Sex Object offers little redemption, and none of the familiar bubblegummy positive-thinking strategies that place the onus on women to magically think their way out of being told, on a daily basis, that public spaces are not for them. It is a relief to read a book on harassment and violence that simply acknowledges, rather than exhorts: 'Buck up!' 'Lean in!' 'Girl power!'...Maybe instead of solutions and angles and strategies, there is power in saying, simply, 'This is how bad it is.'
The writing that feels truest to life describes Valenti feeling sapped of it....[P]erhaps there’s no better illustration of the way everyday sexism grinds one down than the fatigue that drags on this book. But Valenti short-sells her peers when she suggests humor is a pandering concession or a rictus grin women must wear to mask their pain. Humor needn’t be a diluting agent; it can be a Trojan horse. As the saying goes, if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they’ll try to kill you.
As one of America’s best-known and often divisive feminists, Valenti is surely all too familiar with hearing stories that other people tell about her, which makes Sex Object a bold undertaking. It’s also one that fits seamlessly within the feminist tradition of consciousness-raising....An alternative to teaching girls to shrink themselves, or suggesting they develop a bright, ever-hardening shell, is crucial. That alternative isn’t necessarily presented in Sex Object. (Indeed, the book goes out on a sour note, with a litany of horrible tweets and Facebook messages sent to Valenti in recent years.) And it won’t be realized without a shift that requires all of us first to believe that stories like hers, and millions of others, are real.
It is precisely this myth—that violations buried are violations dead—that Jessica Valenti dissects with precision in her memoir Sex Object...Sharp and prescient, Sex Object is also an antidote to the fun and flirty feminism of selfies and self-help that has been the mainstay of the early 2000s. As Valenti says, 'the feminism that is popular right now is using optimism and humor to undo the damage that sexism has wrought,' taking Amy Schumer, Beyonce, and Sheryl Sandberg for its heroines. Along with Andi Zeisler’s recent book We Were Feminists Once—about the t-shirt slogan-style commodification of feminism and female empowerment—Valenti’s book is a long awaited corrective.
This aching — and at times infuriating — account of attempting to live, date and work while female is a brave admission of vulnerability, an invitation to intimacy from a woman with no reason to trust that a great many readers won’t throw her disclosures back in her face ... Valanti resists playing the hero. Instead, she sets down something more private and surprising: a thoughtful lament, an elegy for the person she might have been in a less sexist world ... Still, it must be said that Sex Object, which registers a life spent under the gaze of others, doesn’t always hold up under aesthetic scrutiny. It feels like the work of a passionate but tired feminist, a fighter too worn down by struggle to alchemize it. There are moments of epiphany — and certainly enough shocking tales of sexual debasement — but they occasionally fail to come together in a narrative arc.
These two related issues — of male sexual predation and Valenti’s self-objectification — slowly materialize as perhaps the book’s only motifs ... The problem lies in the fact that powerful episodes don’t crop up more frequently in the book’s desultory wanderings ... Before the reader grows accustomed to Valenti’s increasingly aimless narrative, the effect is disorienting ... In the end, the most important question that repeatedly comes to mind remains unanswered: Why is this book such a hodgepodge?
It's undoubtedly one of the most important books of the decade so far, and will likely end up on many year-end lists. I wish reading it was a requirement for opening an account on Twitter and Facebook. With humor, wisdom, and wit, Valenti explores the experiences that shaped her: harassment on the subway and in school, sexual encounters, relationships, abortions, and her journey into motherhood.
Valenti takes her problems to be problems all women share. She presents her life as evidence of what even a relatively lucky woman must navigate to survive our society: menacing strangers on the streets, cruel boyfriends in the sheets ... Sex Object is haphazardly organized, a nonchronological sequence of essays in which ideas are sometimes only loosely linked ... The anecdotes in Sex Object are almost all terse and under-explained, as if the bare facts should be damning enough ... In a context of widespread police brutality and mass incarceration, Valenti's tacit assumption that the full power of the state should be brought to bear in these situations alarms me.