Jessica Biel, Saundra Pelletier & Elaine Welteroth | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Jessica Biel, Actress, and Saundra Pelletier, Founding CEO of WCG and CEO of Evofem Biosciences, interviewed by Elaine Welteroth, former Editor in Chief of Teen Vogue, on sexual health and well-being at the 2018 MAKERS Conference at the Hollywood Roosevelt in L.A.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elaine Welteroth, Jessica Biel, and Saundra Pelletier.
JESSICA BIEL: Hi, that was the best walking-onto-a-stage music of all time.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: It was.
JESSICA BIEL: It felt so good.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: That was sexy. Are you guys ready to have the sexiest conversation at Makers 2018?
JESSICA BIEL: I am.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: I didn't really get enough energy on that. That was supposed to, like, be exciting, right?
Hopefully, all of you have had a dream, and you're ready to really go there. Because we're going to be talking about sex. We're going to be talking about vaginas, and masturbation, and all kinds of juicy things. So get ready.
So, I'm a millennial. And I'm going to use my phone. Wow, was it really that funny? They liked it. You guys have had some drinks. This is the right-- this is my kind of audience. OK, settle down. Settle down.
So I am honored to be joined by two fantastic women who are doing really important work in the space of reproductive health and women's health. And you are breaking down stigmas that need to be broken down. So I just want to quickly introduce you.
We have Saundra Pelletier, who is the founding CEO and board chair of WomanCare Global, a nonprofit health care organization. Please give her a warm welcome to the stage.
And, of course, we have Jessica Biel, who is an actress and an advocate for women's reproductive health. And, together, you have formed Tryst.
We can do that too. We can have dance breaks. I'm OK with that. And Tryst, so you guys can tell us all about Tryst. But, obviously, that video is a product of what the important work is that you're doing. And, ultimately, the mission is to use humor to educate women about their bodies and about how to talk about sex with their partners. So tell me a little bit more about the aims and the intentions of these videos and really what the mission is behind Tryst.
JESSICA BIEL: Thank you. We're really happy to be here. No one has ever seen that video before. And you guys laughed.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: It was hilarious.
JESSICA BIEL: So thank you. We're thrilled. I mean, we put this content together. And there's only so many times you can make a vagina joke. And you're like, is that even funny? I don't even know. Is it, even? You can't even tell anymore. So thank goodness.
So Tryst, Tryst Network, it's a sex-positive, body-positive resource. It's a place we want to drive traffic for questions, interest, help, breaking down-- like you said-- stigmas and myths. And anything that you're confused about, we want to help you find the right place to find the answers that you're looking for.
And we created this thing because I myself didn't know a lot of stuff, which sounds crazy. And I don't know if any of you feel that same way. But when I was thinking about starting a family, I mean, obviously, I know how to do it. But I didn't quite know how to do it. Do you know what I'm saying?
Like, what was my ovulation cycle? When does it happen? How and when and-- if it doesn't happen, what does that mean? And I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that I didn't know this answer. I was shocked. I just was embarrassed and like, wow-- this is not possible that I don't know what to do here.
So, for, me, that's kind of where this started. Saundra and I met. And we just had this cool meeting-of-the-minds moment where she was doing all this amazing work overseas and with WCG, WomanCare Global. And we thought, man, there's a lot to do in this country.
And it starts with sex-ed. It starts when you're young, and you're just trying to figure it out. And there's nowhere to really get the information in a cool, funny, relatable, easy way. And, honestly, we really want to talk. Yes, we want to talk to women, 100%. But we want to talk to men.
This is for men and women. This is to create equal partners in relationships where it's not just-- the pressure isn't all just on young women to make sure that they're either ready to start a family or not start a family. This is like you've got to do it together.
So men, we need you. We want you. And we know you never got an opportunity to learn. We're going to tell you all about periods. It's going to be good.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: So how do you-- you raise good point. I mean, I've gotten the cultural education of working at "Teen Vogue" for the last six years. So I am now comfortable with the word vagina in public settings, but not everyone is. And particularly men are usually very uncomfortable when we use that language.
But it's the most natural thing. It's a part of our bodies. We all came from one. But because there is this stigma, a very real stigma, and shame associated with our bodies and our sexuality, how do you broach these conversations with people who may not yet be comfortable going all the way there? How do you reel them in?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Well, to Jessica's point, right? We do want to start with humor. But the reality is is that there is far, far, far too few sources of information around sexual pleasure, particularly for women. It's socially accepted that men should get sexual pleasure out of intercourse and orgasm, but it's not so socially accepted that it should be pleasurable for women.
