Jessica Valenti has played many roles in her life: Feminist leader, vanguard of the early-Aughts blogger movement, Guardian columnist, mother. But her new memoir, "Sex Object," focuses on a role that Valenti — and countless women like her — never asked for, being an object for men to project all their issues and feelings of entitlement onto.
For while we call this role that of a "sex object," the reality of having to battle the way men, in ways large and small, act entitled to control and possess your body isn't very sexy at all. It's about power and privilege, and Valenti writes in impressively honest detail about what it feels like to constantly be the object of such intrusive attentions. I interviewed Valenti for the release of her book, which was published today. This transcript is lightly edited for clarity and length.
In the intro to the book, you write, “This book is called ‘Sex Object’ not because I relish the idea of identifying as such. I don’t do it coyly or to flatter myself.” So why did you decide to title it that?
You know, it felt like the most truthful title. At the end of the day, it’s a book about objectification and the impact that growing up in a sexist culture that dehumanized women has on a person.
It was funny because it was the first title that came to mind and then I sort of put it out of my head. I was like, “Eh, I can’t do that, it would get too much backlash.” And I just sort of was imagining the Twitter replies to it. You know, like, “Oh, she’s too ugly to call herself a sex object,” or whatever, which of course is ridiculous because it’s not a compliment to call yourself a thing rather than a person.
But then I came back to it and I felt like I can’t determine the content of the book, and certainly not the title, based on what the reaction from ignorant people will be. So I ultimately just decided to go with it. And of course, yes, it’s controversial and so I’m hoping that will get more eyes on it, but at the end of the day it’s a book about objectification, so why not just call it what it is?
There’s a lot of different ways to approach the issue of how women get objectified from the time, really before puberty on. Why did you decide to write it in a memoir style?
It wasn’t even deliberate at first. This is the first time I’ve had the experience of not making a decision to write a book, but of being halfway through writing something for myself and realizing it was a book. I was doing a lot of personal writing and essay writing and I didn’t know what I was going to do with the essays, and then after a few months I realized this is a book, I’m writing a memoir. It was my way of working through stuff and I realized that I had something here and that I had a narrative that I wanted to share.
But in retrospect, I can also see that the current feminist moment and the amount of storytelling that’s happening among women also impacted me. Like #YesAllWomen and the rise of first person narrative and just being immersed in that also sort of inspired me.
I imagine for men reading this book, the long litany of incidents where men sexually harassed you or treated you like a sex object or acted casually entitled to sex or were degrading to you, that must seem unbelievable. But for me, and I imagine for a lot of women, that just felt depressingly familiar. Do you feel that your history is typical for women?
It’s so hard to tell with something like this because obviously the way that we all experience sexism and misogyny is so individualized and so dependent on where we grow up and our class and our race and our sexuality. All of those things matter. But I hope that the story will resonate and I do think that there are some common threads there. From what I’ve heard from a lot of women who have read the book, they did find a lot of stuff familiar even though the book is very New York City-centric. I’m willing to bet that the level of street harassment may not have been the same for who was living in a completely rural area, though maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. But I think that the spirit of the sexism unfortunately remains the same for a lot of women.
Yeah, I think maybe the style changes. You have a chapter about the number of exposed penises you saw on the subway, whereas I grew up in a rural town so the problem was more guys in pickup trucks trying to get you to get in the truck with them. But let’s talk about all dicks on the subway.
It really shaped who I was as a young person. I spent almost two hours a day on the subway. It took me like 45 minutes each way to get to high school and junior high, and I started taking the subway when I was 11, so that was a huge part of my life from the time I was 11 or 12 until I left for college at 18. So that’s a big chunk of your day when you’re that age, and it was really—I don’t want to say bizarre, because looking back I can see that it’s bizarre, but at the time it felt very normalized. Like, dudes just show you their dicks on the train and that’s something that you have to look out for and be aware of and be on guard for all the time.
We’ve been friends for a long time, to provide some context to this, and one of the things that you write about in the book I remember happening very distinctly, which is, in 2006, this blogger named Ann Althouse decided to attack you for getting your photo taken with Bill Clinton. You were wearing a sweater, and to normal people it seemed like a very normal photo of you and a whole bunch of other people in this group with Bill Clinton. But what did she decide to do with this photo?
It wasn’t immediate. She had posted the photo, I forget actually what the context was that she posted the photo in, but some of her commenters started making sexist comments about me, like “Who’s the intern?” or whatever. And I very, I thought, lightly replied. I was like, “It’s nice to see young women aren’t being judged on their looks,” or whatever.
