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Sex Object: A Memoir

Sex Object: A Memoir

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Sex Object: A Memoir

4/5 (42 ratings)
189 pages
3 hours
Jun 7, 2016


New York Times Bestseller - An NPR Best Book of the Year

“Sharp and prescient… 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…Sex Object is an antidote to the fun and flirty feminism of selfies and self-help.” — New Republic

Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now, in a darkly funny and bracing memoir, Valenti explores the toll that sexism takes from the every day to the existential. 

Sex Object explores the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped Valenti’s adolescence and young adulthood in New York City, revealing a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation. 

In the tradition of writers like Joan Didion and Mary Karr, this literary memoir is sure to shock those already familiar with Valenti’s work and enthrall those who are just finding it.

Jun 7, 2016

About the author

JESSICA VALENTI is a columnist for The Guardian US where she writes about gender and politics. In 2004 she founded the award-winning, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.”? Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and Ms. She is the author of several books, including the national bestseller Full Frontal Feminism. Jessica lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • 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.

  • My father took me aside one day soon after and told me this: The things you do in your twenties are just things you do. But as you approach thirty what you do starts to become who you are. And there are some things you do not want to be forever.

  • Still, somehow, inexplicably, “man-hater” is a word tossed around with insouciance as if this was a real thing that did harm. Meanwhile we have no real word for men who kill women. Is the word just “men”?

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

  • Recognizing suffering is not giving up and it’s not weak.

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Sex Object - Jessica Valenti



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

—Catharine A. MacKinnon

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I HAD REOCCURRING NIGHTMARES ABOUT 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


IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO REALIZE I WAS NOT THE ONLY GIRL 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.

I KNOW IT’S CALLED THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE, BUT IN MY FAMILY, 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 if something bad happens, but when and 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.

WE KNOW THAT DIRECT VIOLENCE CAUSES TRAUMA—WE HAVE 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

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What people think about Sex Object

42 ratings / 7 Reviews
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Critic reviews

  • Jessica Valenti has made a name as one of the most prominent feminist voices of a new generation. In her memoir, she details sexual and psychological harassment she endured from men throughout her life. It's a sobering look at how sexism is still so present in women's everyday life.

    Scribd Editors
  • Jessica Valenti has made a name as one of the most prominent feminist voices of a new generation. In her memoir, she details sexual and psychological harassment she endured from men throughout her life. It's a sobering look at how sexism is still so present in women's everyday lives.

    Scribd Editors

Reader reviews

  • (3/5)
    The day this book (which I had pre-ordered) was released, it was in the 80s out. I was walking home from work wearing two tank tops and covered with a sweater, because even though I was walking 1.5 miles home (uphill) in 80 degree weather, I have big boobs, and those of us with big boobs know that hot weather clothing and a large chest don’t mix well if one wants to make it through the day without leers and snide comments. Of course, that’s not a guarantee that such comments and looks won’t come, as evidenced by the fact that on my way home, a man blocked my path, hovered about a foot away, made a move like he was going to walk away, then turned back with his hand out, making to grab my chest. He didn’t; instead he laughed and kept walking, while I told him to fuck off.

    Good times.

    Ms. Valenti’s memoir includes some similar stories, although her focus tends to be on her actions and reactions not necessarily to specific instances, but on how those instances are part of a larger, non-stop cacophony of shit that women deal with. Teachers who turn out to be creepers. Authority figures who don’t take threats to women seriously. Men who rape unconscious women but don’t really see anything wrong with it (*cough* Brock Turner *cough*), men who whip out their penises on subways or rub up against women on subways to get off (I, like Ms. Valenti, have experienced both of these things as well). Her own way of navigating this world involved drugs (mostly cocaine, and pot) and sex, at least as she has highlighted in this memoir. It follows her from youth through your daughter’s birth and beyond; however, I don’t think it actually really is fully chronological, although I could be wrong.

