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‘Sex Object’ Author Talks Penises, Trauma and Everyday Sexism

Jessica Valenti’s new memoir explores how daily assaults – from inappropriate hugs to subway groping – affect women.

When Internet trolls tell Jessica Valenti to “Get back in the kitchen and make me dinner” or threaten to shoot her for writing about feminism, their messages are automatically filtered into an e-mail folder labeled “Assholes.” But in Valenti’s experience, attempting to discard real-life confrontations with sexism like an unsavoury email is much more gruelling – if not wholly impossible. There’s no “block” feature to drown out a catcall. She can’t opt to “flag for removal” when a stranger ejaculates into the back pocket of her jeans on a crowded subway. There isn’t a keyboard shortcut to delete the memory of the man in a business suit on the subway who removed one of her headphones and whispered “take care of your titties for me” into her 12-year-old ear.

A seasoned author and columnist for the Guardian U.S., Valenti has been a loud and unflinching voice within contemporary feminism, dedicating her career to making the “loaded” word more accessible. In 2004, she co-founded the blog Feministing, a savvy, incisive platform for women to consume and create content that accurately reflected their experiences, which the Columbia Journalism Review hailed as “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Since then, she’s lent her tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and pithy, critical perspective to four books on feminism, politics and culture. But Valenti’s latest work, Sex Object, a memoir that examines the way a lifetime of daily run-ins with sexism has sabotaged pieces of herself, is her boldest and most personal proclamation yet.

In the book’s introduction, she poses a powerful question: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hates women?” The question isn’t quite rhetorical, but she doesn’t answer it, either. Instead, she unearths years of traumatic encounters with men, and steers her readers through a maze of strikingly honest anecdotes that recount faceless yet pervasive sexual harassment – a Politico reporter who wrote an article about her breasts, a manipulative college boyfriend who taped a used condom to her door and scribbled “whore” across her dry erase board, a high school teacher who asked for a hug in exchange for an A in his class.

Encounters like these constantly disrupt daily routines and leave women baffled and nauseated. “We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on,” says Valenti. This idea – that objectification can permanently, and worse covertly, alter a woman’s personhood – is unnerving, though not unbelievable. Sex Object is full of scenes that are entirely recognisable to young women unsure how to handle other people’s reactions to their sexuality; it’s a pillar of solidarity for women who experience what Valenti refers to as “the cumulative effects” of sexism. Throughout the memoir, Valenti is so inundated with discomfort and fear during her daily interactions with men that she finds herself subconsciously dissociating from her physical body – a common coping mechanism for victims of trauma. “Of course you’re going disconnect,” says Valenti. “When people dehumanise you, it becomes easier to dehumanise yourself.”

Valenti dedicated Sex Object to her five-year-old daughter with the hope that it provides her with the vocabulary that Valenti lacked as a young woman – and that so many young women lack – to articulate the effect of everyday sexism. And yet, even as she trudges through harrowing memories of objectification with impressive insight and self-awareness, she acknowledges the limits of language. “Given all that women are expected to live with – the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for – I can’t help but wonder what it all has done to us,” she says. “Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves.”

Another often-overlooked problem is the way that small transgressions stack one on top of the other. “We understand that [it’s sexism] if someone is sexually assaulted, or if you’re fired from a job because of sexual harassment,” Valenti says. Most people can grasp the magnitude and repercussions of a gruesome crime like rape. But it’s much more difficult to gauge the extent to which a high-school commute on the New York City subway damaged Valenti during her adolescence. (“On crowded train cars I didn’t see dicks,” she writes. “I felt them.”). There isn’t a method to quantify the consequences of these experiences – how Valenti began to subconsciously measure the likelihood of sexual harassment on her way to school based on the number of people in a subway car; how she learned to discern the intent of a potential attacker by juxtaposing the rhythm of the train’s jostle with that of a strange man’s pelvis knocking into her.

What’s missing is the language and understanding to help women dealing with these daily assaults. “Despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in harassing environments, we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them,” says Valenti. PTSD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder – these are all concrete, distinguishable conditions with symptoms, diagnoses and treatment plans. But how do women describe the impact of a violence so intertwined with daily life that Valenti likens it to “the air you breathe?” And while she recognises that some questions are too complex to answer in 200 pages, it doesn’t stop her from asking them: “What diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers ‘pussy’ in your ear on your way to work?”

Following Sex Object‘s publication, Valenti says she received an influx of emails from men apologising for the crude behaviour of their sex, but she found these messages both unnecessary and unproductive. Even the most understanding men “don’t necessarily realise the unrelenting-ness of it,” Valenti says. She believes that the most constructive way for men to combat sexism is perhaps the most simple: giving women the space to speak. “I think the number one thing men can do is just believe women,” Valenti says. “If a woman says, ‘this happened’ or ‘this was sexist,’ just listen to her, believe that and trust that.”

By Emily Mae Czachor and Glyn Peterson. Photo: Facebook