Jessica Valenti: Full Frontal Feminism
: In 2004, Jessica Valenti, disillusioned with mainstream women's rights organizations that ignored the voices of young women, started Feministing.com, a blog meant to both engage young women in the feminist movement and keep them updated on issues that affect them most in politics, media and pop culture. Feministing was an immediate success in large part because it "filled a gap" in the blogosphere, says Valenti, 28. Since then, Feministing has become a must-read for anyone concerned with the state of women's rights as it has outraged conservative anti-feminists with its sharp, witty coverage of everything from the state of women's rights in Iraq to a pro-life organization that matches up single pregnant women with men willing to marry them in hopes of forestalling abortions. Valenti has also written for
The first chapter of Full Frontal Feminism is called "You're a Hardcore Feminist. I Swear." Why do you think young women are reluctant to call themselves feminists?
There's a reason that anti-feminist stereotypes tell young women, "Feminists are ugly, feminists hate men. You don't want to be like that, do you?" Because obviously, what do young women not want to be? They don't want to be ugly, they don't want to be man-haters. They want to be considered attractive, since they're living in a country that values that above all else. But the thing is, I do think that most young women have feminist values. If you ask them if they believe in pay equity, of course they're going to say yes. Or access to birth control, or fighting against rape. But when it comes to taking on that word, they're just too freaked out about it--and for a reason.
I was totally freaked out about it too, even though I was going to pro-choice rallies when I was thirteen. For some reason I could say, "I went to a pro-choice march," but I couldn't say, "Yes I'm a feminist." I also hear a lot of women saying, "I don't know what that means. What does feminism mean, anyway?" And it's interesting to me that it's one of the only things that there's no real definition for. No one says, "Well, what do you mean you work against racism, what's that all about?" Feminism is one of the few things where you're asked to justify your politics.
You got your Masters in Women's Studies, but you write that you're more engaged by activism than academia.
I love that I got my Masters and I think it informed my activism in a huge way. I don't think I would be the same feminist without it. But once I couldn't talk about this stuff [academic theory] with my mom, who totally influenced my feminism, it just ceased to be useful for me. I think it's great and important and I think that everyone should have some base level understanding. There's nothing worse online than when you have to reinvent the wheel with some commenters. There's a blog called Finally Feminism 101 that kind of goes through the basics, so now we just tell people to go to that blog and then come back in a month.
Last year, Ana Marie Cox (formerly of Wonkette) wrote that though she considers herself a feminist, "Strident feminism can seem out of place, even tacky, in a world where women have come so demonstrably far." Do you think many young women under that impression, that feminism is obsolete?
Half and half. Some women who are out there are serious activists, even if they're not calling their activism feminism. And I think there are women who do think, "Oh, we vote, so that's enough", and they're completely politically unaware. Until you drop a bunch of random bombs on them, and that's really all it takes. But I don't think that's why young women shy away from feminism, I think that it's a more general fear of being politically engaged, because young women are so pushed against that. I've always been political, and my parents were really political, and I was an outspoken kid, and I know I took a lot of shit for it. "You're loud, you're obnoxious, quiet down, you're not being ladylike." So I think that's a big problem.
You talk in the book about things like wearing high heels or makeup, which you acknowledge are a part of a cultural ideal that's formed by men. How do you reconcile that?
I think that's something that everyone has to deal with herself. We all make negotiations in our daily lives with our politics all the time, whether it's feminism or general leftie stuff like not recycling as much as you should. We all make our own individual decisions, and sure, I understand that heels are part of the patriarchy, but I still like 'em, and I'll still wear them, and I don't think that makes me a bad feminist. And I think you get into really dangerous territory when certain feminists are judging other feminists' politics by what they wear or what they look like. How are we any better than some sexist dude on the street who's yelling at us?
You write in the book that "Everything in American culture tells men that women are there for them, there for sex, constantly available. It breeds a society where rape is expected and practically okayed. When it comes to issues like rape, or violence against women - are these issues we can solve with legislation, or do we need to address deeper societal/cultural problems?
Both. You need the legislation, but... we have this big thing on Feministing about the gray rape article, and what pissed me off were that many of the comments we received were centered around legal things. Commenters would write, "Well, it's not rape if this happened, it's not rape if that happened." Why are you trying to get a rulebook? Are we really arguing about this? So we need to change the cultural message. I'm putting a book together with Jaclyn Friedman, who's great and who wrote an article on Alternet about her own sexual assault, which got a lot of attention.
