Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Sex Object: A Memoir" by Jessica Valenti

I seem to be on a feminist reading kick lately. ;)  "Sex Object: A Memoir" is a slim but powerful volume by Jessica Valenti, a prominent member of the new wave of younger feminists, who co-founded the website Feministing and writes for The Guardian, among other publications.

"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.)
#YesAllWomen. #YesMeToo.

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.


  1. Great post, but I'm sorry to hear all these things happened to you. I have similar stories too, as do all women (as the hashtag says). And it is depressing!

    The worst happened in college. Some friends and I (all women) were walking together - to be safe - across campus together, on a bike path late at night. I heard the sound of an engine revving and looked over to see a man with a stocking over his face, in one of those scary vans like in "Silence of the Labs." I screamed RUN! and we all did. Luckily it was not easy for him to drive on a bike path but he drove his huge van down a set of steep stairs and back up another set (it was like a crazy action sequence in a horror movie), following us all the way until we made it to a dorm and banged on the door screaming to be let in. He disappeared. The police predictably, did nothing.

  2. She is definitely singing the song of our people with that line you highlighted above!

    I've been thinking a lot about the treatment of women and most of it stems (at least recently) from the California case where the woman was drugged and raped (conveniently by a white, middle class athlete) and he got off with probation. This case is particularly poignant to me, because while I'm past the phase of my life where I go to parties and get drunk, I work with college students, and this is their reality every single day.

    I have too many examples of misogynistic or otherwise degrading comments to list them all. Most recently, I was walking out of the grocery store on Sunday afternoon and was informed by an elderly gentleman that I was dressed like a whore. I was wearing jean shorts, a tank top, and tennis shoes.

  3. I believe these types of comments can make us feel vulnerable as they remind us that some men see us solely as sex objects and not as human beings, which, in their minds, give them license to treat us inhumanely (think sexual assault). I am sorry those things happened to you and to the women commenting on this post. I have similar stories ranging from absurd to horrific. I recently watched (rented via Netflix), The Invisible War, which is about sexual assault in the US military. Many women are apparently referred to as "mattresses"--and because the military polices itself, sexual assault is rampant. The women telling their stories is powerful stuff.

  4. Listening to all the stories prompted via the U.S. election ((no) thank you, Donald Trump...) reminded me of an incident I had half-forgotten, that happened when I was about 15, and I wanted to add it here for posterity. I was babysitting for a family we knew. I had a standing gig on Thursday night when the parents went to choir practice at their church (!) & would also sit for them at other times, including New Year's Eve. The father was a big man, one of those back-slapping, vaguely Trump-ish types we all know. I don't remember the circumstances -- whether this happened before or after he & his wife went out, if he'd been drinking, or what we'd been talking about -- but we were in the living room of their home, and out of the blue, he reached over & PINCHED me in the stomach. I realize a pinch in the stomach is not the same as grabbing an intimate part of your body -- but I still remember that I went COLD all over. It just seemed like such a weird thing to do.

    Several years later, when I was in my early 20s & at university, I ran into this couple again at a political convention, where I was a student representative. I said hello to them both, and later ran into him at one of the parties, where he had a drink in his hand -- obviously not his first. I remember him draping his arm around me and telling the people with him, "Oh, Lori and I are OLD friends, hahaha (nudge nudge wink wink)." I smiled through gritted teeth & thought privately "What a jerk."

    I did not tell my parents about these incidents until years later. My mother (who knew the family and had suggested me as a babysitter) was horrified.

  5. Another memory that recently popped up, in the light of the flood of stories about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, etc.: the day (some years ago) I lost the rubber tip/lift on the heel of my shoe & went skidding across the floor in the concourse of an office tower near my workplace on my lunch hour. An old man came to my assistance & asked if I was all right. (I was, just a little embarrassed.) "Gosh, you're pretty!" he said, staring at me. He began talking to me, asking me questions. It was clear to me that there wasn't something quite right with him -- he may have been homeless, or mentally ill. He was probably harmless -- but my antenna went up, and I knew if I kept talking to him, I would have a very difficult time getting away. I thanked him, said I was late for an appointment & quickly limped off. The thing was, there was a shoe repair kiosk very close by -- but I didn't want to risk him hanging around or following me or seeing where I was going. I took a very circuitous route, casting backwards glances over my shoulder, until I could loop back and (casting more backward glances to ensure he wasn't still in the vicinity) stop by the shoe repair kiosk and get my heel retipped while I waited. Maybe I was being paranoid, maybe not. Do you think men ever have to do this??

  6. I'm not sure how I missed commenting on this - I remember reading it, and nodding at a lot of it, right from that whole, "snapping the girls' bra" thing at primary/elementary school.

    There's an incident that happened to me when I was about 15-16 that I never told my parents about. Partly because I was ashamed and embarrassed, and partly because it would have caused a huge ruction in our small, closely knit farming district. It's unfinished business to me though.