Popaganda: Let’s Talk about (Talking About) Sex

Popaganda’s HEAT season marches on this week—and walks right into the bedroom. In the second episode, we talk to sex educators, sex-positive feminists, and writers covering (you guessed it) sex about the language of desire, how language shapes rape culture, and how we can build a better sexicon.

Ten years ago, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, a groundbreaking feminist anthology, rewrote the script on sex. However, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, it’s clear that we’ve all still got a lot of work left to do to change the conversations we’re having around desire and sexuality in order to smash shame, shatter silence, and end violence. So host Carmen Rios decided to pull a Carrie Bradshaw—and ask experts what it will take to finally make it happen.

In this episode, Amanda Montell, author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, breaks down the sociolinguistic power of talking about sex differently. Sex educator and former rape-crisis counselor Mala Munoz connects the dots between preventing violence and teaching kids about sex in a classroom free from shame. Playboy’s features editor—and a former Ms. magazine editor—Anita Little calls for a feminist sexual revolution, and shares her strategy for pulling in the folks who need to get on board to instigate it. And Jaclyn Friedman, coeditor of Yes Means Yes and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, reflects on the last 10 years in sexual empowerment and envisions what could come next.

Along the way, Carmen looks back on her own feminist awakening and coming-of-sluttiness—and realizes just how necessary sexual liberation is to smashing the patriarchy.

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[FULL TRANSCRIPT]

[theme music]

[TV static, HBO audio logo plays]

CARMEN RIOS: Hi again! Carmen Rios here—feminist writer, editor, and digital media superstar, and the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. This is the second episode in our Heat season, in which we’re exploring everything from stovetop social justice to the Spice Girls. (Shameless plug: That was the last episode. It was about the Spice Girls.) But today, we’re talking about the heat of the moment. Today, we’re talking about the steamy stuff. Today, we’re talking about sex.

[Sex in the City theme song plays]

Feminists are often still pegged and painted as prudes or frigid women, which makes it ironic that around the same time I was becoming a professional one, I also dove head-first into my own sexual awakening.

[Of Montreal’s “Gallery Piece” play: fun, funky indie pop]

♪  “I wanna be your love/
I wanna make you cry/
And sweep you off your feet/
I wanna hurt your pride/
I wanna slap your face/
I wanna paint your nails/
I wanna make you scream/
I wanna braid your hair/
I wanna kiss your friends/
I wanna make you laugh/
I wanna dress the same/
I wanna defend you/
I wanna squeeze your thighs/
I wanna kiss your eyelids/
And corrupt your dreams/
I wanna crash your car/
I wanna scratch your cheeks/
I wanna make you sick/
I wanna sell you out/
Want to expose your flaws/
I wanna steal your things/
I wanna show you off/
I wanna tell you lies/
I wanna write you books/
I wanna turn you on/
I wanna make you cum/
Two hundred times a day/
I wanna dry your tears/
Every time you’re sad/
I wanna be your what’s happening….” ♪

CARMEN: In the summer of 2009, I commuted most mornings from Ramsey to Hoboken, boarding the New Jersey Transit train in the morning alongside men in stiff suits with a Vanity Fair in my tote bag and, quite honestly, no underwear on under that short dress. Once I switched to the PATH train, I was only a few minutes away from the office building where I would sit in a small room with my laptop open and research campuses that feminist filmmaker and anti-rape activist Nancy Schwartzman was hoping to travel to as part of the impact campaign for her first film, the short doc Where Is Your Line. We would go on to send her across the country to screen the documentary, asking young people to define their own line of consent and starting conversations about sexual politics, sexuality, and rape that sought to reach people inside and outside of feminist spaces to change culture and help slow the epidemic of sexual assault on campus.

In the office and in my free time, I only had one thing on my mind: Sex. Well, sex and violence. Because once I decided I was all about ending rape, I realized I was also all about women being able to have a really good time—safely, on their terms, and with the dignity they deserved.

[“Dance Anthem of the ’80s” by Regina Spektor plays]

♪ “It’s been a long time since before I’ve been touched/
Now I’m getting touched all the time/
And it’s only a matter of whom/
And it’s only a matter of when/
An addiction to hands and feet/
There’s a meat market down the street/
The boys and girls watch each other eat/
When they really just wanna watch each other sleep/
An addiction to hands and feet/
There’s a meat market down the street/
The boys and girls watch each other eat/
When they really just wanna watch each other sleep….” ♪

CARMEN: I got that internship with Nancy because I met her at an anti-violence conference and then sent her a roughly three-page cover letter about what feminism meant to me that also, I’m assuming, had at least one entire page’s worth of the phrase “rape culture” typed out over and over again. 2009 was that kind of year for me. It was the year the entirety of my feminist worldview got bigger, better, sexier. It was the year I decided the fight to end violence because I realized it was one of those core struggles that was necessary to win in order to achieve real gender equality and liberation.

It was the year Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape came out.

[recorded clip of a WNYC radio interview plays]

HOST: …the moral of the story as you write it in the essay, “Rape is not a risk inherent in unregulated partying or sexual behavior.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Right. Rape is a risk inherent in being female in this culture, and that’s what we’re trying to change.

CARMEN: That groundbreaking anthology about sexual pleasure, sexual desire, and sexual politics introduced me to concepts I’d never thought about and framed them in feminist terms that made sense to me. It was the first time I’d ever encountered the phrase “rape culture.” It was the first time I’d ever heard of “enthusiastic consent.” It was the first time I ever stopped to recognize the myriad ways in which patriarchy upheld a culture of purity that punished women for seeking pleasure, rewarded men for demanding it, and pretended sexual violence didn’t exist.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’m struck by how revolutionary Yes Means Yes felt just 10 years ago and just how depressingly relevant it remains. So much of that book shaped the future of the feminist movement, but a decade later, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

JACLYN: The consent narrative has gotten really reductive and compressed. 

