Tough titties

Jessica Valenti, author of the new book "Full Frontal Feminism," discusses sex positivity, activism and boob flashing as a feminist statement.

Published April 24, 2007 11:30AM (EDT)

As far as explosive signifiers go, there are few more combustible than the word "feminism." It was forged through suffrage and the ERA and Roe v. Wade, and has survived through first and second and third waves to the tunes of Helen Reddy and Ani DiFranco. Dogged by the image of a spectral harpy with hairy legs and an apocryphal burned bra in her hand, it has been declared dead, then resurrected, then declared dead again. But god bless it, there's life in feminism yet.

Salon readers may recognize the name Jessica Valenti; she has been an oft-quoted source and a contributor to this magazine. The 28-year-old New York native is the founder of 3-year-old, and arguably the most prominent young feminist online today. Her combination of brains, charisma and a willingness to mix it up with critics has already brought her attentions both flattering and horrifying.

This week brings Valenti's first book, the energetic "Full Frontal Feminism" (Seal Press), a scrappy ode to the movement to which she's dedicated herself, designed to win over young women she fervently believes are feminists but just don't know it yet.

"Full Frontal Feminism" is not your mother's "Our Bodies, Ourselves," unless your mom's copy was annotated with phrases like "I shit you not" and "Tell me that's not royally fucked up." (Which it might reasonably have been.) Valenti's message is very much of its time: She is trying to win over a population of women she believes might think to themselves, "I'm not a feminist, but it is total bullshit that Wal-Mart won't fill my birth control prescription."

"Full Frontal Feminism" takes the antiseptic (though invaluable) language of holding the hand mirror between your legs and spices it up; reading it can be a bit uncomfortable. Her book is not prescriptive, proper or particularly polite. But it also has little in common with the angry riot grrrl attitudes of 15 years ago. Instead, Valenti writes slangy, profane and disconcertingly funny prose. She's like the Fran Lebowitz of women's rights, wondering reasonably, "Who the hell wants their hymen back?" and surmising, "Whether we're married, single, gay, young, whatever -- we all want to have orgasms. Unless you're Alan Keyes, I guess."

And here is Valenti's quiz about feminism: "Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like? Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear."

"Full Frontal" is more like a one-woman show than a book. But it's an attention-getting and smart one-woman show, the kind of performance that could help catapult Valenti to a position of visibility with the swelling numbers of young people who seem finally to be stirring to political action.

Valenti talked to Salon about the tone of her book, the sticky arguments surrounding sex positivity, and her ever-thickening skin that, if she manages to tone it into a solid suit of armor, just might protect her on a journey to becoming feminism's newest spokeswoman.

Who are you trying to reach with this book?

It's for girls who are teenagers to early 20s. I think older people will pick it up as well, but it's mostly for younger women who aren't necessarily political and are probably a little afraid to call themselves feminists.

Have you encountered a lot of these women?

I encountered a lot of them growing up and being friends with them. I wrote the book because there are cool ways women can come to feminism. There have been women who stumbled across Feministing randomly, through a bizarre Google search or something, and had no idea what feminism was. They thought it was something older women do, or bought into the hairy bra-burning man-hating stereotype 100 percent. Anything that deviates from that is very exciting for them. I think younger women are feminists; they either don't have the language for it or are afraid to use the word.

Do you get mad when you hear the "I'm not a feminist, but..." line?

I don't anymore, because I feel like younger women are quick to realize it's not true once you talk to them. The reason they buy into the idea that they're not feminists is that anti-feminist myths are so pervasive, and I don't think feminists have been very good at combating them.

You write that the battles of the women's movement are not yet won. Which battles haven't been won?

On the top of my list is violence against women, and how almost expected it is that we're still having conversations about whether it's OK to rape someone because they're drunk. That's especially important for young women with drinking and college culture. But I think we're fighting a lot of the same battles that we were, about equal pay and reproductive rights. There's this attitude, "Yeah, we fought those battles," but there isn't really an awareness that we haven't won them.

Do you think young women are about to care a lot more about abortion in light of Wednesday's Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on "partial-birth" abortion?

I think most young women care about reproductive rights. There's this myth that they're not as aware of them as older women, or that they take them for granted, but I don't think that's true. What happened on Wednesday is rolling back reproductive rights, as are the challenges to getting contraception. Once you start telling women that they want to take away your birth control pills, too, then they definitely care even more.

Are you concerned that the profanity in your book might alienate some young women?

