Imagine if sex education covered not only important information about how to protect your health and prevent unwanted pregnancy, but also how to have really good sex — including how to know what you want and how to value your needs and desires along with your partner’s.
As The New York Times Magazine reported this past weekend, a truly comprehensive sex-ed class does exist — one that gives as much weight to female orgasm as to navigating complex emotional and physical terrain. Sexuality and Society is a highly regarded senior elective at Friends’ Central School, a co-ed, Quaker, college preparatory day school in Philadelphia.
Now what if there were a book — a workbook of sorts — that could be used in a class like this, and made available to teens and young adults everywhere who don’t have a progressive forum for discussing sexuality?
Luckily for everyone, that book exists.
“What You Really Really Want” is the latest title on sex and sexuality by Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of the 2008 hit anthology “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape,” and a contributor to the 2011 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” In her new book, Friedman takes on the role of your smartest, most honest, least judgmental, down-to-earth friend, serving as a helpful guide through 11 chapters on defining, understanding and owning your sexuality.
The book’s subtitle — “The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety” — explains the roadmap within. To make the most of this excursion, Friedman encourages readers to do two things: Write every day, with a pen or keyboard, and love your body — and not just in general; you should spend at least 30 minutes a week doing something that “makes you feel nothing but good.”
One of the book’s elements that readers will find particularly useful are the “dive-in” exercises that encourage thinking through how to apply what you’ve read to your own circumstances. At various times, Friedman pauses and encourages you to ask questions, assess your comfort zone, and identify the tools you need to overcome barriers to expressing your sexuality. These check-ins come across as authentic, which is difficult to pull-off on the printed page. That success is largely due to Friedman’s engaging writing style and genuine concern for women’s health and safety; she is the founder and executive director of Women, Action & the Media, which works for gender justice in media, and has been an outspoken advocate for challenging the ways society shames women.
The first chapter, aptly titled “You Can’t Get What You Want Till You Know What You Want,” opens with a discussion of influences on sexuality, from family and religion to our peers and partners. Friedman also provides a concise summary of confusing media messages that limit women to a “teeny window of ‘correct’ sexuality” combined with artificial ideals, followed by a dive-in exercise on media representations of women:
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.
“What You Really Really Want” gradually shifts from looking at external influences that can prevent women from developing their own sexual identity to exploring different identities and assumptions about sexuality. Following sections on gender and sexual orientation, readers encounter this exercise:
Dive In: Make a list of all the words you can think of that you’ve used yourself or heard someone else use to describe someone’s sexual orientation. Don’t hold back—list the slang and slur words right alongside the more formal terms. Next, cross out every word that you think no one should ever use about anyone. Then cross out every word that you personally would never use to describe someone else. Then, of the remaining words, cross out every one that you wouldn’t want anyone else to use when describing you. Lastly, cross out any word that’s left that you would never use to describe yourself.
Write all of the words that are left in a new list. How do they make you feel? Do they describe your sexual orientation? Are there facets of your orientation that words don’t exist for? If you feel like it, invent a word that helps fill in those gaps.
It may seem like a lot of self-analysis, but that’s exactly what’s needed. As The New York Times Magazine article points out, teens have a difficult time articulating their own desires, in part due to the abundance of manufactured sexual imagery that creates false and harmful standards for what we (or our partners) should look like naked and how we should act.
Friedman wisely concentrates on the individual reader before expanding the discussion to include sexual partners. And even then, Friedman doesn’t offer advice on how to find a compatible sexual partner; rather, she helps the reader to define what compatability even means:
We all get dealt a different hand when it comes to what we’re capable of, and we all need partners who contribute different things. Is it important that your sexual partners are funny? Smart? Good dancers? Sweet with children? Great at communication? This is where you can get specific about bedroom skills, too: How talented does your partner need to be in the sack, and what qualifies as sexual talent to you?
Once you figure out what qualities you want in a partner, it’s time to add another layer of choosiness: How important is each quality to you? Because, let’s get real, nobody’s perfect, and you’re unlikely to find someone who simultaneously checks all of your boxes. Maybe you’d love to have a partner who is really athletic, but you wouldn’t rule out someone who was less active. On the other hand, it may be a total deal breaker if your partner doesn’t like to read. Get clear on what’s cake vs. what’s icing, and you’ll be steering yourself toward what you really really want before you know it.
Making a list for ourselves is one thing, but healthy sexual relationships require honesty with our partners about pleasure and safety.
“Talking freely about sex and safety with your partners not only makes sex more fun and relaxed—because you’re worrying less and getting more of what you really really want—but also makes it easier to tell the great partners from the ones you want to avoid before you get too hurt,” writes Friedman. “And that information means your intuition will get better and better, which means you’ll get even better at knowing your own desires and boundaries and finding people who can simultaneously respect and satisfy you. In short: It’s the best possible kind of positive-feedback loop.”
Besides offering examples of what, how and when to communicate, Friedman also provides an exercise that returns to the personal history and influences that can block us from advocating for our own needs:
Dive In: Pay attention this week to the times when you’re not speaking up. Do you want seconds at dinner but are afraid to say so? Do you actually want to wear that outfit, or are you doing it because you think someone else will like it on you? Did your friend or partner hurt your feelings, but you aren’t letting them know? Make a note each time it happens. Then, when you’ve got some time, pick one example and write about what it felt like. And then write about what it might have felt like if you had gone the other way and spoken on your own behalf.
Students at Friends’ Central School are fortunate to have a terrific teacher and a supportive educational environment that encourages exploration of these issues. Maybe, just maybe, other schools will start to follow suit. For the rest of us — and for those forward-minded sexuality classes — “What You Really Really Want” can make a lifetime of difference.
Excerpts of “What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety” are printed by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Photo credit: Mandy Lussier. This post is a stop in Jaclyn’s blog tour. Check out yesterday’s stop at WIMN’s Voices. If you’re in the Chicago area, join me on Nov. 30 as Jaclyn reads from her book at Women & Children First (7:30 p.m.).