the word rape or rapist is used, especially when it is not used or directed at them, and then go to great pains to explain that it does not apply to them when no one asked them and no one tried to apply it to them – that’s telling me a lot about them. That makes me, well, not want to sleep with them.
CP: What are the dangers in using the word “victim” over “survivor”?
JF: I want to debunk the word victim. There’s this whole culture of shame around rape victims. And a lot of rapists put that shame on the victims and teach them to feel shame. But the truth is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The only person who should be ashamed is the rapist. I did nothing wrong. And I think it’s very powerful to say that. I wish more rape victims/rape survivors – depending on how they want to identify themselves – could know that about themselves. The victims of rape have done nothing to be ashamed of, just like the victim of a mugging should have nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t hear about someone feeling ashamed to have been kidnapped.
And you hear the word victim. You don’t hear that we should be calling them kidnapping survivors to help them know that it’s okay and that we’re not weakening them. I think that we need to get real about it. I think that a lot of rape victims are survivors in that they have figured out how to survive and transcend what happened to them. And I probably claim the word survivor. But I don’t think it negates the word victim. Both are true.
CP: Is rape more about power or desire? Is rape even about sex?
JF: There’s a truism in the anti-violence movement, which is that “rape is not about sex.” What is meant by that is something I totally agree with, which is that rape is not someone who desires you so much they can no longer control themselves. It’s not that romantic idea of the sexually incontinent man that is just driven to desire and Must Ravish You Now. That is not what rape is about. But rape is absolutely related to sex. And that’s part of what we’re trying to do in Yes Means Yes: point out the ways in which rape and sex are intertwined. The ways our sexual culture functions has a lot to do with allowing rape to function, or even encouraging rape to function. So rape is about sex in exactly the same way that if you kidnap someone and force them to play music, kidnapping is about music. Rape is about our diseased sexual culture. Rape is an expression of the commodity model of sex. Rape is an expression of the patriarchy. Rape is about controlling women’s sexuality, teaching women to stay in their place, and a cultural fear of women’s power.
CP: Talk about that – how is rape so interconnected with patriarchy?
JF: This is tricky because most rapists probably are not thinking, “I will rape to keep women in their place.” Although some rapes happen as a way of an individual man thinking he wants to keep an individual woman in her place. But I think there’s a misconception that patriarchy is run by a committee of men in a smoky room somewhere. Probably here at Harvard. Really I mean if patriarchy is going to be run somewhere wouldn’t it be run here at Harvard? [ed: you mean it’s not?!] That idea is that the Patriarchy Committee, or the Council of the Patriarchy, decides, “This is what we will do to keep the woman down.” Actually, patriarchy is a system, and many, if not most, of its participants are unaware that they are participating in it. It’s a structure that we are operating in in the way in that there are a lot of things that are happening in this room right now that I’m unaware of. For example, where are the pipes? Why was it built in this way? We’re in this room, but mostly I’m focused on talking to you, not about why and how this room is constructed the way it is. If this room were constructed differently, [ed: or weren’t the garbage room in the basement of a dank freshman dorm. Thanks for sparing me the embarrassment, Jaclyn.] we might be having a different conversation. I might be more or less comfortable, and more relaxed, or less relaxed, and therefore saying different things in a different way. The way something is constructed creates certain possibilities that would be different if it were structured in a different way. So patriarchy is one way the culture is structured, which means that men have more power than women, structurally.
CP: So how does rape become a tool for this system?
JF: Rape as a tool of the patriarchy is an expression of the values of the patriarchy, which are that men ought to have dominance over women, women ought not to have free equal humanity to men, and the continuing prevalence of rape helps to continue that dynamic. It traumatizes women, keeps our energy focused on worrying about whether or not we’re safe, on healing from violence, on trying to change things instead of freely live our lives the way men do. There’s a point in my essay actually about how rape is not a risk inherent in partying behavior or hook-up behavior for half the population. If a straight guy’s getting ready to go out for the night, he might be worried about getting in a fight, or getting rejected by a sexual prospect, or throwing up if he drinks too much, but he’s probably not worried about being raped. And that worry – that self-policing, to get back to the beginning of the conversation – all of the stuff that women have to deal with around rape, both in terms of trying to prevent it and in terms of trying to heal from it – that keeps us from doing other things with our energies that men don’t have to be limited by. They just go on earning a dollar for our every seventy cents, and basically running the world. It’s the prevalence of rape – and again I’m not talking about an individual rapist going out with this purpose – but the prevalence of rape and the way the culture allows and encourages rape to function that keeps women afraid. It keeps women understanding that men are sexually dominant even when that’s not necessarily true. It keeps women from the pleasure of their own bodies. It keeps women from being fully able to experience their own humanity. And it conveys very clearly the message that if a woman expresses or enjoys her own sexuality without concern with how the culture feels about that, there’s a huge price to pay. That’s the way rape functions. Again, I think it’s important to separate that from the intentions of any individual rapist, who may be just a cog in the wheel of the patriarchy. A cog in the wheel of that commodity system, who has been trained to say, “I must get The Sex. There is The Sex. I will get it.” Now I don’t think that lets them off the hook. I don’t think this cultural argument says that men are just victims of the system the way women are, because we have to return to the fact that most men don’t rape. The vast majority of men manage to get raised by this fucked up culture, and not be rapists. So I don’t think the cultural argument lets individual rapists off the hook, but it gives them a context.
