Ensler's letter to Martin was not the right place to push an agenda about a campaign to end violence against women, especially without first acknowledging the fear many people are taught to feel about men of color—a fear that is just as present in the women’s movement as it is in each of the United States of America.
In her open letter to teenage homicide victim Trayvon Martin, whose killer was acquitted on July 14, renowned sexual assault activist Eve Ensler writes, “I am not you. I am not Trayvon Martin. I will never know what it feels like to live in the skin, in the daily rhythms and predeterminations of a black boy or man in America. I will never know what it is like to always be held suspect, to feel categorized from birth as dangerous. But as a woman, there are things I do know and things that I have experienced that bring us into the same story, the same struggle.”
Ensler goes on to explain how she and Martin are alike. For example, she says she knows “what it’s like to be worried about being followed, to speed up my step or slow down and pretend to be casual.” She also says she knows “what it feels like to be attacked or raped and be blamed for it because of what I was wearing (hoodie=short skirt).” Later in her letter, she adds that she’s met many men like Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who “are full of a simmering explosive rage, determined by poverty or shame or violence or humiliation or low self esteem.” For that reason, she explains that next year’s One Billion Rising event, an event her V-Day movement created in 2013, will focus on justice for all victims of gender violence. Among other things, the event will encourage people to “rise for an end to guns and Stand Your Ground laws where unarmed 17-year-olds are shot down dead,” writes Ensler. “We will rise to say Justice involves the whole story—the story of race, of class, of gender. Our struggles are one.”
With all due respect to Ensler, I don’t think a letter to Martin was the right place to push an agenda about her campaign to end violence against women, especially without first acknowledging the fear many people are taught to feel about men of color—a fear that is just as present in the women’s movement as it is in each of the United States of America. For many, the case against Zimmerman and his acquittal represented a symptom of the nation’s “unaddressed racism.” Ensler, then, had an opportunity to address this issue of race, particularly in the women’s movement, but she blew it.
As feminist writer Jessica Valenti explains in a recent post at The Nation, “Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.”
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For that reason, I think in her letter to Martin, Ensler should have spoken honestly about whatever fears she may have about being preyed upon by people of a different race. And she should have acknowledged that, like Zimmerman, she’s been taught to see certain people—because of their ethnicity or class—as inferior, and that because she’s aware of that deeply rooted prejudice, she’s worked to rise above it and that is why she is now trying to get others to follow in her footsteps not just to stop violence against women, but to end the legacy of racism that breeds violence in all communities.
Ensler’s event next February will focus on justice “for all survivors of gender violence, and ending the rampant impunity that prevails globally.” I commend such efforts. But, if people like Ensler truly want to make a difference, they should begin by speaking honestly about what everyone refuses to talk about: how if they saw Trayvon Martin, or another “hoodied” boy of color, walking on a street late at night in their neighborhood, they may not have reached for a gun, but there’s a good chance they would have sped up or crossed the street to avoid him based solely on his appearance.
When I was 11 years old, a much older man followed me as I walked home from school. He made comments about my body in suggestive ways that made it very clear he wanted to do more than simply say, “Hello.”
It was the first time I recall feeling like a sexual object, though I did not quite understand what it meant at such a tender age. I did know that the way that man spoke to me was wrong, very wrong. I knew that I felt dirty, ashamed, and uncomfortable, so much so that I wanted to cover myself up before ever going back outside again.
Nearly every day since then, I have been acutely aware of at least one man on the street or in other spaces who has felt bold enough to engage me as his possession, if only for a few seconds. Never quite a human being, never quite an emotional being whose day can be ruined by licentious whispers or random grabs, I was simply an object, likely one of many those men would pass by throughout the day.
My reading of Jessica Valenti’s newest book, Sex Object, took me back to so many of these encounters, some more painfully vulgar than others.
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Valenti—co-founder of the popular blog Feministing and author of several feminist tomes confronting rape culture and championing sex-positivity—offers a series of anecdotes in Sex Object on the life experiences that have made her acutely aware of her status as a sexually objectified being.
I immediately connected with her narrative as though I had dictated my life story to her. Not only do she and I—two highly visible, outspoken feminist women assumed by some to exist at theoretical odds—have so much in common in this regard, but these stories echo the realities of many other women who feel silenced by fear and shame.
Through my work as an advocate for victims of street harassment, I’ve witnessed other women speak out and share their stories of being made to feel like sex objects. Like me, they can certainly connect to the feeling of being repeatedly objectified just by virtue of being women (or girls in many instances). That there are so many of us who can relate to the pain, the anxiety, or even the occasional numbness, is how I am reminded of the importance of the work that I and others do as feminists to make the world safer for women, particularly the work of rejecting the notion that we should feel shame or fear for we are all connected by the universality of the experience.
