As a teenage girl, I was sent to Bombay, India to study abroad for reasons that remain unclear. Most days, men followed me onto buses, trains, and through the streets, rubbing themselves and grabbing me when they got close enough. Sexual assault happened because I live in a body that attracts that magnetic reaction: smiling men in a crowd that I pretend not to see, feel, touch. Keep walking. Don’t smile back. At that time in my life, I felt I was to blame.
In her casually despairing memoir, Sex Object, Jessica Valenti writes, “This is the price of doing business while being female.” And she has paid that price in spades. Sex Object rides the sharp edge between humor, retribution, and rage by articulating what it is to live with these things: The teacher who asked her out on a date just a few days after she graduated high school. The college ex-boyfriend who taped a used condom to her dorm-room door and scrawled on her dry erase board, Whore. The man near the subway who asked her for directions from his car then grabbed her arm while jerking off with the other. The hostile emails attacking her for writing about feminism. The death threats—yes, death threats. For personal reasons, Valenti declined to discuss them, but in the endnotes of Sex Object they are listed in chronological order from 2008–2015 as a horrifying chaser: the evidence of the hatred reserved for women who dare to speak up about sexual assault and sexism.
Sex Object chronicles the everyday assault that young women face in America and how it shapes every single relationship we have as adults: professionally, sexually, publicly, and personally for Valenti as a mother, mate, daughter, sister, colleague and friend. Although she may not be able to prevent sexism from happening to her children as they explore today’s culture, Sex Object is a compass to navigate a sexist world.
I wish that I had access to Valenti’s voice when I was a teenage girl living abroad, instead of experiencing public space as a series of disturbing private moments that can never be erased. Now, after eight years of a hope-and-change administration comes to an end, there has never been a more crucial moment for Jessica Valenti’s voice to be heard.
The Rumpus: Your book changed my point of view about sexual assault in general because I lived abroad and it was an almost daily occurrence. How did the experience you wrote about in your book shape you professionally and personally as a writer, mother, friend, sister, daughter?
Jessica Valenti: It’s a question I was trying to get at in the book. It’s an existential question—so much of who I am is part of these experiences. What’s frustrating to me is that I don’t know. It weighs heavily on me. Did I react because of sexist experiences? Professionally, it’s so hard to know because I am steeped in this stuff; I’m in the eye of the storm. I am still trying suss this out. As a mother, it makes the work that I do feel so much closer, immediate. As a daughter, it was something I didn’t ever want to talk about. My parents worked hard to keep us safe, and so describing anything that went against upward mobility… I didn’t want to disturb that. As a partner, I think that for him and me, it’s important to maintain emotional closeness when you’re dealing with backlash, especially the threats. Compartmentalization helps. I can talk through these issues with my husband.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the abuse of power and the icky high school teacher in your book. As a teacher, the scenario in your book was disconcerting. What did you make of that teacher asking you out at the time? How can we change this exploitation issue for the forthcoming generations?
Valenti: At the time we thought of it as funny, pervy, and cosmopolitan, but now I have a different understanding of the abuse of power. I think it’s important to let kids be kids and be cautious about accelerated sexuality as pressure to mature too quickly. My hackles go up when I see a teacher making kids feel like they are older, special, mature. Let kids be kids.
Rumpus: Why do American women—particularly attractive, powerful women—catch so much vicious shit in the media by other women? Example: any female politician, actress, musician, writer…
Valenti: Most of the viciousness I see is from men. It’s simply cruel criticism.
I ask myself a lot how other women can be against the ideology that has to do with women empowering other women. Going along with the access of power and the status quo and forging a special position and the thought process that goes: I am not like those women. When it comes to things like assault, for example, perhaps it makes them feel safer. It’s the denial: I’m okay. This won’t happen to me. Acknowledging that the world is a profoundly unsafe for women is a scary thought.
Rumpus: And the boob thing and the comments that women use their sexuality to promote themselves. [Note: Never once have I searched the web for Jessica Valenti’s boobs, yet I am aware her boobs thanks to a female Politico blogger who wrote an article about them after was photographed Valenti with the Clintons. Many others picked up on the slut-shaming sentiment, and another kick in the teeth was born. The sour grapes seemed to center on Valenti being the youngest person invited to meet Clinton. I wonder, would a young man feel undeserving to be there? Would he be publically accused of swinging his dick suggestively if he were photographed standing up?]
Valenti: But no one ever accuses a man for using his sexual prowess to promote himself.
Rumpus: I know you didn’t want to discuss any specific death threats, but as a woman writing about feminism, I have to ask you about the end notes where you list many abusive emails from trolls. It was shocking and yet seeing the backlash in black and white was also so visceral and disturbing. What was your authorial intent?
Valenti: I wanted people to understand that this is the abuse you get when you do this work. Not to contextualize it. The way I presented that stuff was sort of jokey at first, as a way to take away power, which was helpful in a way but it is not necessarily useful anymore.
Rumpus: Are there other writers you’d recommend who you feel open up this conversation?
Valenti: Read anything that arouses curiosity and desire in you and makes you ask questions about what it is to be a woman in the world. For me, it’s books by Joan Didion and Raymond Carver. So not necessarily only feminist books but any books that open up important issues and make you question the status quo, culture, identity, and your own desire.
Rumpus: Speaking of important conversations, for the Guardian, you wrote a letter to your fifteen-year old self (and you were sweet and forgiving). What advice would you give to millenials, who are notoriously non-confrontational?
Valenti: That it’s okay to be messy and to fuck up. It’s okay to take up space while you are being messy. Feeling comfortable taking up space in an imperfect society is hard. I would encourage them to center and figure out what they want, especially when everyone is trying to tell them what they want. Take a beat. Figure out who you are, what you want—not what other people want from you.
Rumpus: What would you say to a female high school student about navigating a sexist world, and how to discover her sexuality in general?
Valenti: Lately, I’m thinking a lot about, in parenting and in my writing, how to create a language about this in a way that is attractive and approachable to this age group. I can teach my daughter about not talking to strangers but I can’t teach her about how to succeed in a sexist world or even how to exist as a body in a sexist world. I want to begin by asking girls what they want and why they want it? Interrogating that. If this is the sex life you want, what makes you think you want that? I imagine the only way to authentically get at sexuality is by asking those questions.
Author photograph © Leslie Hassler.