CARMEN: That’s Jaclyn Friedman, a writer, educator, and activist who created Yes Means Yes and two other books too: What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety, and Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. She also hosts the Unscrewed podcast, which paves new paths to sexual liberation.

JACLYN: Right. So, when Jessie and I put together Yes Means Yes, we really wanted it to be transformative and get at a lot of root issues, right? That you can feel free to know what you want to say yes and no to under kyriarchy, right? And then capitalism is alienating us from it, knowing what we want, all of these profound systemic things. And 10 years later, the cost of the mass adoption of the idea is it’s been boiled down to a sort of yes or no checkbox question, right? Whereas, when I think about it, what I mean is, you have to recognize the person you’re interacting with sexually as equally human to you. That’s actually philosophically at the root of enthusiastic consent. But the way it’s being taught and discussed a lot is, “Make sure you get consent!” Right? In the same way as like, “Make sure you wear a condom!” And sort of check that off! And that’s just doing it wrong. [Laughs.] You know, you can’t checkbox consent. Consent is about showing up and paying attention to your partner and caring about them in a basic, human way.

Again, obviously, I am not against casual sex, but you have to respect your partner as an equal human and care about them on that basic level. And so, I feel like the consent conversation’s gotten really smooshed. We still are in a culture that teaches men that their desire is important and women that being desired is important.

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: And it took me a long time in my own life to understand the difference between desiring and being desired. You know, I grew up felling like if I felt desire from a boy—because I didn’t come out until college—that almost automatically made me want to be with him.

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: And that’s not an accident, right? Again, that’s not me and my own little fucked-up-ness. That’s on purpose in the culture. And so, it took me a long time, and I know it takes a lot of women and people who grow up female and people who identify as women a long time to unpack the difference between those two things: Like what do I want versus who is wanting me, or what is gonna make me desirable?

CARMEN: Jaclyn’s work has popularized the “yes means yes” standard of enthusiastic sexual consent. She’s also been calling bullshit on systems and institutions invested in keeping women sexually servile. And her first entry into all that lit a fire in me that changed the entire trajectory of my life. 

After I read Yes Means Yes, I sent Nancy that cover letter. I launched a consent education program on my campus. I became a consultant for HollaBack!, determined to create a world in which every single woman could look as damn good as she wanted to without fearing rape or harassment in public spaces. And I worked for resource centers and advocates to ensure that women didn’t fear the same in private spaces like their own bedrooms. I launched Change.org petitions for sexual assault prevention education. I spoke onstage at the inaugural DC SlutWalk.

But the book also reverberated across the movement. It gave us a new vocabulary to talk about violence, and it gave us the tools to connect the dots between rape culture and purity culture, and the information that we needed to dismantle both. It allowed us to talk about pleasure and pain. It shed light on the ways in which the personal was still political and the ways in which our justice systems and our sex ed structures were failing women, girls, nonbinary folks, nonmonogamous folks, trans folks, queer folks: most folks. 

Ten years later, though, rape culture is still repeating itself. Before #MeToo, there was #YesAllWomen. Before I took to the streets for the Women’s March, even before I stood on stage at that Slutwalk, I was leading Take Back the Night rallies. Ten years after Yes Means Yes, an accused serial rapist is president, and teachers across the country are still telling kids that if they have sex, they’ll get pregnant and die. I can’t help but wonder: Why are we still talking about how we talk about sex? What will it take to build a world without sexual violence? How do we move past fear and shame in our conversations about sex and move toward healing and justice in our movement to end rape? Can feminists finally rewrite the script on sex, once and for all?

Is the future of sex feminist, or are we just fucked? To find the answers, I headed to The Wing.

AMANDA MONTELL: cum sponge, meat wallet, salami, nut sack, diddly whacker, butcher knife, one-eyed trouser snake. Carnal man trap, cauldron, quim whiskers, sweet potato pie. Dong, schlong, sausage, pickle, lollipop, prick, joystick, sword, staff, sniper rifle, pocket rocket, rod of pleasure, cyclops, torpedo, anaconda. Honeypot, snatch, clam, box, cave, garage.

CARMEN: Amanda Montell graduated magna cum laude from NYU with a degree in linguistics, and her work as a pop linguist has been featured in Glamour, Bustle, Refinery29, Hello Giggles, and Bust magazine. She’s also the author of the nonfiction book Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. And when I asked Amanda to recite a slew of slang words about genitalia while we hung out in a phone booth fit for two on a Saturday afternoon, she humbly accepted the challenge.

AMANDA: There’s this linguist that I quote throughout the book a lot named Lal Zimman, the sociocultural linguist at the University of California Santa Barbara who studies gender and language, most often in trans communities. And he basically put it to me, like, basically, all of our culture’s worst attitudes toward sex are represented in how we refer to it via slang. But it’s actually not only via slang. There was a medical definition I came across that defined the vagina as the female sex organ that ‘receives a penis.’

CARMEN: Mm!

AMANDA: And I’m just like—

CARMEN: Yikes.

AMANDA: —where to begin with the problem? That’s a medical definition. Medically, a vagina is an organ that receives a penis? Like whose vagina? Everyone’s? So, wait. An 8-year-old girl’s vagina would be defined as an organ that receives a penis? That’s disgusting. Who came up with that? So, anyway, these problematic viewpoints of sex or perspectives of sex are embedded not only in our slang, but also in these definitions that are supposed to be technical and objective. So, that’s kinda freaky.

