There seems to be very little you can’t find out about feminist author Jessica Valenti.
She (briefly) wrote about the bullshit article Ann Althouse published about her breasts in 2006. She’s written about her two abortions and talked about how repeated threats from internet harassers forced her to leave her apartment. She's written about her love for food and has given talks around the country about feminism.
But, Valenti says, her books, columns, and talks weren't the full story. With her latest book, “Sex Object,” she turns her perceptive writing back on her own life, tracing the history of her own objectification in the world and asking: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” While she may be a sex object, Valenti argues, it’s not something to be celebrated. Unlike author, mother, or wife, it’s not a descriptor she—or any other woman—gets to choose.
I talked with her on the phone last week about the New Orleans college bar we both patronized, why she chose to include stories about her young daughter and her abortions, and how her sixth book fills in the gaps of her very public life.
CC: This book is deeply personal is a way your other books just aren’t. What made you ready to write this type of book now?
JV: It wasn’t even a deliberate choice at first, to be honest with you. I had been writing a column at The Toast [Editor’s note: RIP] about food and that column for whatever reason started to become personal and sort of more memoir-ish. I found that I really liked writing that way and the pieces were resonating with folks. So on my own, I started writing essays just for myself and somewhere along the way, I realized, "Oh, this is a book. I’m writing a memoir."
And once I thought about the upsides and downsides about writing something so personal, I ultimately decided to go forward with it because it did feel like a good moment for it. Both in terms of the way that women’s stories are a part of the feminist movement right now and because I started to feel like as someone with a semi-public profile who writes about feminism, who has an identity online, I felt like that online identity didn’t necessarily match up with who I really was. I think a lot of us do that! We create narratives online for who we are. Like, we’re funny on Twitter or we only show the best things on Instagram. And I heard a lot from younger women, “Oh, wow, you deal with misogyny so well!” Online harassment and stuff like that. And I was [thinking], "Wow, I really don’t," but it’s interesting that that’s the impression. I felt like I was doing a disservice to my readers by not being more open.
CC: How did you develop that radical honesty if you thought you were being disingenuous before?
JV: It’s not that I thought I was being disingenuous but I thought I wasn’t telling the full story. You keep some things to yourself, which is a normal thing. You don’t want everyone to know everything. I think it was twofold for me. I’m attacked so much online that part of it was just, let me just put it all out there and whatever they want to say, they can say. This is literally everything. There is nothing more you could go find, so that was part of it. But it also felt cathartic. As I was writing it, I wasn’t necessarily writing it with readers in mind at first. I was just getting it out.
I do think it’s incredibly important that we’re candid about what’s going on with us. I think that not telling the full truth, while it can be protective and important for some of us, if you have the ability to put yourself out there, if you feel safe, if you feel like you can do it, then I think it can be a real gift to the people around you. Men’s stories are seen as brave and important and universal experiences. But when women share their stories, it’s self-indulgent. The best way we can dispel with that is by not shutting up.
CC: One story that actually made me laugh out loud was about your time in New Orleans because I, too, have gotten drunk underage at The Boot when I used to live there. It was just as terrible as it was when you were there.
JV: That’s amazing! That’s so funny. I’m really tickled that it still exists and people are still going.
CC: On a less drunk note, though, another line that really resonated with me was about the Fake It Til You Make It mentality. You ask, “At what point are you just a fucking faker?” Could you talk about the lead-up to that realization and if you’ve resolved it?
JV: So much of the feminism we talk about now is… I don’t want to attribute it all to feminism, but there’s this conversation about women projecting their most strong self and the best version of themselves and yeah, I guess that’s great, but it’s can feel really dishonest. For me, it has been strange to have this career in which you are giving public talks and you’re going on television and going on the radio—and it’s hard to complain about that because that’s wonderful stuff and of course I’m extraordinarily privileged to do that—but it did feel really strange to present myself as sort of an expert on a topic that I was still struggling with, to be seen as together in a way I did not feel at all. I think [imposter syndrome] is a really common thing that women struggle with. And you don’t have to be a public-facing person to have that.
CC: You included a lot of writing about your daughter, Layla. Upon first read, I thought the book was going to be largely about sex and sexuality but you managed to weave in these great stories about being a mom, as well.
JV: For me, there was so much of motherhood that also felt objectifying and also felt difficult and also related to a search for a sense of self in a way. It felt important to me to include that. So much of what I am interested in and why I’m working so hard on these issues is because I want my daughter to grow up differently than I did. It was difficult at first to decide how much to write about her and how much to write about motherhood. Obviously you have to balance the story you want to tell and how she’ll feel about it 10 years later, when she’s 15 or 16 and maybe reads this book. How will she feel about it? I hope she’ll be proud and I hope that she’ll like it and understand why I chose to write about it. I think that she will. As I’ve gotten older I wish there was more a conversation around the certain constraints of motherhood and how it can make it feel and the constraints of domesticity.
