Jessica Valenti: My Life as a 'Sex Object'
In her teens, strangers flashed her on the subway, teachers asked for hugs and boys joked about her breasts. Should she laugh off a lifetime of objectification – or get angry?
Jessica Valenti: My Life as a 'Sex Object'
By Jessica Valenti / theguardian.com

The two worst times for dicks on the New York subway: when the train car is empty or when it’s crowded. As a teenager, if I found myself in an empty car, I would immediately leave – even if it meant changing cars as the train moved, which terrified me. Because, if I didn’t, I just knew the guy sitting across from me would inevitably lift his newspaper to reveal a semihard cock, and even if he wasn’t planning on it, I sure wasn’t going to sit there and worry about it for the whole ride.

On crowded train cars I didn’t see dicks – I felt them. Pressing into my hip, men pretending that the rocking up against me was just because of the jostling of the train.

The first time I saw a penis on the subway, I was on the platform for the N train three blocks from my house in Queens, on my way to school. I was 12. I had just missed a train, so I was the only person there other than a man all the way at the other end of the platform. He was so far away that I could see only the outline of his shape, but soon I noticed his hand moving furiously – and that he was walking quickly towards me with his penis in his hand. I had always thought myself prepared for something like this; I knew I was supposed to yell or run, but I just stood there. I didn’t look away or turn around, and even though I felt my knees giving out, my feet felt strongly planted to the ground.

As another train started to pull into the station, he stopped midway down the platform and zipped himself up. The doors of the train opened and he walked on, normally. My feet still in the same place, I tapped a man in a suit coming off the car on the shoulder and asked for help in a small voice, but he didn’t stop moving. So I stood there. When the next train came, I got on, figuring I should get to school, but I got off one stop later, to call my parents from a station phone booth. I noticed that my hands and face had pins and needles.

***

It’s called the cycle of violence, but in my family, female suffering is linear: abuse is passed down like the world’s worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors (and fantastic senses of humour). My aunts and my mom joked about how often it happened to them when they were younger: the man who flashed a jacket open and had a big red bow on his cock; the neighbourhood pervert who masturbated visibly in his window as they walked to school as girls. (The cops told them the man could do whatever he wanted in his own house.) “Just point and laugh,” my aunt said. “That usually sends them running.” Usually.

On the worst day – a few years later – I didn’t notice the man at all. The train was crowded; my mind was elsewhere. I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest on my Walkman and thinking about how warm it was. When I stepped out of the subway, the sun hit my face and I was happy to be almost home. But when I started to put my hand in my back pocket, I felt something wet: I had made it the whole ride back without noticing that a man, whose face I would never see, had come on me.

I wiped my hand on the lower leg of my jeans and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. I walked the three blocks home with my backpack slung as low as possible, so that no one walking behind me could see what had happened or could think I had peed myself.

I peeled the jeans off when I got home and, even though most of the semen had landed on the pocket – giving me two, rather than just one, layers of protection – the skin on my ass was still damp from it. I ran the tub until there were two inches of scalding water along the bottom, squirted in some of my sister’s Victoria’s Secret vanilla-scented bath gel, and sat in it quickly, my shirt still on.

I wrapped a pink towel around myself when I stepped out of the tub and turned my jeans inside out before putting them in the laundry basket so my mother wouldn’t find out. I knew she would cry. I piled some sheets on top of the jeans to be safe.

Later I would find out that the guy rubbing up on you in the subway isn’t just an asshole – he has a disorder. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association describes “frotteurism” as “recurrent, intense, or arousing sexual urges or fantasies, that involve touching and rubbing against a nonconsenting person”. There are online forums for men – because, let’s be real, frotteurs are almost exclusively men – who rub on women and girls on the train, in bars, wherever they can do it while getting off unnoticed.

They have handles like “Bum Feeler” and “Rock Hard”, and share stories of their exploits and pictures of the women they have surreptitiously dry-humped. Some give advice, such as backing away occasionally, so your victim gets the impression that you’re working hard not to touch her and that any contact is the fault of the crowd.

