Sex Object: A Memoir

by Jessica Valenti

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"Measurements"–"1995" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842


While walking from her subway station to school one morning, Jessica notices her nipples are conspicuously visible through her shirt. The white top seemed opaque when she put it on that morning, but in the shifting light she soon realizes it's much more sheer than she intended. She crosses her arms in front of her chest, having neglected to wear a padded "t-shirt bra" to compensate, but she soon realizes that maintaining that pose all day is unrealistic. Lacking a better solution, she adjusts her backpack straps to conceal her nipples as best she can.

By the time she finishes junior high, Jessica has also finished puberty and is now living her teenage life in her fully adult body. After prolonged insecurity about whether she might be "ugly," she's relieved to have a body that is broadly considered desirable—"glad that I had something, finally, that made me forget about my face," she remembers.

When she tests into a highly competitive high school, she's grateful to be entering a new environment with what she considers a "reasonably womanish" body. This gives her a social advantage, and she begins to attract male attention immediately upon arrival. She relishes her newfound popularity, and soon her social goals begin to eclipse her academic ones. As she's increasingly sexualized by her peers, she leans into that perception—before long, she's known for making "dirty" jokes and flaunting her sexuality. Before she graduates, she learns that all her close male friends have secretly referred to her by a nickname in her absence: "Valentitty."

Years later, when Jessica is a blogger, her breasts become a topic of conversation yet again. After being pictured with a group of other bloggers in a press photo with Bill Clinton, Jessica's appearance is singled out for critique—her breasts are too visible under her sweater, the media claims, accusing her of arching her back, sticking her chest out, and otherwise making herself the center of the photo.


Jessica recalls the staggering regularity with which strange men exposed themselves to her on the subway in her youth. There are two times it's a reliable occurrence, she contends: when the train is empty, and solitary men feel at liberty to expose themselves to the only other person in the car, or when it's full, and the tight proximity makes it easy for those inclined to rub up against other unwitting passengers.

The author experiences the former for the first time at just twelve, while on her way to school. After missing her train and finding herself alone on a subway platform, a nearby man unzips his pants, zipping back up only when another train approaches. By the time she reaches adulthood, these transgressions have become a regular occurrence—while en route to an internship after her freshman year of college, one man even tries to drag her into his car.


Looking back at her high school days yet again, Jessica hones in on 1995. This particular year—her junior—she recalls a number of troubling interactions with her teachers. She's facing a failing grade in one class after several weeks of truancy, but her teacher offers her an out: he'll pass her anyway if she gives him a hug first. That same year, investigations are launched into two other teachers at the school—an English teacher, for speaking inappropriately about his private life in front of his class, and a French teacher, for accusations made against him by a female student.

Around this time, Jessica's friends begin to throw parties, and she starts to experiment with boys in earnest.


In these chapters, Jessica's own identity and behavior begin to shift more consciously in the wake of her physical development. Once a self-described "nerd," she relishes the ability to start fresh at a new school in her "new" body—she sees the transition as an opportunity to become a new person, defined by her newfound ability to provoke desire.

While two of these chapters depict Jessica's behavior opening up to embrace her new identity, in "Subways" she highlights the way in which her behavior also changed to buffer herself against it. To protect herself from men on the subway, she buys a pair of headphones so she can't hear them—though this does improve her immediate experience by drowning out the men, it also demonstrates a bigger problem: the responsibility has fallen to the twelve-year-old harassment victim to fix the situation, not to the adult society that enables the harassers in the first place.

In "Measurements," Jessica experiences an unexpected objectification of another type: when another (female) blogger accuses her of "arching her back" to emphasize her breasts in the press photo with Bill Clinton, her body is weaponized against her by another woman for the first time. From the remove of her modern-day vantage point, Valenti is able to dismiss the woman's complaints somewhat breezily: "Here is the truth: I look good in that photo. My breasts are fine. But I cannot help their presence in a picture that I also inhabit."

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