I’m a latecomer to the Overdrive party (here’s to free audio books that you can borrow and not have to buy!! How very civilised!) So the joys of Overdrive and the pressure of ‘borrowed’ books means that I knocked over Between the World and Me and Sex Object in the one day. And I was struck by just how similar in nature these two books are.
Both are about the author’s need to live in a world where their body means they are treated in a particular way by (white, male) society. Certain assumptions are made about who they are and how they are expected to behave given certain physical characteristics. Assumptions are also made about how they should react to a world that treats them as a sub-class.
One of these authors is receiving praise, while the other is receiving a stream of hate filled vitriol on social media.
Between the World and Me is a beautifully written essay addressed by Coates to his son, talking about his life experience as a black American male. The impact of being a black male in a society that accepts that black men are second class citizens and inherently dangerous. How this affected his home life, including the fear of his parents for his wellbeing and future. What this has meant for him growing up, becoming educated, working and with the continuous threat of an early death hanging over him. I’m a stoic reader, but I had tears in my eyes a number of times listening to the fear and sorrow in this man’s story. The average Goodreads rating for this book at the moment is 4.39 (over 57,000 ratings).
Valenti’s story is a very different beast. Sex Object is a raw and angry treatise on what it was like to grow up as a girl in a society that both hates girls and wants to possess them. And then hates them even more if they happen to engage in sex. Valenti’s experiences are awful -from the abuse suffered by the matrilineal line of her family to the perverts she encountered in public as a young teen, to her string of arsehole boyfriends, and her own observations of her dissociated behaviour.
To me, this book is clearly a memoir of a young woman’s decent into anxiety and mental illness due to strings of abuses which society writes off as ‘normal’. Because women are supposed to take this behaviour from men and, if not thrive , at least not be scarred. Being flashed is normal. The threat of being grabbed and abducted is normal. The threat of rape is normal. Being cat-called is normal. Being humiliated in public for the way you look is normal. Being expected to humour boys and men is normal. And reacting negatively to any of these behaviours can result in your injury or death.
Both Valenti and Coates talk about the ability of white men to take the lives of their victims with impunity. If only the victim had done “the right thing” there would not have been a problem.
The thing that bemuses me most are the reactions to Valenti’s book – the average Goodreads rating is 3.79 (1200 reviews) with comments along the lines of ‘I’m not sure what her point is, so she saw some dicks on the subway’. (At 12, Valenti got off the subway to discover some filthy animal had ejaculated on her during her commute. Plus the other exposed dicks.)
One of Goodreads reviewer criticises Valenti for her hostility, but not being hostile or traumatised enough to not participate with her fans or attend book signings. (Excuse me?? The woman has to be too traumatised to make a living for her suffering to be valid?)
Sex Object makes me angry and also brought tears to my eyes for a very different reason to Between the World and Me. There is so much truth in it, and to me it seems that a number of reactions criticising it for it’s lack of scholarly direction are wilfully ignorant. This is the story of an abuse survivor – except her abusers are the general public, men who go home to their wives and families, but see no issue with harassing underage girls on the subway or on the street, or in the classroom. Valenti ends the book by reading a stream of comments on her articles and tweets. Trolls are the underbelly of the internet community – cowards who hide behind their keyboards. There should be a legal option to find and prosecute animals who threaten to do harm to anyone via this medium.
Both of these books are looking at the sub-category of what it means to be human. Of who is deserving of justice and a voice and who is not.
Please read them.