    I believe I understand what Ms. Valenti was going for in framing her memoir this way, but I’m not entirely sure this book is successful in that regard. Each individual essay is mostly okay, although they all jump around in tenses so often that I actually did find myself having trouble understanding them at times. The topic areas and what she said will likely stick with me, but the organization of this memoir made it hard for me to really feel like I was connecting to the material, or to the author. I adore Ms. Valenti’s writings – Full Frontal Feminism and The Purity Myth are two of my favorite books – but this one won’t be added to that list.
  • (4/5)
    A very honest depressing book. I couldn't read the devastating misogynistic hateful incomprehensible comments at the end - ones she had received from men.What is it with men who hate women? I just don't get it. Camille Paglia, outre as she is, has the only answer that has ever made sense to me: fear.And so that's my only complaint about this book - would have liked more of an exploration of this mystery.
  • (3/5)
    It was an interesting book to read. I was shocked what she had to go through, but couldn’t relate at all.
    As a gay, tomboy now working in a male-dominated field I experienced another form of sexism. That being said it’s probably still the sad truth for a lot of women and that’s why it’s an important book. It should be shocking to everyone female or male and especially the hateful comments at the end of the book made me shake me head in frustration.
    I however do not agree with everything she says, but I think that can be expected.
    I only gave it 3 stars, because I didn’t like the constant time jumps. I found it annoying and hard to follow.
    People interested in feminism should still read the book.
  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    The foundational question of this book is "Who would I be if I lived in a world that didn't hate women?" Valenti writes her memoir from the point of view of an object attempting to find the humanity is owed to her, but is inherently denied through the ignorance, aggression, and confounding logic of power systems. The stories within made me physically and emotionally sick. Obviously everyone should read it.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Powerful and revealing memoir. Valenti is brutally honest and bares her soul in this. I just have to shake my head when I see how hard it is for women to grow up in a world where men are assumed to have the right to hate and abuse women. All feminists need to read this, and those who aren't, should too, you just might learn something.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    2 people found this helpful

    Sex Object is not at all the book I thought it was going to be but I'm not entirely sure what I expected either. I had read Valenti's book Full Frontal Feminism a while back and had a sense of her style of feminism and that how she feels about the way women relate to men. Of course, not all feminism is about men but they are the half of the population and we need them for procreation.

    Still, I'm pretty sure I missed the "memoir" part of this book for a long time and thought it was another feminist commentary on the titled subject, which I am very interested in. There is a lot out there about the way women are viewed as sex objects and Valenti does get into it a bit in Full Frontal Feminism but I figured she had just dedicated the whole book to it this time. She is one of those writers for me that I'm always willing to see what she has to say. I don't perfectly agree with everything she says (change your name if you want to) but I do get what she's saying in a lot of ways and appreciate her point of view.

    Nevertheless, this is a memoir, not a feminist commentary on being treated like we were created specifically for the male gaze and usage by men. In the book, Valenti recounts all the ways she was made to feel like a sex object by those around her. The problem with the book and the title is that her experience is not that unique among women. Pervy teacher who just wants a hug for a good grade? Flashed or catcalled on the street? Talked about as if your sole reason for being is how much someone wants to have sex with you?

    Yep. I have either had similar experiences or known at least one person personally that has had it. These are not little pieces of the universe that Valenti happened to stumble onto because she was a slut or something. These are all a part of the female experience and what makes it obvious that we are still sex objects in a lot of ways to a lot of men. Even men who don't really believe women to be just sex objects will refer to us as such when we've pissed them off. And apologize profusely to the women in the room that they don't mean us, in my experience. Because it's the worst thing they can call women and there's really something wrong with that. Why is my worth directly correlated to whether or not you want to have sex me and whether or not I'm willing to? And why does that only last insofar as it's appropriate for me to want to?

    This is why we feminists call it a rigged system against us so much. It is. The experiences Valenti talks about in this book are all reasons why I love the idea of the Slut Walk and Reclaim the Night. All those things about women that so directly correlate our value to someone's views of who we should be having sex with, who we should want to have sex with, and whether or not we will have sex with them need to be eliminated.

    Well, there are two ways to equalize any given number, though. We can lower the one number to the other (as in men can stop looking at us this way) or raise the lower number up to meet the other, as in we could constantly reduce men to sex objects. They say they'll like it, but just as Valenti points out in the book, they don't really know what they're talking about. They like it when an available, attractive woman ogles them a bit in a way that doesn't feel threatening. The problem is that we are constantly assaulted by the more threatening kind of gaze in these circumstances. It's the kind of look that makes men worry about what happens to them in jail. Yeah, I don't really want to do that either. I've seen it happen, though, and I've known plenty of guys who are not in the habit of doing this, so maybe it will equalize one day....

    I'm not really counting on it happening in my lifetime, but I have hope for the new generation. I borrowed the audiobook from my library, read by the author. Click on the cover to be redirected to Booklikes for purchase options or add it to Goodreads for later. While I think most women would enjoy the book, I want men to read it so they can see what we're talking about better when we say things like "women are treated like sex objects".

    2 people found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I like hearing female voices. This is very much about her sexual experiences and then her experiences having her daughter.

    1 person found this helpful