CP: A lot of women take part in victim-blaming just as often as men. While many of these women have never been coerced into sex, many have, yet remain comfortable with their sexual customs. The fact that so many women have an “aha” moment where they recognize past experience as rape later in life is proof enough that a lot of people don’t understanding the unhealthy dynamics they’re engaging in. What can we do, as activists, to teach about the dangers of a rape culture without infringing upon other females’ sexual self-determination and looking with disdain upon her sexual culture, on both a big picture level and an interpersonal level?
JF: That is a really important question. I think that if women stop blaming and judging other women, that would be a huge step forward. That if we women stop staying, “She’s such a slut, she’s a ho,” if women stop judging what women look like, what they’re wearing, that whole mean girls culture, that would be super helpful. And again, we could spend all that energy fighting rape for example, instead of fighting each other. But more than that, we do sometimes consider ourselves more enlightened than other women, and think, “God I wish she could see what a victim she’s being.” And the truth is that you can’t tell someone they’re being a victim. What you can do is help them see that there are other ways to be, and they can chose that. If you think someone is being abused or taken advantage of, and its someone you care about, what you can do is ask them how they feel about what’s happening. And then actually listen to them. If we see a friend and we think they’re being treated badly by a partner, the inclination is to intervene and say, “I know what’s right for you, and here I’m going to tell it to you.” And then we get really frustrated when they don’t listen to us. Well here’s the thing: if they’re being controlled by their partner and then we come in and tell them what to do, we’re actually not behaving that differently from their partner. We’re not showing them that there’s a different way to be. I think it’s always legit when it’s a friend – not someone that you just see from a distance and want to tell them their business, because that’s none of your business – but when it’s a friend, that you have an actual relationship with, it’s always okay to say: “Hey, here are some things that I’m seeing in your life and that are concerning me, how do you feel about these things?” And your friend may say things that don’t feel okay. And that’s a hard place to be in. But there’s not a lot you can do about it except to say, “Well okay, I hope you’re right. I love you regardless, whatever you do. I’m going to trust you, and if you change your mind, know that I’m always here to talk to.” The biggest gift you can give another person, especially a woman who is in an abusive situation, is the gift of trusting her to deal with her own situation. To give her whatever resources you have, give her a sense of what it looks like from the outside, and then be her friend regardless of what she decides. And that’s hard. That’s really hard. That’s harder than saying, “But don’t you see?!?!” Mostly that’s going to alienate your friend.
CP: And how does abstinence fit into this whole equation?
JF: I think the most positive thing we’re fighting for is the freedom to discover what it is you want sexually. And that means in general as well as on a given day. It does not have to be a static thing. I think that if you want the experience, experience can be fun. If you don’t want the experience, then don’t have experience. I think that honestly it shouldn’t be anybody’s business except for yours and your sexual partner’s if you have any. What we’re fighting for is the right to make actual free decisions, that are free of shame, censure, pressure, threat of violence – decisions that are legitimately free. And if what you want to do with that is not have sex, I am happy for you. It means you’re doing what you want with your body. And that’s what I want.
Can I say something else about the abstinence thing?
CP: By all means!
JF: I think that the creepiest part of the abstinence movement is the way that it basically says to women that their value is totally tethered to their sexuality. The abstinence movement is guilty more than almost any other force in the culture of sexualizing women at younger and younger ages. They say to eight year old girls, come to this Purity Ball, let’s talk about your virginity! When you’re eight years old you barely know you’re a girl! You’re not doing anything with your vagina except maybe fiddling with it from time to time because it feels interesting. You don’t have any actual concept of your sexuality. And it’s the abstinence folks who are putting a sexuality on that eight-year-old girl, who are telling that young girl, “Your value is in whether or not you have sex with men. And when and how and under what circumstances and whether or not you allow men to control you. Your value is defined by men, and your value is about your sexuality.” I mean if you want to talk about sexualizing young girls, I don’t think there are worse criminals out there than the abstinence movement.
CP: So how should we be coming into our sexuality?
JF: With freedom of our own curiosity, and freedom from threat of violence. With free access to information. And lack of shame.