What You Really Really Want: A Conversation With The Author
What better place to post a conversation with Jaclyn Friedman about her new book, What You Really Really Want: A Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide To Sex And Safety than here on the blog we both write? Fresh from the West Coast leg of her book tour, Jaclyn took the time to speak with me about What You Really Really Want, men, masculinity, sexual subjectivity, parenting and, well, everything. For any readers who don’t know, I make no representation to being objective about the book. I’ve now read much of it twice, because I saw much of the material in draft form, and I wrote the online supplement for men, How To Be Good To The Women In Your Life, which appears on the WYRRW website here. Jaclyn is my co-blogger, sometimes editor and friend, and I’m an unabashed cheerleader for the book. (Some of my friends may now be picturing me in a cheerleading uniform. I’m okay with that.)
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. Be sure to check out yesterday’s stop at Scarleteen, and her next stop tomorrow at Attack of the Sugar Monster.
Thomas MacAulay Millar: Welcome back from your West Coast swing. This book is a direct result of conversations you had on the Yes Means Yes book tour; are you learning anything on this book tour, besides that book tours are exhausting?
Jaclyn Friedman: Nothing I’ve digested yet, except that people are super-hungry for smart conversations about sex. And that I can fit a lot in my suitcase. The #1 comment so far is: I wish I’d had this book when I was younger.
Thomas: Well, that’s what you learned last time. And the whole book is sort of meta — not so much what to do but how to figure out one’s own wants. Why writing exercises?
Jaclyn: Well, they’re not all writing exercises. Many of the exercises use writing, because it can be a good way to have a conversation with yourself that goes deeper. But exercises in general because the whole idea of the book is to come up with your own answers. The exercises are key to getting hands-on with the ideas in the book, instead of just thinking about them and letting them go.
Thomas: Right. My wife and I were talking about it, though, and she said, “well, what if writing isn’t something you do …” as in, she can talk to friends about this stuff, but writing tends to leave the cursor blinking. Is this still a doable book for people who freeze up at writing?
Jaclyn: The writing isn’t about a finished product. It’s about tuning in to your own voice. I’d advise her to not worry so much about WHAT she writes and just get some words down. The kind of writing in these exercises isn’t about craft at all. And of course, everyone can adapt the exercises any way they want. But I do think some of these conversations are best had in private with yourself first. Perhaps she could use an audio recorder and just talk into it?
Thomas: As I was reading it, it seemed like for someone with the right friends, the exercises could work at essentially workshop topics, too …
Jaclyn: They could. But again, it can be useful to hear your own voice first, without getting feedback on it, even from supportive people.
Thomas: … except that having someone else privy to the answers also affects what people say, yeah.
Jaclyn: I’d encourage folks to do the solo exercises solo before sharing them with friends. There are some exercises that are designed to include other people, too.
Thomas: As I went through the exercises, I thought that there was a real mix of those that were applicable pretty straightforwardly to me as a cis man, and those that sort of just were not.
Jaclyn: You know, I’ve heard from a number of men, both cis and trans, that they’re planning to do the book themselves. I’m curious as to how it will go. I do think a good chunk of the book is applicable to anyone of any gender.
Which parts seemed not applicable to you?
Thomas: Well, the obvious example was the “call the police department” exercise. As an able-bodied, cis, het man, obviously I am not unlikely to have to deal with violence, but the social messaging I get doesn’t cause me to worry overly or limit myself because of the possibility.
Jaclyn: Sure. Though I have heard from some men that the “instinct versus generalized fear” part of the chapter on risk was quite helpful to them.
Thomas: A lot of the book is about feeling entitled (that word can be a positive!) to have desires and express and enforce boundaries. In fact, isn’t that almost the defining characteristic of maleness and male privilege?
Jaclyn:Yes. I would agree that’s pretty close to a definition of male privilege. It’s a good part of it, anyhow.
But what about those men who don’t feel they have the “right” or “masculine”-enough desires and boundaries?
Thomas: Right. Obviously men are under a lot of pressure — the privileged status is losable, or if you agree with Andrea Zanin, inherently unachievable — we’re all failing all the time to live up to it. But that’s a very different operation on the self — not being entitled to have desires and express them, versus having the wrong ones. Or is it?
Jaclyn: I don’t think they’re that different. Women are entitled to have desires and express them, if they’re the (very-narrowly-defined) “right” ones, too.
