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Jessica Valenti is still relatively young, being 37 at the time of publication of her memoir Sex Object. She has already written, co-written or edited 6 other books. She is a columnist for The Guardian US online newspaper, and her name often crops up in modern debates about gender. She defends women's rights, and addresses many issues in popular culture. She regularly addresses the politics of abortion, the sexism of the media, the way women are portrayed, and transgender ethics. In this memoir, Valenti delves into her past, setting out her experience of our culture as one that treats women as sexual objects, uses women sexually, and does not treat women equally. Valenti grew up in Queens and Brooklyn in the 1980s and 1990s, and she recounts many episodes of being sexualized in her youth. She puts this in the context of other women in her family being molested as girls. Sometimes she gives the impression that it was the old days, and it is jarring to realize she is describing the not-very-distant past. She is talking about the time when the Disneyfication of Times Square started, after 1985. But her point is that the world hasn't changed that much, even if New York City has got a lot richer. Women are still objectified, and she is concerned about the world that her young daughter will grow up in.
Valenti writes like a blogger. The chapters are fairly short and her story does not develop in a linear fashion. They skip around in time and theme, and have lots of throwaway details which keep them interesting. She loves the dramatic opening sentence: "Grilled Cheese" starts with "The day after he fucked me while I was unconscious, I had Carl buy me a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries." She talks about her relationships with her family, her female friends, and her apparently long list of men she has hooked up with or had some kind of romance with. There's a lot of sex as well as sexualization, and crude language, especially about her experiences in school and in her twenties, where she recounts what other people said to her and her own experience. It's often gripping – Valenti tells a good story. It does get a bit repetitive; maybe the repetition of the sexualization and objectification is the point, showing what it is like for a young woman to grow up in our culture, or at least, the certain part of modern culture Valenti grew up with in New York. The stories move fast without lingering on any one scene. She shows how she grew into a Bohemian lifestyle and then as she got into her mid-to-late twenties, she started to move out of it. She got married and had a baby. But she her experience informs her point of view now, and her honest reflection on the world she lived in is illuminating.
This memoir is worth reading now because Valenti has had a particularly interesting life, but rather because her experience is in many ways typical of that of many other women, and it explains very well her understanding of sexuality and gender. She is blunt about much of what she has done and what was done to her, including early sexual experiences, abortions, heartbreak, random couplings, and love. She is certainly not a moral exemplar; she has the same kinds of weaknesses, passions, and strengths as most other people. That's what makes Sex Object a provocative account of her life as a sexual being.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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