By Jen Thorpe
This morning I finished reading Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Sex Object. The book is a collection of personal reflections on topics such as street harassment, abortion, drug use, sex, and child raising. Throughout, it explores the way that the world treats women, casting them as objects for men’s comment, pleasure, and enjoyment. It also explores the very powerful physical, psychological, and political effects this categorisation has. I found the book painful and difficult to read, not because of the writing but because of the content. Despite this difficulty, the book is important in that it raises important questions that we need to consider.
Valenti considers what it means for her to be raising a daughter in this world and the qualities that she would like her daughter to have. She wants her daughter to be brave, to still be the girl who wants the best part in the play when she’s older, and most of all she wants her not to have to endure the constant harassment, abuse, and assault that most women are exposed to on a daily basis. She wonders what it might be like if that was not the world that existed, and what women would believe about their own potential if we had the space to live our lives un-objectified.
It’s a powerful question that bears reflecting on in South Africa, where street harassment, domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse, and gender discrimination remain the norm. Sure, we have the laws that say it’s not allowed, and the Constitution says we all have the right to feel and be safe, but for most of us, those are just pieces of paper with good intentions.
Last year I spent three months out of the country on writing residencies. It was an amazing time, not least because I had uninterrupted time to write, and my meals were mostly cooked for me, which feels like #livingthedream. What I loved most about the residencies, that took place in two small towns, was my ability to walk alone, for long periods, on the road or in the wilderness, without being harassed. This simple pleasure, an hour long walk a day where I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid, where nobody said anything to me about how I looked or what I was doing alone, and where I could be in nature and consume the beauty of the natural world, was something that I treasured. It helped me sleep better. It helped me write better. It made me feel more human.
The first week back in South Africa after the first residency, I was sexually harassed by a man while walking down the street to visit some old work friends. When I ignored him, which is my instinctive reaction (sometimes my instinct is to keep walking with my middle finger in the air), he took the liberty of crossing the road in case it was a matter of his lewd suggestions being unheard rather than deliberately ignored. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was there, looking at me. It was only when a kind male stranger walked next to me and told him to go away that he stopped. But even this didn’t make me feel better – he didn’t stop because he realised it was vicious, destructive, or offensive to shout comments at me. He stopped because he believed I belonged to another man. I was still an object to him.
I’m at the age where I think about what it might mean to raise a little girl in this world and to be frank, it terrifies me. I wonder how I will tell her that she has the rights and power to do anything she puts her mind to, but simultaneously explain that she should also probably be hypervigilant when crossing the street at night or when choosing an intimate partner. I don’t know that this double-think double-living is psychologically tenable.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where women could go on a walk every day for the sheer pleasure of it, and what women would be capable of doing if they were really free.