Thomas: But are they, or is femininity in patriarchy inherently a catch-22? Isn’t it true that there’s no set of desires that isn’t afoul of someone’s rules by being too forward or too reserved, too prudish or too slutty?
Jaclyn: Fair. Of the women who workshopped the book, zero of them felt they were the “right” amount sexual, or sexual in the “right” ways.
Thomas: I feel like for men there’s a space, a sweet spot where we get left alone, it’s just precarious and not available to all of us — so I guess I disagree with Zanin.
Jaclyn: I think there is more leeway, at least, for men. And the ways sexuality is policed can be quite different depending on how the culture genders you. Also, men are at least expected to be agents on behalf of their own sexuality. Women are penalized quite heavily for doing the same thing. Men at least sometimes get to be culturally-sanctioned subjects in sexual interactions. Women are always treated as objects.
Thomas: So maybe for men much of the stuff about how to get in touch with one’s own wants is just as applicable, but dealing with how others react to it is the biggest difference?
Jaclyn: Well, and the fear part may be different for a lot of men. Though many queer men fear sexuality-related violence.
Thomas: Well, certainly. The reactions we expect from others will depend entirely on our social position, or the perception of it. Since you said subject and object, how much of the book’s advice to women can be summarized as trying to achieve the benefits of subjectivity from one’s self and one’s intimates?
Jaclyn: I would say verging on 100%.
Thomas: … all the rest is commentary
Jaclyn: Hee. Exactly.
Thomas: When I was writing the online supplemental essay for men, I didn’t think of it this way, but almost all of that can be summarized as trying to get someone who has the experience of subjectivity to see the world through the lens of someone who has to fight for that.
Jaclyn: Yes, I think that’s right. That’s the essential difference, isn’t it? Want to say more about the supplemental? Your approach to it, your experience making it real?
Thomas: Which is a difference in perceived social position rather than real, right? I mean, trans men will often say they have male privilege. So the supplement … the workshop helped, but the fundamental issues were ones I had been thinking about mostly as a parent. The kernel of the piece, which expanded a lot over time as we worked with it, was a post on how to talk to my kids. As you know, I’ve dealt with the son side and the daughter side of that experience.
Jaclyn: And how do they differ, have you found?
Thomas: Well, just what we were talking about. They’re both going to have assumptions about who they are and what they want thrust on them. But with my daughter, those are going to be assumptions and policing that try to make her life about others and her wants secondary. I have to fight the messaging to passivity. With a son, that’s not what they get. Boys get a lot of sort of you-can-be-President assumption, and the hardest thing I think is to separate encouraging from a particularized push. If I want my boy to be great at soccer or martial arts, is it because I want to support whatever he wants, or does he learn to do what gets the support?
Thomas: In a lot of ways I find raising a daughter more straightforward, if scarier. Because any message that centers her in her own experience is basically right. With a boy, that isn’t the problem.
Jaclyn: So identifying the pressures and influences is more complicated.
Thomas: Of course, this boy-girl stuff itself is guesswork. Are they comfortable in their birth assignments? They seem to be, but nobody really understands how male-female binary assignments map onto what people want. How often do we create the gendering we impose?
Jaclyn: Well, that gets, sorta sideways, to one of the main themes of the book: you can’t become free of influences. You can only become aware of them, and choose which you want to give more energy and attention to. Similarly, as parents, I don’t suppose you can ever not influence your kids. You can only be thoughtful about what kind of influence you’re being. And even that, imperfectly. Because you’re a collection of influences yourself.
Thomas: However very, very imperfectly. So men are not going to deprogram themselves, but we can all make intelligent choices about how we want to react to what we’ve been told. What I want guys to do is just take a step back from the assumptions they get.
Jaclyn: Yes. To at least become aware of the assumptions, to begin to question and engage with them.
Thomas: The biggest ones around sexuality is the dichotomous mars/venus stuff, which plays into the commodity model.
Jaclyn: Ah, the sexual marketplace!
Thomas: But once they internalize the notion that that’s all wrong and the marketplace doesn’t work that way — we’re all humans, most of us want love, most of us want sex all that … They need not to just take the simple view that everyone has the same experiences, either, because while we all want the same things, the costs and benefits and therefore the equipment to express and such is very different depending on whether you’re a man or a woman in this culture — this culture that insists that we all be a man or a woman and treats us in very different ways depending on which.