You know, made some sort of throwaway comment, and she just lost it. Like, “No one thinks that you’re pretty,” “No one’s judging you on your looks, don’t flatter yourself,” and then dedicated, I think, two other blog posts and maybe a podcast to this idea that I was sticking my breasts out at President Clinton with the hopes of having attention paid to me and that all I write about is breasts.
It was really, 100 percent surreal. You remember it. The picture was very innocuous. You would think that I was wearing a bikini on a pole in front of him. Literally, it was like a $39.99 Gap crewneck sweater that was the most innocuous piece of clothing ever.
At the end of the day, I think what it was and what it was a reminder of was that if you’re a young woman, and I was younger at the time, you are not taken seriously, you’re valued for the way you look, you’re not really like a person, you’re fodder for tacky jokes, and to me it was meant to be a reminder to stay in my place. And of course what ended up happening, as soon as she egged people on, there was just a harassment campaign against me. Luckily social media wasn’t so huge of a thing at that time, so it was mostly blogs and emails and things like that, but it was horrible.
It’s interesting, because it sort of points to the strange double-bind that women are in. On one hand, people are going to sexualize you constantly like that just to put you in your place, but then if you speak out about it you’re “flattering yourself.”
Right. I’m “flattering myself,” I’m “seeking attention.” Defending yourself means you’re seeking attention. And of course the other thing is, if I had showed up looking frumpy, there would have been a whole other line of attacks that I could have been privy to. So yeah, there really was just no winning. And I also think it’s telling that the harassment really started en masse once I said something. Once I was like, “Hey, that’s fucked up, don’t say that about me,” then it was like this immediate reaction.
Yeah, this need to shut you up.
Right. It was like, “Hey, we were having fun talking about your being an intern, shut the fuck up.”
One of the things I found very touching and hard to read and I was impressed by your honesty was your discussion about what it was like going to high school and how you felt like people treated you like you weren’t very intelligent and instead just as this sex object. Can you talk about that?
I was in an odd situation in that my parents weren’t highly educated, I didn’t grow up in an extremely privileged background, but my parents worked really hard to prepare me for and send me to a pretty elite public high school in Manhattan.
I was surrounded by people who just were so different than I was. Their parents were much more educated, they had a lot more money, and I just felt constantly out of place. I think also if you develop in a certain way and you develop a body in a certain way, and that combined with sort of being loud and opinionated, people make certain judgements about who you are. And of course I had a boyfriend in high school that was older and that sort of marks you as well. So it was a strange time. On top of that, and I write about this in the book as well, it was from other students, but the culture at school and among the teachers was also really sexist, and that sort of impacted me, to boot.
One of the interesting observations that you make in the book is this notion that on top of women getting harassed and sexualized and objectified, there’s this cultural expectation that women are to keep men’s secrets for them. This comes up when you’re much older, you’re married, you have a kid, and you talk about this friend of your family’s coming onto you, and the amount of guilt and pressure you felt to hide his misbehavior. It’s so internalized. I think every woman who gets harassed or worse, sometimes, feels this almost instinctual need to hide that, to protect the guy. Where do you think that comes from?
I think what’s hard, and why I wanted to write about it, is that I think that happens at any age. I don’t think you become immune to it when you get older; I don’t think you become immune to it if you’re a professional feminist writer. These things continue to have impact. I think I’m more aware and can self-analyze a little bit better with stuff like that, but it is really distressing to feel like you are the responsible person for men’s behavior. Like you said, in the broad sense, in lots of circumstances women are made to feel like that. I think a lot of women are brought up to feel like they have to protect men.
It didn’t happen to you in this case, but sometimes you see that come out in some of the ugliest ways. A woman speaks out about a man mistreating her and all of a sudden everyone just looks at her like she’s the bad guy here.
Right. “Why are you fucking up his life?” There aren’t a lot of benefits to talking about men behaving poorly or treating you poorly.
If there was one thing you would want people reading this book to walk away with, what would that be?
I think probably that it’s OK to be a bit of a mess, and that it’s understandable and that we’re all a bit of a mess because of this stuff.
I think a big reason that I wrote the book was feeling like the image that I project online and through my writing and my public-facing image is a lot more together than I actually am, and I feel like not being honest about that was sort of like doing a disservice to the people who read me.
You know how it is, I would have young girls come up to me and say, “Wow, you deal with online harassment so well, you’re really dealing with it.” And it’s like, “No, I’m not at all, I’m doing terrible, what do you mean?”
I just wanted to be honest about that, so if I would say anything—and I think I wish this is a message I would have gotten when I was younger too—it’s that it’s OK to fuck up. It’s OK to be messy. That’s fine. We all are a little bit. It doesn’t mean you life is over or bad or that you’re a failure. We’re all sort of figuring it out.