We want to do this anthology called "Yes Means Yes", which will attempt to reframe how we think about rape. Feminists have been talking about rape for so long in this "no means no" framework, and we want to come at it by using female sexual pleasure as a way to combat rape on a more cultural/social level. If we lived in a society that thought that female sexual pleasure was important, then maybe there wouldn't be so much rape. People might not say, "It's not rape if she just lays there and takes it, or if I just convince her after a while." If people looked at sex not as a conquest thing, but as something that two people should both be involved in and both actually like, then maybe there wouldn't be this gray--which I still think is bullshit--area.
The sexual lives of young women are getting a lot of attention lately, from the mainstream media to recent books by Ariel Levy and Laura Sessions Steppe.
People have always freaked out about young women having sex, but we're in this really interesting time--this is actually what my third book is going to be about--where the oversexualization of women in pop culture is coming head to head with virginity coming back in style, and the religious right pushing purity vows and abstinence-only education. It's really fucking up young women, more than anything has in a long time, because they're getting abstinence-only teachings during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night.
They're getting these messages that are seemingly conflicting, one telling them to be pure and one telling them to be sexual, but at the end of the day they're really both saying the same thing, which is that your sexuality does not belong to you, it's not about sexual autonomy, it's someone dictating what your sexuality is going to be like at all times, whether its someone telling you not to under any circumstances or someone telling you to have sex, or telling you what's sexy.
Are people afraid that women can't make decisions or afraid they will make decisions?
Both. You see this a lot in anti-choicers. A lot of these people see women as moral children. There was video that came out last year when they asked anti-choicers what prison sentence they thought women who got abortions should get, and they're like, "Oh, it's not their fault, they're victims too." So there's this one idea that women are moral children who need someone to tell us what to do, and then there's the other idea that women are jezebels and sexual deviants who if give the opportunity will just fuck their way... so I think it's a combination of both. Neither is a particularly attractive option.
Can you talk more about the "porn culture" phenomenon?
I have such mixed feelings. I'm not anti-porn. It's there, I watch it sometimes, it's fine. The problem is more that it's the only option. The problem is that my generation was lucky in that I wasn't inundated with porn, I didn't grow up with the internet, my male peers didn't masturbate to online porn. [The generation] a little younger did. You want to avoid the Ariel Levy school of "You're a whore and everyone's laughing at you," but at the same time, there's a girl who got suspended for giving five guys blowjobs in the bathroom at some Midwestern school. What the fuck is that all about?
I think it's really about where porn and that kind of sexuality used to be about fantasy, something that guys would fantasize about, and not something they would ever ask someone to do, now because porn is so prevalent, there's almost a sense of entitlement, like that's what you're supposed to be doing, and I think that women are feeling that more than ever, if you want to be a sexual person, then there has to be this "porn-ness" to it. I'm torn up about it, because on the one hand I think that young women are smart enough to make their own decisions, but I think our job as feminists is to make sure they're as informed as possible to make those decisions, and let them make them themselves.
Has feminism become more inclusive?
Feminism was always diverse, but the mainstream movement that got the most attention was the white upper middle class women part of it. But women were always working, always active, especially women of color and queer women. But those women weren't being acknowledged, weren't being called feminists publicly, weren't having their work paid attention to. Now with younger feminists across the board, I hear all the time, oh young women aren't doing anything, and I'm like where have you been? I could name 10 women under thirty five who are directors of feminist organizations, but it's not like 'NOW is inviting them anywhere..
What are the biggest battles right now...is the solution in grassroots activism?
There's a lot of work to be done to undo the damage done to reproductive rights, and violence against women. I think that we really have to be paying attention to child care, we're really having a crisis right now and it's really important. In terms of action, I'm more interested in the grassroots because that's where the most lives get changed. That's where people know what they need. I think national policy is great, but at the end of the day, how is it actually affecting women on the ground? Yes, Roe is great, but is it actually ensuring that woman who live in rural areas can get to an abortion clinic? Not necessarily. So I think that the work that's being done by small organizations is really important. Of course that doesn't mean I think we should stop doing the work on the Hill, but I think that in terms of moving forward, we need more grassroots efforts.
What's the next wave of feminism?
I'm really positive that the fourth wave is going to be online feminism, just because of the outreach capability itself. It's really insane. A teenager did a Google search on Jessica Simpson, and she got directed to Feministing, because we wrote about Jessica Simpson's creepy dad. And now this girl is a regular reader. Which is a really subversive, awesome thing, I think it's happening on Myspace and Facebook too.
Online feminism lets you choose what you want to be interested in, lets you decide your own level of engagement, which is really important form women in terms of letting their politics into their everyday lives. So that's what I think, and I swear it has nothing to do with my blog.