Writer Jessica Valenti has been a leading feminist voice for years, and in a campaign season where a woman is poised lock up the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s perhaps fitting that she would be releasing a new book.
But the focus of Valenti’s new memoir – “Sex Object” – is inward, on her own rough and tumble journey through adolescence and early adulthood. She spares no details about drug use, relationship woes, abortions and the sexual harassment and indignities she has suffered both online and in person at the hands of men. It’s an unflinchingly raw and emotional accounting of an imperfect, yet still inspirational life – which is exactly what Valenti intended it to be.
MSNBC spoke to Valenti late last week about what has been described as her “most intimate and controversial book yet” about why this project, which hits book stores Tuesday, represents a sign of the times, and a personal benchmark for her.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Valenti: When I wrote my other books, they were very sort of goal-driven or campaign-driven. The first one was very much about getting younger women to call themselves feminists. “The Purity Myth” was about shining a light on virginity culture. I didn’t have the same sort of goal in mind with this one. I had started working on more memoir-ish essays when I was writing for the [Washington] Post a little bit, and then I started doing it at home and it just sort of became thing where it was like, ‘Oh I’m writing a book’ – this is happening. When I looked at what I had written the theme that kept coming up again and again was objectification – the feeling of disassociation that I felt impacted a lot of my life and from talking to my friends and other women, I thought was not a universal experience but a pretty widespread experience.
The title is a provocative one. Who do you think the target audience is for this book?
I hope it’s everyone. I mean women are the obvious choice, but I didn’t have a specific reader in mind. The way that sexism impacts folks is so individual. It’s so dependent on your sexual identity, your gender identity, your race, your class. But I do hope that it will resonate with a lot of folks and a lot of women. I was second guessing myself a lot with the title because I sort of knew what the backlash would be against it, but ultimately I felt like I can’t let what some troll-ish responses might be determine the content of the book or the content of the title. And at the end of the day it is a book about dehumanization. So it felt like the most appropriate title. Certainly I hope it will get people to pay attention to it.
In the book you provide very specific examples of hateful online invective directed at you and sometimes even your family, are you afraid that the extremely personal nature of this book will bring on even more vicious attacks?
You know it’s funny, I didn’t feel that trepidation when I was writing. Now that we’re a few days out from pub, I’m extraordinarily nervous about it. But I’ve been dealing with online harassment for over 10 years. There was a part of me that’s like, ‘This is everything,’ let me put it out there. There’s literally nothing else that anyone can target me on, there’s nothing else that someone’s going to find out or attack me with. Yeah, I am expecting a certain level of harassment after the book comes out, but I think that if anything that will just go to sort of prove one of the points of the book.
How have the reactions of women and men to the book differed so far?
I have heard from women who read the book and I saw a lot of reaction to an excerpt that’s been out [has been] ‘this feels really familiar.’ And for guys that I’ve heard from it’s also been difficult for them to read but in a much different way. Like I heard from one of my guy friends from high school who read it and he said he just felt really bad.
What do you say to men who feel guilty after reading your work?
It’s like, ‘Yeah, I feel bad too,’ and that’s OK. It’s alright to feel bad about something for a minute. People can say s***** things, women and men, and you are allowed to forgive yourself for that and learn from it and move on.
Do you think there is too much preoccupation with providing uplift with your work?
Totally, 100 percent. It’s something I struggled with a lot with this book because I knew that there were going to be some people who really want the happy ending. And I think that does the conversation a disservice, because I just don’t think that it’s that simple. And I think when it come to feminism especially, we’re in a place where enough people are talking about it, enough people understand feminism that we can get a little complicated with it. We don’t necessarily need that neat bow at the end.It seems like it’s become very en vogue now to invoke feminism or identify as a feminist, but has that changed the way people behave and think?
I think that it depends on the person. The conversation about feminism has changed a lot of things for a lot of people. I think that some people have changed the way that they behave and I think that other people have just invoked it because like you said it is an en vogue thing. I think my bigger concern in not that people aren’t necessarily changing their behavior, but that they are putting too much pressure on themselves to be perfect. And I think Roxane Gay did a really great thing by starting a conversation about being a bad feminist and what that means.
