Eight months or so ago, I discovered the work of prominent feminist writer and activist, Jessica Valenti. She’s been doing great work for several years (which, apparently, I’ve been oblivious to), including writing and co-writing six books and founding the website Feministing. After reading some of her stuff, I began eagerly anticipating the spring release of her memoir, Sex Object.
When Sex Object first came on my radar, I began frequently checking the library listings until I was able to put a hold on it. When it came in for me, it was crisp, shiny, and new in its protective plastic sleeve. I wanted to eat it.
The moment I got home, book in hand, I cracked it open and began to read. I devoured it.
Valenti’s writing is raw and unflinching. She draws you in and forces you to see the realities she presents. You can’t look away.
In Sex Object, Valenti presents essay after essay detailing her, often horrific, experiences. From a young age, there was a piece of her identity that was thrust upon her: sex object. She did nothing to garner this attention, but it was given nonetheless.
A high school teacher once told me that identity is half what we tell ourselves and half what we tell other people about ourselves. But the missing piece he didn’t mention—the piece that holds so much weight, especially in the minds of young women and girls—is the stories that other people tell us about ourselves.
Valenti explores this with grueling honesty as she brings us back and forth in her timeline, detailing the ways this has affected her life and continues to do so—in countless and different forms.
When I reached around the halfway point, I knew this wasn’t a book I could just finish and forget about. It wasn’t a book that I could return to the library and never really look at again. So, naturally, mid-read, I went out and bought myself a copy.
Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t a perfect book. However, it is an honest and important read. Stories like Valenti’s are key pieces in the broader conversation that we all need to be having about sexism, objectification, and harassment. I may have read some fair critiques of Sex Obect, but none of them take away from its value.
One such critique is the seemingly haphazard array of stories throughout Sex Object. The transitions between chapters and sections are often quite jarring. You go from one horrific tale to the beginning of a seemingly innocuous anecdote several years later, and so on and so forth.
I don’t find this a detracting factor. I think this pattern of storytelling embodies what Sex Object is all about. It is jarring and uncomfortable to suddenly find yourself the center of unwanted, sometimes aggressive, sexual behaviour and attention.
While reading Sex Object, I found that I don’t share much of Valenti’s personal experience. I didn’t grow up in a large city. I didn’t use public transit (and still don’t). I grew up in an upper-middle class family, in a small, insular community. I wasn’t exposed to the same things Valenti was as she grew up and matured as a woman. If I experienced such objectification, it was always rare, and almost always treated with a laugh. It was never to such an extreme that I felt more than a little uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, however, things have changed. I’m still not in anywhere near the same circumstances as Valenti, but I now find myself relating to her stories more than ever.
Over the last nine months, I’ve dropped four dress sizes. For the most part, I am proud of myself and feel good and healthy. However, when summer came, I was awash with attention I’d previously rarely received.
When I changed to a summery wardrobe, I wore dresses that exposed (gasp!) my legs, and tops that exposed (gasp!) my shoulders, and things with waistlines that were (gasp!) fitted. And men have noticed. And they have been vocal about it. This is insulting and uncomfortable on so many levels.
I first noticed it at work. Customers gawking at me as I walk by. Male customers repeatedly seeking my help with things they don’t actually need help with. Older men calling me “sweetheart” and plying me with “harmless” flirtatious conversation where they hadn’t before.
This doesn’t just happen at work.
I’ve recently moved into the city and have taken to going for walks regularly. It never occurred to me that an afternoon stroll alone (or even with another girl) might be an occasionally uncomfortable experience. But it is.
I’m a library assistant. Before that, I worked in retail. Smiling at strangers is second nature to me. I do it without even thinking. However, on my walks, I’ve now started to think about it. And stop myself. Just look straight ahead, I tell myself when I pass people on the street.
I know that not everyone is a creep, but at this point I’ve had too many men leer at me in response. I don’t want to see it. I try not to. I try not hear the honks or shouts or whistles as cars drive by.
These incidents may not all happen in rapid succession, but they happen at least once a day. I had been so proud of my weight loss. But now, some days, I feel worse than ever. Outfits that had previously made me feel pretty give me pause. What kind of attention do I want to receive today? I have to scold myself.
If I let thoughts of these men decide what I’m going to wear or do, I’m just giving them more power. And honestly, that’s what they’re after. They seem to think that their thoughts and desires—and the expression of such—are more important than my comfort or safety. They don’t see me as a person.
But I am a person. I am a person with thoughts, feelings, and my own identity. We all are. I wish there was a magic wand I could wave to change this about the world. But, sadly, there isn’t. All we can do is keep our heads up, not accept this as “normal,” and keep talking about it. This kind of attention is not a compliment. It’s harassment.
Valenti’s purpose in Sex Object is an important one. She will not brush off these things. She will not pretend that they don’t happen. She will not for one moment accept that they are in any way okay. Instead, she details her experiences and shows how not okaythey are, how horrible they are. She shows us that these are not one-offs. They are not harmless. These comments and actions are expressions of the deep-seated beliefs that society holds about women. They are a symptom of a greater problem. These attitudes lead to real violence against women.
While my daughter lives in a world that knows what happens to women is wrong, it has also accepted this wrongness as inevitable.
Although I am not a re-reader, I can see myself reading Sex Object again. It made me think about and reflect upon issues that I had previously not personally experienced. Its raw, unflinching, brutal honesty made me shudder at the realities women and girls face, every day. We, like Valenti, need to keep talking about this and stop brushing it aside. We need to stand up, reject this dehumanization, and not consider it “normal” or “inevitable.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take my cue from Valenti. Society may try to make us out to be sex objects, but let us refuse to accept it.
Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti
Hardcover, 205 pages
Published June 7th, 2016 by Dey Street Books
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