Catcalls and Coming of Age

Book review: Sex Object, by Jessica Valenti

This was my first experience with Jessica Valenti’s writing and I came away from it thinking she was a talented writer but a disorganized storyteller, with an important, worthwhile message but way too little faith in herself. This book could’ve been something very meaningful and impacting, and I’m torn in how to describe it because it’s not that it wasn’t those things, it just could’ve been so much more. As it is, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Treatise and expose on street harassment, adolescent sex memoir, difficult mommyhood memoir, it’s all over the place without a strong enough discernible thread to hold it all together.

I read a review in some magazine a few weeks ago and couldn’t get my hands on a copy of it fast enough. So I ended up disappointed because I thought it would be more of the sections detailing her experience with creepy creepsters and how she dealt with that, maybe others’ experiences, how it all shapes us and why it’s happening. I didn’t even realize that so much of it would be about her coming-of-age sex life. Not that there’s anything wrong with memoirs like that! But it wasn’t what I expected, and didn’t ever really fit with the book’s other theme of these skin-crawlingly wretched encounters with men on the street that seem unfortunately so universal. I think I wanted to read about that in a therapeutic way, because as Valenti perfectly captures it: “…their cumulative impact feels slippery.

And in laughing it off, flipping them off, trying to simply shut off our feelings about it, even if successful in getting through the moment, “You lose something along the way.” I wanted to hear more. Street harassment is scarring. Any sexual harassment is scarring. I’m glad that we can discuss it so directly, even though it’s an uphill battle, as we see explicitly in the book’s last few pages: space showing just a slice of the threats, insults, and general word puke that online commenters have directed at her just for talking bluntly about harassment.

Instead, the book moves back and forth in time, often confusingly or for no apparent, identifiable reason, and a big portion was about her shitty relationships from adolescence up to marriage, where it became more about her pregnancy health problems and subsequent struggle to keep her prematurely born baby alive. That’s certainly strong memoir material, it’s just not what I like or wanted to read, nor what I initially understood the book to be about. And since its marketing was skewed more towards feminist examination of street harassment,  I didn’t understand the connection of these hookups or bad relationships to any greater message. Were they to illustrate that she’s always felt bad or unsure, like an object, and that’s why she’s undervalued herself? Thanks to early public experiences that were forced on her? I didn’t get it. The personal sex stories were at worst a little gross to read about, and at best kind of uncomfortable. Maybe they were meant to remind women of our recent generation(s) of the patterns we’ve slipped into regarding our own valuation and connections or lack thereof?

And although it never lagged enough for me to lose interest, I felt depressed by the end of it. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at stories that I guess were supposed to be shocking, like about cocaine usage, that is. It’s neither shocking nor particularly compelling. It was all very Williamsburg. Then the next chapter would skip to an anecdote from high school, then back to her husband, then back to street harassment. I think those were the best sections, about what women and very, very young girls are made to endure and how unacceptably wrong it is. It might be an extra especially New York City problem, but certainly not exclusively. She’s doing good work and we need it, but I think this should’ve been two separate, different memoirs.

Sex Object: A Memoir
by Jessica Valenti
published June 7, 2016 by Dey Street Books

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