What It Means To Grow Up As A Sex Object

"It impacts us in such huge ways that we haven’t even begun to understand."
Columnist and author Jessica Valenti.
Columnist and author Jessica Valenti.
Courtesy of Jessica Valenti/Harper Collins

There is absolutely nothing sexy about being an object. And Jessica Valenti's new memoir, Sex Object, makes that painfully clear.

The book, which uses Valenti's own experiences to explore the harassment, sexual objectification, and dehumanization that women and girls face on a daily basis, is essentially a 204-page lesson in the power of women's stories. When women aren't heard from -- or when the culture you live in does its best to ignore your words and experiences -- it becomes easier for people to pretend you aren't a fully realized person.

"Thinking of women as not full human beings makes it easy to flash them, it makes it easy to call them names or write them a harassing email," Valenti told The Huffington Post. "There is this foundational issue of objectification that we need to get back to."

Valenti spoke with HuffPost about the impact sexual objectification has on women, why we should care about online harassment, and the fundamental challenges of navigating a sexist culture.

The title of your book is Sex Object. Why?

It was the first title that came to mind, but almost immediately I was imagining the backlash to it. Some of which I’ve already started to get. People say, “Oh you’re too ugly to call yourself a sex object” -- as if calling yourself an object is a compliment, which completely misses the point. But I decided that I can’t let harassers determine the content of the book. At the end of the day, this is a book about objectification and dehumanization. So that was the most accurate term.

You also say that “being a sex object is not special.” What do you mean by that?

Calling myself a sex object is not a compliment I’m paying myself. This is not something that I think makes me special or great. This is a label that could be attached to a lot of women -- whether or not they would want to attach themselves to it is another story, and very individual, of course. Our experiences of sexism and misogyny are so individualized, so dependent on our gender, our race, our sexuality, but there are some through lines when it comes to dehumanization.

“People say, “Oh you’re too ugly to call yourself a sex object” -- as if calling yourself an object is a compliment.”

How early do you think most women experience sexual objectification?

Pretty early. In the most explicit ways, that sexualization can happen when you’re 10, it can happen when you’re 12, it can happen younger, unfortunately. But there’s also small ways that we teach both boys and girls that their bodies aren’t their own. When you’re like, “Go hug your relative!” “Let your relative kiss you!” “I’m gonna tickle you and I’m not gonna stop even if you say no.” I think about these things all the time. What are the small messages we’re giving kids that they don’t have bodily autonomy?

With my daughter, I’m always like, “Just try to be polite and say, ‘no thank you.’ You’re always allowed to say ‘no thank you’ when it comes to your body.”

How does this constant objectification affect the way women see themselves as they grow into adulthood?

I think it impacts us in such huge ways that we haven’t even begun to understand. I’ve talked to researchers who are really interested in something called Objectification Theory. They’ve shown that the way women are objectified has a tangible impact on our mental health. It increases anxiety, it increases depression -- and we know that women are more likely to have an anxiety disorder, more likely to be depressed. When are we gonna start talking about how that reality is fed by the fact that a lot of us are growing up in a culture that really doesn’t like women?

“We all have to survive and navigate a sexist culture the best way we can.”

One thing that feels so confusing about this constant sexual objectification, is that it feels violating, but we’re also taught to determine our self-worth through it. How do we navigate that reality?

There’s no neat answer to that. Women are taught to value themselves based on their sexuality and what people think of them and if people think they’re hot. On the one hand, you might feel really good from something like that, and that’s OK. We all have to survive and navigate a sexist culture the best way we can. And I, growing up and having boyfriends, did get a lot of pleasure and validation from having people desire me. There’s a very human part of that which is organic and natural and fine. There’s another part of that which is constructed from the outside. And it’s really difficult to parse those and figure out which is which. And I don’t think we can expect women to do that.

You write about an unwanted sexual experience that you’ve never been able to call rape. Why do you think you’ve resisted giving what happened that label?

Even if you’re a feminist, even if you know these issues inside and out, we’re all prone to the same cultural messages. We’re all prone to the same feelings of guilt or ambivalence. I wanted to write that chapter because I think it’s important to talk about that some people do feel ambivalent about [their experiences with sexual assault]. That’s not a great thing to say politically, but it can be very true.

It was a similar sort of thing when I wrote about my mom telling me about her abortion. And my first thought was, “Ugh, how could that be? She’s such a good mom.” Which is such a fucked up thing to think. I work on these issues, I know you can be a good mom and have an abortion, but that was the first thing that went through my head. You can study these issues all day long but still be impacted by outside forces.

“Feminism saved me. It was the thing that made me have a language to name these issues, a framework to think about them, a community to support me through them.”

How has feminism helped you grapple with living in a world that constantly objectifies women?

Feminism saved me. It was the thing that made me have a language to name these issues, a framework to think about them, a community to support me through them. And I think that’s the case for a lot of women -- younger women, especially.

How do you think issues of objectification play out for women online?

In online culture it gets even trickier and sometimes worse, because it’s easier to dehumanize people online. When you write someone an email or send someone a tweet, you’re not sitting in front of them, you’re not seeing their face. For some people, I think it feels like they’re sending it into the ether and they forget that it goes to a real live human being. And I don’t think that’s just true of harassers.

How do you think that kind of online harassment impacts women on the receiving end of it?

