Art by Aud Koch
Interview by Laura Hudson
For more than a decade, Jessica Valenti has been one of the most prominent names in feminist writing, founding the Feministing blog in 2004 and contributing articles and columns at The Nation, The Washington Post and The Guardian. She’s also seen her share of print as the author of books like Full Frontal Feminism, The Purity Myth, and She’s a Slut, He’s a Stud. Her latest book, Sex Object: A Memoir, takes a more autobiographical turn, chronicling her life from her childhood in Queens to her more recent experiences with motherhood, and the sometimes fraught ways that she has struggled with the expectations of a sexist culture. "If I was going to be a sex object,” she writes of her youthful perceptions of womanhood, “I was going to be the best sex object I could be."
It’s a bold portrait of a woman, one that dares to let Valenti be imperfect and complicated, detailing everything from the terrifying sexism and harassment she’s faced throughout her life online and off, to her experiences with toxic relationships, drug use and abortion. The endnotes of Sex Object are a small but disturbing sample of the horrifying abuse that she’s experienced on social media—a glimpse into the background radiation of her life that informs every page that precedes it.
FREQ: You wrote several books before Sex Object, but nothing this autobiographical. What made you decide to make something so personal?
Jessica Valenti: I didn’t set out to write this book consciously at first. I’d started a food column for the website The Toast, rest in peace. My relationship with food is very much about family and personal stuff, so when I started writing about that and enjoyed it, I decided to write more in that tone for myself. I’d done about half of the essays [for Sex Object] when I realized, oh, I’m writing a book. When women write about their lives it’s often considered navel gazing or unimportant, but I think we’ve hit this shift. Thanks to feminist blogging and social media, women’s stories are more front and center, and women’s experiences are being used as the entry point for broader political conversations. That made me feel more comfortable and helped me write the book as well.
FREQ: You talk a lot about both online harassment and street harassment, and the different ways you’ve tried responding over the years, from reasoning with men to insulting them to ignoring them. What struck me the most was the takeaway: that there is no way to respond to harassment that nullifies its impact—and no single right way to respond to it.
JV: Like street harassment, how you respond to online harassment is so dependent on how safe you feel. There’s no one right way. I’ve gotten that question a lot since the book has come out, where people ask the one way I’d advise women to respond to street harassment or to online harassment. And I can’t advise that. We all develop our own ways of knowing what the safest, best thing to do for ourselves is in the moment. That’s also part of what makes online harassment so difficult. With street harassment, you can gauge your safety level in a different way when you’re on the street. Online, you don’t know their tone, who they are, where they are. It’s so much more difficult.
FREQ: I’ve seen a lot of women decide to leave social media either temporarily or permanently because of the abuse they experienced, and I know you took a break recently when there were online threats made to your daughter.
JV: I’ve been dealing with threats to myself for a long time, but with threats to my daughter it’s different. It was this sort of bombardment of awfulness on all areas of social media that just made me want to take a step back and rethink the way that I engage online and what’s best for me and my family and my career. I’ve thought about it a lot. As a writer it’s a privilege to take breaks from social media because I know I’m in a position where I know I’m not going to lose my job. I already have an audience, and I’ve built up my career to a certain extent where I would probably be fine if I said I was going to disable my social media accounts. But that’s not true for everybody. There’s a certain amount of social media engagement that is required for a lot of writers and activists, so I have a lot of complicated feelings about what it means to take advantage of that privilege.
FREQ: For women and marginalized people online, visibility often seems like this double-edged sword—you need it to succeed in a lot of fields, but it comes with a disproportionate cost. And often the people who have to stay visible in order to get by are the ones who suffer the most in that spotlight. There are times on Twitter when I’ve hesitated to retweet or direct attention to more vulnerable people even when I want to promote their work because I worry about the abuse that visibility could bring their way.
JV: I had something like that happen today where I retweeted a woman I admired and immediately some assholes following me responded with racist comments at her. The other difficult thing is that as a writer, you want people to read your work. But the more eyes that are on it, the more harassment you get. So the better you get at your job, the worse the harassment gets. Doing well is disincentivized.
JV: It’s a huge bummer. We’re losing all this talent. When I go to college campuses I speak to young women, and they often say to me, I thought I was going to be a writer but I saw the abuse you get, so I’m not going to do it. And I can’t tell them, “oh, do it anyway! It’s worth it!” How can you tell them that? You don’t know. If you’re a woman or person of color or a part of a marginalized community, you are going to be harassed online. Some people very understandably feel like that’s not a trade-off they’re willing to make. And that means that the culture that’s being created has a really narrow point of view, where white, cis straight men are creating most of the culture and have the dominant voices.
FREQ: I’ve noticed that when women start out as writers online, a lot of times they get noticed because they’re fearless or they have this bold voice. And then too often you see them get worn down because of that success—because the internet is so punishing of that boldness in women. They get more careful and cautious or even self-censoring because they know the abuse that is waiting for them if they speak too freely.
FREQ: Has the harassment you’ve experienced over the years changed the way you see people, or people on the internet?
JV: It hasn’t changed the way I see people. It’s changed who I am a lot. It’s made me more guarded; it’s made me more anxious. I just don’t think that you can experience that sort of thing for years on end and not have it shift who you are. I still think people are at their foundation good. I just think that a lot of people are in pain, because anyone who spends so much of their time harassing people isn’t happy. It can be difficult when you’re in pain to know how to deal with it and address it. We haven’t figured out how to help people who are in pain find correct, empathetic outlets for it. You want to have compassion for people, but that compassion also has to be tempered with accountability as well. Finding the right balance of that is going to be a hurdle for feminists, for all of us in the future.
FREQ: I really appreciated your honesty in the book, about your personal experiences and also about having reactions or making choices that wouldn’t be considered perfectly “feminist.” Or even just recognizing that you don’t always feel invulnerable in the face of overwhelming sexism and abuse. I think that can be important for women to hear, since no one can feel strong and perfect all the time.
JV: We all negotiate living in patriarchy in different ways. I think Roxane Gay did us a great service when she opened up this conversation about what it means to be a “bad feminist,” and I thought about that a lot when I was writing the book. Part of why I wanted to explore that was because when you write about tough issues or have a tough sarcastic voice, people assume that you can take the heat. There isn’t always recognition of the ways it can break you down. Women often say things to me like, “oh, you always handle this so well.” And that’s not true at all. I felt like I was doing them a disservice by presenting this image that didn’t necessarily feel whole or true. I wanted to say that we all have complicated feelings about this stuff. You can do it for a living. You can think about feminism all the time, and still not have perfect thoughts or feelings or even actions.
FREQ: What sort of reactions have you gotten to the book since its release?
JV: It’s been really wonderful. Obviously when you put out something this personal you’re always a little bit worried and because the tone of the book was a departure for me and a different kind of writing I was concerned that people wouldn’t like it. But it’s been my best-received book to date which has been really exciting. I’ve heard from more men about this book than any of my other books, which I didn’t expect. Really wonderful, nice emails saying things like, I recognize that this is an issue but I didn’t know how unrelenting it was. So that made me really happy as well.
FREQ: Do you think men are more receptive to women’s experiences and perspectives than they were 20 years ago?
JV: Some, at least. I’m an eternal optimist so I’d like to think so. I still think that the experiences of white straight men are considered the default human experience for sure, but I do think we’ve made progress. I think we have feminist activists and writers to thank for it, especially the younger ones right now who are really pushing this conversation to new places… We’ve made a lot of strides with policy shifts, and the thing we’ve been waiting for is a big cultural shift. I think that we’re at the beginning of that. There are going to be a lot of backlash and hurdles attached to that, but I think it starts now.