It’s not too much of an exaggeration to assume that every adult woman (at least in the U.S.) has experienced at least some degree of sexual harassment (which ranges from actual assault, unwanted pressure for sexual favors to unwanted physical contact or verbal pressure) in her lifetime. The subject of sexual harassment is a focal point of Jessica Valenti’s book Sex Object: A Memoir, which makes commentary on gender through her own personal experience as a young adult.
Being a “sex object” is not about being beautiful or seductive, rather about being treated like a thing rather than a person. Valenti writes about how in her experience women are at times evaluated by their parts like a car rather than as a living, breathing person. Valenti has, perhaps, endured way more sexual harassment than the average woman. As a young, attractive woman in New York City, she describes multiple instances in which men have made disgusting comments to her and inappropriate contact with her. While all of these stories were disturbing, the most egregious offense was when Valenti was traveling on the subway and realized that a man had literally ejaculated on her. Can you believe that!?!
For Valenti, sexual harassment, unfortunately, comes in all forms, including a boyfriend who raped her and internet trolls who ripped apart her appearance and sent her death threats! Valenti’s internet notoriety actually peaked about a decade ago when she was featured in a picture with Bill Clinton. I looked up the picture and while I find that the photo looks a bit awkward, I was surprised to hear about the backlash that Valenti received from it. Specifically, in this picture Bill Clinton, many other individuals, and Valenti are posing for the camera. Valenti happens to be front and center of the picture right by Clinton. There is, frankly, nothing off-putting about her clothing choice, expression, or posture, however, she is ridiculed for essentially being a ‘sex object.’ Haters claim that her posture is seductive, her shirt is too tight, and her breasts too big….what? The pic is here. Valenti is the woman with the dark brown hair and gray sweater — pray tell how she deserved such verbal abuse.
Aside from her general commentary on the role of women in society, Valenti also uses her memoir to share very personal annecdotes about her life. In particular, she shares her struggle with drugs, her two abortions, her difficult pregnancy, and the transition into motherhood. On a whole, this book was one-part social commentary and another large part personal memoir.
Overall, I was not much a fan of this book — which was a surprise to me, because it got rave reviews. While the book claims to be about how sexism affects women, it really is just a recounting of Valenti’s tales of sexual harassment and a narrative about her string of unhappy relationships where her boyfriends were mean (and sometimes aggressive) and she was unfaithful to them. Additionally, the final chunk of this book is devoted to Valenti’s struggle to have her premature baby (born at just two pounds!). The connection of this portion of the book to the main theme is tenuous at best, namely that her daughter has made her again ponder sexism. Also, again, near the end of the memoir, Valenti’s focus veers off course as she goes into more depth about her struggles with drugs, personal anxieties, her relationship with her husband, and her scoliosis rather than focus on the main theme of the book—sexism.
This book was an odd mélange comprising vivid descriptions of sexual harassment, stories about her romantic relationships, and a personal tale about her struggle with childbirth and marriage.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of this book, but others were, so if the above interests you, check it out!