Sex Object: A Memoir

Jessica Valenti. Morrow/Dey Street, $25.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-06-243508-8
Reviewed by Laura Bates.

Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” asks Valenti, founder of the website Feministing, in the introduction to her new memoir. In a confident and compelling volume that sweeps readers along from her childhood in Queens, N.Y., to her experiences of motherhood and her career as a celebrated feminist writer, Valenti attempts to answer the question—not by imagining that other “version of myself that never existed” but by setting out a bold and unflinching road map of her journey to becoming the woman she is.

Valenti has a knack for making the mundane moments in her life startling and the shocking ones routine, which is exactly what is needed in a book that seeks to force its readers to reevaluate the norms of sexism and sexual violence that have become our wallpaper without our even noticing. Her style is fluid and engaging, drawing the reader in with deftly drawn anecdotes and demonstrating different insidious forms of gender inequality through the vivid recreation of her own lived experience.

The choice to order the book nonchronologically, starting with the description of her first abortion and jumping between childhood taunts and marital pressures, between her own experiences and those of her mother and grandmother, is a powerful decision that allows the stories to breathe. Valenti is offering something that is more than the sum of its parts. By presenting these vivid snapshots in a messy and disjointed way she invites the reader to examine the gendered implications of each episode, the better to understand their cumulative impact on her as a woman.

In many places, the anecdotes speak eloquently for themselves. Occasionally (as in the description of her mother’s offer to talk with her about birth control as “a well-meaning lie”) the lack of context can become frustrating for readers, leaving some sketches feeling like empty examples of a wider point we haven’t quite made out.

Valenti is at her best when she combines memoir and feminist analysis in a way that feels enlightening and unforced—for example, in the chapter where she allows herself the space fully to explore her own discomfort and socialized guilt at the come-ons of a married male friend, and takes us with her as she comes to the realization that “it makes me feel disgusting and cheap—even though it was not me who said the cheap thing.”

Valenti’s book is a memoir and as such a very specific story of her own unique experience. It might not, therefore, be considered a vehicle to establish wider conclusions about the systemic effects of misogyny across a spectrum of different women’s lives. But as a memoir, it is enough that it tells one woman’s story, and in its unwavering bravery, it is powerful enough to stand alone. Her descriptions of harassment, sexism, and sexual assault embody the truth she articulates in her first chapter: “Recognizing suffering is not giving up and it’s not weak.” It is strong, and it does an important service for others who suffer too. (June)

Laura Bates is author of the forthcoming book Everyday Sexism (St. Martin’s/Dunne, Apr.).

Reviewed on: 03/14/2016
Release date: 06/01/2016
Ebook - 224 pages - 978-0-06-243510-1
MP3 CD - 978-1-5047-3545-2
Compact Disc - 978-1-5047-3543-8
Downloadable Audio - 978-0-06-247164-2
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-06-243509-5
Compact Disc - 978-1-5047-3544-5
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