CARMEN: Changing the conversation about sex isn’t just gonna be about changing how we talk about it. It’s going to require changing what we say when we talk about our bodies, our sex lives, and our sexualities. Amanda calls the vocabulary of words that we use to talk dirty a “sexicon,” and I wanted her to tell me how to build a better one.

AMANDA: Even the word “penetration” is so from the penis’s point of view. If it were from the vagina’s point of view, you might call it “envelopment” or “enclosure” or something like that. These are things that we just never think about, that most of us never think about. And it’s interesting because even some of the most generous, progressive, feminist, straight, cis men that I know — and like, despite those shortcomings [chuckles]—even they very much have internalized that sex is when a penis goes into a vagina. I had someone tell me once—is this too much?—I had someone tell me once, “I wish you could cum just from sex.” And I was like—

CARMEN: What?

AMANDA: —what? He meant, “I wish you could cum just from me penetrating you.”

CARMEN: Mm!

AMANDA: And I was like, and I just very calmly was like, “Well, that penetrative act may be what sex is to you, but that’s just your perspective and the perspective that our culture at large has consented to be the default perspective,” because men have largely defined what sex is from a position of power in our culture. But from my perspective, sex is what makes me orgasm, and it’s not penetration. I mean sure, that’s part of sex. But what I told him was that, “All of this is sex to me.”

CARMEN: Mmhmm.

AMANDA: And sex looks very different from couple to couple, from body to body. And the language that we use to talk about it can be really powerful because we can reflect our perspectives in the language that we use. And so much of the language that we unconsciously use so far, sort of whether we realize it or not, reflects that phallocentric point of view. And so, a sort of very I guess progressive, innovative, controversial way of thinking about it would be to come up with brand new language. This is sex, and there are no rules. And it is not defined as a dick going into a vagina according to many, many, many, many people. 

CARMEN: What are the reverberations, you think, of reclaiming language, and sort of what could a new sexicon, as you call it in the book, sound like?

AMANDA: Yeah.

CARMEN: What words do you feel could really have an impact in redefining how we culturally think about and see and imagine sex as a thing and also as that lucid concept that sort of shapes our lives?

AMANDA: Right. Yeah. So, obviously, the book doesn’t talk just about sex.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

AMANDA: There’s this whole, yeah, there—

CARMEN: Sorry, guys.

AMANDA: But yeah, no. But every chapter in the book does ultimately touch on this idea that men and the way that men use language is seen as the default in our culture, and anything else, whether it’s women or genders along the spectrum are seen as “other.” And that can be applied to something as simple as you know, you’ll see a kid in a zoo referring to every single animal the kid sees as “he,” like, “Look at him. Look at him.”

CARMEN: Mmhmm.

AMANDA: Or, “Look at that lion. He’s so cute,” even if the lion has no mane. We just have this default maleness concept so deeply embedded that it pervades so much of our language. And that becomes very real and very problematic when we’re talking about sex, which is just one of the chapters in the book, because that’s something that anyone who’s sexual is navigating every single day. And if you’re having sex with people who have penises and you don’t have one, you’re coming at it from a position of otherness.

So, like we say “sex.” What is that? Our instinct when we wanna know what a word is, is to look it up in a dictionary. But dictionary definitions are not these all-knowing, ubiquitous authorities that have always been there, like gravity or the sun. Dictionary entries reflect general use or like how a word is being used at-large, in the culture by that language’s speakers at the time of its entry. And so, we kind of all get to define what words mean from the bottom-up, and then a lexicographer’s job is to reflect that. So, you can look up what is sex in the dictionary. I mean we could look it up right now. Odds are it would probably say something pretty dick-centric. Because that’s, even as our culture progresses, and even as people on the more progressive side of the political spectrum and the social spectrum come around to the idea that that’s not what sex is, that’s still the mainstream viewpoint of it.

So, those of us who are already aligned with this idea that sex is something else and bodies are something else, and it doesn’t have to be this concept that we grew up with, we can make sure that our language reflects those ideologies. So, if I don’t want to refer to my vagina as even a vagina because that word doesn’t resonate with me because technically, a vagina really is just the canal that connects the uterus to the outside world, if I wanna talk about the whole thing, you can say “vulva.” Or you can say “VCVC,” which is an abbreviation for vulval clitoral vaginal complex. That’s a mouthful, but hey, so is the vagina!

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMANDA: I’ve never said that before. I’m sorry. That was a bad joke.

CARMEN: That’s going in.

AMANDA: [Laughing.] Yeah.

CARMEN: That’s getting in there. I enjoyed that.

AMANDA: Yeah.

CARMEN: I enjoyed that.

AMANDA: Yeah. I’ve asked people before—I’ve asked people with vulvas before—if you could innovate a brand-new word for your junk, what would it be? And people have submitted all sorts of answers from just like a simple V, like, “I would call it just a V,” or “I would call it a peach.” Or, “I would call it a vasheena.” People are playing with innovating, and like you said, innovating with language is something that all kinds of oppressed communities have done because a really beautiful truth in English, and in other languages I presume, is often, that the most oppressed communities are responsible for our most innovative and beautiful and best slang, or best language in general. Because language is a form of power and social mobility for folks who don’t have a lot of other ways of asserting their power. We kind of have it in our power to make sure that our language reflects how we wanna see sex, and there’s no real prediction as to what that will sound like in the future because it’s up to us. But I’m excited to hear what it does sound like.

