In her latest book, Jessica Valenti recounts the numerous ways that she has been sexually objectified throughout her life. Encounters with frotteurs on the subway, inappropriate overtures from teachers, and abusive/predatory behaviors from boyfriends are just a few of the experiences that have shaped her life. From being a young girl in Queens who developed early to becoming a high profile, oft-trolled feminist, Valenti continues to deal with a lot.
In her introduction, Valenti writes, “Being a sex object is not special. This particular experience of sexism — the way women are treated like objects, the way we sometimes make ourselves into objects, and how the daily sloughing away of our humanity impacts not just our lives and experiences but our very sense of self — is not an unusual one…The individual experiences are easy enough to name, but their cumulative impact feels slippery.” She tries, though, compiling her lived experiences into the testimony that is this book.
And so I feel kind of bad going here considering the subject matter, but…this book is a hot mess. I wanted to like it, but at a very basic structural level, it’s a hot mess. Beyond her thesis, beyond the introduction, everything just falls flat.
The chapters are not chronological; even the content within each chapter often jumps from random childhood memories to whatever the theme for that chapter is, so they often feel like incohesive vignettes within vignettes. I can understand why she would feel objectified and victimized by numerous horrific encounters that were out of her control. But rather than feel like each chapter was building up to the “cumulative impact” she wrote about in her introduction, it started to feel more like a disjointed list, and that was frustrating from a reader’s perspective. With a few exceptions, it felt like she was just venting, ticking off experiences without offering any insights or references to a bigger picture. (Even now, upon further reflection, I still can’t figure out what her bigger picture even is.) I slogged through the first half.
The second half of the book reads slightly better, but it does not make any sense in terms of the “sex object” subject matter; she writes a lot about marriage and motherhood. Because of the preeclampsia and HELLP she developed while she was pregnant with her daughter, she had to have an emergency C-section three months prematurely. A lot of traumatizing things happened to her during and after labor, and she struggled with PTSD as a result.
If not “sex object” territory, the case could certainly be made that her body was treated like an object with no person attached, and an important conversation about this could have been tied to a larger conversation about misogyny and objectification. But it wasn’t, and from this point on, the book is mostly about her daughter. It ends with a focus on her daughter that’s completely unrelated to the “sex object” theme (she attempts to come full circle, but it doesn’t work for me). And then? The last chapter is followed by endnotes comprised of nothing but misogynistic messages Valenti has received over the years.
Like…what? (I was actually really annoyed by the ending.)
I think that The Point of the book is often just beneath the surface, but Valenti never actually dives for it and fully engages with it. It’s just a really frustrating book. Because truly, while I was reading I frequently thought, “OMG THAT’S HORRIBLE I’M SO SORRY THAT HAPPENED TO YOU.” This type of storytelling is important, and it’s hard. I respect her for it. But as a feminist text by a Feminist, as a part of a “big picture” conversation on sexual objectification, it adds little. And that is what makes it so frustrating.
Sex Object: A Memoir was released in June 2016 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.