The title alone of Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir invites backlash. Even without the context of Valenti’s career as a feminist writer, it’s a bold statement, almost deliberately soliciting the dig that will follow: So, you think you’re sexy? She does, actually, if inconsistently, but that’s not the point. By welcoming such a reaction, Valenti urges us to get back to probing the foundational issue of objectification. In other words, if you think Valenti calling herself an “object” is a compliment, well, you just don’t get it.
Published earlier this month by Dey Street, Sex Object, Valenti’s fifth book, aims to chip away at the irreverence and denial that mainstream feminism often uses to soften the blow of objectification. Valenti is the founder of Feministing.com, a former Nation columnist, and a current staff writer at The Guardian. In each of these roles she has tackled subjects at the intersection of feminism, politics, and culture—high-profile rape cases, legislation aimed at curbing reproductive rights, sexism in the media and in everyday life. But in Sex Object Valenti looks inward, exposing a troubling paradox that accompanies such work: Can intellectual awareness of the impact of objectification undo its effects? Or, as Valenti asks, “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
Valenti aims to unravel that question by treating herself as a case study. The memoir is a collection of essays, and each essay is grounded in a major life experience presented straightforwardly and without further examination. Outside of the introduction, Sex Object is less analysis than raw material. It’s as if she’s approached her own life like a scientist compiling empirical evidence of sexism. She writes about the man she saw masturbate on a subway platform, the teacher who asked her out after graduation, the time Politico published an article about her breasts. The finished product is not so much commentary as it is deconstruction. By taking on this methodology, Valenti is asking us to return to a place of simplicity in our personal feminisms. Enough of the snark. Sexism hurts women, and performative strength won’t change that.
“The feminism that’s popular right now is largely grounded in using optimism and humor to undo the damage that sexism has wrought,” she writes, invoking the work of Amy Schumer, Beyoncé, and Sheryl Sandberg. “But maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice by working so hard to move past what sexism has done to us rather than observe it for a while.”
Sex Object engages in observation as a means of setting an example. These are field notes from building a feminist perspective, a worldview that forms in response to sexism and misogyny, yet is also inevitably warped by those forces. While some of the experiences Valenti recounts will be (sadly) familiar to many women, she creates something incredibly readable by presenting each story in detail and as unanalytically as possible. The facts of the night she was date raped, for example, are relayed without much commentary. As is the decision to avoid identifying her violation with its proper label.