I'm trying to speak in a certain language. There's always a chance someone will be turned off by it, or will think it's undermining my message. But there's already mild stuff out there. I don't think I'm saying all that much that hasn't been said before, but it's the way I'm saying it that's different. We keep repeating the same messages over and over again in the same way, for good reason: Feminists are so used to backlash in the media that we like to stick to the same message. But we've been putting out the same press release for 30 years. We need to change a bit, even if changing it opens us up for more criticism.

I want to delve into the tricky relationship between sex and feminism. You write a chapter called "Feminists Do It Better (and Other Sex Tips)." Can you talk about some of the conflicts surrounding so-called sex-positive feminism and its detractors?

There are conflicts [within feminism about how to talk about sex] because we're still all trying to process it, and to do so through a feminist lens. I'm still trying to process it. All I know is that the way [critics are] talking about it does not seem helpful to me; it's more about blaming young women and finger-wagging than it is about talking to them or listening to them and taking them seriously. Young women have enough people calling them stupid whores without feminists doing it too.

Do you think critics like Maureen Dowd or Ariel Levy, who have argued that an embrace of sex positivity has led young women to further objectify themselves through stripper-sex-worker-Girls-Gone-Wild excess, all in the name of purported sexual empowerment, are calling women stupid whores?

I don't think that's what they mean to say, but I think that's the message that gets across. If you tell someone that they're buying into sexism if they flash their boobs at Mardi Gras, you're telling them they're stupid and that people are making fun of them and that they're making bad decisions. That means they're getting it from all sides.

But do you think they are making a bad decision if they flash their boobs at Mardi Gras?

It would depend on the person. But for critics, there's no distinction being made between thoughtless or drunken actions and young women who are politically minded and know what they're doing and are doing it for their own reasons. Those two get conflated a lot in this conversation when it comes to the [dismissive] critique, "Young women think stripping is empowering." A lot of third-wave feminist theory on [sex work] is saying, "Let's not paint women as victims. Let's give them some agency and some respect."

Does that mean that we should not be making any critical judgments about women at all?

It's not that I don't think we should be critical of women's decisions; I just doubt the effectiveness of finger-wagging at young women if our goal is to reach out to them and get them interested in feminism, politics and questioning social norms.

OK, but back to the boob-flashing girls: Do you think it's OK even if she's politically aware, but she's still behaving as someone who's gotten the idea that sexuality means being an exposed object?

Doing things without thinking about them is a bad idea for anyone. And I know where they're getting these ideas from, but how can I make a blanket judgment about all young women who do something? I also don't know that this boob-flashing thing is as pervasive as everyone thinks it is. This whole "Girls Gone Wild" conversation feeds into a bizarre Paris Hilton idea that a generation of young women dance on tables. And I don't know them, I don't meet them. How come we're not talking about all the women out there doing political work, or regular work?

Do you think that women are being hit with more anti-sex propaganda now than they were 20 years ago?

I think there are more messages out there, but the message is essentially the same: You are not equipped to make decisions about your sexuality. Whether it's teaching abstinence-only or a guy telling you to do something sexual or the media telling you you have to do X, Y and Z to be sexy, at the end of the day it's all saying the same thing: It's not up to you, or if it is up to you, it's wrong. Whatever decision you make is a bad one. The general idea is that women are children. Consent laws are a great example. Not that I'm against consent laws overall, but the idea that a 15-year-old girl doesn't know who she wants to have sex with I find paternalistic. If she's married, it's OK; if she's unmarried, she's a rape victim. In terms of reproductive rights, the idea that anyone else can say, "You can't have an abortion, you can't get emergency contraception, I know what's best for you," is so disgusting. I don't see what's wrong with trusting women with their own bodies. The fear is if they trust us with our own bodies we're going to go be whores and kill babies; we need help making decisions from our husbands or our parents or the state.

Can you explain the concept of a "rape schedule"?

I first heard about it in my women's studies classes. It's the idea that every woman in one way or another lives on a rape schedule. Every action you take is built on an awareness that you could be attacked: from walking with your keys in your hand, to locking your car doors at an intersection, to deciding to go home a half-hour earlier. There is no public space for women; the whole world is a prison where you have to be constantly aware at all times that you're a potential victim. What's more terrifying is that it's not necessarily preventative. Most rapes are committed by people you know and trust and let your guard down with.