You chose to put your flaws and insecurities up front in this book.
It was a conscious decision. I hear from young women a lot – ‘oh like I want your career’ or ‘you seem to handle this online harassment so well.’ But the truth is I don’t handle things very well and I can be a bit of a mess.
Not unlike Amy Schumer’s character in “Trainwreck,” you seem to “own” your bad choices.
You know, it’s hard. In certain messy moments, I certainly found pleasure and joy in them. But it does sort of bother me that there’s this fetishization of the disastrous woman, who’s just like drunk and can’t handle (her) s*** and isn’t that funny. I don’t think it’s very funny, I think that it’s a problem. I don’t think we talk enough about the way that women self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
Let’s talk about 2016. Do you think the ascendance of Hillary Clinton will start a national dialogue about gender?
I hope so. I think we’re at the beginning of it. As the general gets going, and it definitely looks like Hillary is going to be the candidate, that is sort of inevitable. She is running against a caricature of misogyny. I do wonder what that conversation will look like. It feels a little superficial, it feels like it’s on Trump’s terms right now. Like all we’re talking about is, Is it OK to say mean things about women? Make fun of [their] periods. And yeah that does suck … but let’s get beyond that. I don’t think that is going to move voters.
When you see an argument like Trump’s, that Hillary Clinton “enabled” her husband’s infidelities and inappropriate behavior with women actually gain traction at the same time as she is poised to make history as the first female presidential nominee, do you feel like it is both the best of times and the worst of times for women?
Yes. I think that it’s not just that issue, it’s going to be like a million other issues that we see. I think the sexism this time around is going to be a lot more insidious. In 2008, the sexism was so explicit. It was ‘iron my shirt’ and things like that and there weren’t a lot of Twitter users in 2008, you can’t say that sort of stuff anymore. It is going to look very different, it is going to be attacks like that – making a woman responsible for her husband’s behavior or just like more low level, not easily as recognizable misogyny.
How much of this is about antipathy toward Hillary Clinton herself or the fact that she is a woman?
It’s both, but I think it’s a lot of the latter. Yes, of course, there are plenty of reasons not to agree with everything Hillary Clinton has done or has said, plenty of reasons not to vote for her. But I think the vitriol absolutely comes from a sexist place. I think that she has become a symbol for a lot of people in both good ways and bad. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that when you look at a lot of anti-Hillary paraphernalia it’s a nutcracker, it uses the word b****, that’s not a coincidence. There is deep-seated misogyny I think in the way a lot of that disagreement or discord surfaces
In “Sex Object” you pose the question – “who would I be if I lived in a world that didn’t hate women?” – but given all the disrespect women endure at the hands of men, shouldn’t it be hard for women not to hate them?
I think that is sort of a strange thing that more women don’t hate men, or that there isn’t more hatred in general by marginalized groups towards oppressive groups. But that’s in part because we have people in our lives that we love and I think that also in part a survival strategy. I could not live my life if I walked around hating all men [laughs] but I do think it’s really interesting that the idea of being a ‘man hater’ is considered the worst thing that you can do. It’s like there all of these sexist, misogynist structures but somehow not liking dudes is the worst thing that we could do. It seems very misplaced to me.
Why is the stereotype that feminists ‘hate men’ so pervasive?
Because one of the things you’re taught as a woman is the best possible thing is to be wanted and liked and desired by men, and not being liked by men … that’s the worst possible outcome for your life. As I grew up, my sort of insecurity about the way I look disappeared as boys started to ask me out on dates. I got that validation. And there are consequences, or there used to be a lot more, to calling yourself a feminist. A lot of people just don’t want to deal with it.
When your daughter Layla reads this book someday what do want her takeaway to be?
My best hope is that she’ll think of me as a human first and then her mother. I think when it comes to mother-daughter relationships in particular, or really any parents, we don’t necessarily see our moms as humans, as people separate from their relationship with us. I would really love for her – flaws and all – to see me as a human being separately both for my own edification but also for herself because should she become a mother later in life I think that that will help her with that transition.