As a child, I travelled to school in a cycle rickshaw, in the company of six other children who were all older than me. One morning, as I sat daydreaming on the wooden seat affixed just behind the rickshaw puller, I heard Garima, who was the eldest among us, grunt and shriek.
We were crossing the town hall then, our rickshaw negotiating a steep slope. Next to the rickshaw were two men on a motorbike, keeping next to Garima. I was eight, she was fourteen, the men on the motorbike seemed in their twenties. “What happened?” the other kids asked Garima.
“Nothing,” she said, looking down. The men on the motorbike laughed. The second time, only I asked the question, ‘What happened didi?’ There was some silence after which she shouted ‘NOTHING HAPPENED.’ At this the rickshaw puller stopped and yelled at the men. They speeded their bike and left.
The town hall incident was the first of my life, in which a girl or a woman I knew was harassed or molested. In my memory, Garima changed somewhat after that incident. She was more silent, more wary.
It is this impact – the impact of abuse and violations on the behaviours, attitudes, and the overall psyches of women – that Jessica Valenti wants us to pause at in her memoir Sex Object. Valenti emphasises the everyday violations that women deal with, things as plain as an unclassifiable stare, or a hug extended by a second, or a midnight “Hello” on Whatsapp, and so on. Such events, recurring day after day in women’s lives, must take a definitive toll, leaving women oscillating between the states wary and injured and healing.
What if the world wasn’t so? What if men weren’t the way they are? Valenti asks the moot question in the introduction itself: “What would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
Valenti gives us numerous instances when she was treated as a sex object by men. And it starts early. In eighth grade, while walking home after a subway ride (where she is already accustomed to strangers showing her their penises), she feels something wet in her back pocket. A man has masturbated on her. After reaching home, she takes a bath in scalding water. What happens next held my attention:
I […] turned my jeans inside out before putting them in the laundry basket so my mother wouldn’t find out. I knew she would cry. I knew her worst nightmare was something happening to me that in any way resembled the things that had happened to her. I piled some sheets on top of the jeans to be safe.
So, again, the girl child’s impulse is to quickly revert to the state in which nothing happened. What is also clear is that this nothing keeps on happening generation after generation. Also, women can do nothing but pass on this helplessness, this drive towards nothingness, generation after generation.
Once named among the Top 100 Inspiring Women in the world, Valenti is a columnist for The Guardian US and the author of a number of books on feminism, politics and culture. She is often called a third-wave feminist, and credited with bringing the movement back in vogue among young Americans of the 21st century.
Valenti’s is what can be called a well-known name, a name whose politics is inspired from an impeccable ideology that challenges humanity’s longest running domination story – men over women. That what she says invites a lot of hate is not surprising. In the last chapter of Sex Object, “Endnotes (2008-2015)”, she provides samples of social media interactions and emails from offended men and women.
We get to read hate messages where she is called a cunt, a twat, asked to get back inside the kitchen, and so on; one of the messages is a three-page repetition of nothing but two words: fuck you. Earlier in the book, Valenti wonders whether it is possible to simply ignore such online hate, to simply assume that people writing such stuff must have “sad lives”.
She confesses that it is the frailty of this assumption that gets to her, and also the frailty of the injunction that asks women to be strong. Perhaps it is wrong to simply be strong; perhaps the world should know that to ask women to be strong is to present all the hatred as a given.
The book traces a timeline of sexual objectification, right from Valenti’s childhood, and stressing that its impact is an alteration in the self. While it is no doubt a continuation of the writer’s feminist work, it is also a memoir with a wider scope. Valenti describes her growing-up years, her many relationships with men, her abortions, her experience of childbirth.
Not all her life experiences loop back to the ideology. The memoir element is not always subservient to the feminist point (that objectification causes permanent damage). This should be fine, really – only that Valenti herself seems unaware of this play of elements. Beyond a point, she stops caring to illustrate (or grapple with) just how a given behavior of hers is connected to her personal history of objectification.
Valenti also does not move the reader away from that expectation. The upshot is that, more than once, we read about something that happened to her – say, the premature birth of her child – and look out for a sexist event that would mark it. When there’s no such event, the attention wanes. Valenti’s memoir writing chops do not prevent this.
I was reminded of another memoir, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, which handles similar themes better. Through her incredibly difficult life experiences, Yuknavitch arrives at a universal point about the suffering of women. Valenti, on the other hand, appears at times to have committed an error in starting a memoir with an idea.
Sex Object first has Valenti as the pre-teen/teenager who, finding herself in a culture of objectification (eg, in the subway), finds it easiest to become the object. She becomes a master of the closed-pants hand job, for example, and is rather indiscriminate with it. The result of such complicity is a series of terrible relationships with men. We are provided episodes from a troubled adulthood, where cocaine addiction features, and where it is generally difficult for Valenti “to do the right thing.”
For example, she is date-raped once but doesn’t report her rapist; instead, she gets into a relationship with the man, accepting the return cab fare each time she visits his apartment. Nothing happened, again. She has cheated on all her boyfriends; as a sex object, saying No is difficult for her. Sometimes boyfriends dump her, sometimes she dumps them, and in the latter case it sometimes gets ugly.
Some of the men she chooses for herself are jerks, but sometimes it is Valenti who is the jerk. The idea that it is her altered self, the one that is the result of a personal history of objectification, which causes her to behave so – that idea is not uniformly applicable to all the scenarios presented. Sometimes, it feels Valenti’s simple memorialising is too much in the shadow of her idea.
But then, perhaps it is not easy to parse the whole for me, for I’m a male reader. I’ve no experience of being treated as a sex object, and none, therefore, of trying to figure out whether much of my life is a reaction to that objectification. For men, the starting point is to accept what women say.
The appeal of Valenti’s Sex Object, then, is both in the grounding thesis and the visceral descriptions of some of the episodes of her life. Although not the best memoir in town, it is an important book, one that all women readers all over the world will identify with, and one that men will respond to with the whole spectrum of emotions.
Sex Object, Jessica Valenti, Dey Street Books.
Tanuj Solanki’s novel Neon Noon has just been published.