The feminist movement, particularly in America, has ebbed and flowed in its waves over the last century. With each new wave comes a set of key issues those of us who openly identify as feminists focus more of our energy on. Whether we feel compelled to challenge a new outlandishly oppressive legislation proposed to further limit women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized groups; we rally to protest and demand justice in a series of heinous acts of violence against women, trans women of color in particular; or perhaps we are motivated by reports from leading advocacy groups that suggest women’s equal access to resources, legal protections, and bodily autonomy remains tenuous at best—each generation of feminists rises to the challenge of continuing the fights of those before us.
I appreciated Valenti’s discussion of victimology and how it has factored into some of the splits within the feminist movement. There are those feminists who reject the victim label according to the long-standing practice of denying victimhood based simply on womanhood. There are also those who, like Valenti, understand that “despite the well-worn myth that feminists are obsessed with victimhood, feminism today feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence.”
No stranger to criticism from within factions of the feminist movement, Valenti also touches briefly on the challenges of a decentralized movement while acknowledging the value in approaching these issues with an intersectional lens. In the book, she readily acknowledges her privileges as a white feminist woman and notes the efforts of those living at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality to push the movement forward. At times, she seems to be writing on eggshells, and I gather it might be due to the backlash she has received over some controversial statements or pushback via her Twitter feed. Sex Object is personal, yes, but Valenti’s choice to note the nuances of modern feminism (given her own contributions as a respected thought leader) is admirable.
One could argue that the exposure of conflicts, particularly via social media like Twitter or Facebook, weaken the movement and its broader intentions. But I offer that healthy disagreement has strengthened us all—veteran feminists and newcomers alike—as we have been given opportunities to engage each other in ways that our foremothers were unable to.
Followers and subscribers are learning as we share our experiences, as Valenti has done here, and the critical need to respect these unique lived experiences cannot be understated. While some have all but completely bowed out from engaging in what can be an unnecessarily vicious behaviors associated with “call-out culture,” other feminists like me, who are regarded as representatives of particular factions, remain willing to listen, share, learn, and unlearn. And what we who willingly engage in such public discourse have discovered in the middle of all of this is that we do share these common experiences with being objectified as women, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, orientation, or gender identity and presentation, and not always on the street. Many of us encounter this type of harassment in other areas of our life as well, such as at the office or even in our own homes. “The individual experiences are easy enough to name, but their cumulative impact feels slippery,” Valenti notes in her introduction.
One of the most important takeaways from the book is that there is no such thing as a perfect or ideal feminist: We are each humanly flawed and have a lot of learning and unlearning to do. “It’s okay if we don’t want to be inspirational,” she writes. If I had a church fan at that moment, I would have waved it in strong agreement.
The current wave of feminism inspires us to openly acknowledge that our experiences as sex objects have had lingering effects on our mental health, such as disrupting our ability to form healthy intimate partnerships. I appreciated how Valenti opened up about her own process of navigating various intimate encounters and partnerships through this lens. For example, she writes about her own anxiety and how her post-traumatic stress disorder affected her relationship with her husband. Though Valenti and I come from vastly different backgrounds, we connect here—my relationships have been largely negatively affected by the sexual traumas I’ve endured in my own life.
Like Valenti, I sought therapy to deal with my experiences. I’m a social worker by profession and recognized that I needed to engage someone with professional skills to help me address the lingering trauma. Valenti opens up about the therapy sessions she’s had, both alone and with her husband, and how they helped her better understand her responses to certain triggers. It is important, for those who are able to do so, to seek support and not live with fear or shame associated with the negative mental health side effects resulting from sex harassment.
To be a woman in this world is to be aware that, in at least some way, your body is supposed to exist for the consumption and control of men. “It’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad,” she writes.
But Sex Object reminds us that we can be vocal about generational sexual trauma and abuse of girls and women because these experiences are common—too common, really. And however feminism manifests in our lives, whether we identify as sex-positive feminists, Black feminists, or womanists, embracing this liberation movement aids us in doing the incredibly difficult work of rejecting the burden of shame.
We can speak more freely about our abortions, as Valenti did in what becomes her signature frank, straight-no-chaser narrative style. Her straightforward, often explicit descriptions of her experiences leave the reader with an understanding that abortion is matter-of-fact and should not be as taboo an issue as it continues to be.
If one takes anything away from Sex Object, it should be the empowering liberation that comes when speaking the truth about one’s experiences as a woman, good and bad, amazing and horrifying, even if only to oneself.
Read this book not as a sex-positive feminist manifesto, but as a personal, therapeutic memoir. I get the sense that writing this book was way more important to Valenti’s own personal growth as a woman, mother, partner, and feminist than it was serving as a feminist guidebook for navigating female sexual objectification. Sex Object is raw; it is relatable and blatant in its (occasionally triggering) honesty. It is a book that many women will read and think, at least 20 different times, “I could have written this myself.”
Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”
She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.
In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.
Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.
When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.
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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.
The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.
Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.
Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. collegecampuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.
It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.
I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”
Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”
But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.
But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:
I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.
From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.
Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.
Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.
Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.
She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.
It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.
Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:
I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.
Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.
In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.
Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.
What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.