Being a woman is great. There’s so much beauty to be had in femininity, in growing up and cultivating who you are in regards to your gender. However, it goes without saying that part of womanhood isnvolves being discriminated against, sexually objectified and treated with malice by men.
If you’re a woman past the age of puberty, you’ve likely had at least some sort of encounter in which you were made to feel uncomfortable or scared by a man due to your gender. Maybe you’ve felt objectified, been stalked or harassed, or experienced an outright assault. It’s a dreadful plight, and one that we all go through together. I’ve read a decent number of books, but none serve to encapsulate this shared experience, the pain and growth it brings, better than “Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti.”
Valenti is the author of five books, a co-founder of the blog Feministing, a columnist for The Guardian and an alumna of SUNY Purchase and Rutgers. “Sex Object” was published in 2016 by Dey Street, a faction of HarperCollins. This book was recommended to me by a friend who had read it and felt that it reflected a lot of the feminist themes we casually talk about every day.
Valenti carefully describes her own experiences throughout the years, from her childhood in Queens to college to motherhood and her career today. The best part of this book is how well she describes the universality of her experiences. It seems like a lot of her major points were things I’d talked about at length with friends over the years. Valenti lists the ways in which she’s experienced objectification as a woman throughout her life, starting with childhood and bringing the reader to her life today.
Girlhood is a tumultuous time for loads of reasons: puberty sucks, high school sucks and learning how to become your own person is hard. Valenti discusses her mother warning her about “the bad touch” and the sexual violence which she herself fell victim to as a young child. She writes that, “…worse than the violence itself was the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female‚ that it’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad.” She talks about being ogled and having men expose themselves to her on the subway, starting at about the same time she hit puberty. She tells the story of a highschool teacher offering to pass her in a class she was failing, if she’d only give him a hug. These anecdotes are haunting yet familiar, told with refreshing candidness and reflection.
College offers its own challenges in regards to gender. Valenti explains how the experiences you have in college are often filled with gray area, one’s growing sexuality is infused with newfound freedom, loneliness and substances. One in five women in college will experience sexual assault, and that doesn’t include the prevalence of uncomfortable or just plain weird unwanted sexual advances and encounters. She recounts experiences of stalking and harassment that are all too commonplace. College is hard, obviously, and the experience of sexual objectification and harassment is just another complication of it.
Valenti then turns to her adulthood and career, and how sexism has to a great degree made her career path more complex. When recognized for her achievements by former president Bill Clinton, a photo of her with him in a group was circulated by the media; their focus in the photo was of her breasts. Since she has been writing and publishing her work on the internet, she’s received constant emails and death threats of the most vile sort. Sexism on the internet is terrifying, anybody who has a Twitter account could tell you that. However, Valenti’s analysis of her personal experience with it was refreshing yet familiar.
Late in the book Valenti turns to her greatest inspiration, her young daughter. Motherhood launches women into a whole new world of fears, nerves and a love incomparable to just about anything. This made me want to text my own mom about how awesome she is.
This book has so many important takeaways and reassurances. It’s a sweet reminder to take care of and be there for the women within each of our lives, and a reminder that each of us are dealing with our own things. Each one of us is having a unique experience that is all our own.
Although Valenti is talking about challenges her and her friends faced, other women reading this can feel immersed in her story. It’s a quick and accessible read, one that can take you from laughing to crying with a moment’s notice.
Reading this book feels like you’re talking to a really cool older sister, warning you about the inherent dangers of being a woman while reminding you of your own individual beauty and intelligence. While the book gives countless lessons to woman readers, men can take a great deal away from it as well, primarily, of the importance of listening to women and believing their experiences.
Additionally, Valenti does a great job of acknowledging her own privilege as a middle class, white, cisgender woman. Although this is a memoir and is her own life story, she recognizes that the plight of sexual harassment and discrimination is one that intensifies when those privileges are lacking, a necessary acknowledgement for any book of this sort. In my opinion she could’ve gone further in acknowledging the struggles of trans women, but it is a memoir, after all.
You can find Valenti’s work anywhere books are sold, as well as various online publications. She is on Twitter and Instagram as @jessicavalenti. She’s a phenomenal writer, at once jarring, hilarious and totally unabashed.