the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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Jaclyn Friedman, a friend of mine (and the Executive Director at Women, Action, & the Media), just came out with What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. I can’t tell you how glad I am that there is finally an empowering guide for women and girls trying to figure out their bodies and their sexuality. I want to share with you the endorsement I wrote that appears in the book’s front pages:

“For every girl (and woman!) who’s ever felt condescended to or misrepresented by sex and dating manuals, What You Really, Really Want is exactly the kind of book for which you’ve been waiting. Choosing nuance over one-size-fits-all dating rules, Jaclyn Friedman treats her readers as equals in the quest for sexual empowerment, helping them sort through confusing expectations and desires without judgment or paternalism. Interweaving advice with personal anecdote, Friedman challenges readers to rethink how they make sense of their bodies, sexuality, and gender. All the while, she offers an honest take on risks like sexual assault, unintended pregnancy, and STIs. By interrogating assumptions about gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and relationship models, Friedman reveals the diversity of the human sexual experience and the choices available to her readers. Most importantly, she emphasizes fulfillment not through relationships with others, but through one’s relationship with oneself.

Unlike other so-called ‘sexperts,’ Friedman isn’t prescriptive and doesn’t pretend to have easy answers. But then again, why should she? Any reader of this book will realize by its conclusion that the answers lie in their own hands. By teaching girls how to become more attuned with their own bodies and sexualities, Friedman doesn’t just give her readers the tools to say no to social expectations and gender roles, but also teaches them how to say yes to their desires — the very definition of empowerment!”

I sent Jaclyn some of the sex and relationship questions from readers that I’ve been struggling to answer, and she’s been kind enough to lend her expertise. Below is her advice on quandries like staying friends with people you turn down romantically and dealing with different sexual expectations in a relationship. Check out her thoughts and grab a copy of her book for your friends or sister :)

I met a guy about a week and a half ago and we’ve hung out three times since then and we’re hanging out again this weekend. I might sleep with him this weekend, and I’m nervous because it’s so quick, but I know, as evident by your and many people’s other relationships, some people just have sex quickly! I really, really like this guy and as far as I can tell he really likes me (he’s cooking for me for the second time this weekend) and we talk for hours (with breaks for making out, of course). He says all the right things, and blah, blah, blah. He’s totally interested in figuring out how to get me off (it’s kinda hard) too, which is nice. He’s not pressuring me to do anything, but we have a LOT of sexual chemistry so it just kinda feels right. I’ve slept with guys right away and it hasn’t worked out, and I’ve also not slept with guys right away and it just becomes too much of a game (and also doesn’t work out), so I’m perplexed as to what to do! I know you can’t tell me what to do one way or the other, but is there ANY way to ask him what his intentions are without sounding like a complete psycho?

JACLYN: You’re right not to play games. Research has shown that sleeping with someone “early” or “late” isn’t really a factor in whether or not you get hurt, or whether or not you get into a long-term relationship with that person. The number one factor in whether or not it goes well is whether the two of you want the same things from your sexual interaction. Which means talking about your “intentions” is crucial for both of you.

That’s not to say it won’t be awkward. There’s no way to make it not be scary to say what you want and find out if the person you want it from reciprocates. But notice how I said that: it’s about you communicating what you’re looking for, not just asking him what he wants. It seems clear you really would like to have an ongoing relationship with this guy. But how will you feel if you find out he’s only interested in playing around? Or if he doesn’t know yet what he’d like to see develop between the two of you?

Figure out how you feel about these questions before you open the conversation, because they put you in the driver’s seat, which is where you belong in all of your sexual interactions. Then just tell him how you’re feeling. For me, it would sound something like, “Hey, can we talk about something? I’m having a great time with you, and I think you’re really rad [insert specific examples here about what you like about him]. I’m starting to feel like I’d like this to develop into something relationship-y, and I’m wondering what you’ve been thinking about things between us.”  You may say it totally differently, because we’re not the same person. The important thing is: say directly how you’re feeling, ask him where he’s at, and then shut up and listen. Don’t try to convince him or make deals. And if he says he just wants to keep it casual or doesn’t know yet, know in advance whether those are genuinely OK options for you, or if they’re dealbreakers, or if you’re not sure yet. And communicate THAT stuff to him, too. (If you’re genuinely OK with keeping things casual or with an “I don’t know,” you could even say that up front, like, “I’d be OK if you want to keep things casual, or if you want to wait and see, but I wanted you to know that I really hope this goes somewhere, and I’m wondering what you’re feeling.” Or some such. But ONLY say that if it’s really true - forcing yourself to accept situations that aren’t right for you just to keep the attentions of someone you like (or for any other reason) is a) a formula for making you both miserable in the end, and b) sending yourself a message that your needs and boundaries don’t matter. Which is a damaging thing to tell anyone, let alone yourself.

I don’t mean to suggest that this stuff is easy. I have a whole chapter in What You Really Really Want devoted to why and how to communicate with partners about sex. If you still feel unsure about how to do this, I highly recommend checking it out - it’s full of practical strategies and exercises to help you get the words out in the most productive ways possible. One of them that you might try here is to tell on yourself: if you find yourself unable to just dive into this conversation, try starting by saying, “There’s something I want to talk with you about, but I’m nervous about bringing it up.” Or whatever your version of that is. It can be a useful way to ease into a difficult conversation.

One last thing: if this guy responds badly to this conversation, that tells you something bad about him, not about you. And the sooner you find out that he can’t bear to engage in even the most basic conversation about sexual or romantic relationships, the better - because I’m guessing (and hoping!) that’s not someone you actually want to be with in the end.