And when you think about pleasure, it's a really important component of our physical and our mental health. And so what we really are trying to do with this Tryst Network is to really provide information about how our bodies work but also really encourage women to know themselves, to please themselves, and then to express themselves. And if you know how your body works and you understand it, you can communicate about that with your partner in a way that is more open, and more normal, and more natural.
And we're really hoping that conversations that are happening at home, that you're talking about sexuality more. And there's a lot of parents that tell us that they weren't taught how their bodies work, so they don't even know what to tell their children and how to teach their children. And they don't want to teach them the wrong thing. So we want to give different levels of information.
So people want to start out slow. And with a little bit, you're going to have access to that. And you're going to know the right words, so you don't have to give these cutesy little names. You can talk about vulva, and vagina, and clitoris. And we think it's really important. But we want to do it in a fun, in a humorous, way so that we're not turning people off. We want to turn people on to the network.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: No pun intended. But there is a very vitriolic reaction from a lot of people, especially in this country, when you start talking about sexual education in schools. And as a result, there's a lot that many of us didn't learn in sex-ed. Hopefully, tonight is your unfiltered sex-ed that you didn't get in school.
But I have a little bit of a funny story to tell. You talk about female masturbation. And I love that your messaging is that it's not dirty. It is normal. And it is a part of learning your body before you share it with someone else. And at "Teen Vogue"-- when people ask me like, what was the highlight of your career at "Teen Vogue?" I always talk about things about getting Hillary Clinton to talk to the next generation of young girls.
But the truth is-- in this safe environment, I will say. Just keep it woman to woman. We'll keep it in the room. But I remember that the scariest and the greatest highlight of my career so far was talking to Anna Wintour about female masturbation, and pitching a story, and saying it's important. And I have to say that-- can you imagine saying the words "female masturbation" to Anna freaking Wintour, by the way?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: No, actually.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Let's just let that sink in for a minute.
JESSICA BIEL: Question-- glasses or no glasses?
ELAINE WELTEROTH: No glasses-- so, dead in her eyes, I had to say those words. And I was scared to death. I'm like, today's the day I lose my job. But she looked at me, and she said, I don't see why not. Boys do it all the time. And they talk about it way too much.
JESSICA BIEL: She's cool, man. She's the coolest.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: She doesn't get enough credit.
JESSICA BIEL: No, she doesn't.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: She doesn't get enough credit. But that being said, there are very few people who are that forward thinking. And so how do you, how do parents, how do girlfriends, pick up where sex education-- excuse me-- leaves off in the school system?
JESSICA BIEL: For me and my household, I have a 2-and-1/2-year-old, and we're starting now.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Oh, wow.
JESSICA BIEL: Well, just in terms of we're talking-- we're using technical terms. And we're talking about, when we shower together, and this is what I've got. This is what you've got. And we just talk about it.
I know he's really young. But I really believe that if you start it this early that there's no shame. I don't want to tell him, keep your private parts and this and that. Like, no, it's a beautiful thing. You have it, and mine's different. And it's cool, man. And we have to respect ourselves and respect each other. So I believe it starts really young.
I think I still go back to this idea that it doesn't have to be so serious. If you want to laugh and say vagina, and laugh or say penis, or whatever, well, do it. Laugh and get it out. Get the giggles out and then ask the real question that you know you have, right? Because I think that's always what happened to me when I was young. It's like you could barely get past the giggles to ask the real question, which was a really probably important question that as a young person you needed to know.
We don't have all the answers. I think that's another thing about Tryst Network is we will send you to places. We want to help-- what's the word I'm looking for?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Convene-- we want to be a convener for a lot of the right information too.
JESSICA BIEL: And then if we don't have the answers, we're gonna say, well, check this out. Go here. Read that. Go look at this blog. Look at this post or whatever. So we're not trying to be the experts, necessarily. We just want to be the conduit. So we're learning too. We're learning, but I think it's through humor. I think it's through fun. I think it's through relatability.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Well, and when people get really-- the people who are upset, or they suggest that they're concerned, when you talk about some of the facts that exist today-- so right now there are 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections every year. It really is almost an epidemic.
There's 3.4 million unintended pregnancies. So we really say, look, abstinence is not working, right? It's not working. And so we really want to be able to say the information is out there. And we want to give it to people in a way that they can relate to but that it's accurate. So that's what we're really hoping with the network.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: To your point, there is a lot of misinformation out there. And with the lack of sex education in schools, so many people are really learning about sex and their bodies on the internet.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: It's true. That's true.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: But, Saundra, I love, you've said-- I love this quote, "There is power and dignity in understanding your body." I love that.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Thank you.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: So I want to ask this question, what should we all know about our vaginas that we probably don't? Like, what are-- and that's a very specific question. It's kind of joking, kind of not joking. But, really, what are some of the-- what's some of the misinformation that's out there? And what do you think women in this room, even, maybe don't know about their bodies that they should?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Well, I guess I would say, I think one of the most significant things that we've found, in people talking to us, is what does a normal vagina look like? There's a lot of young women that reach out to us. And they are talking about things like having vaginal reconstructive surgery because they've seen these visuals on the internet.
