"Sex Object" traces Valenti's experiences growing up female in New York City and, in particular, as an object of male attention -- some of it wanted, but a lot of it definitely not. What does it do to your psyche to be exposed to relentless, pervasive sexism, day in and day out, for a large part of your female life? This is something that I don't think most men realize or understand, and that I don't think a lot women really think about in-depth. (Maybe because it's too depressing?)
"Laugh it off... don't pay attention... don't let it bother you," we are told. How can we not let it bother us? As Valenti writes:
Pretending these offenses roll off our backs is strategic -- don't give them the f***ing satisfaction -- but it isn't the truth. You lose something along the way... even subversive sarcasm adds a cool-girl nonchalance, an updated, sharper version of the expectation that women be forever pleasant, even as we're eating sh**.
This sort of posturing is a performance that I requires strength I do not have anymore. Rolling with the punches and giving as good as we're getting requires that we subsume our pain under a veneer of I don't give a sh**. This inability to be vulnerable -- the unwillingness to be victims, even if we are -- doesn't protect us, it just covers up the wreckage.
But no one wants to listen to our sad stories unless they are smoothed over with a joke or nice melody. And even then, not always. No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests it doesn't end. Without a pat solution, silver lining, or happy ending we're just complainers -- downers who don't realize how good we actually have it. [emphasis mine](That last paragraph gave me a jolt of recognition -- ALIers, she's singing our song, isn't she??)
This book made me think about my own personal experiences with unwanted male attention and sexist treatment. I've never been flashed or groped on the subway, that I remember (thank goodness -- and knock wood), but I've got my own war stories to tell. (Don't we all?) Back around the time of the horrendous 2014 murders in Isla Vista, California (which Valenti wrote about here), there was a hashtag going around -- #YesAllWomen -- where women described online their own experiences with sexism and harassment. I started (but never finished) a blog post into which I poured memories of my own experiences. Such as:
- The elementary schoolboys who took great delight in snapping the elastic straps on my training bra.
- The catcalls.
- The leers.
- The slurs scrawled across the door of my high school locker.
- The nights I would speedwalk home from campus by myself, avoiding the shrubbery and constantly looking over my shoulder. (How many guys do you know who did that?)
- The nights I spent money on a cab I could ill afford, so that I wouldn't have to walk home in fear.
- The anonymous phone call, in which some jerk described what he wanted to do to me. (It was probably just a "prank" call -- but I hung up and then locked myself in my bedroom, shaking in fear for the next few hours. My roommates weren't home; I was alone in the house. Did he know that?)
- The drunken idiot who used to hang around me at college parties, refusing to take a hint. It was funny for awhile (until it wasn't). The truly hilarious, ridiculous thing is he could never get my name right. I was waiting at a bus stop across from the dorm once, when I heard him screaming, "Linda, I love you!!" out a window. "MY NAME IS NOT LINDA!!" I yelled back, trying to stifle a giggle.
- The rejected suitor, who tried to penny the door of my dorm room shut, with me sleeping inside of it (I woke up with a start & started yelling "Who's there??" loud enough to wake my next-door neighbour -- he fled, mission unaccomplished, leaving a few pennies lying on the floor in front of my door). (I knew it was him, because he'd told me about how he and some of his floormates had done the same thing as a prank to someone else.)
- The scruffy young panhandler who, when I politely declined to hand over some change, started following me down the street, screaming unprintable things at me. (To add insult to injury, this happened right outside of the clinic where I used to go for ultrasounds during my infertility treatment days.)
- The man who approached and then grabbed my sister as she, a friend & I strolled through a park across the road from my grandparents' home in early 1970s sleepy smalltown Minnesota. (She gave him a sharp jab to the ribs with her elbow & he let her go. We ran home, sobbing. My grandparents called the sheriff -- a high school classmate of my uncle's -- but by the time they got to the park, the man was long gone.)
Some reviewers have called this book depressing. It is, in a way (particularly the final chapter, which is simply a mind-numbing sample of the ridiculously misogynistic comments Valenti has received through email and social media) -- but it also makes you think -- about your own experiences, about how pervasive this kind of behaviour is (still! today!! despite the many great strides women have made over the past 50 years), how long it has been going on, what it will take to inspire change, and what kind of world we are leaving to the next generation.
Valenti dedicated this book to her daughter, Layla. ALI alert! -- Layla was born prematurely by emergency C-section when Valenti developed pre-eclampsia and then HELLP syndrome during a difficult pregnancy. Layla spent several months in the NICU; her mother developed post-traumatic stress disorder. These are painful chapters to read, but I so appreciated Valenti's brutal honesty in writing them.
This is book #11 that I've read so far in 2016.