‘Sex Object’ Author Talks Penises, Trauma and Everyday Sexism
When Internet trolls tell Jessica Valenti to “Get back in the kitchen and make me dinner” or threaten to shoot her for writing about feminism, their messages are automatically filtered into an e-mail folder labeled “Assholes.” But in Valenti’s experience, attempting to discard real-life confrontations with sexism like an unsavory email is much more grueling – if not wholly impossible. There’s no “block” feature to drown out a catcall. She can’t opt to “flag for removal” when a stranger ejaculates into the back pocket of her jeans on a crowded subway. There isn’t a keyboard shortcut to delete the memory of the man in a business suit on the subway who removed one of her headphones and whispered “take care of your titties for me” into her 12-year-old ear.
A seasoned author and columnist for the Guardian U.S., Valenti has been a loud and unflinching voice within contemporary feminism, dedicating her career to making the “loaded” word more accessible. In 2004, she co-founded the blog Feministing, a savvy, incisive platform for women to consume and create content that accurately reflected their experiences, which the Columbia Journalism Review hailed as “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Since then, she’s lent her tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and pithy, critical perspective to four books on feminism, politics and culture. But Valenti’s latest work, Sex Object, a memoir that examines the way a lifetime of daily run-ins with sexism has sabotaged pieces of herself, is her boldest and most personal proclamation yet.
In the book’s introduction, she poses a powerful question: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hates women?” The question isn’t quite rhetorical, but she doesn’t answer it, either. Instead, she unearths years of traumatic encounters with men, and steers her readers through a maze of strikingly honest anecdotes that recount faceless yet pervasive sexual harassment – a Politico reporter who wrote an article about her breasts, a manipulative college boyfriend who taped a used condom to her door and scribbled “whore” across her dry erase board, a high school teacher who asked for a hug in exchange for an A in his class.
Encounters like these constantly disrupt daily routines and leave women baffled and nauseated. “We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on,” says Valenti. This idea – that objectification can permanently, and worse covertly, alter a woman’s personhood – is unnerving, though not unbelievable. Sex Object is full of scenes that are entirely recognizable to young women unsure how to handle other people’s reactions to their sexuality; it’s a pillar of solidarity for women who experience what Valenti refers to as “the cumulative effects” of sexism. Throughout the memoir, Valenti is so inundated with discomfort and fear during her daily interactions with men that she finds herself subconsciously dissociating from her physical body – a common coping mechanism for victims of trauma. “Of course you’re going disconnect,” says Valenti. “When people dehumanize you, it becomes easier to dehumanize yourself.”