And so we really care a lot about saying that it is incredibly unique. And they are all so different, as you are. And that there is not one-vagina-fits-all and really, seriously talking about the fact that sometimes one side is lower than the other. And sometimes it looks like Burt Reynolds, and sometimes-- and I say that and, no, really-- it's about pubic hair and no pubic hair.
And we really are going to talk about the things, too, that are a little bit spicy and saucy. Because that's what people are really talking about, or that's what they want to know about, and so the whole idea of we want to normalize sex conversation. But we also want to be very mindful to not say that there is a normal vagina. This is what it's supposed to be like.
Because the one thing that it really does break your heart, and it's really sad, when it's sort of a secret that these young girls are very concerned about what their body looks like. And so we care a lot about making sure that we're talking about those things.
But the other point, too, is this video-- the first in the series-- was really to show you need a benchmark. How do you know-- maybe you have discharge, and it's normal. But how are you going to know if you don't examine yourself? You need to have your benchmark of your own body. What is really existing now? Do you have discharge? Do you not? Do you have-- what's going on with your own with your breasts, everything.
And so we really want to encourage that self exploration. And we also want to encourage masturbation as well. But, yes, just to understand not just how your body works but what pleases you and what doesn't.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: So, Jessica, you mentioned that there was a lot you did not know as you decided to move into motherhood. And I'm curious to know what were some of the things that shocked you, that you wished someone told you before you got pregnant and before you delivered your child.
JESSICA BIEL: That, actually, that's such a bigger conversation in terms of maternal health care. And no one tells you what happens. You prepare for this day in terms of having a baby. And you have this baby. And then everyone's like, bye, see you later, good luck.
And there's no care. There's no understanding of, well, how should I eat to prepare my body to produce milk and continue producing milk. And this idea of I need to lose weight as fast as I possibly can, and be skinny again, and look fabulous again, for there's so much pressure on the outside. And it's kind of like this mom competition of how fast you can be skinny.
And that is actually the worst thing you can possibly do. You can't produce to feed your baby. That, for me, was a real shocker, like, whoa. I wasn't really taught how to eat properly-- beforehand, I mean. I had amazing help at the time. And I found amazing help. So that was a shock.
But I think, honestly-- talking about discharge, actually-- I didn't really realize that you could really tell. You could tell when your body was going through different parts of its cycle through cervical fluid. And I really prefer using that term, which is totally technical. And it doesn't have a weird stigma to it. You know, the word discharge makes people super uncomfortable.
But that your body has so many different types of cervical fluid as you go through the month, and you can tell when you're actually ovulating if you know what to look for-- if you touch it, grab it, do this with it, and do all this crazy stuff, it's amazing. I knew nothing about this.
I felt so empowered that I felt like-- I feel like-- now I know my body well enough that I can tell that, you know what? If I'm not ready to have more kids, I'm not going to have sex on these days because I checked myself out. And I know. And that, to me--
ELAINE WELTEROTH: It is empowering.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: It is empowering.
JESSICA BIEL: --makes me feel amazing because I don't have to take the pill anymore, which I took for about-- I don't know-- 13 or 15 years or something crazy like that.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Well, it's empowering too-- but your hormones. You're right. It is empowering to know what's happening to your body with your hormones.
JESSICA BIEL: Yes, and I think also because you feel like, oh I'm disgusting. I have this thing. It's in my underwear. Gross, what is this?
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Those are clues.
JESSICA BIEL: I must go to the doctor. I must have an infection. You're perfect. You think you're like this disgusting thing, and you are perfect. You know? It's wild. But nobody tells you. Why is that not being taught?
ELAINE WELTEROTH: I want to see the men clapping at that part, please. But you're absolutely right. It is so incredibly empowering to understand why your body is doing what it's doing. And sometimes these are clues that are letting you know something's wrong.
Or one thing that I have actually heard and I'd love for you to fact-check me, tell me if this is true or false. There is so much misinformation out there. But I hope this is true.
