A Case of the Mondays: The Next Wave Will Have to Wait

A charitable way of describing Jessica Valenti’s book, Full Frontal Feminism, is that it fails to reach out to anyone. People who already read feminist weblogs, such as Valenti’s Feministing, will already know everything Valenti says in her book. People who do not will find it either incomprehensible or unappealing. Less charitably, Valenti’s writing ranges from weak to offputtingly juvenile, and uses bait and switch tactics that will not turn anyone feminist. If she wrote her book intending to trigger a new wave of feminism, fueled by women in their late teens or early twenties, that next wave will have to wait for a better activist.

Valenti’s starting point is that lately, young women do not identify as feminists because they consider it uncool. For them, feminism is for shrill old women who still fight the struggles of the 1970s; cool girls are post-feminists. If that is indeed how they think, then the best way to dispel the notion that feminism is dead is to show post-teens that it is cool to be a feminist. In the book, Valenti does it by deliberately using very informal language, by defining feminism to be the mere belief women deserve equal rights, and by discussing personal issues such as sex and attractiveness. Thus she not only has chapters devoted to sexual assault or reproductive rights or academic feminism, but also a chapter entitled “Feminists Do It Better.”

The book’s biggest problem is that in her attempt to be cool, Valenti surrenders any pretense to intellectual seriousness. She introduces one statistic as “Eighty frigging percent.” At one point, she introduces a conservative stance and responds only with, “Puke,” rather than with an argument. She repeatedly follows sentences with “Fuck it.” A good example of her language appears on page 102, when she criticizes Utah State Senator Chris Buttars, who called parental notification laws for abortion a matter of consequence. She reproduces his quote, and then adds a parenthetical remark, “The consequence of having the last name Buttars is apparently being a huge asshole. Appropriate.”

Another example appears in her chapter about sex on page 38, when she lists sex tips that include not only good ideas such as condom use but also the disclaimers “Don’t have sex with Republicans” and “don’t have sex with someone who is anti-choice.” Most people in her target audience are Democratic and pro-choice, but not nearly so shrill or partisan or with a strong liberal personal identity as to not dismiss Valenti the same way they would dismiss someone who advised them not to have sex with Southerners or Hispanics or poor people.

So on the one hand, Valenti ensures everyone who is looking for a serious introduction to feminism will ignore what she has to say. On the other, those swear words do not make Valenti look cool. To truly be cool, Valenti would have to talk about issues that truly interest most apolitical teenage or college-age American girls today, such as television shows or music with feminist themes. But she nowhere mentions Joss Whedon or Pink or Ani DiFranco. Instead of talking about those, or about other feminists who are familiar to many people who are well-versed in pop culture, she references issues from her own social circle of feminist weblogs, which hardly nobody knows about. MTV reaches 440 million households. The weblog with the highest traffic on the net, BoingBoing, averages a little more than five million pageviews a week; Feministing averages 150 thousand. The 98 or 99 percent of Valenti’s target audience that knows very little if anything about political blogs, much less feminist blogs, will have no idea why she quotes feminists bloggers whose name recognition is about the same as Valenti’s blog’s.

Unfortunately, the references that only people who read feminist blogs will get do not end with obscure quotes. At one point, when writing about abortion, she attacks South Dakota State Senator Bill Napoli, who justified his vote for a comprehensive abortion ban by saying abortion should only be permissible when the woman is a raped virgin. On page 95, she reproduces his full quote,

A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated.

So far, so good. But that is the second reference to Napoli in the book. The first one occurs in the middle of the preceding chapter, on page 68, where she says, “Remember our friend Bill Napoli on the only girl who should be able to get an abortion? The sodomized virgin?” People who read local South Dakota newspapers or watch local television might be familiar with that, as well as people who are well-versed in American abortion politics. Everyone else will find it incomprehensible.

Worse, Valenti misdiagnoses the stumbling block that keeps many non-feminists away from feminism. It is not coolness; political movements are never cool. This decade’s gay rights movement, whose success in normalizing homosexuality in American culture is staggering, is eschewing coolness, instead focusing on mundane and bourgeois rights such as marriage and military service. Rather, the stumbling block is censorship. The people in the penumbra of movement feminism, who a more skilled writer than Valenti could bring in, are by and large liberals who oppose censorship, including of pornography.

Feminism has gotten a lot of bad rep due to its homegrown anti-porn movement, which systematically scared liberals away in the 1970s and 80s. Since about 1990 that movement has waned, but Valenti never mentions that. The closest she comes to attacking anti-porn feminism is a short derisive reference to Ariel Levy, of Female Chauvinist Pigs fame. But Levy is not the best known feminist critic of sexual liberalism; Catharine MacKinnon is, followed by Andrea Dworkin. MacKinnon is by no means obscure, and chances are that Valenti’s readers have at least heard of her and her attempts to ban pornography, even if they are not familiar with her theory.

