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Media, Sexuality, and Self: Jaclyn Friedman wants to know what you really, really want

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

November 21st, 2011

For years, I and other WIMN’s Voices bloggers have critiqued the many ways corporate media hypersexualize girls, reinforce rigid gender stereotypes, and contribute to rape culture. From cable news to reality TV, from newspapers and magazines to movies, music videos and games, images of women’s sexuality are commodified, ever-present… and rarely centered on women’s pleasure.

Media activist Jaclyn Friedman is over all that — and she wants you to be, too.

In her new book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, Friedman is part sex educator, part smart-ass friend, guiding readers through a series of thought-provoking activities designed to help women break free from cultural notions of what they should want, to emerge on the other side with a truer understanding of their authentic desires. You can get a taste of these activities below, in an excerpt of What You Really Really Want.

As part of her blog book tour, I interviewed Friedman via email about the ways media inform our sexual selves, the key elements of sex-positive media, and what enthusiastic consent would look like if TV producers cared to depict it.

Jennifer L. Pozner: In “What You Really Really Want,” you offer women a set of steps they can take to re-evaluate where there desires, their insecurities, and their beliefs about sexuality come from. How do various forms of media — entertainment, journalism, advertising, social media, etc. — affect our senses of self, sexually speaking? How do media hinder our ability to connect authentically to what we really, really want?

Jaclyn Friedman: So, so often, entertainment media (which is advertising-driven) and advertising itself are invested in making women feel like we’re incomplete or wrong, sexually, so that they can sell us a fantasy of what it would be like for us to be “right.” And they sell men on the idea that if they were “better” men (which can be as simple as drinking the right beer, or a much more in-depth “lifestyle” argument), they’d have more access to “better” quality ladysex. Either way, our sexuality is both the defining characteristic of all women and the product being sold. It’s never about our own pleasure, needs or boundaries. It’s always about being a prop in someone else’s play. Journalism & social media all too often unthinkingly repeat and amplify these tropes, because it’s what we’re used to hearing as a culture, so it “makes sense” to most people. There’s very little incentive for any sectors of the media to question this dominant narrative, and often real negative consequences if they do.

JLP: Are there ways media can help expand our ideas about sex and gender in positive, healthy ways? What would you describe as the key elements of sex-positive media?

JF: Sex-positive media portray people of all genders as whole, complex people, for whom sexuality is just one part of their lives. And it portrays each of us as in control of our own sexuality - the boss of deciding what a healthy and rewarding sex life looks like on our own individual terms. It also portrays sexual individuals as concerned about their partners’ pleasure and ongoing enthusiastic consent. Often it will break stereotypes — it may show women as unapologetic about our own sexual and romantic desires (whatever they are) and refusing to be shamed for them, or men who aren’t just sex-seeking machines but also people who have needs for intimacy and love, as well. But it doesn’t all have to, as long as it describes complex human beings who are the subjects, not the objects, of their own sexuality.

JLP: WIMN’s Voices readers have been aware for years of the role media play in perpetuating rape culture. Your book advocates changing the conversation to “enthusiastic consent” — is this a kind of antidote to victim-blaming and slut-shaming in journalism and in entertainment media? How would news headlines and ledes about sex (or about sexual assault) differ if “enthusiastic consent” was the base-line standard from which we understood and wrote about sexual encounters?

JF: Well, you’d never have seen a headline describing the allegations against Herman Cain of sexual harassment and attempted sexual assault as a “sex scandal,” because we’d all understand that without enthusiastic consent, it’s not “sex” but “violence.” Instead of Jezebel running a truly disgusting story entitled “I Am Amber Cole’s Father,” shaming the 14-year-old girl who was coerced into making a now-viral sex tape with her boyfriend, the headline would be “I Am [the boys who perpetrated the coercion and distributed the video, whose names we still don’t know because everyone was too busy blaming the victim to hold the boys responsible for enthusiastic consent]’s Father.” There are so many egregious examples, we could play this game indefinitely, couldn’t we?

JLP: The activities in What You Really Really Want are really valuable, in that they help readers connect to their authentic desires in a non-judgmental way. So, here’s an activity for you: I’ve waived a magic wand, and you are now the head writer of a popular prime-time network drama that deals with sexuality — say, Glee or Gossip Girl or even Law & Order: SVU. Instead of lecture-y messages about virginity, double standards lauding boys who “score” and demonizing “slutty” girls, or fetishized depictions of violence on crime dramas, you get to write a script that celebrates enthusiastic consent and doesn’t limit characters to rigid gender stereotypes. What would that episode look and sound like?

JF: You know, I hate to praise Glee, but they came pretty close with their recent “First Time” episode. (I’m going to ignore, for the sake of this argument, the subplot with Coach Beiste, which was so many levels of messed up.) In it, four teen characters grapple with enthusiastic consent, the pressure to be sexual for external reasons, and other complex issues, and yet are portrayed with no shame or judgement when they decide to be sexual for their own reasons. There’s a great scene where some of the girls discuss whether or not Rachel should “go all the way” (ugh, I hate that frame, if I had this to rewrite, I’d definitely change that), and the conversation is real and complicated, and one the characters who’s portrayed as a “nice” girl (Tina) is like: actually, my boyfriend and I did it this summer and it’s been great. There’s no fanfare or anything about this revelation. it’s portrayed as sweet.

