The burdens of being a sex object
British feminist Caitlin Moran recently appeared on National Public Radio and asked listeners to think about the world “feminism.” Some women find the term alienating and actively reject the label.
For Moran, to call oneself a feminist is a no-brainer.
She points out, “A – do you have a vagina? And B – do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you are a feminist.”
Feminism is the new F-word, and a concept that takes on new meaning with the nomination of Hillary R. Clinton.
The favorite slurs against Clinton are words like bitch, a slur printed on T-shirts available at the RNC.
The most colorful derogatory terms leveled against Donald Trump are Drumpf or Oompa Loompa, if one puts the comparisons to Hitler aside.
The language towards Clinton carries a heavier weight, and many say that gender is what weighs the most.
It is in the climate of heightened language and gender that Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.org, released a memoir earlier this year. In “Sex Object”, Valenti writes about a lifetime of living with the peculiar realities of having a vagina in American society — and what happens if a vagina comes with a feminist label.
Valenti is a columnist for “The Guardian,” and the author of four previous books on feminism and women’s issues. In “Sex Object,” she takes a revealing look at the insecurities that determined her selfworth.
She admits that while she gained public popularity as a feminist icon, she was caught in a cycle of promiscuity and drug use that ran counter to her public persona.
Valenti had internalized the cultural norm of women as sex objects.
Valenti, who grew up in New York City, writes about one sexualization after another. There is the middle school teacher who offered to raise her grade if she gave him a hug, the random man ejaculating on her in New York City subway. There is the constant onslaught of street harassment.
She offers her story as a case study demonstrating how sexism can brainwash the most enlightened woman, even the most liberated, to believe she is nothing if she isn’t an object to be consumed by men.
This tension is a struggle women know well.
Many women on college campuses will see their own story in “Sex Object.” As granddaughters of the sexual revolution, millennial women are told to own their sexuality, yet will be slut-shamed for doing so. Meanwhile, studies suggest that 21 percent of undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault (let’s be fair: men are assaulted on college campuses, too).
Valenti’s story demonstrates that women are still treated as sex objects. The weight of it all impacts the way women operate in the world.
Yet, Valenti’s personal story celebrates old-school feminism where liberation is tied to our vaginas and what we do with them.
After a while, the reader becomes exhausted with the barrage of one bad intimacy after another, to the point that one wonders if the Valenti is overly invested in the idea of victimhood.
And, as familiar as Valenti’s story may feel to readers, she represents a middle class, white American feminism where her biggest dilemma is being oppressed by society’s sexualization of women.
Her feminism doesn’t account for other versions, primarily from Women of Color, who struggle against structural and cultural modes oppression and discrimination.
Black and brown bodies are criminalized by merely existing. For marginalized women, feminism isn’t just about equality: it’s paradigm shift that interrogates language and power. These women may define feminism through motherhood, faith, queerness and activism (among other things) rather than low selfesteem that leads to making poor sexual choices.
Valenti’s obligation is to speak to her experiences and to her truth. She is brave enough to tell her story — and to remind the reader that feminism still matters. The generation of women who reject the label of “feminist” take for granted that they are the biggest recipients of the work women did decades ago on their behalf.
The most valuable lesson of Valenti’s writing, however, isn’t her struggle with sexual objectification. She eloquently demonstrates the risk women take as public feminists. Valenti closes “Sex Object” by reprinting some of the online harassment she’s received throughout her career.
(The Guardian conducted a study of 1.4 million comments blocked from their site, and 8 of the 10 writers receiving the most were women. Valenti topped the list).
Words such as bitch and cunt are the tamer insults against Valenti for writing things like this:
“Women are raising children, picking up socks, and making sure you feel like a man by supporting you when you need it and looking sexy (but not trying too hard, because that would be pathetic). We’re being independent and bad bitches while wearing fucking lipstick and heels so as not to offend your delicate aesthetic sensibility, yet even just the word ‘feminist’ pisses you off. How dare we.”
In July 2017, Valenti announced on Twitter she was leaving social media for a while after receiving rape and death threats against her 5-year-old daughter.
Regardless what version of feminism (or politics) a woman embraces, Valenti’s “Sex Object” reminds us that the consequences are real.
Indeed, the “F-word” still matters. !
DEONNA KELLI SAYED is a Greensboro-based writer and storyteller. Learn more about Deonna at dksayed. com. “Sex Object” by Jessica Valenti is available in paperback at Scuppernong Books.