I have heard that you can actually sort of mine your PMS and your menstrual cycle for life hacks and work hacks, meaning there are certain times in the month that you are more creative. There are certain times of the month that you have more energy. And it's all linked back to your hormones. And it's all cyclical. And if you're paying close enough attention, you can actually sort of tap into little superpowers that we all have as women.
Can you speak to this? Is there any truth to this? Or am I just spreading the misinformation?
JESSICA BIEL: If it's false, I'd like to continue spreading that. Because I think that is amazing.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: So the real truth is, honestly, and it really is individual. And I'm not trying to punt, but what I'm really saying is that all of our hormones are incredibly different. But you have different levels of hormones based on your whole body chemistry. But it is true if you figure out what's happening in your own body, in your own cycle.
Because some women, by the way, have a two-day cycle, some have a seven-day cycle. You bleed heavier and lighter. And sometimes you don't bleed at all. And it also depends, too, what are you doing for your contraceptive choices? Are you taking a hormone? Are you using a different method?
And then you think to yourself-- because we've heard so many stories too that women feel depressed, or they have headaches, or they-- and then all of a sudden, oh my goodness, they're no longer taking their contraception. And they feel like a different person. And then they wonder, oh my goodness, all those years was I making those choices not really, fully in my own personal power.
So I would say to you that one of the reasons we care about this so much is that we want women to get in touch with their own system, own cycle, own body. So it's body positive. That this really becomes this positive network and information source so that-- to your point-- that we're going to talk about cervical fluid. We're going to talk about all of it, so you evaluate for yourself.
So you can say, you know what? I know this is when I'm going to have my period. I know this is how my cycle is and how heavy I bleed. And I know that, you know what? If I want to do this really important thing, I should plan it for two weeks after. Because, women, it is amazing to see that if we have the confidence and control of what's going on with ourselves, everything we do is better impacted, every experience we have.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: What would you say is sort of one tactical piece of advice that every woman in the room tonight can go home and apply, in terms of taking a first step towards understanding your body.
JESSICA BIEL: I've got one. Get a hand mirror.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Seriously.
JESSICA BIEL: And take a look. That's the first step.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: You have your homework.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: I mean a real look, a real look. And a look and, actually, a feel-- I mean a look and a feel, really.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: And what is the-- like talk us through this. This might be uncomfortable for some people. What is the goal of this? What should you be-- what should you do as you go through this exercise? How do you walk away from that and it's actually be a productive exercise that actually helps you understand your body better.
JESSICA BIEL: I guess I would say if you can have a base level of healthy, normal, when you're feeling-- you know, you feel good. You're feeling healthy. And you see what it looks like, what it feels like. And when you're not well, you will know the difference. But if you don't know and you really don't look, and you don't feel, you don't check it out, and you don't-- like I said-- really check it out, then--
ELAINE WELTEROTH: So it's about acceptance.
JESSICA BIEL: --how do you know? You just don't know. So I think it won't give you the confidence to say, I might be having something that looks strange, but actually this is normal. This happens every month. Even if you start to maybe make a note about it, this is where I am in my cycle. This is when my first day of my period was. This is what day I'm on now. This is what my underwear looks like.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: So check in regularly--
JESSICA BIEL: Yeah.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: --with the mirror, downstairs. OK, got it. So there is a term that you both use that I love. And it's, you guys say, educated sexual beings, ESB. You use it a lot. Talk about what that actually means. And you also talk about sexual IQ. What is that? We've all heard about emotional intelligence, your emotional IQ. But how do you strengthen your sexual IQ?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: So it's really about where you are today. So what access to information and education you've been given by whoever it is-- yourself, through the school system, where you start today. And it is perfectly fine, by the way. It's perfectly fine if you don't feel that you're an educated sexual being.
But the goal of this network is to really increase people's sexual IQ. We wanted to have it ESBN, but we didn't quite get to pull that off, ESBN. That would be a way to attract men, more men, into the network. But it was a really interesting way to say, OK, look. Educated sexual beings really know how their own bodies work. And then they're able to really communicate with their partner in a way that's more connected, communicate themselves in a way that's more connected.
So that's what it is. It's an educated sexual being based on the level of knowledge you have today. And then really your desire to not just create acceptance but to educate yourself more, and learn all the things about yourself and your body, and-- by the way-- your partner's, as well, that you'd want to know, so you can be more connected.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Yeah, communication is key, as you say, Jessica, in your relationship. I'm curious. How have you applied some of what you've learned as you've gotten deeper into this work? Has it improved your sex life? Has it helped with your relationship? Talk about how you've applied all of this education that you've picked up.
