It started on the subway, on her school commute. She was flashed, groped, and, once, ejaculated on. “I invested in a pair of headphones,” she reports, “so I wouldn’t listen to the things men say to 12-year-old girls on the subway.”
Jessica Valenti is a feminist writer, Feministing.com founder, and Guardian columnist. She seems, sometimes, like a factory for news-cycle appropriate takes: A feminist perspective on cheerleaders, a feminist perspective on bras, a feminist perspective on Christmas (“No, I will NOT wrap all the presents.”), etc. But sometimes just saying, “This is what happens to me,” is more effective than any kind of take, any reaction piece, any analysis of Donald Trump’s latest sexist comments. In Sex Object: A Memoir, Jessica Valenti testifies.
“I started seeing dicks so regularly on my school commute — behind newspapers, barely tucked into untucked jeans, or just the head peeking out of sweatpant waistbands — I started to assume every man on the subway was thinking about showing me his penis.”
School was no better: One teacher asked her out a few days after graduation. Another traded hugs for better grades. “It never occurred to me that school should be a sanctuary from the bullshit that was happening outside, the catcalls and subway flashers, the gropers and the perverts. This was just what men were like. This is just what being a girl was.”
I read Sex Object while waiting for the police to come to my house to take a statement about yet another thing that made me a little smaller, a little sadder, a little warier. It isn’t the individual instances that are crushing: One or two maniacs could be aberrations. Daily harassment works its way into your body as a dull nausea. When it’s really bad, the force is cumulative — saturating, inevitable, and exhausting, making the street feel like an essentially hostile place. The guy who catcalls you, the guy who follows you, the guy who gropes you, the guy on the train, all the guys on all the trains consolidate into a single, suffocating weight, a constant invisible presence behind you as you walk home at night.
Sex Object offers little redemption, and none of the familiar bubblegummy positive-thinking strategies that place the onus on women to magically think their way out of being told, on a daily basis, that public spaces are not for them.
It is a relief to read a book on harassment and violence that simply acknowledges, rather than exhorts: “Buck up!” “Lean in!” “Girl power!” These approaches can be useful, as Valenti acknowledges: “This is not just a survival technique but an evangelizing strategy, and a good one at that. But maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice by working so hard to move past what sexism has done to us rather than observe it for a while. Maybe it’s okay if we don’t want to be inspirational just this once.”
Maybe instead of solutions and angles and strategies, there is power in saying, simply, “This is how bad it is.”
It is really bad.
Sex Object opens with the subway flashers and closes with a short list of some of the things people online have sent to her over her years of writing about feminism:
“I hope some Mack truck crashes head on into you.”
“What you need is a vacation in Afghanistan.”
“I hope you perish in a gasoline explosion induced car crash.”
“Hope your children will get violently, brutally raped.”