By Melinda Guerra
Sometimes when I sleep, I dream I am being attacked by a man. I try my hardest to run, to fight, but it’s like attempting to sprint underwater: no matter how hard I try, the resistance is too great and none of my limbs will respond. I try to scream, but nothing comes out–no sound at all except for, sometimes, the faintest echo of a whisper. In these moments, the powerlessness is overwhelming: my mind is wide awake and straining to engage fight or flight, but my body and vocal cords are entirely unresponsive.
This, for me, is–often–what being a woman is.
I grew up before we taught kids it’s okay to want to high-five someone instead of hug them, before bodily autonomy was an understood part of puberty conversations, before consent fit into sex ed. My parents and the other adults in my life were good people; they loved me, they wanted me to grow up to be kind, to be respectful, to be a strong woman and an independent thinker. I love my parents. I grew up to be each of those things they wanted. Also? I’m raising a child now, and I reinforce the right of bodily autonomy constantly. We talk more often about consent than about being respectful. I want her to know, in the core of her being, that no one has the right to touch her without her permission, that she is the expert on her own identity, and that “boys will be boys” has never been–and will never be–an excuse for anything. When I was assaulted the “first” time, it wasn’t really the first time. The “first” sexual assault came after my “no” had been repeatedly ignored, my “stop” had meant nothing, and I’d adopted the resignation that allows a thing to happen because we are so tired of being manipulated and ignored, and just want it to be over. Still, when it happened, I wasn’t ready to call even that sexual assault, because I’d bought into “boys will be boys.” My child will not buy into this lie. She will understand enthusiastic consent that moves beyond simply no means no, both for now when her answers are about hugs and kisses, and for later when her answers are about more.
I want for her body to be a thing she knows and loves and celebrates, for it to be a welcomed friend who carries her through her days, rather than a thing she has to find a way to hide or cover or apologize for. To be a woman in 2017 America is, as one friend put it, to “feel like we have a target on our backs.” I can’t make this less true for my kid, but I can make sure she has the language to understand and fight it when she chooses.
Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object is an exploration of what it is to live as a woman in a culture that has sexism woven into its core. She writes about the toll this sexism takes on women, how we respond to it and, more specifically, how she responds to it. Women live constantly under a bombardment of sexist messaging and sexual assaults, and in a culture that condones both, if not explicitly, then implicitly. She suggests that maybe rather than immediately turning every shitty, sexist thing into fuel for our fight, we can instead acknowledge that it’s shitty and that it shouldn’t be this way.
Despite the well-worn myth that feminists are obsessed with victimhood, feminism today feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence. Of positivity and possibility.
Even our sad stories, of which there are many, have their takeaway moral lessons or silver lining that allows us to buck up, move on, keep working.
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.
Valenti’s book is comprised of three sections that each, roughly, tell the story of a portion of her life: her growing up years, her college years and young adulthood, and her marriage and parenthood. Her first section begins with an explanation of suffering in her family: that the females (for the most part, the rape and abuse skips her male relatives) endure rapes, molestation, abuse, and groping by strangers. This legacy, this reality of violence against the females in her family, made her joke throughout her pregnancy about wanting a boy and makes her want to find a way to protect her daughter from this thing. Valenti shares her own scars from her childhood that affected the way she felt about herself: the insecurity she felt in her own looks when compared to her sister, the confusion as a preteen when a male friend put his hand on her breast during a movie (wasn’t he supposed to kiss her first?), the forced awareness–as a preteen and teen–of men on train cars in subways because of how often they flashed her or pressed up against her when she was on her way to school or from school. This constant assault of the senses by strangers, betrayal of respect and consent by friends and acquaintance, is too often part of what it is to be female.
Most of my female friends can tell you stories about these things. Men are sexually assaulted and abused too, and Valenti doesn’t deny that; abuse anywhere is gross and wrong and must be fought against. For some segments of our population–women, in Valenti’s book–the abuse is pervasive and constant, a stream of microaggressions we first encounter when we are young, and which we cannot escape. My first time calling 9-1-1 was on behalf of some elementary-aged girls who’d come running up to me on the sidewalk, letting me know there was a man who’d just flashed them, asking if I could please help them because they didn’t know what to do. I’ve been on multiple trains where my commuter trance was broken by the awareness that a man next to me or across from me was–right in public–jacking himself off while leering at me or at the teenager next to him, or at the woman preparing to exit the train. I’ve moved to small town Ohio and I still ignore honking horns or people yelling to get my attention; it’s not because I’m anti-social (as I repeatedly have to explain to friends here) but because I have it deeply ingrained that we do not respond to honking horns and people calling to you, that we ignore whispers and we give wide berth to strangers passing us on the sidewalk.
We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on.
We’re trapped in between huge bodies unable to move, too afraid to yell or bring attention to ourselves. We are trapped on the train, in the crowd, in the street, in the classroom. If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where is it that we’re not forced? The idea that these crimes are escapable is the blind optimism of men who don’t understand what it is to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force. What it feels like to see a stranger smiling while rubbing himself or know that this is the price of doing business while female. That public spaces are not really public for you, but a series of surprise private moments that you can’t prevent or erase.
