How Women's Stories Became The Centerpiece Of The 2016 Election

Photo: Courtesy of Dey Street Books.
We're in the home stretch of an unprecedented election for women. Not only have we seen our first female presidential candidate ascend to lead a major party, but women (and their stories) have taken center stage throughout the 2016 campaign.

From Hillary Clinton standing up for the women who need Planned Parenthood during the last presidential debate to those who came forward about being allegedly assaulted by Donald Trump to the thousands of women tweeting about how their first sexual assaults were #NotOkay in light of Trump's Access Hollywood tape, it's clear that, no matter what November 8 brings, women are done staying quiet.

One woman leading the charge is Jessica Valenti. The feminist writer released her memoir Sex Object this year, and according to Valenti, it's a "punishing" look at what it's like to grow up in a world that hates women. This is not your typical celebrity feminist memoir — there's no humor or softening of language, just a raw, unforgiving listing of the countless times Valenti's been objectified by men. (We can only assume it was as cathartic to write as it was to read.)

We spoke to Valenti this week to learn more about what drove her to write Sex Object and how the timing of her memoir could not have been more perfect; the 2016 election has been rough, but Valenti says that the fortitude women have shown in spite of it all is the hope we can all cling to.
One of the things I loved so much about your book was that it portrayed a vast range of aggressions and behaviors that either led to or constitute assault or objectification. Why did you think 2016 was the year to release a book talking about these things, many of which might be scoffed at by people who think they’re normal and okay?

"I think, over the last 10 years, with the rise of online feminism and social media and all of these wonderful hashtag campaigns, like #YesAllWomen, we've been seeing this increase in women telling their stories and talking about their experiences. And that’s not to say that women's experiences still aren’t discounted, and women's stories aren’t often thought of as shallow or navel-gazing, or it's not considered self-centered or attention-seeking to talk about yourself. But I think that that’s starting to shift.

"I think you can credit the rise of popular feminism in culture to a very bloggy voice, or comedians coming out and talking about feminism. And we've been having these conversations in sort of — I don’t want to say a light way — but the tone of the conversation has been such that we're trying to draw people in, right? Like, you're trying to make people understand what feminism is; you're trying to make jokes and bring people into the cause, which is wonderful. But I think we've gotten to this point where enough people understand what the movement is about and are wanting to talk about the harder issues. And that’s really what I wanted to do with the book: write something that explored the cumulative effect that sexism has on women — not only through the big stuff, like assaults and violence, but as you said, the everyday diminishments."

How do you think the current election, in particular, has changed the national conversation around sexual assault and objectification?

"It's been really incredible to see. After the book came out, and I was talking about all this stuff, and then everything that’s happening with Trump and his accusers, it both horrifies and heartens me. It horrifies me that this is still happening on such a global scale and that certain men get away with this, and that women put up with this. But it heartens me that women are starting to feel like they can talk about it, that they can come forward, and there is some sort of support structure for them.

"I remember when the Access Hollywood tape came out, and pundits on CNN immediately labeled it sexual assault. They had the right language. I don’t think that would have been the case five or 10 years ago. I really don’t. I think that the work that feminists did, especially feminists online, really laid the groundwork for a moment like this, in which people are talking about this in a serious way. It's like, no, this is not normal behavior for men. Absolutely not, this is not 'locker room talk.' This is sexual assault.

I think that the work that feminists did, especially feminists online, really laid the groundwork for a moment like this, in which people are talking about this in a serious way.

"That said, I've spoken to so many women, and I felt this myself, who just feel traumatized by the last few months. You know, hearing men like Rudy Giuliani saying that this is just the way that men talk and hearing some people dismiss women's experiences and dismiss the idea that groping women without permission is assault is deeply upsetting, and I think it brings up a lot of stuff for women who have been dealing with this throughout their entire lives."

Do you think that the fact that this election has involved such frank dialogue about sexual assault has forced men to reckon with these issues themselves?

"I've been really glad to see so many men come out and say, no, absolutely not, this is not normal male behavior. This is not how men talk. Because one of the biggest lies that bolsters rape culture and that makes assaulters and abusers believe that they're in the right is that all men would hurt women if given the chance — boys will be boys and that sort of stuff.

"So it's important that people hear men say that. I've also heard from a lot of men who say they understood that sexual harassment was a problem, that women got sexually harassed. What they didn’t necessarily understand, up until now, was just how incessant it was. That there’s an unforgiving, never-ending-ness of it, that it happens so often, that it can be so bad. And I think that that realization for men has brought about a big shift."

I’ve heard people say that what Trump said on that Access Hollywood tape was “just words” and therefore not a big deal. Whether or not Trump committed the alleged assaults he’s accused of, how do you think rhetoric like Trump’s — so-called “locker room talk” — influences women in this country?