CARMEN: Of course, calling on everyone to join our big, happy, feminist sex talk won’t work just because we want it to. That culture change piece is still pivotal, and in a lot of cases, it’s gonna have to come first.

AMANDA: Linguists tend to agree that the power of words, in a lot of ways, is to validate experiences. And before there is a label for something, it doesn’t feel valid. But yeah, you can’t force someone to call a vagina “VCVC” instead of a “meat wallet” and hope that they will become a better or more generous sexual partner. That’s not how it works. It has to happen in the other direction. However, once language already exists, then the people who grow up hearing that language will grow up in a culture that feels more inclusive of them. And they feel like their perspectives are represented because their language represents them. And so, even though it might be too late to change someone else’s point of view, it could definitely change the points of view or make life better for people growing up and hearing this language for the first time. So, I think people who already feel like the language of sex doesn’t represent them, we can innovate or come up with our own words to validate our experiences. And then by us doing that, we’re paving the way for people in the future to feel like those words validate their experiences.

CARMEN: That’s exactly why the work Mala Muñoz is doing matters. 

MALA MUÑOZ: I think, think of sex ed as a valid profession and a valid teaching role because it’s like, an addendum too.

CARMEN: Mm.

MALA: And people are weird about it. I’m the young Latina sex ed teacher on campus, and it’s an independent, predominately white, old-money school where 90 percent of the teachers are older white ladies. And then I’m here like, da-duh duh, with my condoms and my penis models, slinging condoms. And you know, it’s kind of like I can see the dynamic there, where it’s kind of like a little bit of an arm’s length, and other teachers don’t wanna touch the topic. They’re so hesitant. They don’t want. You know, I’ve been writing lesson plans and relegating them this summer for summer school. And there’s a hesitancy to cover consent, bodies, or boundaries. Not even, I’m like, I’m not gonna make you show them how to use a condom. We’re just talking about consent! But it scares people. So, I would like for the word to be considered consent is about everyday human interaction. I need to have consent to give you a hug or touch your hair or borrow your things. I can’t just take things from you. I have to have consent from you.

CARMEN: Yeah.

MALA: So, I would like for us to think of consent as just like, this is just how humans interact with one another.

CARMEN: The L.A.-born and raised Xicana writer and cohost of Locatora Radio is also a sex educator. And she’s determined to use her classroom to launch a sexual revolution and smash shame and stigma. I was reading something you wrote on Everyday Feminism.

MALA: Okay.

CARMEN: And you said that, “Outside of warnings, admonitions, or abstinence-only lectures, my experience learning about sexuality was defined by deafening silence.”

MALA: Yes.

CARMEN: And I’m so curious about like, now you are a sex educator and a rape crisis counselor, and how did you break that silence?

MALA: It’s interesting because it’s like that old sentiment that if you make something seem dangerous and out of reach, people want it and wanna know more. I knew it was out there. I knew sex was a thing. I knew my body was changing. I knew that women could be cute and sexy and fun and flirt with boys and kiss girls and do all these things, but I wasn’t hearing about it directly in school. So, I remember being in my Catholic school uniform as a little girl and telling my mom, “You know, I don’t think I wanna be a virgin until I’m married.”

CARMEN: [Laughing.] Oh my god.

MALA: ‘Cause that’s the lesson that we’re taught in Catholic school! So, I remember saying, “I don’t think that’s for me. I don’t think that virginity’s like my thing.” [laughs] Those were my origins. They wanted to keep it from me, but I wanted to know more. 

CARMEN: Mala is also a former self-defense instructor and rape crisis counselor and advocate, and she brings her previous work into her classroom too. By doing that, she’s connecting the dots between our language of desire and our rape culture, and she’s helping students dismantle it.

MALA: When I came home from college, I started volunteering at Peace over Violence as a rape crisis counselor/advocate, and I did that for four years. So, I was working on the LA Rape and Battery Hotline and responding to crisis calls, responding in person 24/7 to hospitals and the Intensive Care Unit for rape kits that are formally known as SART exams. I was helping clients to change their names confidentially and to relocate get restraining orders and all these things. So, it was very intense. And it’s a weird intersection because the lack of sex education in the world, there’s a correlation between the lack of sex education and the preponderance of sexual violence that takes place. There’s a direct correlation Because if you are not teaching sex ed, you are just not teaching consent or boundaries at all. You’re just not. It’s completely absent from the convo. Because it’s not happening at home, and your parents didn’t get sex ed. So, your parents didn’t get the consent talk. No one is talking about consent outside of the human development sex-ed health class. No one. It’s not in the English class. It’s not in Bio. And your parents are probably not talking to you about it. So, I think what we see is tons of people who just have never even considered what it means to look at the autonomy and boundaries of another human being. So, that’s the major lesson that I learned from that experience.

So, I got an email one day from somebody who had seen me giving a Denim Day presentation. And she was leaving her job as a sex educator and a human development teacher and asked if I would be interested in stepping into that role. And I thought like, this is prevention work. I was doing the intervention work. Getting in the classroom and teaching on the front end is prevention work ‘cause we can teach consent and boundaries and self-defense here.

CARMEN: Working at that intersection, how does that shape your practice in both directions? How did that background that you have in the anti-violence and the prevention side shape the work you do now as a sex educator?

MALA: Yeah. I told the school where I’m working now, I told them at the beginning, like, look. This is the world and the work that I’m coming from, so what I’m gonna work on this year is softening, you know, and sort of understanding how to teach this from a standpoint not of fear, but of just info. And I want the kids to walk into class with their curiosity about the subject. I don’t want them to walk out afraid. ‘Cause I think that’s what happens a lot. The kids are just curious. I was curious. And I think in a lot of sex ed settings or sex talk settings in general, kids walk in curious and leave scared.

