“Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
Searching for an answer in the stories of her past, Guardian US columnist and Feministing.com founder, Jessica Valenti exposes the quotidian nature of female objectification and the cumulative mental effect it has on women in her newly-released memoir, Sex Object. In it, Valenti discusses the gendered expectations that police women’s bodies through violent language and actions, leaving women constantly on guard—like, as she says, “sick people with no disease.”
This nonlinear memoir tosses you back and forth between moments that almost seem incomplete, without context, but the disjointed rhythm gives the effect of sitting with a close friend—tangentially dissecting your life choices through self-deprecating humor, constantly questioning if you’re doing things right and if you’re being a good enough feminist. This could seem over indulgent, but instead comes off as exceptionally candid and authentic. Valenti reminds herself to speak slowly and smile, knowing that a good feminist’s words must be happy, strong, and easily digestible. (Otherwise, you get labeled a—gasp!—man-hater.)
During a vivid scene in the hospital, Valenti describes all of the hands and words that seem to be invading her space and her person during labor:
They called it an emergency C-section but still found time to shave my vagina […] wheeled into a room naked from the waist down while handfuls of people prepared surgical instruments and talked to each other as if I was not in the room, my freshly shorn sad vagina on display.
The animalistic, dehumanizing language and dissociative imagery depict a stark contrast to the common narrative of childbirth as a beautiful moment that ends in instant connection with the child. Valenti divulges moments of extreme self-doubt and anxiety that are often glossed over in the post-baby social media storm that seems the new-normal for contemporary parenthood, contrasting Facebook timelines filled with baby’s-first-step videos with the premature baby forums that she scrolled through, filled with anxiety and overcome with guilt and fear.
It’s this kind of realism that sets the book apart—and endows it with its praxis.
Valenti feels somehow lucky to only get touched on subways and leered at as a child, comparing her lesser assaults to those of her mother’s childhood molestation and her grandmother selling her body to make ends meet. She writes: “rape and abuse are passed down like the world’s worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors, and fantastic senses of humor.”
The endnotes of this memoir are hard to digest. With a handful of harassing tweets and emails, Valenti allows the reader to experience her objectification. By reading the attacks yourself, you’re able to imagine the barrage of daily messages that she’s faced with, feeling the weight of the worst result of her fame.
She calls her book Sex Object not as a rallying cry but as an almost self-defeated joke. This is what you call me, how you treat me, so that’s what I’ll call it. A darkly funny middle finger to the world.
Her embarrassing, painful, and sometimes illicit admissions show her to be relatably fallible. An excellent example of the personal as political, this candid memoir reveals the journey that shaped Valenti into a leader in the national conversation on gender and politics. Blending personal stories with feminist critique, her work has the reader nodding their head and laughing, shocked and yet comforted by the recognition and depiction of the difficulty of growing up female in a world that hasn’t quite accepted the power and worth of women.
Sarah Rubinstein is a freelance writer, French interpreter, and feminist activist. She has a B.A. in French Language and Culture Studies and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies from Goucher College. Tweet her @SarahMarlaSays.