Here’s what I’d change about the plotline, to make it even more sex-positive. For one, Rachel would never have been changed from the character who, in the second episode, was totally embracing of her own sexuality, into the uptight prude she’s been portrayed as lately. In fact, I’d make it so Finn (who is a guy) is the one of the pair of them who’s hesitant and confused about whether or not to have sex, and Rachel is the one who is eager but also makes sure her partner is enthusiastically consenting. (In the actual show, those roles are reversed.) And I’d also include an example of a female character who has sex outside the context of a love-based monogamous relationship, and is portrayed as healthy and doing it for her own, good and satisfying reasons. I’d also maybe have someone challenge the whole concept of “virginity,” exposing it for the random construct it is.

And now, an excerpt from What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2011.

Is there any more confusing source of information about sexuality than the media? Whether it’s the movies or TV, video games or the nightly news, music or gossip websites—to say nothing of porn—sexual images of women are everywhere in our mass media. But what do they tell us?

On the one hand, if you went by the mass media, you’d think that it was a legal requirement that all girls and women look sexy at all times, and a very particular kind of sexy at that: perfect hair, polished nails, shaved legs, trendy clothes, etc. Not to mention white, thin, able-bodied, young, and conventionally pretty. In medialand, if you fail to do and be all of these things, you’re either evil or pathetic or both. But look too sexy—wear too much makeup, clothes too short or too tight, etc.—or act like you actually want sex too much, and you’re a “slut,” which also makes you evil or pathetic or both.

That teeny window of “correct” female sexuality in the media is a big tip-off that something’s wrong. There are so many different kinds of women, and we experience our sexualities a million different ways—sometimes all on the same day. So if the media are showing only one (or even two or three!) of those ways, they’re clearly not trying to represent the experiences of real women. But what are they trying to do?

Mostly, they’re trying to sell stuff. TV shows want you to buy whatever their advertisers are selling, so the companies will keep advertising and the show can stay on the air. Movies are trying to sell tickets and DVDs. Video games are selling not just the game itself, but the next version of the game (which is always coming out soon!), the merch associated with it, etc. You get the picture. Whatever the medium, one of the most popular ways of trying to sell us stuff is by presenting impossibly narrow and idealized representations of women.

What’s that do? Well, it tells women that they can be happy, but only if they buy the infinite things required to make them look and act like the media’s Ideal Woman. And it tells (straight) men that they can be happy, but only if they buy the infinite things required to attract the media’s Ideal Woman.

To make matters worse, our mass media often treats violence against women casually (think Grand Theft Auto) or like a joke (as in the movie Observe and Report), and passive, normative women’s sexuality (think the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show) like wholesome entertainment, while treating complex and authentic portrayals of sex as beyond the pale and dangerous to minors. Is it any wonder we live in such a violent and sexually repressed culture, or that we’re deeply and often permanently confused about the many ways we deviate from those artificial ideals?

[Editorial note: These media-centered activities, excerpted from What You Really Really Want, can help you make sense of popular images of female sexuality, and connect to your own authentic sexual self.]

Dive In: Think back to some adolescent media crushes—that song or album you listened to over and over, the magazine subscription you thought would change your life, the book you picked up again and again, the movie you imagined yourself starring in, the video game you played and played and played, the TV show you just couldn’t miss. What drew you to these particular experiences? What, if anything, did they say to you about sexuality? What lessons did you learn from them that you’ve since rejected, and what did you learn that you still adhere to today? If you could go back and tell your adolescent self something about your media choices, what would it be? Get out your journal, and write about it for five minutes.


Keep a media journal. This week, pay attention to the depictions of women’s sexuality you see in the media. Think about what song lyrics are saying, how billboards are pairing women and sex, what the characters in your favorite TV shows and video games act like (and what the consequences of those actions are), how the women in the books, newspapers, magazines, and websites you read are portrayed, etc. At the end of every day, write down what you remember and how those depictions made you feel. And at the end of the week, make a list of which media outlets gave you mostly positive feelings, which were mostly negative, and which were a mixed bag.


Using magazines or the Internet, find images that represent all the bad things you can think of that are blamed on sexual women. Make a collage of these images, print it out if it’s online, and then take the collage, a deep metal bowl, and some matches over to a sink or bathtub. Making sure that nothing flammable is nearby, put the collage in the bowl and the bowl in the sink or bathtub, and then light it on fire and watch it burn. (Alternative: If burning isn’t practical where you live, run it through a shredder, soak it in water until it disintegrates, or rip it into tiny pieces.)


Make a list of names used for prudes and sluts. Write another list of names—at least as long as the first one—for women who are proud and sexual. Make these up if you need to.


Using magazines and the Internet, collect images of people whose gender expression seems similar to yours. Then take a look at them all together: What do the images have in common? What words could be used to describe these people? Write down at least ten words.


Find delightful or annoying images of women, on the Internet or in newspapers and magazines. Stick them in your journal and give them a voice. Draw speech balloons and fill in the words they’d like to say. Let them talk back! Choose one of your women and write a story in which she overturns the stereotypes people have of her.

This post is a stop in Jaclyn’s blog tour about her new book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. Check out her last stop at Attack of the Sugar Monster, and her next stop at Our Bodies, Our Blog.

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