Sex Object Summary

Sex Object is a 2016 memoir in which American feminist author Jessica Valenti illustrates the effects of objectification and sexualization on women's lives.

  • Valenti became the recipient of objectifying male attention and sexual harassment from an early age, which took a toll on her relationships and sense of self.
  • After achieving success as a writer, Valenti faced more harassment than ever. Meanwhile, she met and married her husband, Andrew.
  • Valenti suffered from postpartum depression after the premature birth of her daughter, Layla, whose selective mutism she and Andrew later worked to help Layla overcome.


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Last Updated on January 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

Sex Object is a critical feminist memoir written by Jessica Valenti.

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Throughout the text, the author uses demonstrative examples from her own life experience to highlight and deconstruct the ways in which women are often objectified in American society. The timeline is non-linear, and Valenti jumps around in her personal chronology from one chapter to the next, but the overall narrative arc generally follows her life from childhood up through the birth of her daughter, Layla.

The author begins by establishing a broad context for the book's central premise: that modern American society routinely sexualizes and objectifies women and girls without their participation or consent and that this inhibits them. In one example, she recalls a high school teacher asking her out on a date after graduation. In another, she notes the frequency with which she was flashed by men on the subway throughout her teens. As she contemplates the impact that these early transgressions have had on her, and the extent to which her reactions to them shaped her own life choices, she proposes a hypothetical question: who would she be if she hadn't grown up in a world that places this burden on women and girls as a matter of routine?

In an early anecdote, Jessica recalls her first abortion. Rather than the grief she assumes she "should" be feeling as a result, she finds herself at an unexpected emotional remove—the immense physical pain of the procedure is extremely difficult, but she doesn't feel a loss. She meets her future husband, Andrew, soon after, which she interprets as uniquely ideal timing: in having the abortion, she has made a rare conscious choice to take control of where her life is headed. Shortly after she meets Andrew, her first book—an approachable text about feminism, for young women who aren't sure whether or not they identify with that label—is published.

Reflecting on her relationship with her body, Jessica notes the significance of the changes that occur when she goes through puberty. Growing up, she'd felt "ugly"—her nose was too big, her hair was too dark, her overall appearance too different from that of her beautiful sister and mother. When she finally matures into her body, something changes in her confidence, too—she starts to look, as she puts it, "womanish." As soon as she reaches physical maturity, she notices an overwhelming change in the way boys and men of all ages relate to her.

Throughout the narrative, Jessica and her young friends find themselves in situations where they are heavily sexualized by those around them. In one anecdote, a peer takes a lollipop out of her friend's mouth and then suggestively puts it back in to simulate oral sex. In another, the girls—just twelve at the time—meet some high school seniors at a block party. Jessica dismisses them at the time, but later learns one of them has gotten one of the girls pregnant.

As she grows into a teenager and begins dating, Jessica's interactions with men continue to display this troubling pattern of objectification. One boyfriend becomes extremely possessive and fixated on her whereabouts, buying her a pager as a gift so he's never without a means of getting in contact. Another becomes enraged when she breaks things off, taping a full condom to her dorm room door and writing "WHORE" across the front in giant letters. It's not until her sophomore year of college that she is treated decently by a boyfriend, and when that finally does happen, she struggles to accept his healthy affection without extreme caution and guardedness. Eventually, the two break up, and Jessica's relationships decline in quality yet again—she is raped while unconscious by the next man she dates, and the relationship after that is marked by cheating, constant manipulation, and heavy drug use.

Now a blogger in her early twenties, Jessica finds herself at the center of her first online controversy: after appearing in a press photo with former president Bill Clinton and a group of fellow bloggers, she is accused of arching her back to emphasize her breasts in an attempt to draw attention to herself. There is a backlash, and conservative bloggers accuse her of intentional impropriety.

Jessica and Andrew are eventually married, and her career continues to gather momentum despite the controversy. As she gains increasing visibility as a public feminist, she starts to experience ongoing harassment that far exceeds what she has previously seen—threats of injury, sexual violence, and death begin to appear regularly and anonymously in her inbox as a matter of routine.

Soon, the couple is pregnant. The pregnancy is difficult, and Jessica is forced to have an emergency c-section at six months. Her daughter, Layla, survives but weighs just two pounds at birth. Layla spends two months in the neonatal intensive care unit before she is able to go home, and she experiences consistent health problems for her entire first year.

Jessica's postpartum anxiety is debilitating, and she struggles to look after herself while she cares for Layla. Her relationship with Andrew becomes tense and volatile, and the two enter couples' therapy—she is unable to shake her anxiety, and he is resentful of the extent to which it impacts their relationship. By the time they're finally able to move forward, Layla is two, and they find themselves pregnant again. Jessica returns to the same clinic she went to years before and has another abortion.

Layla's health improves as she ages, but she has an anxiety disorder of her own: selective mutism, which keeps her from being able to talk to her peers or any adult she doesn't already know well. The couple pours their time and resources into therapy so that she might someday overcome it, and Jessica closes the narrative on an optimistic note: while out for dinner one night, Layla, whispering to the waitress, orders her own ice cream.

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