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Authors: Jessica Valenti

Sex Object

BOOK: Sex Object
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For Layla and Zoe.

If the world is not a different one for you,

I hope you both will change it.

No pressure.


I am what I am. To look for reasons is beside the point.

—Joan Didion,
Play It as It Lays


All women live in objectification the way fish live in water.

—Catharine A. MacKinnon

wolves—tall beasts the size of skyscrapers that walked on their hind legs around New York City blocks, chasing and eventually devouring me. My mother says she made the mistake of bringing me to see a live performance of
Little Red Riding Hood
when I was a toddler, and that the man dressed as the wolf terrified me. I started having the dreams almost immediately after the play and they lasted well into high school; I don't remember when they stopped.

Over the last few years, as I've dug deeper into my feminism, become an author and a mother, I've found myself thinking about those dreams a lot. It was just a play, just a man in a scary costume—yet my young brain was impacted indelibly.

Given all that women are expected to live with—the leers that start when we've barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for—I can't help but wonder what it all has done to us. Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves.

I started to ask myself:
Who would I be if I didn't live in a world that hated women?
I've been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, but I did realize that I've long been mourning this version of myself that never existed.

This book is called
Sex Object
not because I relish the idea of identifying as such: I don't do it coyly or to flatter myself. I don't use the term because I think I'm particularly sexy or desirable, though I've been called those things before at opportune moments.

For a long time, I couldn't bear to call myself an author. I've written books, yet the word still felt false rolling off my tongue. The same thing happened when I got married—“wife” seemed alien, but that's what I was, someone's wife. Unlike “author” or “wife,” “sex object” was not an identity I chose for myself as much as it was one pushed upon me from twelve years old on; I admit my use of the term is more resignation than reclamation. Still, we are who we are.

I have girded myself for the inevitable response about my being too unattractive to warrant this label, but those who will say so don't realize that being called a thing, rather than a person, is not a compliment. That we might think of it that way is part of the problem.

Being a sex object is not special. This particular experience of sexism—the way women are treated like objects, the way we sometimes make ourselves into objects, and how the daily sloughing away of our humanity impacts not just our lives and experiences but our very sense of self—is not an unusual one. This object status is what ties me to so many others. This is not to say that women all experience objectification in the same way; we do not. For some, those at the margins, especially, it's a more violent and literal experience than I could imagine or explain.

What I know is that despite my years of writing about feminism, I've never had the appropriate language to describe what it has meant to live with these things: The teacher who asked me on a date just a few days after I graduated high school. The college ex-boyfriend who taped a used condom to my dorm room door, scrawling “whore” across my dry-erase board. The Politico reporter who wrote an article about my breasts.

The individual experiences are easy enough to name, but their cumulative impact feels slippery.

A high school teacher once told me that identity is half what we tell ourselves and half what we tell other people about ourselves. But the missing piece he didn't mention—the piece that holds so much weight, especially in the minds of young women and girls—is the stories that
other people tell us about ourselves
. Those narratives become the ones we shape ourselves into. They're who we are, even if so much of it is a performance.

This book is about more than the ways in which I grew up feeling sexually objectified, though—exploring as much would
be too pat. The feminism that's popular right now is largely grounded in using optimism and humor to undo the damage that sexism has wrought. We laugh with Amy Schumer, listen to Beyoncé tell us that girls run the world or Sheryl Sandberg when she tells us to
lean in

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.

My daughter, Layla, is shy but fierce. I don't know if it was the circumstances of her birth—born too early and too small, sick for so long—but she is a master in the art of survival and making herself known.

This year, in kindergarten, her class was told they were going to put on a performance of
The Three Little Pigs
. Parts would be given out by teachers, who told the children,
You get what you get and you don't get upset
. And so Layla got her part—the first little pig with the straw house. She was unhappy, and when I reiterated the teacher's rule about fairness and accepting
the roles we are cast in she told me clearly:
The only ones I want to be are the pig with the brick house or the wolf.
When I asked her why her answer was simple.

Because I want to be one of the ones who doesn't get eaten.

