Shame-free sex: Friedman on consent and norms

Activist and author Jaclyn Friedman, introduced by Gender and Sexuality Resource Officer Berol Dewdney ’13 as a “feminist rockstar,” addressed an overflowing room of students on Monday, Nov. 14 in the Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building.

Friedman is the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety and co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Friedman has been featured in media outlets such as CNN and The Washington Post addressing issues of feminism and sexuality in society.

Friedman’s talk, “What You Really Really Want: How to Pursue a Safe, Satisfying Sexuality at Colby and Beyond,” was very timely. The College is currently, through different avenues, engaged in discourse over events on campus surrounding sexual assault, gender identity and self-image.

Over the past several weeks there has been much talk on the “hook-up culture” at the College, with some students noting that the mixture of alcohol and casual sex can blur the line between sex and sexual assault. Friedman acknowledged that hooking-up means different things to different people and that alcohol has the power to impair the judgment of the parties involved.

However, Friedman brought the audiences’ attention to a psychological study published by the Guttmacher Institute, which reported that students who had casual sex—a.k.a hooked up—and those who had sex within committed relationships didn’t have significant differences in academic performance or mental and emotional health. The hook-up culture itself is not the crux of the issue, she believes, so much as one’s own conduct within that culture.

The method Friedman encouraged to prevent sexual assault within the framework of the hook-up culture is “enthusiastic consent,” a phrase Friedman coined. There is no consent without communication, so in any situation—drunk or sober, casual or committed—sexual partners need to be aware and in agreement with whatever is happening. This means talking to your partner before making assumptions, Friedman said.

Friedman addressed further how to evaluate consent when either one or both parties involved have been drinking. “If you find yourself asking the question, ‘She is five-foot-two and has had three glasses of wine, is she too drunk to consent?’ then there is a problem,” Friedman said. “That is a ‘rapey’ question!” One should not be considering “what they can get away with” in sex, she said. It is this initial lack of responsibility for oneself and for one another that can lead events to spiral out of control. If there is any uncertainty as to whether one is too drunk to obtain consent or their partner is too drunk to give consent, then the pair should not proceed any further.

“Rape has nothing to do with sex,” Friedman said. “It has more to do with the power derived by this perverse act than actual sexual pleasure, if any. The very culture of violence has much to do with how we deal with our sexuality.” The culture of violence, Friedman explained, partly derives from the commodification of sex. If we view sex as a commodity and not as a creative and personal interaction, then sex becomes an object to be taken, either by choice or by violence. The sexualization of bodies in the media encourages the commodification of sex and, in turn, sexual violence. The American Psychological Association’s definition of sexualization is when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.

This definition led Friedman to a deconstruction of the myth of the perfect victim. Friedman indicated many cases in which someone accused of sexual assault had faced no consequences on the account that the female bringing the case of sexual abuse had put herself in a vulnerable situation. This argument brings blame to the victim of assault.

Friedman went on further to expose the stereotypes society has of women which might provoke this blame or not. Friedman displayed images of celebrities in American popular culture and asked the audience who might provoke more blame in society if they reported being assaulted. Choosing between Taylor Swift and Rihanna, the audience replied that Swift, as a cultural symbol of innocence and purity, would get the most sympathy whereas Rihanna, pictured in a racy black and red outfit, would provoke people to assume that she must have done something to ask for it in some way. Friedman used this example as an exhibition of the “virgin-whore dichotomy,” explaining that different races, body-types and economic statuses provoke certain sexual stereotypes, largely ingrained in us by the media.

Students referenced Friedman’s talk during the open forum on sexual assault that took place on Tuesday, Nov. 15 in Page Commons. The forum was potentially the first of many events like it. “We envision an ongoing dialogue over several sessions that will help us all come to a better understanding of this very complex topic and of the profound impact it has on us as individuals and on our community,” Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune said in an official notice to the campus community.