“Women are forgiving if you can make it seem like this,” Rock Hard writes. “Almost like you can’t help it, not like you’ve preyed on them like a piece of meat.”

***

There was a large mirrored cabinet above the sink at the house I grew up in. If I pulled out all three of the doors, I could create a three-way mirror to look at my face from all possible angles.

I wrote in my diary at the time, I’m so ugly I can’t stand it. I have a big gross nose, pimples, hairy arms. I will never have a boy like me or a boyfriend. All of my friends are pretty and I will be the one with no one.

I was feeling that loneliness acutely at the time, because I was obsessed with a boy named Matt. Matt – the first in a long line of blond boys I would fall for – told me once that I would be so, so pretty if not for my big nose. All I heard was, he thought I could be pretty!

I started to measure my nose. First with my fingers, which I would try to keep the same distance apart as they were when they were on my face and then bring them over to my mother and her nose to demonstrate just how much bigger mine was compared with hers. She would insist that my nose was smaller – the kind of well-meaning parenting that just inspired fury and distrust. The nicest thing someone said to me was that a lot of people my age had big noses, and that I would eventually “grow into it”. The comment acknowledged that the ugliness I was feeling was valid and not some childish self-hatred. It was the only thing that gave me hope, the idea that my face would slowly morph into something more proportional than the monstrosity I was currently working with.

The thing about hating your face so intently is that it takes an extraordinary amount of care and attention. The obsession is almost contradictory, because you start to love the self-hatred a little bit. It becomes a part of your routine – you whisper, “I hate you” when you pass by a mirror, or you think it when trying on clothes or putting on makeup, acts that feel foolish at the time, because you know you’re not tricking anyone into thinking you’re beautiful. There’s nothing that you could pile on your body or face that would make it worthy.

But at least I could bear to look. A friend I lived with for a short while had an ID card for work that she was supposed to keep around her neck at all times. To avoid having to look at the picture of herself, she carefully cut a small piece of yellow paper into a square and taped it over her face. Later, I would find plastic bags of vomit hidden underneath her bed, wrapped in towels meant to mask the smell that eventually led to their discovery.

I started carrying a piece of paper with me that I would position over the bump on my nose when I looked in that three-way mirror to see what I might look like if it were gone. My father tells me my nose is part of my Italian heritage, that getting rid of it would be a slap in the face to our ethnicity. I tell him we’ll always have spaghetti. He is not convinced.

I imagined all of the things that would go right if I were just to have a smaller nose. I would have a boyfriend and the girls in school would stop making fun of me. That year, several girls would bring me to a playground to have a “talk” about why we could not be friends any more. Because I am too loud, because I agree with everything they say – desperate for approval in a way that is unseemly. We’re not trying to be mean, they say, it would just be better if you ate lunch somewhere else. I know if I looked more like them, with a small nose and long, light hair in braids and bows, I would not have to go to the building where the younger children are to eat lunch with my sister.

I find out from my male friends that there are cute girls, pretty girls, hot girls, sexy girls, and sometimes variations or combinations of all of the above. The worst to be is a fat girl or an ugly girl. I was an ugly girl who became a sexy girl once my breasts grew in and I started telling dirty jokes with abandon.

As soon as I “got a chest”, as my mom would say, the taunts about my face stopped as boys became more interested in feeling me up than making me cry. I started to forget about my face and mean girls, and focused on the things my body could do and inspire. During summer break, a male friend whom I had known since childhood put his hand on my breast as we watched a movie in the room over from our parents, saying nothing. I remained frozen, unsure what to do. Wasn’t he supposed to kiss me first? I was 11.

***

When I left junior high, I had what I thought seemed like a reasonably womanish body and improving makeup skills. I was optimistic that I could leave behind my reputation as the nerdy one of my friends. In my new school, a top school, full of maths and science aficionados, the girl with well-developed boobs was queen. I was being asked on a lot of dates. Proper dates to pool halls and movie theatres, lunches at a diner on the weekend or a walk to Central Park. I had boyfriends. Later, in between high school relationships, my male friends would jokingly/not jokingly ask to “talk business” with me – code for “Let’s negotiate how it’s in your best interest to suck my dick.” I turned them down, but was secretly pleased nonetheless. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the boys my age would want to hook up for any other reason than they liked me.

