Daily Book Review: Valenti navigates modern womanhood in ‘Sex Object’
“Yet despite all these things we know to be true — despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments — we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.”
This is the driving issue of Jessica Valenti’s first memoir: “Sex Object; a Memoir.” One of the newest books to join the feminist shelf, this memoir sets itself apart from books like Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me” or Andi Zeisler’s “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement” in that Valenti doesn’t bother with statistical evidence beyond the absolutely rudimentary. She is not interested in proving that feminism is still needed or that we live in a society that hates women. She has lived in it enough to know that both of those are unequivocally true.
“Sex Object” is divided into three parts, as Valenti writes about childhood and adolescence, young adulthood and finally marriage and pregnancy. She details what it was like to go from feeling ugly as a young girl to being sexualized as she developed breasts early. She devotes a large portion of her writing to detailing how sexual objectification and harassment on the streets takes a toll. Over time, she writes, women develop a strategic ability to gauge what kind of reaction they can get away with — if a middle finger, disgusted eye roll or a “fuck off!” will be enough to send the guy who yelled disgusting comments at her after them.
Valenti, who founded the award winning website Feministing.com in 2004, does a phenomenal job of describing the pressure to be a “cool” feminist, who uses barbed and witty banter to hold a mirror up to society, rather than the “angry feminist” stereotype — because she notes, anger gives enemies ammunition to dismiss her as hysterical or emotional. She argues these successful mainstream feminist literature or comedy routines, often utilize a silver lining to garner support or approval, because no one wants to hear about a problem that isn’t getting better as quickly as some people say it is. As well, she describes the toll that being the cool girl has taken on her over the course of her life, and how she can’t do it anymore. It’s too exhausting to try and make frustration and anger palatable to the masses. Those emotions are palpable in her acerbic writing; she doesn’t coat her words.
“Sex Object” isn’t written for people who still demand proof of the wage gap or argue that women don’t go into STEM fields because they simply don’t want to. If that’s something you or a friend may need, I’d suggest reading her other book first: “Full Frontal Feminism; A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters.”
This memoir isn’t groundbreaking or shocking, though the stories of her encounters on the New York City subway might be to some. But if you think her work is in any way unnecessary, flip to the back of “Sex Object,” in which she has pages of comments on her blogs or emails sent to her about her books that she has been receiving every day for a decade. They are full of rants that range from condescending, to disparaging, to cruel, to threatening. Many of them tear down her physical appearance or her intellect, and a few of them are misguided and misspelled rages against feminism in general. There’s nothing Valenti could have used to prove her point more effectively.
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“Sex Object: A Memoir”
William Morrow Publishers