The Cost of Growing Up Female

Author Jessica Valenti on her life as a feminist and a 'Sex Object'

Jessica Valenti, at a reading.

Jessica Valenti, at a reading Sam Ortiz for Observer

Not long after moving to the city, I was taking the subway home when the man sitting next to me snapped a photo of my cleavage.

I was hunched forward reading a book, creating a few inches of space between my shirt and my bra, when I noticed his iPhone uncomfortably close to my bare skin. At first, I didn’t register what he was doing: His face was blank, impassive. He looked as though he was concentrating on reading a confusingly worded email.

I could only stare at him, filled with an impotent mix of humiliation and helplessness. He started reading a newspaper.

Even now, months later, typing these words, my hands shake again and adrenaline narrows my vision. Because here is the terrible truth: I was ashamed of what had happened to me. Men objectify, sexualize, consume and judge women, and women are the ones who carry the shame of it.

A similar reminder of the unspoken vulnerability that goes along with growing up as a woman came in an excerpt of Jessica Valenti’s new memoir, Sex Object (Dey St.) excerpted in The Guardian, where the Brooklyn-based writer serves as a columnist.

She recounts emerging from the subway in eighth grade, feeling the back pocket of her jeans were wet and realizing a stranger had ejaculated on her.

“That these crimes are escapable,” writes Valenti, “is the blind optimism of men who don’t understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with a magnetic force. What it feels like to see a stranger smiling while rubbing himself or know that this is the price of doing business while female.”

“My past books have been much more issue driven, much more campaign driven, so this was a lot more personal,” Valenti told the Observer by phone.

When I was in college, I invited Valenti for a campus debate on sexual assault. Her presence stuck with me: her poise and confidence, a voice that spoke in take-no-shit declarative sentences. I remember how surprised I was that she had been a mother in her mid-30s; she looked as though she could have been my older sister.

When I had tweeted about the man on the subway, I did so to reclaim a modicum of agency, to trick myself into making the shaking stop. Although the majority of the responses were overwhelmingly supportive, dozens of replies wormed their way onto the surface of my timeline like sprouting warts: “He just thought you were hot!” “So we’re all just going to believe this random girl?” “She’s lying for attention.”

“But when you get harassed, it’s never about one tweet, one email; it’s about that cumulative impact. And what’s difficult is as much support as you can have, it still doesn’t make it go away. That impact still changes you.”

I asked Valenti how she copes with the vitriol strangers direct towards her as a public feminist. “Therapy mostly?” she says and laughs. “I say that jokingly, but it’s actually sort of serious. It’s been really difficult. It’s caused me a lot of anxiety in my life, and I’m a very fortunate, privileged person. I have a community of support around me, both online and off.

“But when you get harassed, it’s never about one tweet, one email; it’s about that cumulative impact. And what’s difficult is as much support as you can have, it still doesn’t make it go away. That impact still changes you.”

I check Twitter almost immediately after turning off my alarm in the morning. I instinctually blocked someone who called me a “feminazi” for tweeting about the conviction of the Stanford rapist. When I told my boyfriend, he was surprised: “But your morning literally just started!”

Oh, baby. My life as a public feminist has just started. And I’m grateful I have someone like Jessica Valenti making it a little bit easier for those of us following her. 

The Cost of Growing Up Female