Sunday, September 11, 2016

Frozen and Empty

Jessica Valenti's Sex Object: A Memoir (2016, HarperCollins): heartbreaking. Valenti recounts a harrowing, life-spanning series of encounters in which she is abused, depersonalized, and objectified. Even if her case is extreme, anyone in twenty-first-century American culture must encounter it with horror. A grotesque cavalcade of perverts, miscreants, aggressive boyfriends, and silent watchers--many of whom qualify as "normal people"--leaves the author of Sex Object empty except for fear, and frozen before the possibility of genuine love.

The world around Valenti is inexorably evil. That evil devours the souls of girls and women by making their bodies the expendable tools of self-satisfaction. The ubiquity of the darkness makes every relationship part of the spirit-killing trap: "If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where it is that we're not forced? The idea that these crimes are escapable 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 magnetic force" (kindle location 898).

I lived some of my life on the other side of this shadow, these crimes. I helped, over many years of my life, to perpetuate the objectification of girls and women with my own beliefs and actions. It has taken me a long time to realize the dark truth of Valenti's experience--which I'm sure is the experience of many more women than we can guess.

I am also struck with horror at the possibilities opened up by Sex Object for my children--a young girl and a young boy. I am terrified by the prospect that either of my children--and, increasingly, any of the children around me--might have to endure even a slight fraction of what Valenti has endured. My daughter could be a victim like Valenti; my son could be a perpetrator like so many she describes. I am now sitting with the question of how to illumine the darkness around us.

The end of Sex Object surprised me with its abruptness. I did not expect Valenti to end with a sure-fire prescription for change. I was not sure even to hope for a list of suggestions. I did expect encouragement, perhaps a plea, perhaps even a direct chastisement (consonant with the tone of the book) to fight for change: a "dear reader" challenge. Perhaps its subtitle, A Memoir, was supposed to exempt it from those expectations. Or, perhaps the book was intended to leave us in a dark and doubtful place.

Or perhaps I tend to look too much for hope. I heard almost none in Sex Object. The "endnotes," a profane litany of evil responses sent to Valenti's past work, provided the frost on a frozen and empty vessel. In my aching search for hope, I observed two things about the narrative of Sex Object.

First, I did not read about any positive community around Valenti. Family, friends, teachers, colleagues--and of course boyfriends--were sources of fear. If positive, supportive, consistent voices might have done something--no matter how small--to counter the vicious violence of her sexualized world, Valenti was deprived of that possibility.

Second, the seeming antidote to love's destruction--genuine, tender care and love--does not work quickly or readily. Valenti writes about encountering kindness after years of perversion: "Being treated nicely felt wrong somehow, as if we were acting out what a relationship should be rather than being in it" (location 1334). As I read along and got invested in Valenti's story, this stuck in me as an excruciating conundrum: to be so twisted by evil as to be unable to recognize good. (It reminds me of Jesus' blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.) Recovery from objectification must then be a long road--perhaps too long a road for this book to trace.

~ emrys

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