Ambivalence agitates feminist experience
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.