Book Review: Sex Object


I picked this book up off of Powell's "New + Recommended" list, and had little background on Jessica Valenti. I knew it was branded as 'Feminist', whatever that means, but didn't know much else going in. Unlike many books I finish, my feelings about it are complex.

The book is a chronicle of terrible experiences she has had around gender, from getting cat-called, to being in abusive relationships, to getting death threats on the internet. While I identified with a number of her experiences and appreciated that her book made me think more about how I'm treated, I finished it feeling sad and very much tired of talking about gender. There's no call to action or even real cause-effect to her stories. It's just the stories as they happened, told like the script for a movie: all facts, with little "Here's how this should have happened" or "Here's what you, as a man, woman, or child, can do" or even "Here's how I wish I had reacted". I find so often that when men don't treat me with respect I have no idea how to react in the moment, and wish that she had provided some guidance or thoughts there. In the end, she was only telling me things I already knew with no revelatory thoughts. Her book didn't change how I see her, how I see the world, how I react to various situations, or how I understand gender or being a woman. Perhaps she was targeting those who don't even realize what misogyny looks like, or how common aggression is, but honestly those people are not the same people who are going to be reading her book. The people who are going to read her book are people like me, who know and recognize that they are frequently treated like sex objects. In the end, I feel sorry for how extremely unpleasant many of her experiences are, and that there's little or nothing she and I can do about it, but I didn't need to read this book to understand that.

If you're looking for other great reads by great women, I'd recommend picking up Amy Schumer's The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Jenny Lawson's Furiously Happy, Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, or Lindy West's Shrill.

Edit (10/11/2016): I've meditated on the purpose of 'Sex Object' since writing this, and I think there are a few possible and very worthwhile reasons she wrote it. First and foremost is to process, understand, and ultimately come to terms with her experiences. I hope she found some modicum (however small) of peace or catharsis in writing the book. Second, though, I think it is to tell other women they are not alone. That sexism and degradation are systemic, pervasive, and that it is not them or their fault. I know for many women, including my own mother, the issue of blame and cause is placed on them instead of the actual actors and perpetrators. I also want to acknowledge that to some extent my critique is unrealistic: there isn't a solution, an action I should have taken or can take in the future, to make this better. There is no call to action because the best any of us can do is exactly what she did: talk about it, openly and frankly, and about why it's wrong. In the end, I think the book left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but I don't think that's Jessica Valenti's fault, or any reason to not read her book. If anything, it's a reason you should read her book.