The Rumpus Interview with Jaclyn Friedman

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Jaclyn Friedman is an author, blogger, performer and activist. Friedman edited the recently released anthology, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Poets and Writers Magazine, poetsagainstthewar.org and the Lambda Award-nominated anthology Pinned Down by Pronouns, among others.

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Rumpus: How did you come up with the concept for the Yes Means Yes Anthology, and how did the idea develop as you began collected pieces? How did you choose the writers and topics?

Friedman: Yes Means Yes developed in response to one article too many warning women about the risks of wearing short skirts and partying in public, without putting any responsibility on rapists to police their own behavior. We are calling for a world in which women can enjoy their bodies and their lives with out shame or fear, and we believe that effective rape prevention has to start from there. There were quite a few topics we knew we wanted to cover in the book, so we did solicit certain writers to write on certain topics. But a good number of essays also came in through our open call, illuminating the possibilities, implications and limits of our approach. It was a pretty thrilling process – but also really hard, because with a book you’ve got some serious space limitations, and there was a lot of great stuff we had to leave out.

Rumpus: When did you first become interested in writing a book about rape?

Friedman: I’ve been interested in talking and educating about rape, safety and sexuality for most of my adult life. The book really is just an evolution of that interest. The specific idea to do the book developed out of a conversation I had with Jessica Valenti (my co-editor), about an article I had recently written on new approaches to talking about drinking & rape, and about how long it had been since a book about feminist responses to rape had been published.

Rumpus: This is a book about rape, but it is about so much more. What is it really about?

Friedman: This book is about creating a world where pleasure is a basic human right, where men and women have equal and safe access to enjoying the pleasure of their bodies on their own terms. It’s about creating a world where consensual sex means each partner has a responsibility to ensure that their partner is not just not objecting, but enthusiastically consenting. It’s about shifting our cultural approach to sex from one where sex is seen as a commodity which women have to protect and men have to get, to one where sex is a shame and pressure-free collaborative performance between two or more willing people. Ultimately, it’s about healing our profoundly diseased sexual culture.

Rumpus: Can you explain a little bit about the title, Yes Means Yes. It’s clearly a play on the famous “No Means No” mantra. What message are you trying to send?

Friedman: What Yes Means Yes is saying is that “No Means No” is not enough to make women both safe and free. Don’t get me wrong – “No Means No” is a crucial principle, and we’re deeply indebted to the countless activists who’ve worked decades to ensure that most people understand that if a woman says “no” to sexual interaction, you need to listen to her and stop. But when all women have access to is “no” – when we’re shamed for being sexual beings in our own right, and blamed for our own rapes unless we’re young white virgins – we’re not safe, and we’re not free. For that to happen, we need the culture and our sex partners to listen to our “yes” and to our “no.”

Rumpus: I know that you, Jessica Valenti and a few of the other contributors are bloggers. What influence did new media have on the format of the book (ie: the “tags” at the end of each essay)?

Friedman: The choose-your-own-adventure structure was completely influenced by the way hyperlinks and tags work in the blogosphere. Honestly, when it came time to split the anthology into traditional anthology “sections,” we just found we couldn’t do it. Not only do each of the essays we chose touch on multiple and intersecting themes, but we ourselves are completely out of practice when it comes to that kind of analog thinking. So we thought – wouldn’t it be great if we could just use links and tags instead of sections, so that readers could navigate the essays in the order that makes sense to them? And then we thought – well, why can’t we?

Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about your piece in the anthology, “In Defense of Going Wild.”

Friedman: The essay is an expansion of the piece that started it all – the article I wrote for Women’s eNews about how to discuss drinking & rape without blaming women or erasing men from the equation. The argument is pretty basic – women should be able to do risky, fun, even “stupid” things, like partying and enjoying sex, without being raped, and without being held responsible if we are raped. Because the only person who’s ever responsible for a rape is the rapist. But it also goes beyond that and gets to the heart of why fear-based rape prevention strategies will never work, and makes the argument for pleasure as a basic human right.

Rumpus: This is clearly a feminist anthology. However, it seems that one of the central themes stressed over and over in so many pieces is the importance of rape education for men. Writing books that confront these issues is definitely a step in the right direction, but where do we go from here?

Friedman: I think it’s important to understand a few key things. The first is that rape is everyone’s business, not just because we all should care about it, but because it impacts every one of us directly, whatever our gender, whether or not we’re a survivor or a perpetrator. When we have sex right now, we’re having sex in the context of a rape-enabling culture, one that shames women for having sexual appetites and shames men for not “scoring” at every opportunity. We all take that into bed with us, at least in part, and the things that make women safer and give women better access to their own authentic sexualities also directly benefit men in numerous ways.

The second thing to understand is that, although most rapists are men, most men aren’t rapists, and that when we talk about educating men, we’re talking about educating the ones who aren’t rapists. I don’t think you can “educate” rapists about not raping. Most rapists are perfectly clear that they’re violating their victim’s wishes, or are fully unconcerned with their victim’s wishes. That’s sociopathic behavior, and basic education’s not going to crack that. What education will do is to create a hostile environment for rape. If we educate people of all genders to expect not just the absence of “no” from their partners, but the presence of an enthusiastic “yes,” then most rapes will be come much more obvious, much less culturally tolerable, and much easier to prosecute and prevent.

Rumpus: What are a few of your favorite books and authors? Feminist theorists? Any major influences?

Friedman: Well, Jean Kilbourne’s classic presentation on how the ad industry uses images of women to sell gave me my original feminist “click” moment at Wesleyan in the early 90’s. And the anthology Transforming a Rape Culture introduced to me the powerful idea that we can’t end rape until we can envision what a world without rape would look like. More general influences include bell hooks and Carol Gilligan’s work on women and pleasure, Alice Walker and Jeanette Winterson’s novels, Mary Oliver and Mark Doty’s poems, Suzan-Lori Parks’ plays, Eve Ensler’s merging of art and activism, Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi’s gorgeous graphic memoirs, Julia Serano and Kate Bornstein’s work on gender identity… the list goes on and on.


Juliet Linderman is the managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →