Am­biva­lence ag­i­tates fem­i­nist ex­pe­ri­ence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephanie Van Schilt

Jes­sica Valenti is a US-based columnist for The Guardian, a mother, wife, au­thor and founder of the long-run­ning web­site Fem­i­nist­ing.com. If her fifth book, Sex Ob­ject: A Mem­oir, is any­thing to go by, the role she most pub­licly self-iden­ti­fies with is “fem­i­nist”.

Sex Ob­ject is Valenti’s first foray into mem­oir. Openly trep­i­da­tious about the process of mov­ing into the realm of the per­sonal es­say, she comes across as am­biva­lent, though it is a frustrated, care­ful am­biva­lence. Be­cause rage, as she notes, is al­most al­ways con­sid­ered neg­a­tive when aligned with the fem­i­nist move­ment. While she may have been ten­ta­tive and se­lec­tive with her omis­sions and in­clu­sions here, she’s def­i­nitely not shy in drop­ping the ‘‘loaded’’ fword when re­fer­ring to her­self.

As the de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive ti­tle makes clear, Sex Ob­ject pri­mar­ily fo­cuses on Valenti’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a sex­u­ally ob­jec­ti­fied woman. There is an as­sump­tion the reader is fa­mil­iar with Valenti’s work (“as a fem­i­nist”), so is seek­ing in­sight into how cer­tain el­e­ments of her life have shaped her.

The first two-thirds of the book fo­cus on Valenti’s im­age as a sex­ual be­ing. Since child­hood she has felt in com­pe­ti­tion with her per­fect sis­ter. Fix­ated on the size of her nose, the colour of her hair and the happy in­tro­duc­tion of breasts early in her ado­les­cent life, she ex­plains how her self-worth was formed by how oth­ers see her — an idea that ex­plores the construction of fe­male iden­tity in a pa­tri­ar­chal world but doesn’t ac­tively re­buke it.

Through her teenage and adult years Valenti par­ties a bit, gets caught up with the wrong crowd and in­evitably, time and again, winds up sleep­ing with the wrong guy. Men tend to be the fo­cus of Sex Ob­ject, be it a high school or col­lege boyfriend, or a long term coke-ad­dled part­ner, or her (and I quote) “fem­i­nist” hus­band.

The idea that men gen­er­ate the nar­ra­tive pull seems an­ti­thet­i­cal to Valenti’s over­all op­ti­mistic form of pop fem­i­nism. In her previous book The Pu­rity Myth: How Amer­ica’s Ob­ses­sion with Vir­gin­ity is Hurt­ing Young Women, Valenti writes: “the hope I have for women: that we can start to see our­selves — and en­cour­age men to see us — as more than just the sum of our sex­ual parts: not as vir­gins or whores, as mothers or girl­friends, or as ex­ist­ing only in re­la­tion to men, but as peo­ple with in­de­pen­dent de­sires, hopes and abil­i­ties.”

Yet Sex Ob­ject tends to ex­ist in re­la­tion to men on most of its pages. Per­haps that’s Valenti’s point, though. In the most prob­lem­atic chap­ter, flip­pantly ti­tled Grilled Cheese, Valenti re­veals her “shame­ful un­cer­tainty” in re­gards to an en­counter with a sex­ual part­ner who “f..ked me while I was un­con­scious”. She claims to have never called this “an as­sault” even though it goes against her phi­los­o­phy.

“I want to be un­equiv­o­cal be­cause my politics call for it and be­cause I know that by not [call­ing it rape] I am open­ing my­self up to crit­i­cism on all sides. I know that if any young woman told me the same story I would not hes­i­tate to call it what it is ... Maybe I’m just ex­hausted of feel­ing like an ar­biter of sex­ual vi­o­lence, even for my­self.”

This in­sid­i­ous am­biva­lence is fraught. Ig­nor­ing her own as­sault is dab­bling in dan­ger­ous and ir­re­spon­si­ble fem­i­nist ter­ri­tory. She’s fun­da­men­tally not up­hold­ing — and liv­ing — by her much-spouted creed.

In Bad Fem­i­nist, Rox­ane Gay taught us that it’s pos­si­ble to be a flawed ac­tive mem­ber of po­lit­i­cal move­ments. Gay — whose work Valenti ad­mires — de­lib­er­ately in­ves­ti­gates this idea through her de­pic­tion of lived ex­pe­ri­ence. In Sex Ob­ject, Valenti, on the other hand, seems to want Marie An­toinette’s cake and her head too.

At times Valenti verges on the epiphanic, build­ing a chap­ter to a par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing point be­fore shut­ting the es­say down with an abrupt clos­ing sen­tence. As a work­ing columnist, this style must come across as nat­u­ral; to a mem­oir reader its jar­ring. That’s why the best chap­ters are most ten­u­ously linked to the idea of sex and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion. The fi­nal third of the book re­veals in­sight into psy­cho­log­i­cal de­tach­ment, moth­er­hood, gen­dered in­ter­gen­er­a­tional hang­overs and hang-ups, and her re­la­tion­ship with her only child, a pre­ma­turely born daugh­ter. Com­pared with these frank ac­counts, the rest of Sex Ob­ject — with its fo­cus on sex, drugs and mid­dle-class re­bel­lion — feels in­nocu­ously per­for­ma­tive.

Sex Ob­ject is a very spe­cific vi­sion and ex­pe­ri­ence of life grow­ing up in the US by a white, mid­dle-class, pre­dom­i­nantly east coast-dwelling fe­male. Save for its fi­nal third, it isn’t provoca­tive in po­lit­i­cal mes­sag­ing; it’s popfem­i­nism is pack­aged as some­thing deeper or, in in­ter­net speak, peak white fem­i­nism.

In a re­view of Lena Dun­ham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Valenti crit­i­cised the mem­oir for not be­ing con­fes­sional enough. She has, ad­mirably, back­tracked on her cri­tique, but here it’s not fol­lowed up by prac­tice in ac­tion. Sex Ob­ject falls to the bot­tom of the grow­ing fem­i­nist mem­oir (or as I like to say, fem­moir) read­ing pile, no mat­ter how “fem­i­nist” Valenti claims to be. is a writer and critic.

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