JESSICA BIEL: Well, I'm still learning too, by the way, obviously. I don't have all the answers. And I'm always trying to have a higher sexual IQ, as well. But, honestly, it's just made everything better because I feel more confident to just tell the truth. I feel confident to say, you know what? I'm not feeling it, or this doesn't feel good, or I like this. And I think that takes a long time.
And we're not trying to say, come on, do it fast. Just, you know, you can do it. We're not trying to say that. We're just saying maybe we'd like to help you just feel better internally. Because when women, specifically women, when we are empowered, and we feel confident, and we understand ourselves, and we feel like we have control of our bodies and our lives, it permeates the community. It permeates our country, our world, economically it changes things. That's a fact.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Absolutely. OK, I have to ask this question. I asked some friends. I was telling them I was doing this today. And the number one piece of advice that I got to ask you is-- or the number-one thing people wanted to know from you, rather, is what's the best sexual advice that both of you have ever been given?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Wow. OK, do you want to start? Or do you want me to start? OK, so--
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Don't get shy now, Jessica.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Yeah, exactly. So my sexual advice was two different things. Well, the first was that it doesn't have to be a burden-- that it doesn't have to be a burden, and that it really doesn't have to just be the woman's responsibility.
And so the whole idea of a burden is that you really-- if you can't be in a place where you feel like this is pleasurable, and you want it, and you desire it, then you should evaluate that-- that perhaps that's not the place to be. And so sex as a burden is really not the sex you should be having. So that was, I think, a good piece of advice.
JESSICA BIEL: Don't do it in the ocean, ever. It's not good.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: You're crushing fantasies right now. I'll take that off my bucket list.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Take that off the bucket list.
JESSICA BIEL: It's salty.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Sand.
JESSICA BIEL: I think another, honestly, another good piece of advice-- maybe it's kind of what you're saying. But I think a lot of people-- maybe more specifically, young women-- we grow up with a lot of pressure about when you have sex for the first time. Or not even first time, but just whenever you are having sex and how important it is to think about who that's with, and when, and all these kinds of big, important things that are weighing you down.
And that's totally important. And we are not against abstinence or against making smart decisions for you as a human. But you should, and are able, and should always be able to say no. And that should be respected. But you should absolutely be able to just say yes, as well, and not feel anything about it. And maybe that's kind of what you're saying.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Yeah, and not feel shame about it.
JESSICA BIEL: But I feel like it's hard to just go, you know what? Yes, I want to do that. And I don't want to have any connection after it. That's OK too. So there is shame on both sides-- saying no, saying yes. And we really want to talk about what it really means to say no. But we also want to talk about what it means to say yes, like a big exclamation point, you know?
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Absolutely. I think one of the most important aspects of sex education is consent-- talking about consent, educating both men and women about consent and what it really means. You, Saundra, are raising an 8-year-old son. You're a single mother. How do you start this dialogue with your son, even at age 8? It's never too early, as you've just illustrated. Your son is two. But how do you speak to your son about this, even at such a young age?
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Yes, well, so he's 10.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Oh, 10, I'm sorry.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: No, it's OK. So I start already. Look, I say, look, he's a captive audience. And I take that responsibility really seriously being a single mother. And if you don't teach the respect-- and I talk about respect from a sexual standpoint.
And so we have real conversations about real things. And I have conver-- already, I mean, there's a lot of sexuality that he already knows about, right? Maybe he doesn't understand it. And so we have conversations about his body, and about my body, and about women's bodies, and boys bodies, and girls and boys, but a whole variety of different topics.
But we talk about the right terms. And we talk about pubic hair and masturbation. He was devastated to learn that he would have pubic hair. He was very-- he was like, why? Why? Why? Because he said to me-- because he saw me naked-- and I said, well, you know, you're actually going to have that. And he's like, oh, like in shock.
But I take it very ser-- why I say this, I take it very seriously, is that, look, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that I am raising a new kind of man. In my opin-- a new kind of man. My mother says that the reason that I had a son is so that I would really learn these lessons about the kindness and pureness.
We're born sexual beings. We die sexual beings. And the sooner you can get this education and information out there, the difference they're going to feel about respect. So I'm pretty intense about it. So I can tell you right now, yes.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Lucky, lucky son.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Let's hope. I hope so.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Well, and with that, I just want to say thank you so much. And thank you to Makers.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Thank you.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Because it is very rare at a women's empowerment conference--
JESSICA BIEL: Thank you, Makers.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: --with a sea of sweet women, to be able to talk about their romantic lives and this intimate side of our life. So thank you to Makers. And thank you to both of you for joining us for this conversation.
SAUNDRA PELLETIER: Thank you.
JESSICA BIEL: Thank you.
ELAINE WELTEROTH: Have a great night.