CARMEN: Mm!

MALA: And I don’t want sex ed to be Fear Factor. So, I have been, over the course of the 12 months that I’ve been teaching sex ed now—‘cause this is a newer profession for me; I just made this shift last year—I’m like, how can we make this all about health and happiness and wellness? And then the safety component is something that we remind them of and give them the resources. Be safe, but most of all, have fun. Take care of yourself.

CARMEN: Was that in an interview with Remezcla, you actually said that Latinas don’t always name their traumas as traumas. That would you would speak with a lot of women at the rape crisis center who sort of didn’t even recognize, didn’t have the vocabulary.

MALA: Yeah.

CARMEN: Have you seen in that work and in the sex ed world what happens to the way people think about sex and sexual violence when they do have a vocabulary to define those things?

MALA: Yeah. I think a really good example that I’ve seen in sex ed class specifically is the high schoolers I teach, looking at street harassment as not just a fact of life, right, which it kind of is. But what I mean is them seeing it as a power imbalance and a sort of a violation so that they feel…so that they can feel empowered to defend themselves. Because I think sometimes what happens: We don’t name the trauma. We don’t understand it or see it as a trauma. We don’t understand it or see it as a violation. That means that we are being socialized to accept it and to receive it and no not push back on it.

So, when we talk about well, if someone yells at you on the street, what is your physical reaction to it? How’s it make you feel? Well, if your body is signaling discomfort, and your fight-or-flight sense are being kicked in, that’s telling you something about the type of interaction. I want them to learn how to listen to their bodies. And if your body is telling you, “This is icky. This is uncomfortable,” please listen to it. That probably means that it is. And that means that I want them to be empowered to be able to speak up and use their voice and say no and push back if and when it’s safe to do so. So, it’s interesting to see that shift when, all of a sudden, after the conversation is over, they say, “Yeah, that is fucked up that grown men are yelling at me on the street, and I’m a 16-year-old girl. You’re right. That’s not normal. They are in the wrong.” So, it shifts the entire interaction just by giving them that perspective.

CARMEN: What Mala is doing with her students, Anita Little is doing too. But she’s working in a very different kind of classroom.

I’m gonna start with a riddle. I’m sure you’ve heard this riddle before. My riddle is how does a feminist journalist find herself in Playboy HQ?

ANITA LITTLE: Yeah, it was a pretty unconventional path. I feel like my journalism career has taken me to a bunch of different really fascinating places that I didn’t foresee happening. But yeah, a couple years ago, I was at Ms., and that was kind of when I was introduced to feminism in the mainstream sense. I mean I had always been a feminist, but I guess I didn’t really have the academic language to really describe these feelings I had felt my entire life until I started working at a feminist organization. And I was there for several years, and eventually I decided just for various reasons that it was time for me to move on and continue growing and being challenged. And then I shifted into religion reporting ‘cause that makes sense.

And that was really fascinating work, and I did that for about two years. And I guess it just got me really interested in culture and belief systems and what motivates people and moves societies in general. ‘Cause I feel like people just underestimate religion in that way. And when I was kind of looking for the next thing that I wanted to do, and I found out that Playboy was hiring for something that just kind of sounded like it would be a great opportunity—basically, a politics and sex editor—I just kind of thought a lot about the place that Playboy has had in our history and how it’s kind of just been this driver of culture. And how it’s just been so important to so many people. And I felt that I just, I saw this opportunity in Playboy that I hadn’t seen at previous places that I’d worked to be part of a movement that was extremely sex-positive and kind of viewed sexuality and attraction as something that could be celebrated and something that was a form of freedom. And I felt like that was just, hadn’t really been part and parcel of other places that I’d worked, and I felt like that would be kind of like a new, I don’t know, a new frontier for me, in terms of getting to explore those interests.

And yeah, I’ve been there for nearly two years. I guess it’ll be two years in the fall, and yeah, it’s everything that I expected and a lot more than that as well. And I just, I feel like I have a place to explore my feminism in a space that yeah, is just, is really, really inquisitive and curious about sexuality and wanting to ask those questions and have those conversations. And I just don’t really feel…I don’t know. I don’t really feel limited in that sense, which just kind of opens a lot of doors for me just intellectually, socially, emotionally.

Having the freedom to assign stories about sexuality that range from very underground fetishes to sexual health issues like vaginismus, having the freedom to address that spectrum, it kind of widens my feminism in a way and makes me more comfortable talking about those issues. ‘Cause I feel like you can’t have a sexual revolution if you’re not really comfortable talking about all aspects of sex and attraction. It can’t all be super gender policy-based. I feel like you need to have a mix of both of those things ‘cause then otherwise, the revolution isn’t a lot of fun.

CARMEN: Anita has written about sex, gender, and sexuality for Angeleno, Ebony, AlterNet, Pacific Standard, Religion Dispatches and Salon, and her work has even appeared in several classroom texts. Today, she’s the features editor at Playboy, and she’s part of a diverse crop of new leaders helping the enterprise move its mission from “entertainment for men” to “pleasure for everyone.”

ANITA: In previous feminist spaces that I’ve been in, I feel sex was approached in a very policy-based, very clinical way that doesn’t—like I feel like discussions about sex weren’t happening that came from the perspective of oh, sex is good just because it’s pleasurable. You should just have sex for sex’s sake and just kind of, I don’t know, partaking in the joy of that. It wasn’t a joyous conversation. I feel like since Playboy, playfulness and lightheartedness is kind of part of just like the brand attitude, it kind of helps to infuse some of that fun into it and helps to celebrate sex and celebrate attraction in a way that feels really natural and kind of infuses it into our activism and our feminism. Everyone should have the freedom to pursue pleasure, whether it’s sexual or spiritual or what have you.