Now, her answer may have come from a place of fear—fairy tales feel real at this age—but still I was proud. My timid girl will not accept a role in which she will be devoured. She wants to live, to be the one doing the eating. I don't know that I can hope for much more.

I wrote this book because I want her to feel that way always.


She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.

—Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God


whose high school teacher asked her on a date. Not the only one who sat on the train across from a man who had “forgotten” to zip his fly on the day he “forgot” to wear underwear so that his penis, still tucked in his jeans, was fully visible. I remember joking about it with my father—the weirdo with his dick showing! He had to explain to me that it wasn't an accident.

I am not the only one who had a boyfriend who called me stupid. Not the only one who grew up being told to be careful around groups of boys, even if they were my friends. When I was twelve—the same year I saw my first penis on a New York City subway platform, two years before I would lose my virginity to a guy from Park Slope who filled in his sideburn gaps with his mom's eyeliner, and six years before I would fail out of college, tired of frat boys taping used condoms to my dorm room door—I started to have trouble sleeping. I felt sick all the time.

female suffering is linear: rape and abuse are passed down like the world's worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors, and fantastic senses of humor.

My mother told me about getting molested by a family friend as part of our “bad touch” talk. She called him her uncle. We were sitting on my twin bed in a room covered with glow-in-the-dark star stickers. She was eight when he came to the house with ice cream, and while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen he told her to come sit on his lap if she wanted some. She doesn't remember what he touched or how, just that it happened, and that she said nothing afterward. Some time later the neighborhood barber told my grandmother that if my mom would fold some towels for him, her haircut would be free. So my grandmother left while she worked, and he took my mother into the back room, where he rubbed his penis on her eight-year-old body.

When my grandmother was ten, her father died of alcoholism and she went to live with an aunt and uncle. When she was eleven, her uncle raped her. She told her aunt, and was sent to St. Joseph's Orphanage in Brooklyn the next day.

It's losing steam with each generation, so that's something. My grandmother's rape is my mother's molestation is me getting off relatively easy with abusive boyfriends and strangers fondling me on subways—one time without my realizing until I went to put my hands in my jeans' back pockets and there was semen all over them.

My aunts and mom joked about how often it happened to them when they were younger—the one man who flashed a jacket open and had a big red bow on his cock, the neighborhood pervert who masturbated visibly in his window as they walked to school as girls. (The cops told them the man could do whatever he wanted in his own house.) “Just point and laugh,” my aunt said. “That usually sends them running.”


But worse than the violations themselves was the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female—that it's not a matter of
something bad happens, but
how bad

Of course what feels like a matrilineal curse is not really ours
We don't own it; the shame and disgust belong to the perpetrators. At least, that's what the books say. But the frequency with which women in my family have been hurt or sexually assaulted starts to feel like a flashing message encoded in our DNA:
Hurt. Me.

My daughter is five and I want to inoculate her against whatever it is that keeps happening to the women in my family. I want Layla to have her father's lucky genes—genes that walk into a room and feel entitled to be there. Genes that feel safe. Not my out-of-place chromosomes that are fight-or-flight ready.

This is the one way in which I wish she was not mine.

When I was pregnant, I often joked about wanting a boy. A baby girl would turn into a teenage girl, and I remember the young asshole I was to my mother. But this is closer to the truth:
having a girl means passing this thing on to her, this violence and violations without end.

Because while my daughter lives in a world that knows what happens to women is wrong, it has also accepted this wrongness as inevitable. When a rich man in Delaware was given probation for raping his three-year-old daughter, there was outrage. But it was the lack of punishment that seemed to offend, not the seemingly immovable fact that
some men rape three-year-olds
. Prison time we can measure and control; that some men do horrible things to little girls, however, is presented as a given.

Living in a place that has given up on the expectation of your safety means walking around in a permanently dissociative state. You watch these things happen to you, you walk through them on the subway and on the street, you see them on the television, you hear them in music, and it's just the air you breathe, so you narrate the horror to yourself because to engage with it would be self-destruction.

