Published by HarperCollins on June 7th 2016
Genres: Social Science, Women's Studies, Biography & Autobiography
Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now, in a darkly funny and bracing memoir, Valenti explores the toll that sexism takes from the every day to the existential.
Sex Object explores the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped Valenti’s adolescence and young adulthood in New York City, revealing a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.
In the tradition of writers like Joan Didion and Mary Karr, this literary memoir is sure to shock those already familiar with Valenti’s work and enthrall those who are just finding it.
“Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
That’s the question posed by Feministing founder and Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti in her memoir Sex Object, and it’s one that will linger with you long after the final page.
While Valenti’s work can be a little narrow at times, I’ve always held her in high regard thanks to her book The Purity Myth and the impact it had on me as a burgeoning feminist. Her stark, concise exploration of the virginity movement in conservative America didn’t so much resonate with my British experiences of gender as it did reveal the shocking manner in which women are held in the lowest regard. Here, Valenti turns her gaze inward, candidly discussing her life and the ways misogyny have forced her into her current state of being.
Valenti guides the reader through her time on this earth, from her childhood with parents eager to push their children into better lives than theirs, through to schooldays with body confidence issues, pervert teachers and avoiding flashers on the Subway, to struggles with college and messy relationships, wrapping up with her horrific childbirth experience and two abortions. ‘Shying away’ never enters the combination: The language is blunt, the situations clear and the pain visceral. Valenti’s life has been frequently messy and tough to parse with the vibrant modern feminism she preached as part of the growing online progressive movement, yet the bold honesty of her confessions highlights an issue every woman has undoubtedly faced: How do I live a consciously feminist life in this world and with my own contradictions?
Living every day as an objectified being gets to you, and Valenti’s often stomach churning anecdotes – teachers too eager to hug, men on the Subway too close to one’s back, college boyfriends too quick to call you a ‘whore’ – will ring true to many women. The most powerful chapters in this disappointingly short book – and a disjointed one at that, one that struggles to establish linearity – are the author’s experiences with the birth of her daughter. The premature birth, weeks of uncertainty, sky-high medical bills and remaining trauma are described in utterly unambiguous terms as true agony.
What comes through strongest throughout Sex Object are Valenti’s often conflicting emotions of hopelessness and resilience; exhaustion with a system that has beaten her down at every opportunity, and passion to make it better for her daughter. The book ends with a variety of troll tweets, offensive e-mails and abusive blog posts directed at Valenti throughout the years: Some are blandly sexist – kitchen jokes, of course – while others are insidious on a level one can’t help but be unsettled by. Sex Object itself is a discomfiting experience, but one that will be familiar to many, and necessary to the rest.