CARMEN: I feel like a lot of the work I’ve done and a lot of the work that I have reported on has happened in this movement space that is very insular. What impact have you witnessed sort of being able to have this conversation maybe where it matters most? And do you think it matters that this conversation is happening in that more exterior space?

ANITA: And I feel like we’ve been such a huge driver of culture for just decades and decades, and people have kind of looked to us as just this very, I don’t know, counter-cultural space that was kind of prepared to just ask those really hard questions and initiate those conversations, people are maybe just more interested or more willing to listen. And like our current audience—the audience we’ve had and the audience that we’re attempting to kind of grow and get—we want those audiences to come together. We don’t necessarily wanna leave our legacy audience behind. We kind of want to educate them and teach them and bring them along for the ride with us. And I feel like that’s something that’s really important. ‘Cause we aren’t necessarily always preaching to the choir, which is something I feel can happen in very insular movements. We’re actually preaching to people who may not have heard these ideas before and kind of slowly submerging them kind of like a lobster into like—

CARMEN: Yeah. [Laughs.]

ANITA: —you just slowly kind of acclimate them to these new ideas, and you normalize those ideas for them. And it’s just a way to reach a segment of the population that may not pick up a copy of Ms. or may not read feminist literature. It’s just kind of just yeah, slow acclimation, which I feel can affect a lot of change, a lot of really important change in ways that you maybe would not have been able to do in kind of a more smaller, niche movement.

[theme music]

CARMEN: But if my own sexy summer back in 2009 taught me anything, it was that it’s not just everyone else who needs better sex ed. It’s all of us: feminists and anti-rape activists and sluts alike.

JACLYN: I’m obsessed with sex ed.

CARMEN: [Chuckles.] Yes!

JACLYN: It’s my new obsession and maybe for a long while. I really think if we could transform the way we teach sex ed in public schools, we could transform the culture in a generation.

CARMEN: Mm.

JACLYN: But what that means is comprehensive, K through 12, pleasure-affirming, shame-free sex education, right? And the most controversial part of the list of things I just said is pleasure-affirming, right? So, still in the year 2019, in most sex-ed classes even if they happen, nobody talks about the clitoris, because it’s not actually a reproductive organ. Its specific purpose is pleasure. And what happens when we don’t teach that women’s sexual pleasure, that queer kids’ sexual pleasure, that all of our sexual pleasure is equally important and valid is we actually set the folks who are already at the margins up to be more vulnerable. So, cis boys learn that their sexuality is important everywhere, literally everywhere—

CARMEN: Yeah. [Laughs.]

JACLYN: —if it doesn’t get taught in schools. They’re cool.

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: But when you don’t teach girls that they should expect for sex to feel good, they have the right to expect that, then when they encounter sex that doesn’t feel good and sex partners that either don’t care about their pleasure or are actively harming them, we literally have not taught them to expect otherwise. And it’s such a profound…malnourishment in the culture, the idea that women’s sexual pleasure is important. And it’s at the root of so much bad shit. 

CARMEN: Yeah. Ugh. I just…I’m sitting here like, yep, that’s exactly it. That is why I called you because you know exactly it. 

JACLYN: And we could change that! We could change that if we change the way we teach sex ed.

CARMEN: Yeah. And I mean I think then it’s like it’s always just that little cycle: like maybe if we taught sex ed differently, the people who are making depictions of sex in pop culture would have a different vocabulary, a different language, a different background, so everything would start from a different place. And then it impacts us differently. Maybe then there would be less things we have to check in with ourselves about feeling shame about ‘cause no one would tell us to feel bad about them. [Laughs.]

JACLYN: Yes, exactly. ‘Cause we would expect that feeling good in our bodies is our birthright.

CARMEN: Ugh. Yes. Yes!

JACLYN: That’s an entitlement I want everyone to have.

CARMEN: That’s Jaclyn again, who pivoted from the political back to the personal after Yes Means Yes when she published What You Really Really Want.

JACLYN: When I started touring for Yes Means Yes and doing interviews, I started hearing different versions of the same question over and over again, which was, “I love the idea of Yes Means Yes. I’m super into the philosophy of enthusiastic consent, but how did you figure out what you wanna say yes or no to?”

CARMEN: Mm.

JACLYN: I feel like I don’t know what I wanna say yes or no to. And I just kept hearing that question popcorning at me over and over again, mostly from young women, and I thought, well, I can answer that question, but I can’t answer it in a Q&A, right?

BOTH: [Laugh.]

JACLYN: I need more than 10 minutes to answer that question. And so, it became What You Really Really Want.

CARMEN: Oh, that’s awesome! And what was the impact of that on you, as someone who had been an activist at this really large level and sort of looking at that big picture? What was the impact of writing that book for you?

JACLYN: That book was so cool because what I did was, because it’s in some parts a workbook—you know, it has all these exercises in it—and I was developing the exercises for the book. And I didn’t wanna publish a book full of exercises that nobody had done, right?

