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Against ‘Survival Feminism’

Jessica Valenti's memoir refuses to blame the victims of sexual harassment.

Milosz_G / Shutterstock

I must have been five or six when it happened the first time. As I peered from the back window of my mother’s hatchback, my gaze met that of a man whose motorbike had pulled up beside it. He looked directly at me before licking his lips and sticking his tongue in and out. Then, bending his face toward me, he pursed his lips together, and made a kissing sound. As it was summer, my window was down and he was close enough to reach inside.

SEX OBJECT: A MEMOIR by Jessica Valenti
Dey Street Books, 224 pp., $25.99

The future held many more moments like this one, and worse. I convinced myself that I didn’t care, not about public violations or about other more private ones. If I pushed them aside, I believed, these incidents would lose their invasive power over my life.

It is precisely this myth—that violations buried are violations dead—that Jessica Valenti dissects with precision in her memoir Sex Object. The book accounts for the violations most women (and indeed Valenti herself) have been taught to put away, to chalk up as the costs of survival in a male world. We hear of the time a man exposed himself to her as she waited on a train platform; of when she touches the back of her jeans and finds them covered with the semen of a man standing behind her on a crowded train; of being nearly dragged into the car of a man while walking to the first day of a coveted internship at a magazine. After the last incident, Valenti takes refuge at her Aunt’s house, where she gets a shot of bourbon so she can “collect herself.” She weeps, blaming herself aloud for being stupid enough to step off the curb, and her aunt says, “Yes, you were.”

It’s a familiar message, repeated often by aunts and mothers and friends and sisters around the world. The assumption is that women in public spaces must necessarily play defense, putting aside their expectations of equal treatment and safety, when confronted by an unsafe, male-dominated reality. This sort of survival feminism preaches hyper-awareness and constant risk-assessment. At the same time, it substantiates (albeit unintentionally) the premise that men will be men, groping and exposing, raping and molesting, and women must modify, rationalize, forget. To make being objectified more palatable, being a sex object is edified into an affirmation of attractiveness, something to covet and court, even if its price is being reduced to a thing. And as Valenti points out, self and identity are only partially created by ourselves. Treated as objects, women begin to treat themselves as objects.

The author of six books and a columnist for the Guardian, Valenti’s writing has been a tentpole of feminist debate for the last ten years. Her 2007 book Full Frontal Feminism took to task young women who disavow the “feminist” label. Feministing, the online community she founded in 2004, describes itself as “the gateway to the feminist movement for young people” devoted to “elevating the work of emerging feminist thinkers.” It has done just that, providing a venue for discussions that highlight not only the problems the movement faces from without, but also from within. Discussions on intersectionality, the connected roots of sexism with forms of race and class discrimination have found a home at Feministing, helping to construct a feminism that is not simply revived but also inclusive.

Valenti faces constant harassment for her position: A study by the Guardian of 1.4 million comments blocked by moderators since 1999, revealed Valenti to be the most harassed contributor to their site. In the column she wrote following the Guardian tabulation, Valenti talks candidly about the toll that online harassment, including rape and death threats, imposes on women who choose to take on sexism in the public sphere. As she says: “Imagine showing up to work just to run the gauntlet of hundreds of people telling you how worthless you are.” With her words, Valenti has fostered a heightened awareness of male sexual aggression on the internet, not least its construction as a site of feminist resistance where women can coalesce, connect and call out the many social forces that construct a world still quite hostile to half its population.

The appeal of Valenti’s memoir lies in her ability to trace objectification through her own life, and to trace what was for a long time her own obliviousness to it. The little girl objectified by predatory men grows into the young woman who imagines her own objectification as a means of power—the post-feminist posture, flirted with by the third wave. She hugs the lecherous teacher for a better grade, and years later seduces a boy she has long liked with a hand job, writing triumphantly in her journal, “I am the woman. I am so fucking fly.”

As girl becomes woman, sex becomes a currency, and then a necessary factor in the assessment of increasingly precarious self-worth. Objectification, Valenti reveals, is not an occasional descent into flirtation and coquetry, but a foundation on which everything else is constructed. An ex-boyfriend rapes her while she is passed out drunk, and Valenti does not report him. When she wakes up, still drunk, and still in his apartment, she makes a joke: “Uh isn’t this date rape?” She forces him to order her a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries. There are no more delusions of feminist victory.

In her essay “When We Dead Awaken,” the feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote that for women,

revision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction is more than an act of cultural history; It is an act of survival.

Sex Object is such an act of revision. Valenti’s text is her life and in its literary rendition is the story of transformation, of a woman asking herself “what would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”

Sharp and prescient, Sex Object is also an antidote to the fun and flirty feminism of selfies and self-help that has been the mainstay of the early 2000s. As Valenti says, “the feminism that is popular right now is using optimism and humor to undo the damage that sexism has wrought,” taking Amy Schumer, Beyonce, and Sheryl Sandberg for its heroines. Along with Andi Zeisler’s recent book We Were Feminists Once—about the t-shirt slogan-style commodification of feminism and female empowerment—Valenti’s book is a long awaited corrective.