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.”