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: That’s malpractice. [Laughs.] So, I put out a call for volunteers, and I wound up choosing a group of about a dozen women from really diverse backgrounds on a range of axes who read the first draft of each chapter and worked through it. And then we would meet every week, and we would talk about it. I had originally envisioned it just as a feedback group to say like, “This exercise worked for me, and this one was confusing.” But we wound up talking about our sex lives, of course, and our histories and our feelings about our sexualities and our bodies, and it got so real. Honestly, there’s two chapters in the book that were basically invented by that group out of conversation. So, I was like, Oh we need to address this thing that it turns out to be so much more universal than I thought. So, that was the first time I ever really sat with women and just talked about sex in a real-talk kinda way, in a really deep way. ‘Cause I came from anti-rape work, right? That’s how I came to Yes Means Yes. And obviously, philosophically, I was already convinced that we had to shift the sexual culture if we’re gonna do anything about sexual violence, but this was really about getting real personal about it.

CARMEN: Of course, Jaclyn, who remains hellbent on changing the conversation about sex and empowering feminists to do it in their own lives and in the world at-large went back to the political with her third book, Unscrewed.

So, you’ve done sort of both sides of this work, right? You’ve done this individual empowerment piece, like, let’s develop a workbook to give women this language for their desire. And then also let’s think about the larger culture and do that kinda stuff. Where do you see them connecting? Where do you see the power of that individual change? And how do you see culture change shifting the conversation?

JACLYN: I mean I think it’s a dance. I wrote Unscrewed after What You Really Really Want because I felt like I’d spent all this time thinking about this individual change stuff and was like, but, but all of that stuff takes as a given that the culture is fucked! And I don’t think that’s inherent, right? We actually could change the system, and then it wouldn’t be so hard for any of us!

CARMEN: [Chuckles.]

JACLYN: Wouldn’t that be nice? I actually think about it in terms of the controversial feminist topic of self-defense.

CARMEN: Mm.

JACLYN: So, I used to be a self-defense instructor for IMPACT, which is the kind of self-defense where you see the guy in the full suit of armor, and you get to hit full force. And it’s really transformative for me. And today, it’s really out of fashion to talk about self-defense because people say, “Oh, you’re putting the focus on women telling them it’s their job not to get rape. We need to focus on preventing rape and stopping rapists.” And obviously, I feel like I have the feminist bona fides to say, clearly I agree with that, right? Please come at me!

CARMEN: Yeah. You’re like, “I, too, do not enjoy the culture of rape.”

JACLYN: But realistically, that shit’s taking a while. And in the meantime, it’s good for us to individually know how to stop a motherfucker who wants to hurt us, right?

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: And similarly, while we have to not let the individual stuff distract us from the fact that there’s a system, right? And that’s why I always say that What You Really Really Want is a self-help book in the sense that it is trying to help you, individually, with a problem you may have. But it’s different than most self-help books which say there’s something wrong with you, and this book will help you fix it. And my book took great pains to say there’s nothing wrong with you, honey. We’re in this horrible culture, but here’s some ways to think about navigating it. ‘Cause I think a lot of self-help stuff, individual advice around sex and sexuality sort of is like, there’s something wrong with you. And that’s what I’m after when I’m talking about unscrewing the culture, which is like, that’s a form of gaslighting as far as I’m concerned, right?

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: If you feel inadequate sexually or inadequately liberated or inadequately whatever, especially as a woman or somebody with a marginalized sexual identity, it is probably not you. Look! We all have inadequacies. Let’s be real.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: But in the big picture, I don’t know. Maybe it is you! But probably, it’s the fucking kyriarchy. And we have to dismantle that and not get distracted by getting sold on some, oh, if I just do this pole dancing class or wear this lipstick or whatever it is we’re being sold, that we can then be free. We’re gonna be free when we dismantle the systems of oppression. But in the meantime, we do need to know how to navigate our sex lives, and I wanna help individual folks with that too.

CARMEN: Talking with Jaclyn is what transported me back to that sexy summer. And coincidentally, it was because it happened to be a sexy one for her too.

JACLYN: The year that Yes Means Yes came out, 2009, is the year that I had this catastrophic break-up, this relationship that I thought was gonna be it, right?

CARMEN: Mmhmm.

JACLYN: And just out of the blue of a Thursday night, he sat down on my bed and was like, “I think we should break up.” Just like truly out of the blue.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: You know, there were a couple of months of wrangling, but that was that, basically. And it was really catastrophic for me in a way that had, it was just like a heartbreak on a level I had not experienced before.

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: So that was happening at the same time as I was involved in all of these really robust and fertile conversations about sex and culture and rethinking all this stuff. And I was talking to all of these young women who were like, “How do you know what you want and what you don’t want?” And I started thinking about and actually writing the proposal for What You Really Really Want that year. And it was all sort of happening at the same time. And I’ve never thought about this in a causal way before, but it was like the beginning of the sluttiest period of my life.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: How could that not have had some relationship to it, right? So, before then, I had been really a serial monogamist, you know?

CARMEN: Yeah.

JACLYN: And I was like no, I think what I really need is to just do a bunch of healing on myself. I started trying to date a little bit, and it was a disaster ‘cause I was an emotional fucking wreck. But I still had needs, right? And so, I felt free enough that I was able to say, actually, I think what I need is to fuck around for a while, while I heal myself. I’m not good for a relationship right now, but I still wanna bone.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: And it’s actually, I don’t know if you remember, but I wrote this fairly iconic piece called “My Sluthood, Myself” out of that just moment of discovery.

CARMEN: Yes!

JACLYN: And that was all right around, that was all while I was developing What You Really Really Want, was just in the way of Yes Means Yes. It was all happening at that time. So I think probably not that I’m thinking of it in that way, it probably opened up a lot of stuff for me personally.

CARMEN: It really, yeah, it set off your…it was a whirlwind of sluttiness. And you got to —

JACLYN: Oh, it was a whirlwind of sluttiness.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: Can I tell you a hilarious story that you can decide whether or not you wanna include in this interview?