Thomas: So let’s say you’ve got some young guy going off to college, and let’s say he’s het and has had the advantage of a relationship with a woman who has read this book, and he’s figured out that women have sexual wants and needs that are not about just pleasing a partner or serving a role, and he’s good with that. What else does he need to know? And I ask that, to be honest, because I sort of was that guy, twenty years ago …
Jaclyn: hmmm… he needs to know that it’s OK not to know all the “answers.” That’s a trap a lot of men get shoved into.
So, I’d tell him, it’s OK to be confused. It’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to try things you’re both enthusiastic about trying, and have them not really work out all the time.
Thomas: Yes. And what I’d tell him is that he shouldn’t take for granted that if a partner is expressing sexuality that she’s got it all worked out and is advocating for herself as well as she could. It’s still a culture that really discourages that and so he should factor in room for her to figure out a lot and change and drift within a relationship.
Jaclyn: Yes! They both should have room to change and drift.
Thomas: I think I’d probably tell him not to prejudice his own evolution either by assuming he’s got himself all figured out. Which, by the way, you say in the book you identify as flexisexual. How if at all does that differ from pansexual?
Jaclyn: I tend to think of the word “pansexual” as suggestive of someone who’s potentially attracted to everyone, regardless of gender expression. (I’m fully aware we all use words differently, but that’s what it conjures for me.) I have types, for sure. Specifically, I’m attracted to certain kinds of masculinity, in all genders. Also, what I like about “flexisexual” is that it also refers to how my sexual attractions have changed (or “flexed”) over time. I’m open to more change, should it happen. I’m flexible.
Thomas: The concept of change over time is important. As is the idea that we’re not all after just one thing. I loved the quote from Brian Stuart about how we need spaces other than attracted because of and attracted in spite of.
Jaclyn: Yes! That was one of the key thoughts in that chapter. That I might be attracted to someone IN PART because of, say, his queerness, but that’s OK if I’m attracted to him for other reasons as well. If it’s part of an array of things that attract me.
Thomas: I think one thing men deal with is a sort of limited space for that around our attractions — that if we’re attracted to someone who isn’t the official, conventionally attractive type, that it will only be understood basically as fetishization. That happens around fat and body type a lot.
Jaclyn: This is where communication skills come in! (One of the many places, of course.)
Thomas: Yeah, but I’m not talking about how to be with a partner. That’s an issue …
Jaclyn: Or do you mean understood culturally?
Thomas: Yes. I mean, obviously if a guy is fetishizing his partners it’s a problem, and the book deals with that. I think culturally, men don’t have space to say, “I neither prefer fat partners particularly, nor particularly dislike fat partners, I just am not overly concerned with how my partner is built in that regard if (s)he suits me in other respects.” There’s no bumper sticker or shorthand for that, and so it’s hard to tell men that. So how do we? (And obviously substitute anything for fat there.)
See, here’s the kernel of it. I spend a lot of time around forty and fifty and sixty year old men who can discuss issues of law with exquisite nuance. When it comes to sexuality, if it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, they don’t have the language or the backbone to express it. It’s like they revert to high school for fear of saying something that will be laughed at.
Jaclyn: So how do we break past that fear?
Thomas: And the way to deal with that is humor and well-worn tropes. So “the bone is for the dog but the meat is for the man” is a bumper sticker, and they can say it. But it’s the road to simplistic thinking.
Jaclyn: Why is it important to say it? I mean, why not just be it? And of course call people out if they make assumptions otherwise. I mean, when I had a trans man for a partner, I never went around explaining his gender and our queerness to people unless it came up.
Thomas: But you know, we can’t be in isolation. If men have to keep their mouths shut about what they really think and want, we all think we’re alone.
Jaclyn: But don’t start with those gaggles of bumper-sticker men. Start talking to individual guys who you think might be open to talking. Sometimes this has to be done one-to-one. It’s the best way to start.
Thomas: That’s the answer to everything, isn’t it? One person and one conversation at a time, because there are no shortcuts.
Jaclyn: No shortcuts, alas. I wish there were! People are always asking me for them. And I sure could use a few myself.
Thomas: Since we’ve got the big answer, we should quit before we lapse into the mundane.
Jaclyn: Hee. Fair enough. Thanks for a great conversation!
Thomas: No, thank you!