Full disclosure

Jessica Valenti lays herself bare in her new memoir “Sex Object”

“If I’m going to be attacked – here’s everything,” says The Guardian’s most-targeted columnist of her forensic examination of her life


“No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests that it doesn’t end,” writes feminist Jessica Valenti in her new memoir, Sex Object.

So quickly now, titles like “badass” and “brave” are applied to activists, but the writer is deserving of both. As one of The Guardian’s most popular columnists, she works in the face of fierce, violently-charged opposition, actively resisting complacency with words and research as her arsenal. Sex Object examines the experiences she has faced as a life-long New Yorker — a city where, as a teen, harassment from men came as a “sixth sense.” Feminism does not seem to be a choice made by the author, but rather a landing point where she now stands to examine the psychological and emotional toll she endured as a result of decades of being objectified.

“The book for me felt like a conscious choice,” Valenti told Women in the World in May over coffee in a Brooklyn café. “If I’m going to be doing these things, let me do it full on. Let me do it in a really raw and open way that is both cathartic but also, just like, getting it out of the way.”

Holding patriarchal standards to account has become her life’s work, online and in other previous books, but to turn the narrative personal was a decision to denounce posturing, essentially showing the opponents all of her cards. “If I’m going to be attacked – here’s everything,” Valenti said, presenting her open palms. “Now you have it all. Say whatever you want and let’s move on.”

In April, The Guardian’s survey of comments on its site revealed that of the 1.4 million that had been blocked by moderators since 1999, Valenti’s writing had been the most-targeted. (Eight of the 10 writers with the highest number of blocked comments were women.) The “endnotes” section of her book, which was written before her employer’s research took place, samples berating online comments and emails about Valenti date from 2008 to last year, one entry reading “f*** you” in repetition, enough to fill three pages. Because male commenters actively drive so much hate toward Valenti, she included those voices in a book on her life as a way of “dismissing them while still including them,” she said.

“I don’t need to contextualize it — here are things as they are.”

She now understands that there is responsibility attached to her feminist identity, and one purpose in writing the book was to “engage with that responsibility and try to figure out what that responsibility really is,” Valenti said.

“What do I owe myself and my family? What do I owe my peers and people who look to me for comment on this sort of stuff?” she asked. “For me those two things are very much in conflict — I don’t want to talk about [sexism and misogyny] all the time, I don’t want to write about this stuff all the time, I don’t want it to define me. It feels exhausting,” she said, pausing. “But to not is an added pressure.”

The psychological effects of growing up as a woman “in a culture that hates them” become clear in Sex Object as Valenti, 37, recounts life with her parents in Queens to the present day, living just a borough away.

Presented in three parts, she begins by describing a nightmare she’s had since childhood, a recurring dream in which wolves eat her whole. Being devoured — “the one being eaten” — is an anxiety that follows throughout the essays and extends beyond herself to her daughter, Layla, and all of womankind. Both her mother and grandmother faced sexual abuse and Valenti addresses being raped in an essay, and facing at an early age “the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female — that it’s not a matter of if something happens to you, but when and how bad.”

After Valenti hit puberty, teachers stared down her shirt and asked her for hugs and out on dates. Others were suspended for inappropriate behavior, as was an assistant principal of her high school. Harassment in the subways on which she rode home was commonplace and she recalls when, as a teenager, a man whose face she would never see ejaculated on her jeans — and how afterward, when at home, she ran a scalding hot bath and climbed in with her shirt still on.

She argues that women who have been objectified “have more anxiety, have more depression” — an idea supported by psychologists and known as objectification theory, or the effects that occur in a sociocultural context when a woman’s worth is equated with her body’s appearance and sexual functions. “We experience these things in such individualized ways, dependent on your identity and your privilege, all of those things come into effect. It’s hard to know how much of this is something I’m feeling and how much of this is something that is really present,” she said. Valenti writes that she’s more scared than she used to be, and that she hates the men who lambast her appearance online. “Maybe it’s not generalized anxiety disorder, maybe it’s not depression,” she said, “But it is this thing that is directly correlated to the sexism and misogyny we face.”

Such symptoms (and symptomatic decision-making) are clear-running current in her memoir. While she is both a survivor and victim of objectification, neither label serves as limitation, and the storytelling within Sex Object is not narrowed to just vulnerability or tales of male mistreatment. Valenti’s life is unfolded through strong detail and with humor, from first being felt up (“Wasn’t he supposed to kiss me first? I was 11”), to a failed first semester in college, abortions, and boyfriends with whom she did too many drugs before she met her husband, This. creator Andrew Golis, who is also the father of her 5-year-old daughter.

Layla was born three months premature and now suffers from selective mutism that keeps her from speaking to most people, with the exception of some adults. “When she was first born, I didn’t see any of myself in her at all. She looked exactly like my husband. Because she was born so early and via C-section, it was as if she came from nowhere,” Valenti said. “I didn’t even look pregnant.”

She recognizes her worry in a child that otherwise little resembles her, and after her daughter was born she suffered from PTSD, anxiety and depression. Being female means facing the world in chains, explained Valenti, but “naming what is happening to us, telling the truth about it — as ugly and uncomfortable as it can be — means that we want change.”

“I want the line of my mother and grandmother to stop here,” she said.

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