You write about your frustration with critics who say rape and murder victims like Imette St. Guillen should not have been out so late alone at a bar, but I presume that you also want to teach women how to be safer.

All people should be taught to be safe and make smart decisions. But when you say, "Of course she was raped and murdered," because she was transgressing by being in a bar having a drink ... [Fellow feminist blogger] Shakespeare's Sister did an amazing post on this pointing out that women aren't raped because they're drunk or dress a certain way, women are raped because they're in the presence of a rapist.

I agree, but I also think that given the imperfect realities, shouldn't we still be telling women to watch out for themselves?

But to watch out for what? To watch out for everyone? I was a rape counselor for a long time and [I think that] telling women you have to be hypervigilant for the rest of your life so that someone doesn't assault you is a disturbing message.

Switching gears, can you discuss your antipathy toward the wedding industry?

My problem with the wedding industry started when I studied in college and liked to have the television on in the background, and "A Wedding Story" on TLC always came on, and I'd get irritated that the story of two people making a lifelong commitment to each other could be encapsulated in half-hour show about the party they throw. I think it's the biggest crock, not just as a feminist, but as a person who would like to believe in love and relationships. It seems crass and vile -- people are against prostitution because it's commodifying love, but commodifying love in weddings is what we're doing.

You begin one chapter with the sentence "Ugly is powerful." What does that mean?

It means that in a society that tells women your only worth is how you look, telling someone they're ugly is a quick way to shut them down. The message is that pretty girls don't get involved in feminism, and I think for me personally it was instrumental in my own politics, growing up as kid who got called ugly all the time, feeling like shit all the time and coming to feminism and realizing how fucked the whole thing is.

You write a chapter called "I Promise I Won't Say 'Herstory,'" in which you write critically about a lot of second-wave feminist organizations and language. Are you trying to distance yourself from their image?

Not because of the hairy man-hating stuff! I distance myself from it not because I don't respect it or value it. I am doing the work I'm doing because of the work that they did. But the message has been the same for a long time. And I think there's hesitancy when it comes to changing it that concerns me as someone who is invested in feminism moving forward. Not changing our messages for fear of backlash has really hurt us and made us not want to own up to our mistakes as much as we should. That's one of the reasons I enjoy doing online feminism; if you make a mistake, your commenters are not going to let you forget it; you're accountable. It's an effective way to build a stronger movement, rather than sticking with the same messages.

But you are truly critical of some aspects of second-wave feminism.

It's not news that second-wave feminism was a middle-class white women's movement. It was a homophobic movement at first too, and no one likes to talk about that. I think it's important that we do. And there are a lot of young women in academia and activism who are being critical of each other, and are aware of the ways in which feminism [needs to be] integrated with race and class and sexuality. That's important work younger feminists are doing. Still, you'll go to some of these conferences and they're all white, still. It's sad, because you know folks are trying, but ... not as hard as they could.

Have you felt alienated or dismissed by older activists?

Most of my peers are involved in the movement, and they all have a different version of the same story -- of feeling excluded or shunned, or feeling talked down to generally, and I think that's why my own theory is that some of the most amazing young women are founding small grass-roots groups. Maybe they don't feel like there's a place for them in the larger mainstream organizations, or at least a place with some decision-making ability. That's certainly why I started Feministing. It's about making sure your message is getting out there without having been through the mommy filter.

Can you talk about some of the downsides of doing feminism online?

Oh, can I talk about the downsides! Putting yourself out there leaves you very exposed. There was once a kid who harassed me in a class I taught at SUNY [State University of New York] Albany, but that was one person and I knew his name. When you're getting hundreds of comments and you don't know who's sending them, it's 10 times as scary. And doing feminist work makes you especially ripe for picking on, especially if you're unapologetic about it. It's the same lesson a lot of girls learn in high school: If someone wants to shut you up all they have to do is call you a whore. It's the quickest way to humiliate someone.

You're talking about something specific here, a site that mocks Feministing?

It's a site that looks like Wikipedia and it basically calls me a whore, says "titties" a lot, talks about me getting raped. They took photos from my Flickr account and Photoshopped them with hair under my underarms, cum on my face. I was pretty upset. But then e-mailing with other feminist bloggers, I realized, "Hey, they must want my attention badly." I'm not the one who should be ashamed about it. They should be ashamed.

So are you deciding to ignore them?

There are assholes that come in every form in the world, online or in person, but they're always going to be assholes no matter what you do. You need to keep trucking.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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