And so you put your headphones on and look straight ahead and don’t smile even when they tell you to and just keep walking.
With the second part of her book, we move into Valenti’s young adulthood. She writes about transferring to a new college, graduating (barely), and getting into a string of mostly crummy relationships. In college, she was raped by a man she’d thought was a friend, and she struggled with calling the assault what it was. The stories and the revolving door of men can seem like almost any young person’s tales from their twenties, and I found myself wondering, at parts, if maybe we didn’t need quite so many of these stories to make her point. But then I went back to a section very early in the book, where she writes about the frustration of living in a world where strangers flash you and men mutter things under their breath at you, where a high school teacher asks you out as soon as you’ve graduated, and people on the internet write entire articles about your breasts in a particular photo of you with a group of other people. She writes that at some point, with all of this, her survival instinct took over. There wasn’t a conscious decision, but she responded to the constant objectification by eschewing victimhood while she “became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.”
This is a sentiment I understand, and one that helped maintain my interest through the points in the middle of the book where I sometimes wished for more feminist theory or musing on what it means to live in light of the fact that people so easily reduce you to a sex object. After a while, I understood this was her response. It wasn’t clean and it wasn’t the kind of concise tips I’d give to someone else stumbling under the weight of the reality of objectification, but it was a response and–more importantly–it was her response. Valenti has a couple of pages in the first section of the book dedicated to the violence women live through in a culture that is constantly dehumanizing them. She explains that many women are encouraged to point and laugh in an effort to refuse the offenders the attention and satisfaction they so crave. But even this insistence on rolling with the punches requires a kind of strength difficult to maintain under constant assault. So we pick how we respond. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision (whether confronting the harassers or ignoring them) and sometimes we find we’ve lived a portion of our life in subconscious response: for Valenti, she spent a series of years doing her best to own her own sexuality and live on her terms as much as she could. Still, by the time she has a platform and the trolls that come with it, she is harassed online like she was in person as a kid. Trying to figure out how to cope with and respond to these things doesn’t really become much easier.
It is easy to pretend this is funny. That it rolls off your back. Online especially, where sexists misspell regularly and sound ridiculous and silly. And so I will answer your obnoxious tweet calling me a whore or a cunt with a GIF of Jennifer Lawrence giving a sarcastic thumbs-up. I will mock your misspellings. I will make a joke of them. Because it’s what people want to see–that you can handle this hate in stride.
In the same way that as a teenager I knew what men liked and became an expert in feigning whatever it was they wanted to see, now I do the same for everyone else. You perform your strength, your sense of humor, your personality so that it is palatable, easily consumed in small, sweet, bite-sized pieces. The internet is good for that.
In the third and final section of her book, Valenti explores her marriage and motherhood. She writes about the suggestion that, in response to horrible things trolls say online, she is supposed to feel sorry for them; despite her best intentions, she simply hates them, and knowing she “should be the bigger person” doesn’t change that. To exist as a woman in a public space is to be subject to a barrage of things people–often men–will say; living in this reality is not an easy thing. After several years of the hateful comments and rhetoric she faces for being a woman who speaks and writes, she gives birth to a daughter who spends eight weeks in ICU before being well enough to be released, having reached four pounds in total weight. With her husband Andrew, Valenti sees a therapist for her anxiety. Their daughter, an articulate child who won’t stop speaking when she’s with adults she feels close to, is plagued with anxiety that strikes her silent in front of peers and strangers. In spite of the therapy visits and conversations with researchers and pleading for her child to talk, her daughter’s anxiety won’t let that happen. For Valenti, this feels like proof that while their daughter has gotten many good and strong characteristics from Andrew, the anxiety and fear feel like traits Valenti has somehow–despite herself–passed on.
The book ends with eleven pages of endnotes: emails, Facebook messages, and Tweets directed to or at her between 2008 and 2015. The content would be familiar to people who have interacted with internet trolls, and especially to women who have lived the experience of having male strangers contact them to make sexist comments or threats. These range from comments about her looks to “GET BACK IN THE KITCHEN AND MAKE ME DINNER,” to over fifty lines of “fuck you” repeated over and over by one person, to hopes that her “children will get violently, brutally raped,” to hopes she gets run over by a truck. I am sure some would push back at her choosing to end her book this way, as if she were giving the harassers the last word. I appreciate the choice she made to include these pages. It’s a way of saying “if you don’t believe the last 192 pages of this book, here are some direct quotes–maybe this will help.”
Sexism is pervasive, and living under the constant weight of it is exhausting. Valenti’s book is a great exploration of what it means to recognize the toll it takes on us and continue to live anyway. Her musings on feminist theory, coupled with her own story of what it has meant for one particular woman to grow up in a culture that condones an atmosphere of harassment of its women, make this book absolutely worth the read.