[The first few months of my daughter’s life] sucked. It was terrible. It was a lot easier to write about it now that I’m out of it. Five years later, she’s happy and healthy, knock on wood. It didn’t feel as hard trying to write about it as when I first had her and I would try to write, it was a little more difficult. But yeah, the anxiety was terrible. I think a lot parents face that anxiety, even if their kids are not sick. There’s a lot of existential angst that happens when you’re a parent and you bring a kid into the world. It was a really difficult time and I’d always struggled with anxiety issues and for me, having that experience that brought so much of my anxiety to the surface and fucked with my mental health in this big way, it was terrible obviously, but also forced me to deal with a lot of that stuff head-on in a way I hadn’t in years past. So it was also a very transformational time.
CC: You also included stories about your mom and your sister.
JV: There’s not many surprises for them, thank goodness. [laughter] For both of them, they’re both feminists and this issue is important to them so I think they understand why I wrote what I did. And my mom—she’s a mom to two daughters and [has] two granddaughters now. So for her, it’s also a really urgent issue.
CC: You’ve written about your abortions before. Those stories feel very necessary in a time when abortion access is disappearing. Why did you decide to revisit them?
JV: It was just a huge part of who I became. Even though my first abortion did not make much of an emotional impact of me—it was an easy decision and I was fine—it also enabled me to be the writer that I was and meet my husband and have the daughter that I have now. It did feel really important in that way. And so often when we talk about abortion we do sort of privilege the stories that are more like my second abortion. That are the tragic, really difficult, really hard decisions—it’s a wanted pregnancy, you don’t want to end it but for whatever reason you have to. We tend to privilege those stories over the much more common story of "I just didn’t want to be pregnant, I just wasn’t ready to be pregnant," which is just as valid and just as fine.
But with the second one, it felt really necessary to include because at the time, that decision, as pained as it was—and it was a really difficult decision because it was not a position I wanted to be in. I always wanted a second kid. The decision did feel like making a choice. As overwrought as this may sound, I made a choice to live. I was saying, “No, I am important enough and valuable enough that I’m not going to put myself at risk.” Which, at the time, after coming off this really difficult time after my daughter’s birth, was really important to me.
CC: The endnotes of the book are a sampling of some of the misogynistic emails, tweets and Facebook messages you’ve received in about the last 10 years. I was not expecting them!
JV: I think it’s important that people understand that’s the cost of being female in public spaces and in online spaces. Originally I thought of making them into their own essay, but it felt like that was giving them too much power so ultimately we decided “Endnotes” felt appropriate. So it’s there and it’s this undercurrent that’s constantly around, but I also wanted to be, “Eh, they’re an endnote so fuck them a little bit.” So often if I retweet some harassment or draw attention to some harassment online, it’s usually in the framework of making fun of it or responding with a gif, sort of making light of it. I didn’t want to do that. I feel like since we talk about the very real ways that this hurts and is terrible and impacts us and just wanted to let them speak for themselves instead of contextualizing them too much.
CC: Did you just go through your Gmail for some of these terrible words?
JV: I have an asshole folder on my Gmail. I put all of that. I keep a lot of it, especially the worst ones because you never know if someone starts to be threatening—you want to have a paper trail. I’ve had them for years. I went through my Facebook messages, went through my Twitter messages. And honestly, those probably aren’t the worst. Those were just the ones I picked at that point in time.
CC: You write really candidly about feeling adrift as a young person and with extreme kindness for the you of 15 years ago. Do you have anything you wish you could tell that 17-year-old Jess heading off to Tulane?
JV: Oh goodness. The message I wish I would have had was fucking up a little is okay. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up because it always did feel like the end of the world. Or if you mess up, it did not mean you were a failure at life or a failure as a person. And that you don’t need to know right away what you want to do and sometimes if you do fail at something or do something in the way you would like to, it’s not because you were terrible or did something really wrong, it’s not a good fit. That was sort of the case with Tulane. I saw myself as a tremendous failure and was so much pressure on me because I was the first person in my family to go college. But at the end of the day, the experience I had was not uncommon among first-generation college students. That’s another thing I wish I would have known. I wish I would have had some context for what I’m getting into or some context for what was going on with the folks around me, so that I wouldn’t have felt like this was just a problem with me.
CC: Yeah, and you write about the internet being both a performance but also a place to foster those communities.
JV: One hundred percent. For all of its faults, it’s also provided incredible community. And I think it really fully responsible for the resurgence of feminism that we’re seeing right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. "Sex Object" publishes June 7 and is available for pre-order here.
Caitlin is the associate features editor at Fusion. Prior to Fusion, she worked on features and national affairs at Talking Points Memo and completed an investigative fellowship at The Seattle Times. Will listen to any and all Grey's Anatomy theories.