"It's horrifying and scaring us, because so many of us have been grabbed in that way, so many of us have been assaulted in that way. When we hear someone talking like that, we understand that it's not ‘just words’ because it's the experience of our lives. So we know better than anyone that these aren't ‘just words’; these are things that happen to women."

Do you think there are generational differences in the way women interpret Trump’s language? Is his way of speaking more normal to an older generation?

"I don’t think so. I've spoken to my mother about this, I've spoken to other older women, and I think that older women and younger women alike are horrified by his comments. Do I think that his comments would have been considered more acceptable 10 or 20 years ago? Yeah, I do. I think that there would have been less outrage, because there was less of an understanding of what assault is.

"And the other thing that’s been really interesting to see is people understanding and talking about the fact that sexual assault and abusive behavior is not just grabbing someone's genitals or breasts. There are all sorts of ways that men cross women's physical boundaries, and I think that it's really important that we're having a conversation about that, because for so long it was like, okay, he kissed you, and you didn’t want him to and you tried to push him away. Big deal, at least he didn’t rape you. There's this idea that if it's not a violent, physical, penetrative assault, then it's not really sexual assault. And, of course, that’s not true."

There's this idea that if it's not a violent, physical, penetrative assault, then it's not really sexual assault. And, of course, that’s not true.

In your memoir, you write about becoming a mother. How has that experience changed the way you look at sexism and sexual objectification of women?

"It hasn’t changed what I believe — it's just made those beliefs feel much more urgent. I really am so worried about what the world is going to be like for my daughter.

"She's in first grade, and people talk about what's going on in politics and what their parents talk about. How do you explain to your kid, oh, well someone who is running for president bragged about grabbing someone in a private place that they're not supposed to? That's a horrible thing to have to tell a 6-year-old, and it makes me really sad that, as she gets older, she's going to have to understand this part of the world. And I just want it to be better for her as quickly as possible, and I think a lot of parents, mothers and fathers, feel that way."

You also write about your traumatic birth experience. After going through that, what do you wish the candidates would say about women’s access to healthcare and choices?

"I was really happy to hear Clinton talk about later-term abortion in a nuanced and empathetic way that made the connection with women's actual lived experiences, and how this sort of thing comes about. And I actually think that she's been doing an excellent job in talking about women's health needs. There's always more that everyone could say, right?

"I would really love to see both candidates talk more about violence against women that wasn’t perpetrated by Donald Trump, violence against women more broadly. That is a health issue. Domestic violence is a health issue, sexual assault is a health issue."

You’ve talked about this before, but what is the link between sexual assault and reproductive rights?

"Ultimately, it's about bodily autonomy, and the ability to have humanity and dignity and control over your own body. And both issues deal with that in really profound ways."

And why do you think people have such a hard time seeing that link?

"Unfortunately, I think it's because still, to this day, we don’t see women as full human beings. Hence the name of the book, Sex Object. We still very much objectify women, we don’t see women as full people, and that’s reflected both in the fact that there is so much sexualized violence against women and that we have policies that enshrine that idea into law. Once we're pregnant, we're not really people; we're just missiles carrying a future baby. So I think that, broadly, we haven't really grappled with the reality of that dehumanization yet."

We still very much objectify women, we don’t see women as full people, and that’s reflected both in the fact that there is so much sexualized violence against women and that we have policies that enshrine that idea into law.

A lot of people have talked about how traumatic this election has been for women. What have you been doing to take care of yourself during this election?

"I'm working out a lot. I'm trying to relieve my stress by doing a lot of exercise and writing and being with my family and cooking. But yeah, it's really difficult. I just feel sick every day.

"And the thing is, even if Hillary wins, that’s not going to go away. The issues that the Trump campaign has brought to the surface — the pervasive misogyny and racism and xenophobia — that doesn’t magically disappear on November 9. That’s still going to be here, and we still have a lot to grapple with in the coming years, and I think it's going to be hard."

I think it’s safe to say that 2016 has been a rough year for many women, in terms of what’s going on in the country. Why should women feel hopeful for 2017?

"I think women should feel hopeful for 2017, because the truth is out there now in a way that it hasn’t been before. It's an unpleasant truth, it's a lot of hard truths to grapple with, but with our experiences leading the way, we’ve taken the first step towards fixing some of this. And so, I think that we can be heartened a little bit by the fact that so many of us are able to tell our stories, and are, and that people are listening."

#NastyWoman by Sonejuhi Sinha - Women share their stories of being objectified and how they’re fine with now being “Nasty Women.” Sonejuhi Sinha is an award winning filmmaker working in both narrative and documentary storytelling. Her narrative short film, Love Comes Later, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at over 60 film festivals internationally, garnering awards at festivals.

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