Over spring break, I was lucky enough to be in New York to explore the city and look for jobs. Among the rushing cabs, bright lights, and swarms of people, I felt so small, oftentimes overwhelmed, and sometimes unsafe. A lot of those feelings were because of my gender—particularly when thinking of my safety in the city.
While I was doing research for the trip, there were countless blog posted devoted to tips and tricks for women to stay safe in New York. Many of these suggestions illustrate how dark and cruel the world can be to women.
No one conveys this better than Jessica Valenti in her lauded memoir Sex Object. Over the course of 200 pages, she summarizes her life from a childhood in the city up until the present day, when she is a successful writer, blogger, and mother. She focalizes this narrative around the ways in which she has been treated as an object because of her gender—whether that be the way that men sexualize her or demean her or insult her or make her feel lesser.
She speaks of the times in her life when she was made out to be a sex object and simultaneously tries to confront this objectification and be proud of her sexuality. It was an incredible journey, and at the end of the narrative, I felt closer to her in a way that I think is a marker of a truly great text.
However, I am not the only one who felt this way. Countless reviews relate to Valenti’s experiences, and one woman who I worked with over the summer talked about how she had dealt with many of the same issues on her commute that week. When I spoke with my roommate about it, she and I were disheartened that these narratives—of catcalling, of sexual harassment, of being made to be lesser—seemed to be a fairly universal female experience. It was commonplace. It was normalized. What we were most disgusted were the ways in which women were forced to “just deal with” the ways in which they are turned into sex objects.
In the narrative itself, Valenti provides a wide swathe of experiences of this and analyzes the ways in which society is complicit in female suffering, saying that violence against women is “passed down.”
She quotes Edgar Allan Poe’s famous saying that the death of a beautiful woman was “the most poetical topic in the world” and she goes on to wonder “how many women writers have killed themselves or let themselves be otherwise obliterated were trying, somehow, to fulfill this most popular of narratives” (142). This called to mind artists like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and the ways that they are lauded as geniuses today but felt such a pressure as artists and as women and who took their own lives.
That was one of the things that most astounded me was that these narratives—when lined up in an order like this—seem as though there is so much there. That the violence inflicted on again and again—from past to the present—and it seems never-ending. And then, to add insult to injury, Valenti ends her book with pages of the messages and hate mail that she has gotten over the years. Almost every one of these documents are written by a man.
Unfortunately, these conversations and issues are incredibly modern. Many hope that we have moved past this misogyny, but again and again, patriarchal control is reinstated—which is why narratives like Valenti’s are so important. She highlights the issues of this patriarchal dominion and confronts them head-on. As the years continue, we will need more voices like her telling her story and giving others the language in which to tell theirs. Best to end on Valenti’s own words: “To hear my words in someone else’s mouth, to see him speak them in front of other people, made me feel as if I existed” (144).