It impacts their mental health and well-being tremendously. A lot of people think because it’s online, it’s not real life. That’s not true. There are real-life ramifications. When you’re on the street and someone says something to you that’s harassing, you can sort of gauge what your safety level is. You can’t necessarily do that online. You have no idea if [the people harassing you] live around the block from you or in a different country, if they are very serious about hurting you or if they’re an 11-year-old. You just have no sense. And that’s not just something that affects writers and public feminists. It’s something that happens to teenage girls, to teenage boys, to all sorts of people.

We often tell women to just “not read the comments” or “don’t feed the trolls. That advice has its limitations. What do we do beyond trying to ignore it all?

I think that’s basically like telling women, “If you don’t like being harassed, stay off the street.” You’re telling people they shouldn’t be able to participate in public life, because that’s what online spaces are. And that’s not reasonable. We need to hold platforms accountable, we need to hold each other accountable, and we need to put our money where our mouths are. And we need to listen to people’s stories and believe them. I’m sort of amazed at the level of disbelief that happens surrounding this.

I had an excerpt out about the harassment I faced on the subway as a kid, and I got hundreds of tweets saying, “That never happened.” One person even deconstructed in a blog post, “there’s no way she was flashed at 9 a.m. on a subway platform, because there’s no subway platform that’s empty at 9 a.m.” It’s very strange. The hoops that people will jump through to make you out to be a liar…

“For so long, men’s memoirs and experiences have been thought about as the default universal experience. And when women write about their experiences, it’s considered self-indulgent nonsense.”

What do you think people gain by invalidating women’s stories?

It makes them feel like there’s some sense in the world. It’s scary to admit the world is unsafe, and there’s not a tremendous amount we can do to control that. So I think it gives them some sense of safety, where they can think that only bad things happen to bad people. Like, someone is sexually assaulted if they drink too much or wear a short skirt. It makes them feel like they can make a certain set of decisions and they’ll be safe. And for some people, it’s a way for them to avoid responsibility. Because [if they acknowledge that it’s true], then they have to look at their life and think, “How have I contributed to that?”

What is the power in women telling their messiest stories?

It’s necessary right now. For so long, men’s memoirs and experiences have been thought about as the default universal experience. And when women write about their experiences, it’s considered self-indulgent nonsense. The more we can tell our stories, the better off it is. We’re seeing it with memoirs, with the #YesAllWomen hashtag and with personal writing online. These stories are important and need to be heard.

Why is “fake it ‘til you make it” both the best and worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

It’s the best because it’s really helpful on a day-to-day basis, like when I’m doing an event or giving a speech. Like, just plaster a smile on and fake it and it’ll be fine! In that way, it’s great. But I do think it circumvents the real issue, which is, why do we feel fake? Why don’t we feel authentic speaking or writing or doing our work and getting credit for it and being successful? There’s a whole lot of imposter syndrome. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is a good band-aid solution, but not a lasting one.

You write about your two experiences with abortion, one at the beginning of the book and one towards the end. Why did it feel important to write about these stories in a book about sexual objectification?

That’s a really great question. I shouldn’t say that they were both really impactful experiences in my life, because they weren’t. The second one, when I had a wanted pregnancy, was super impactful. The first one wasn’t. But for me, ending those pregnancies -- and a lot of women who have had abortions say this -- was a big part of feeling like I was taking back my life and making a decision about my body that was for me. And especially with the second one, I was feeling so disconnected after the birth of my daughter, feeling so disassociated from everything, that ending a pregnancy that was potentially life-threatening felt like a validation, being like, “No, I’m important to my daughter. I’m important to my family. I should be here. I don’t need to put my health at risk.”

Speaking of your daughter, how have these experiences that you wrote about informed your parenting?

Parenting has informed my feminism in that all these issues feel much more urgent to me. And feminism has informed my parenting, in terms of trying to encourage my daughter to be a critical thinker, and talk about these issues and feel a sense of bodily autonomy. But part of the reason I wrote the book is that I want more answers. I can give her the “bad touch talk.” But I can’t give her a talk about what it’s gonna feel like after 10 years of living in a sexist world. I would like to have some language to explain to her what that will mean for her or how she might work through it. And I don’t have those answers yet.

“It’s really easy to say, ignore that one tweet or trash that one email, but what do you do when there are hundreds and hundreds of them over the course of years?”

What do you hope that people take away from reading this book?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think it’s that life is messy and it’s OK if you are, too. It’s the same thing with feminism. You don’t need to have all the answers. There doesn’t need to be a neat bow on top of your story or your takeaway. You’re gonna make mistakes, and you’ll still be OK. You can fuck up, and you’ll keep going and that’s what makes you a full person.

At the very end of the book, you include a bunch of the abusive emails you’ve received. Why did you choose to put those in there?

The minute I knew this was going to be a book, I wanted to include something like that. At first I thought it was gonna be an essay, but then I felt like that was giving it too much power. So endnotes felt like, “this is definitely constant backdrop of my life, but it’s at the end.”

I think it’s important that people understand that this is what you have to go through -- not just if you’re a public feminist, but if you’re a woman with an opinion. Perhaps most women don’t get it to the level that I do, but I think the sentiment behind it is pretty universal for young women. And it’s about the cumulative impact of these things. It’s really easy to say, ignore that one tweet or trash that one email, but what do you do when there are hundreds and hundreds of them over the course of years? It’s not such an easy thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

<em>Sex Object</em> is available from Harper Collins on July 7.
Sex Object is available from Harper Collins on July 7.
Harper Collins

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