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Jessica Valenti is the author of a new memoir, Sex Object. (Jessica Valenti)
Jessica Valenti is the author of a new memoir, Sex Object. (Jessica Valenti)

Sex Object author Jessica Valenti on why modern feminists are fed up Add to ...

There is a look that comes over mens’ faces right before they are about to say something horrible to you.

By the age of 14, Jessica Valenti could spot the look from a few blocks away. In her new memoir, Sex Object, the Guardian columnist paints a portrait of the “contemporary female experience” as it stands to her, navigating daily sexism on public transit, in school and throughout her relationships. On her subway rides from Queens, N.Y., Valenti describes hopping train cars to avoid flashers and gropers, until one day she comes home to find a stranger’s semen on her back pocket (she is in Grade 8). By high school she has sprouted a C-cup, which doesn’t go unnoticed by a beer-bellied teacher who corners Valenti for a hug for “a good grade.” In college, a jilted boyfriend scrawls “whore” on her dorm-room door, taping a used condom below it for good measure. As an adult, Valenti helps pioneer the feminist movement online, where her breasts are again noted, this time by a female Politico blogger who strafes Valenti for posing next to Bill Clinton in a tight sweater.

Sex Object is a dark and often revolting play-by-play of a lifetime of indignities, its author resolute not to gloss over what actually went down. In its chapters, organized loosely by life stages (“Measurements,” “Boys,” “College”), the memoir explores what routine sexual harassment does to a woman’s psyche. Valenti questions why modern feminists are told to “buck up” in the face of daily sexism, that their mothers and grandmothers (not to mention women in non-Western countries) survived far worse plights. The author argues that today’s feminists aren’t a wimpier breed than their predecessors – they’re just fed up. Valenti spoke to The Globe and Mail from Washington.

In the past month we read about a 16-year-old Brazilian girl who survived a gang rape only to be shamed and doubted for it; we’ve seen actress Amber Heard accused of fabricating domestic-assault allegations (and bruises) to extract some money from her ex, actor Johnny Depp; and we learned about a Stanford swimmer who got a slim six-month jail term for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a garbage dumpster – or what his father memorably termed “20 minutes of action.” As these stories come to light every week, feminists react vocally online. In turn, they are often criticized for “being obsessed with victimhood,” as you put it. Why is that?

People are uncomfortable with the truth of how far we still have to go. There is a myth of incredible progress for women on these issues. While we have made changes legislatively, culturally we still have a long way to go. That feels difficult for some people. It feels safer to believe that these things don’t happen that often, or that it only happens to bad people, or if you’re out late or dress a certain way or choose a bad boyfriend. People want to believe that bad things happen to women because of a set of choices they make, rather than that this is part of the world we live in.

Why do you think third-wave feminists have taken on abuse, harassment and assault – on the street, at work and in their relationships – much more loudly than their predecessors?

I don’t know that we have. It may feel that way because of online culture. Feminists have been talking about these issues for decades but they weren’t as much a part of the national conversation as they are now. Today, we’re also taking more heat.

What do you say to those who criticize modern-day feminists for being too fragile?

We’re in this feminist moment where everything is about “empowerment.” We’ve developed an allergy to ideas about victimhood. But in fact, people are being victimized. What was so powerful about the Stanford rape victim’s statement was that she was not letting go. She didn’t want to pass over the fact that she was victimized. She demanded that we listen and really consider it. If we’re able to vocalize these things without tremendous consequences then I think that we should. People need to hear it.

At the same time, some older feminists complain that young feminists take the struggles of the past for granted. That advocacy on issues such as voting and the pay gap has been replaced by a more individualized protest against “daily sexism”: the catcalls and manspreading on our commutes to work, the mansplaining when we arrive at the office. Is today’s feminism a navel-gazing feminism?