I spoke on a panel once with a famous new age author/guru in leather pants and she said that the problem with women is that we don't “speak from our power,” but from a place of victimization. As if the traumas forced upon us could be shaken off with a steady voice—
as if we had actual power to speak from

Victimhood doesn't need to be an identity, but it is a product of facts. Some women heal by rejecting victimhood, but in a world that regularly tells women they're asking for it, I don't know that laying claim to “victim” is such a terrible idea. Recognizing suffering is not giving up and it's not weak.

“Something bad happened to me.” More accurately: “Someone did something bad to me.” This happened. This happens.

When this reality started to become more and more clear to me, as I grew breasts and took subways, watched movies and fucked boys, I didn't make a conscious decision not to lie down and die. But do I know that my survival instinct took over and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.

If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be. Over twenty years later, I still feel sick. I still can't sleep. But at least now I understand why.

shelters for it, counselors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know people who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide.

Yet despite all these thing we know to be true—despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments—we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.

We are sick people with no disease, given no explanation for our supposedly disconnected symptoms. When you catch a cold
or a virus, your body has ways of letting you know that you are sick—you cough, you get a fever, your limbs literally hurt.

But what diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers “pussy” in your ear on your way to work? What medicine can you take to stop being afraid that the cabdriver is not actually taking you home? And what about those of us who walk through all this without feeling any of it—what does it say about the hoops our brain had to jump through to get to ambivalence? I don't believe any of us walk away unscathed.

I do know, though, that a lot of us point and laugh. The strategy of my aunts and mother is now my default reaction when a fifteen-year-old on Instagram calls me a cunt or when a grown-up reporter writes something about my tits. Just keep pointing and laughing, rolling your eyes with the hope that someone will finally notice that
this is not very funny

Pretending these offenses roll off of our backs is strategic—
don't give them the fucking satisfaction—
but it isn't the truth. You lose something along the way. Mocking the men who hurt us—as mockable as they are—starts to feel like acquiescing to the most condescending of catcalls,
You look better when you smile
. Because even subversive sarcasm adds a cool-girl nonchalance, an updated, sharper version of the expectation that women be forever pleasant, even as we're eating shit.

This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore. Rolling with the punches and giving as good as we're getting requires that we subsume our pain under
a veneer of
I don't give a shit
. This inability to be vulnerable—the unwillingness to be victims, even if we are—doesn't protect us, it just covers up the wreckage.

But no one wants to listen to our sad stories unless they are smoothed over with a joke or nice melody. And even then, not always. No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests that it doesn't end. Without a pat solution, silver lining, or happy ending we're just complainers—downers who don't realize how good we actually have it.

Men's pain and existential angst are the stuff of myth and legends and narratives that shape everything we do, but women's pain is a backdrop—a plot development to push the story along for the real protagonists. Disrupting that story means we're needy or selfish, or worst of all, man-haters—as if after all men have done to women over the ages the mere act of
not liking them for it
is most offensive.

Yes, we love the good men in our lives and sometimes, oftentimes, the bad ones too—but that we're not in full revolution against the lot of them is pretty amazing when you consider this truth: men get to rape and kill women and still come home to a dinner cooked by one.

Somewhere along the way, I started to care more about what men thought of me than my own health and happiness because doing so was just easier. I bought into the lie that the opposite of “victim” is “strong.” That pointing and laughing and making it easier on everybody was the best way to tell our stories.

But if you are sick and want to be well, you need to relay the details of your symptoms: glossing over them ensures a lifetime of illness.

My daughter is happy and brave. When she falls down or gets hurt, the first words out of her mouth are always:
I'm all right, Mom. I'm okay.
And she is. I want her to be okay always. So while my refusal to keep laughing or making you comfortable may seem like a real fucking downer, the truth is that this is what optimism looks like. Naming what is happening to us, telling the truth about it—as ugly and uncomfortable as it can be—means that we want it to change. That we know it is not inevitable.

I want the line of my mother and grandmother to stop here.

BOOK: Sex Object
7.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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