Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object--a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month--is sure to provoke discussion at any time, but maybe now more than ever, as we head into the presidential election and redefine what it means to be “political.” We asked Valenti some pointed questions about her work and her reputation as one of the leading feminist thinkers of a generation.
Amazon Book Review: You have been called a “third-wave feminist.” Can we define, once and for all, the “waves” of feminism?
Jessica Valenti: It’s funny, I actually consider myself more of a fourth-wave feminist - but yes, let’s define them first! The first wave of feminism is largely thought of as the fight to get the right to vote in the U.S., the second wave is considered the feminism that happened in the 60s and 70s - the fight for equal pay, abortion rights, and such. The third wave started as part of the Riot Grrl movement in the 90s, and is largely known for sex positivity, and increasing the conversation around date rape. I think of the fourth wave (or fourth waves, since there are so many different kinds of feminism) as taking place online - the feminism that sprouted up on blogs and social media.
ABR: I’ve just been reading about legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who took a lot of heat from feminists of her generation for being too man-crazy, etc. But she is now being reconstructed as an early feminist: she always worked, she was a great supporter of women “owning” their bodies, she lobbied hard for birth control and abortion. What criteria should we be using to determine if someone is or is not a feminist?
JV: I think we get into very dangerous territory when we start to define who can and cannot be a feminist. It’s such a slippery slope, and I have no interest in being the feminist police! I think anyone who wants the social, political and economic equality for women can call themselves a feminist. It does get trickier, of course, when you see anti-woman politicians or pundits claiming the feminist label while working hard to dismantle feminist gains (I’m thinking of women like Sarah Palin or anti-choice legislators). I have no problem saying these people aren’t feminists.
ABR: Can you tell us about an incident in your life that made you realize you were “political”?
JV: I don’t think it was one incident as much as a series of incidents. I remember being picked last for baseball as a kid even though I was better at the time than many of the boys. I remember being in junior high and debating the Anita Hill case and being one of the only ones talking about sexual harassment. But I also grew up in a very political family, my parents talked about justice a lot, so it was always part of how I viewed the world.
ABR: How has motherhood changed your ideas about women, relationships, the world?
JV: I think motherhood has made these issues all feel much more urgent than they did before. So it didn’t necessarily change how I feel about certain things - it just fired me up to be even more active on behalf of my daughter.
ABR: You write about periods of hard partying in this book. In what way do you remember your partying days? Was there value in them?
JV: I think there was value in them in as much as they in part made me who I am today. But it’s not a road I would recommend! I remember that time as a period of transition - of trying to find myself and sort of failing at it. I do think, though, that we need to talk more about the ways in which women self-medicate, especially younger women.
ABR: What would you say to a young person, maybe a recent graduate, about making their way in this gender-fluid but still traditional world?
JV: I think I’d give them the advice I wish I would have gotten: Life is messy, and it’s okay if you are too! We all screw up, that doesn’t have to define us.