I’m a bi girl. This past summer, I met a girl online and we started chatting and really hit it off, but then she suddenly disappeared. Since then, I decided to act on my long-standing crush on my (male) best friend and we are now a couple. However, this girl resurfaced, explaining her absence in a long message about how much she admires me and how she always thinks of me. I’m not sure how to turn her down. I’d like to be friends, but I worry no matter how I slice it she’ll be too disappointed.

JACLYN: First of all - congrats on what sounds like a happy new relationship for you, and for taking the risk and acting on a crush. It can be scary to do that, because many of us worry that we’ll risk our friendship if we let our true feelings be known, and then be left with no connection to this special person at all. And that can happen, but you clearly decided that the potential reward was worth the risk. I’m so happy it’s working out for you.

For better or worse, you now need to take a similar risk with your former flirtation. There’s not really any way to turn someone down after they’ve expressed romantic or sexual feelings for you that eliminates the risk of disappointment. It’s disappointing to be turned down when you put yourself out there! It just is. The best thing you can do if you want her to be your friend is treat her like one. How would you want someone to deliver this news to your friend? You’d want them to be acknowledging of your friend’s feelings, but also honest and up-front. Just tell her that you genuinely regret the bad timing — that you would have jumped at the chance before you got into this new relationship! This will help her feel less like you’re rejecting her personally, and has the benefit of being true. Perhaps find some specific things about her that you think are awesome, and tell her about them. Definitely let her know that you’d like to be friends.

Now comes the tricky part: you can’t control her response, and if you want to be a good friend, you won’t try. She may be hurt, not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because rejection just hurts sometimes. She may act from this hurt, saying angry things to you, or crying, or otherwise expressing difficult things to you. As long as she’s not being abusive to you emotionally or physically, you have to let her. Tell her you totally respect her feelings, and that she can decide when and if you become friends, or even speak to each other again. And then comes the really hard part: you have to do just that. Respect her decision, even if it’s not the outcome you want. Back off if she wants you to back off. Stay away if she wants you to stay away. It’s possible this will be a permanent decision, but one of the best ways to increase the odds that she’ll change her mind at some point is by showing her that you can be her friend even when it’s hard. Even when it means not getting what you want.

Who knows, she may surprise you and take it all in stride. But whatever happens, at the end of the day, treat her like the friend you want her to be to you. Good luck!

Is it wrong for a person to leave a relationship because of sex? My boyfriend is very understanding of the fact that I don’t want to have sex because of past trauma, but since I am not ready, it’s making both of us very frustrated. I was just wondering if I really have a right to blame him or not if he leaves because of something I can’t help. Maybe it’s more complicated than a yes or no answer. Your thoughts?

JACLYN: You’re in a tough situation. As if the pain of sexual trauma isn’t enough, it can really screw up our sense of our sexual selves. I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with that. If you haven’t already found it, may I suggest Staci Haines’ book Healing Sex? It’s all about helping survivors like us reclaim our bodies and our sex lives on our own terms. 

As for your question, here’s the difficult truth: there’s no wrong reason for any of us to leave a romantic or sexual relationship. All of us have the right, at any time, to say to our partners: I no longer want to be with you. We all get to decide what our dealbreakers are. Other people may think our dealbreakers are ridiculous, or insensitive, or whatever, but if we don’t have that right, then relationships stop being about people freely choosing to be intimately connected, and become about guilt, coercion, obligation, or worse. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your partner to stay with you out of those reasons, just as you wouldn’t want a partner to try to make you stay for those reasons.

That’s not to say that you don’t get to have an opinion about someone’s values if they leave for a reason you disagree with. That’s your call. If someone left their pregnant wife, for example, because someone “hotter” came along, I’d judge the hell out of that person. But in the end, I’d also think: wow. That pregnant woman dodged a bullet, because now she doesn’t have to raise her baby with that jerk. If you learn when someone leaves you that they don’t share your values, that’s useful information about what it would’ve been like if they stayed.

Which is all to say: the most important thing for you right now is to take care of yourself. If you’re not ready to be sexual with your boyfriend, you’re just not ready. Trying to rush that so he won’t leave will be traumatic to both of you in the end. It sounds like so far, he’s been quite understanding of that. Do you have reason to think he’s considering leaving over this issue (or any other)? Or is this just a fear of yours? Either way, I recommend talking about your fears with him. Not judgmentally — again, remember that he has the right to leave the relationship for any reason at all, as do you — but so that you can both have more information. You can learn more about what’s really going on for him, and he can know about what’s worrying you. That way, you can work on finding whatever solutions might exist together, which can in some cases make the relationship even stronger. For example: are there some sensual things that you do feel comfortable with? How would it be to just touch each others’ bodies, for example? Or to talk about all the things you’d like to do together when you’re more ready? Are there some ways you can find together part of what you’re missing from sex, without doing things you’re not comfortable with? Even if there aren’t, having that conversation may be helpful, because your boyfriend will know that his needs are important to you (even if you can’t give him everything he needs, right now or ever), and you’ll learn more from each other about what you each want and need from sexual connection. 

Again, I can’t stress this enough: your healing process is the most important thing here. I don’t mean to be harsh, but if he’s not able to hang in with you through that process, then he’s just not the right partner for you right now. I know that’s painful to think about. But you’ll be in much less pain in the long run if you don’t compromise your healing process. And you may be pleasantly surprised if you give your boyfriend a chance to work with you in that process.

This post is a stop in Jaclyn’s blog tour about her new book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. Be sure to check out yesterday’s stop at Radically Queer, and her next stop tomorrow at Scarleteen.

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