CARMEN: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

JACLYN: So, as you know, last week I got arrested with 17 other Jews protesting ICE here in Boston as part of a wave of Jews Against ICE action across the country, and that was an amazing experience and has very much to do with—

CARMEN: I saw, I was obsessed.

JACLYN: What?

CARMEN: I was obsessed with the Instagram posts.

JACLYN: It has very little to do with today’s conversation except that a couple days later, I got this Facebook message, you know the Facebook messages from the people you don’t know that are in the maybe you want this message or don’t box, right?

CARMEN: Oh, yes, in “other message.”

JACLYN: Yes, exactly! Late at night, I had fallen asleep on the couch, and I woke up to go to bed, right?

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JACLYN: And I was like, what is this message? And it was from this dude who was saying—I really hope he doesn’t listen to this podcast ‘cause it’s mean if he does—but he was saying like, “Oh, it was cool to see you in court, out in front on this action.” Blah blah blah. He was there with the National Lawyers Guild as backup if they needed it, but we didn’t wind up needing them. “And I know it was weird to re-connect then, but I just wanted to say hi in case you wanted to re-connect now. I’m really proud of what you’re doing.” It was totally non-creepy. But I was like, I don’t know recognize this guy’s name. I didn’t recognize the person in that courtroom, and I don’t know who this is. And I stared at it for like three minutes, and then I was like “Oh! I wonder if I fucked him.”

CARMEN: [Laughs.] You’re like, oh, he was one of the people I tested this workbook out. [Laughs.]

JACLYN: I went back into my Gmail, and I put his name in my Gmail. And I came up with this chat log from him, and I totally remember him now. He was an immigration lawyer.

CARMEN: Oh my god!

JACLYN: Yeah. So that’s how slutty. I was literally in a room with a guy I fucked, and I had no idea.

CARMEN: Of course, it wasn’t just the sex or the sluttiness that defined 2009, not for me, not for Jaclyn. She was a rising feminist star setting sights on her next book, and I was going through my own coming of conscience.

Remember “My Sluthood, Myself,” the essay Jaclyn just referenced a minute ago? She published it on Jezebel in 2010 and declared that slut isn’t a “state of action” but a state of mind. She also dismissed the notion that sluthood was a bad choice, asserting instead that, in her own words, “it’s a choice we should all have access to because it has the potential to be liberating. Healing. Soul-fulfilling.”

“Sluthood saved me,” she wrote, “in a small but life-altering way, and I want it to be available to you if you ever think it could save you, too. Or if you want it for any other reason at all. And because even if you don’t ever want sluthood for yourself, you’re going to be called upon to support a slut. I’m telling you this because when that happens, I want you to say yes.”

When I sat down with Anita, with Amanda, with Mala, with Jaclyn—and when I sat down with myself and wrote this very episode of this very podcast for you—I realized for the first time in the last 10 years just how pivotal that summer of sluttiness was for me. Not as a sexual being, not as someone who had suffered through street harassment and fielded toxic sexual situations, but just as a person. As a woman. As a feminist. It was that summer, in the sweltering heat, working with Nancy and her small but mighty team of sex-positive feminist co-conspirators, that, more than anything else I’d ever done, showed me what feminism in practice really looked like.

The summer I embraced sluthood was the summer that taught me how to smash shame. Leaning into my own sexuality forced me to confront the personal and the political places where patriarchy popped up in my relationships and in my hook-ups. Doing anti-rape activism, teaching consent, demanding better from the culture that had raised me taught me the urgency of learning to declare my desires and fiercely define and defend my boundaries. It paved the way for my queerness. It took me to the feminist fringes, and then it got me home safe. My sluthood gave me back to myself.

I can’t separate my feminism from that sexual awakening, just like we can’t separate sexual liberation from the fight to end sexual violence. None of us are free in a world where we can’t access, celebrate, and label our own sexualities. None of us are free in a world where shame, violence, and fear permeate our parameters of pleasure. None of us are free in a world where puritanical, patriarchal, completely bullshit notions of purity define who deserves the full range of their own humanity. None of us are free until all of us feel safe and at home in our bodies and our bedrooms.

I thought this was gonna be an episode about sex. Then I thought this was gonna be an episode about sex ed. Then I thought this was gonna be an episode about rape culture. But instead, just like that summer, I ended up realizing that it would have to be about all of it, all at once. Because you can’t talk about feminism without talking about sexual freedom, and—spoiler alert!—talking about sex to a bunch of feminists will necessitate talking about sexual politics too. So there is some bad news. Right now there’s a lot of kyriarchy standing in the way of our sexual freedom. But the good news? Feminists across the country are talking back to it and rewriting our language of desire in the process.

[“And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow” by of Montreal plays]

♪ “Turning tricks on the hood of Jasmine’s car/
That whole summer was really just too peculiar/
You know I would’ve given it up to almost anybody/
Who had a little money and was sweet to me/
Yeah, I was down to give it up to almost anyone/
Who was sweet….”♪

CARMEN: Okay folks, that’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was produced by Cher Vincent and hosted by me, feminist writer, editor, and activist Carmen Rios, as part of our Heat season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Special thanks to today’s guests: Amanda Montell, Anita Little, Jaclyn Friedman, and Mala Muñoz.

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show and to share your sexicons. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like it in your feed (algorithm willing), and find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr.

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community, so if you loved what you just heard, you can support this show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at bitchmedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! If you wanna send me hate mail, you can do that at carmenfuckingrios.com. And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Stay tuned for our next episode: We’ll be digging into feminist burnout and figuring out how to make modern activism sustainable. Until then, I’ll see you on the internet.

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by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”