New York Times best-selling author and Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti spoke at Heritage Hall Monday night for The Gender Equity Center’s grand opening day. Previously known as the Center for Women Students, the recently renamed center hosted Valenti to top off its kick-off celebration with a keynote talk and signing of her most recent book, “Sex Object: A Memoir.”
Although an image of her book posed as her backdrop, Valenti made very little mention of the book during her talk. Instead, she recognized that her book, as a memoir, was incredibly specific to her own experiences, and thus does not represent the experiences of all women. The book explores her more personal experiences with sexism and how those interactions have, in hindsight, had an enormous impact on her life. Understanding that feminism is not prescriptive, her talk revolved more broadly around the shifting realm in which feminists must work and mobilize.
Valenti holds a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University and founded the award-winning blog Feministing.com, hailed as “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media” by Columbia Journalism Review. She wrote six books on feminism, among them “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape.” Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Ms. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and a contributing editor at Marie Claire.
Valenti noted much of her work has been refocused since the presidential election.
“For the last ten years, though my speeches have always been about serious issues, they were also usually pretty lighthearted and funny,” she said. “The biggest part of my political problem for a long time was to try to make these issues more accessible.”
“I knew that using jokes and using humor and being self deprecating…these were all good ways for making people– young people especially– feel comfortable with potentially uncomfortable political ideas.”
Since the election, Valenti said she’s exhausted and has little interest in making people feel comfortable. Things are different now. While her message was sobering, her tone was emboldening.
“I don’t think you all need a spoonful of sugar,” she said. “I think you all need the truth.”
While Valenti’s talk was insightful both factually and politically, it ended less as a speech and more as conversation between her and students. Once the floor opened to a Q&A, students were eager to engage with her knowledge and experience by asking thought-provoking questions. Questions ranged from those about the media’s portrayal of rape, to more personal ones about how to react to sexism in conversations with friends.
The talk was a contemporary field guide to mitigating issues of gender as a college student in 2017. From leveraging social media to engaging with college resources, Valenti provided guidance, but not direction. Valenti told students to get involved, but encouraged them to ask themselves two questions before they do so: What are my interests and what are my community’s needs? Without claiming to understand the specific needs of Penn State students, she encouraged them to be the ones pursuing those needs.