AUGUST 20, 2016
GIVEN THAT THE TITLE of the new book by Jessica Valenti, well-known author of Full Frontal Feminism and former blogger at Feministing.com, is Sex Object: A Memoir, the reader will be forgiven for assuming that it tackles her experiences dealing with male chauvinism and sexual objectification. In fact, however, this holds true for only a few of the 21 stand-alone chapters. The rest of Sex Object meanders through Valenti’s tumultuous carnal history, including consensual sexual encounters. This may suit readers eager for a memoiristic work of just about any kind by a major young American feminist — although, ironically, it might also titillate voyeurs indifferent or even hostile to the author’s views. Meanwhile, those who figured, reasonably enough, that Valenti’s story would revolve around her ordeal as an unwilling — and, as a young teen, unwitting — sex object will doubtless come away disappointed.
The book’s haphazard and even chaotic nature doesn’t manifest itself immediately. The short introduction delves into men’s sexual objectification of women, including the author herself. Yet the book “is about more than the ways in which I grew up feeling sexually objectified,” Valenti writes. It’s also about how those targets of sexual harassment and aggression who happen to be feminists often shy away from claiming victim status, owing to ideological hang-ups.
This early delineation of the book’s contents proves somewhat misleading, though the first chapter (entitled “Line Violence” because Valenti wants the long family line of female victims of male sexual aggression to end with her) effectively develops the themes of her introduction and leaves a lasting impression. In “Line Violence,” the author expands on her earlier comments concerning how women should react to rape or sexual harassment. What she writes will surprise those for whom feminism is primarily about empowerment. The discourse of empowerment, Valenti argues, is unrealistically optimistic given the unequal distribution of gendered power in society. It’s also insensitive, she maintains, in that it gives short shrift to the pain and suffering endured by sexually assaulted women — who are, first and foremost, victims. “Victimhood doesn’t need to be an identity,” she concedes, “but it is a product of facts.”
“Line Violence” also includes what amounts to an anguished confession, revealing the distressingly accommodating strategy the younger Valenti adopted to deal with the sexual harassment men began subjecting her to at an early age. “[M]y survival instinct took over,” she recalls, “and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.” Then, in a pithy statement that evokes the precarious existence of a vulnerable inmate in a prison full of violent criminals, she adds: “If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be.”
These two related issues — of male sexual predation and Valenti’s self-objectification — slowly materialize as perhaps the book’s only motifs. The younger Valenti did not so much reject the status of victim, which a feminist fond of bravado might do, as stumble past it unawares. “It never occurred to me,” she reflects, “that school should be a sanctuary from the bullshit that was happening outside, the catcalls and subway flashers, the gropers and the perverts. This was just what men were like. This was just what being a girl was.”
Later, when an adult Valenti did feel violated, she slipped on her desperate, wannabe-cool persona and affected an air of nonchalance. Even when trying to make her violator aware of the transgression he’d committed, she’d do so obliquely — say, by smuggling a note of reprimand into a quip. That’s the tack she chose with Carl, at whose apartment she fell into a near-oblivious slumber following a party during which she drank heavily. Carl had been her sexual partner some time earlier, but until the party they hadn’t spoken (let alone slept together) in months. As Valenti relates:
I know when I woke up the next afternoon — I had slept until two p.m. — I said you’re not supposed to have sex with someone who is passed out. I know I was still drunk when I said this. I joked. I made a joke about uh isn’t that date rape?, saying it in a way that seemed ribbing or sarcastic; I’m not sure why.
Even when a smug and ornery Carl replied that he performed oral sex first, implying that this initial violation excused his subsequent one, Valenti didn’t break character. “I told him if he was going to fuck me while I was unconscious the least he could do was order a grilled cheese and french fries from the delivery place so I could soak up some of the previous night’s alcohol.”
It should come as no surprise that low self-esteem underlay such strained stoicism and drollery. “I know that my shameful uncertainty likely has to do with the fact that I did not feel like a person who was capable of being violated because at the time I barely considered myself a person,” writes Valenti, rueful and clearly still pained.
The problem lies in the fact that such powerful episodes don’t crop up more frequently in the book’s desultory wanderings. Sex Object reenacts incidents that exercise a good deal less emotional pull than the one with Carl, including some featuring little if any connection to the sexual objectification of women. Before the reader grows accustomed to Valenti’s increasingly aimless narrative, the effect is disorienting.
For example, the author opens “Beauties,” the third chapter, thus: “My sister didn’t say a word about the gash on her wrist until she was stitched up with black thread and back home.” Since Sex Object has yet to fully devolve into an assortment of random musings, one might well anticipate a story about some oversexed cretin vengefully assaulting Valenti’s sister for rebuffing his advances. But it turns out that that nasty gash was the result of an accidental shattering of a pane of glass. “Beauties” does include Valenti’s reminiscences of her struggle with body-image issues while growing up — but there’s nothing particularly dramatic or revelatory here.
The remainder of the book continues this muddled approach. In between revisiting, for the most part in chronological order, her fumbling sexual encounters as a teenager, a later drug addiction, blogging and book deals, relationships with non-abusive men, as well as a (happy/ongoing) marriage and subsequent motherhood, Valenti recounts ugly and frightening experiences at the hands of exhibitionists who plagued her childhood subway commute to school, the thirtysomething teacher who called her house a few days after she’d graduated high school to ask if she’d like to “hang out” with him, an unhinged ex-boyfriend in college who taped a used condom to the door of her dormitory room and scrawled “WHORE” across it, the Politico reporter who wrote an article about her breasts following publication of a photograph in which she and other bloggers posed beside former president Bill Clinton, and, of course, the incident with the repellent Carl.
Some of this material will no doubt put readers off — not just because watching an endless cavalcade of sleazy/predatory guys demeaning women almost inevitably has that effect, but also because some of Valenti’s own conduct in the past, by her own lights, ranks as pretty shoddy. “Doing the right thing has never come easily to me,” the author admits. Encapsulating what she addresses in greater detail at various points throughout the book, Valenti writes, “I cheated on almost all my boyfriends with regularity and without remorse. I lied to my parents about failing out of my freshman year at Tulane University, choosing to tell them I wanted to transfer rather than disappoint them with the truth.”
In the end, the most important question that repeatedly comes to mind remains unanswered: Why is this book such a hodgepodge? To be more precise, why does Valenti include so many anecdotes that have nothing to do with sexual objectification? Admittedly, readers will find themselves carted along by arresting episodes, such as Valenti’s recounting of her daughter’s developmental issues. Yet the chapters detailing the more mundane aspects of relationships and child-rearing will probably bore them silly. Either way, it is truly a puzzle why any of this material was included in a book entitled Sex Object.