At first I was thrilled to be in a class in my junior year of high school with a teacher whom I’ll call Mr Z. He was a well-known easy grader and kind of a joke in a sad-old-man way; he had what we suspected was a glass eye, a hard time keeping drool in his mouth as he spoke, and walked with difficulty. The kind of classes he taught were normally held on the sixth floor, but administrators made sure he was out of sight on the 10th.

On the first day of class, Mr Z told us that if anyone came in to observe the class – “an important-looking person” – we should raise our hand no matter what question he asked. “If you don’t know the answer, raise your right hand. If you do know the answer, raise your left. I’ll only call on you if you’re raising the left!”

Everyone looked around at each other, smirking.

Mr Z didn’t really teach as much as he showed movies like Braveheart, but one day he had an actual lesson. And though he almost never called on students, he called on me. “Come up to the board, Jessica.” He smiled, small bits of white spit accumulating at the corners of his mouth. “We all want to get a closer look at your shirt.”

He laughed, but the class was silent. I wasn’t really wearing a shirt but a brown bodysuit, which was popular at the time – it snapped at the crotch and I wore it with jeans baggy enough to see the cutout above my hips. I remember the way I slid sideways through rows of desks, my arms crossed over my chest. I don’t remember what I wrote on the board. I never went back to the class.

***

When I started at high school, I went from being one of the smartest kids to being a nominally good student without the same drive and pedigree as my cute and smart girlfriends. Their parents had gone to college, grad school even. They lived on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope, in apartments filled with books and paintings and cabinets full of alcohol. One friend had an entire floor of a four-storey park-side brownstone as their “room”. I lived in a house where once or twice a week my mom would go outside wearing yellow rubber gloves to clean up the used condoms that littered the sidewalk.

One of my best girlfriends was a lithe dancer who had professional head shots for when she did the occasional acting job. She was the kind of Wasp-y pretty I desperately wanted to be – the type of beauty that provoked starry-eyed crushes instead of ass slaps. She lived in a duplex apartment with a spiral staircase, and we bonded over our older boyfriends. The first time she came to my house, she remarked how much she liked my mom’s “uneducated” accent. “It’s cute!” she said, smiling as she helped herself to a soda from the fridge.

That same year I was called to the board in Mr Z’s class, 1995, the school started investigating an English teacher for describing sex fantasies and his masturbation routine during class. He talked about having a dream in which he raped a maid who had his wife’s face. Another student said he asked her to play spin the bottle with him and later let her off writing an essay because she was “pretty”. He was suspended for a few months, and then four years later – after a different man, an assistant principal, was arrested for fondling and exposing himself to a freshman – he was suspended again. That first time, though, the feigned outrage in the school lasted as long as the newspaper articles did. We had a brief student assembly on the subject and moved on.

A few weeks before the semester was going to end, I ran into Mr Z in the hallway, and he pointed at me, smiling. He was wearing a striped shirt that was slightly discoloured in spots, and his belly was hanging low over his trousers. “I’ve been missing you!” he said as he walked up to me. He was breathing heavily, as if the walk down the hall had taken effort. He asked if I still wanted a good grade. I responded that of course I did.

Just give me a hug, then, he said, opening his arms. All I want is a hug from you.

I aced the class.

***

We know that direct violence causes trauma; we have shelters, counsellors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighbourhoods are more likely to develop PTSD. Yet we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.

When you catch a cold or a virus, your body has ways of letting you know that you are sick. But what diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers “pussy” in your ear on your way to work? What medicine can you take to stop being afraid that the cab driver is not actually taking you home? And what about those of us who walk through all this without feeling any of it – what does it say about the hoops our brain had to jump through to get to ambivalence? I don’t believe any of us walk away unscathed.


This is an edited extract from Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object, published by Harper Collins at £16.99. To order a copy for £12.99, go to the Guardian bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.

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Jessica Valenti: My Life as a 'Sex Object'