On Sept. 2, Jaclyn Friedman addressed the Class of 2014 as the sex education speaker at First Days. Friedman is the editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape; a successful writer and activist; and a long-time sexual health educator. She has toured as a speaker on sexual health issues and spoke at the College in the spring (“Campus seeks to counter silence surrounding sexual assault issue,” April 14, 2010).
What is your career description right now?
I run a non-profit called Women, Action & the Media working towards gender justice in media, and I’m a freelance writer, so I’m an opinions writer. I write op-eds, blog and write other opinion pieces wherever people will have me, mostly about sexual health and stopping sexual violence.
How did you get involved in this line of work?
I discovered feminism as an undergrad as Wesleyan and was already really an activist, a feminist, a pro GLBT rights activist when I was sexually assaulted on campus at Wesleyan. That was what turned me into an activist on these issues for life.
After I was assaulted, I brought charges. He was kicked off campus for a year, but part of that ruling was that the administration told me I couldn’t speak about my experience, which I didn’t understand at the time because I was quite traumatized then. After that, I started hearing of a lot of other women being mistreated by the campus judicial process. I called up the dean of the college, and I asked if we could talk about how to do this better. She said, “We’re doing this internally,” and I was like, “That’s not good enough.”
I formed a student committee to study and survey how sexual assault was handled on campus. We did a comprehensive, yearlong study and came out with a list of recommendations that we released to trustees, which they to their credit took very seriously. That’s where I sort of cut my teeth as an activist, and the struggles and successes of that process have informed everything I’ve done since.
Since your time as a student, are colleges getting better on these issues?
Wesleyan invited me back this spring to talk about preventing violence on campus. That was very meaningful to me because the administration while I was there did everything they could to shut me up. But my story is only one story, and I don’t see too much change in the last 20 years. I graduated in 1993, and I would think things would be very different, but they really aren’t. I talked [on Sept. 2] about the myth that rape is a misunderstanding that happens between two people when there’s alcohol involved, etc., and that “he must have been confused.” Research shows that to be the opposite of true … but campuses are still treating it this way. The punishment is to just apologize to the victim, to write a letter or to take an anger management class, [which is] not treating it seriously. I don’t have specific knowledge of how Williams is doing with this, but I don’t see campuses doing much better than they did when I was an undergraduate.
From your two visits here, do you have a sense of how the College stacks up compared to most?
I don’t know its practical application, but I think the code of conduct is pretty strong. I’d like to see the phrase “effective consent” be changed to “enthusiastic consent.” I think it’s a question of, “Is it being enforced when people are asking it to be enforced?” and “Are people taking advantage of it?
One of the things I’ve heard here and on other campuses is that victims are doing everything they can not to identify themselves as victims and not to come forward. I would never tell a survivor of sexual violence what the right thing is for him or her to do, but it alarms me that so many women in particular don’t identify this as sexual violence when it so clearly is. So many women are playing it off as a bad hookup. Unfortunately, that doesn’t protect them from the emotional fallout of having your very intimate personal boundaries violated. It only stops them from getting help and support and justice.
We aren’t naming these things; that’s very troubling to me. I actually think there is less anger about sexual violence on campus now than when I was undergrad.
What do you want to be the greatest takeaway from your talk at orientation?
If the students remember nothing else, I want them to remember enthusiastic consent. Everyone has a firm obligation to make sure that anyone they are interacting with sexually is not just non-objecting, not just allowing things to transpire, but actively excited about what’s happening and actively pleased. If everyone on Williams’ campus did that, it would be a brilliantly safe campus sexually, and everyone would be having better sex. If that became internalized at Williams as the value of the campus, [that] would take the responsibility off the victim to prove she’s not lying. In no other felony crimes do we … automatically default to “she’s probably lying” but because we don’t want to believe people we know to be capable of rape, that’s a protective mechanism. Enthusiastic consent cuts right through it, and it’s very easy to do. Make sure your partner is having a great time! And if you can’t tell, you have to ask.