I don’t think that’s true at all. There are issues that tend to get the most media play but I talk to young feminists and see the activism that they’re undertaking. It’s absolutely on a huge swath of issues: the pay gap, abortion rights, racism, economic issues – and everyday sexism as well. Some younger women do come to feminism because of the personal first. The personal resonates with them, they can track their experiences with what feminists are talking about, and then it broadens out to the political.

These issues are so often thought about as private and individual issues but they are things happening on the street, in transit, at work, in schools, at universities. This is also a public-space issue. What does it mean when you can’t walk through the world with the same freedom as another person?

Despite the realities you describe, critics of young feminists suggest they toughen up. Is “bucking up” a cousin of that other trait we expect in women – people-pleasing?

It is. When I was being harassed online I had this habit of responding with a funny GIF or making fun of the person as a way of making it feel like it was rolling off my back. That’s strategic. You want to be the accessible feminist: You can be angry but not too angry, strident but not too strident.

But it’s exhausting and it’s not fully honest. On a broader cultural path, I wonder about what message we’re sending when we gloss over what exactly it does to us, the everyday toll, the cumulative impact of sexism.

You ask that interesting question in your memoir: “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 cab driver is not actually taking you home?” Are there long-term effects here?

We do know that there are tangible, psychological impacts for women who have increased anxiety and depression. Researchers have linked that to the ways that women are sexually objectified and harassed. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that being treated as less than in various ways is going to take a toll not just on your general health and well-being but on the way you develop as a person. Whether it’s severe harassment or a teacher making a comment at school, these all add up to something.

There’s a lot of discussion currently about “perfect victims.” In your book you introduce us to Carl, a guy you were sleeping with who once had sex with you while you were unconscious. You were upset but had him order you a grilled-cheese sandwich and fries afterward, then took his cab money and went home. You write that the experience didn’t have a lasting impact but that you feel “strange” about your own reaction. Can you tell me about that?

As a feminist it was important for me to include that essay because we have a misconception that if you are feminist and you write about these issues, you’re an expert, and that you always have the “right” or “perfect” reaction to a thing. That’s never true for any woman. You’re privy to the same cultural messages as everyone else is. That’s why it was also important to include the story about my mother telling me about her abortion. The first reaction in my head was, “But she’s such a good mom.” I was a feminist at this point. I knew that good moms had abortions. I knew what abortion stigma was, but still that was the immediate place that my head went. All of us are messy. There’s no such thing as a perfect reaction to any of this.

You remark that unlike women’s pain, “Men’s pain and existential angst are the stuff of myth and legends.” Again, this brought to mind the Stanford case, the rapist’s father mourning for his “broken” son and his tragic loss of appetite for steak. Is there a disparity in how we treat male and female suffering?

At a very base level, not everyone sees women as fully realized people and it’s hard to envision “a thing” having pain. There’s a reason that perpetrators get empathy, that the Stanford rapist was described as an “all-American swimmer” rather than a guy who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

When men tell their stories it’s often considered brave truth-telling about a universal experience. When women do it, it’s self-indulgent, navel-gazing, superficial bullshit. We’re told that our experiences are frivolous. That has to change.

You write, “We still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.” Are you coming closer to naming it?

I thought, there must be a German word for it! But I have been thinking about this a lot because I have a five-year-old daughter. I talk to her about sexism and explain things to her in the most age-appropriate ways possible. But I don’t have a language to describe the cumulative impact. I wish that I did. I want to be able to prepare her and arm her. I do worry about what I will say to her as she gets older.

Beyond that old line, “What if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter,” how do you build empathy in people who don’t deal with sexism much?

It’s hard: Who wants to think about that sort of thing everyday? It’s a lot to ask of people. But I think the way stories are being shared online now allows for some opting in to the conversation. You can choose to click on a link and read someone’s story. You can choose to share or engage. I think it’s helpful.

You believe that modern feminists who call out daily objectification are actually optimistic people. How so?

For me it means that I want things to change. Complaining about these issues, hammering them home and not letting things go, I do this because I believe that we have the capacity for change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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