If Valenti had devoted a chapter to explaining that nobody in the feminist movement cares for MacKinnon anymore, the book might have been worth the ink it was printed on, despite the bad writing. But on the contrary, Valenti’s take on Levy gives off the impression that there is a serious current within the feminist movement that tells young women which sexual practices are feminist and which are not. In addition, in a way Valenti comes off as very similar to Levy. Levy is not MacKinnon; the brunt of her argument is not that certain sex acts are inherently degrading, but that the growth of sex-positivism has given girls only two choices, a raunch culture in which they cannot say no to any sex act and a puritan culture in which they cannot say yes. That is hardly different from what Valenti says later in the book when she commands her readers not to change their name when they marry, and rants about plastic surgery and liposuction.

That scolding could easily be justified using an appeal to the feminist principle that the personal is the political. But Valenti never mentions that principle by name. Instead, she prefers to define feminism around nearly universal notions of women’s rights, only to repeatedly allude to the notion that the personal is the political. In theory, this bait and switch tactic is meant to lure people by showing them how the movement’s goals are self-evident. In practice, there is nothing self-evident about those goals. The feminist theory of rape, which holds that sexual assault is a mechanism for all men to control all women, does not follow from the principle of gender equality, nor is it justified by evidence.

Feminists are not the only people who use those tactics. Much of the above paragraph applies to libertarians, with “women’s rights” replaced by “personal freedom.” Even more than feminists, libertarians like to pretend that their political prescriptions follow from trivial principles. And even more than feminists, libertarians have spectacularly failed to persuade people using those tactics. Every libertarian success in the last thirty years has come from pragmatic arguments about the failure of welfare or the benefits of low tax levels, rather than from anarcho-capitalist rants about the immorality of the income tax. The vast majority of people do not find taxation immoral and do not think politics belongs in bedrooms. Any movement that tries to mount a frontal assault against those people’s notions is doomed to failure.

Now, it is worth mentioning that there are plenty of books that are inaccessible to people who are not already in the group or movement, but are nonetheless well-written and informative once one knows the movement’s basic ideas. However, Full Frontal Feminism is not one of them. As noted on Feminist Review’s review, it only examines each issue very shallowly. Valenti may have failed to reach out to non-feminists, but she certainly succeeded in crafting a book that is even more useless to people inside the movement. Few of its statistics or quotes will be new to readers who are already politically motivated or involved in feminist activism. Even feminist blogs, which due to the limitations of the medium cannot delve very deeply into anything, routinely engage in more thoughtful and careful analysis than the book, and in almost all cases they also do so without liberally using swear words.

The statistics Valenti does use tend to be unsourced and at times false. The best example I know comes from the chapter on sexual assault. Valenti inflates the number of rapes in order to make her arguments about rape as a universal female experience seem more plausible. For example, she says on pp. 65-66,

[The National Crime Victimization Survey] shows that every two and a half minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, and that one in six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. (Keep in mind, rape is one of the most underreported crimes, so that statistic is likely too low.)

The statistic in question comes from a crime survey rather than from a police report, so it gets around the underreporting problem. That same survey even asks people if they reported the crime to the police, and its reporting rate figure, 38% for sexual assault and rape, is widely used in feminist circles. And even if the one in six statistic is true—the more recent statistics I have seen are closer to one in eight—it is a vestige of an era in which rape rates were far higher than today. If the rape rate in the US holds steady, the statistic will settle at one in twenty, and another one in twenty sexually assaulted but not raped. How can I believe her unsourced statistics about the economic losses women suffer when bearing children when the statistics she quotes that I do know something about fail to check out?

Despite Valenti’s intention to dispel myths about feminists, she only plays to stereotypes. She is about as shrill as one can get, and even when she is right, she comes off as unreasonable. The gratuitous swear words certainly do not help her image. She relegates issues affecting low-income and minority women to an almost marginal role, even as she accuses mainstream feminism of catering exclusively to the white middle class.

Valenti could have written a good book. If I had read the book but nothing else by her I would conclude that she cannot write, but in fact I have read some good things by her. In a promotional interview on Salon she hints that she understands the real problem young women have with sex-negative sentiments, even if she does not refer to MacKinnon by name. She could write a book that uses professional language, that talks about undercurrents of feminism within pop culture, that introduces the main ideas of political feminism without bait and switches, and that demonstrates that feminists today are anti-censorship. She could write a book that could appeal to young women interested in learning about feminism. Instead, she produced a low-quality rant that will not and probably should not get through to anyone who is not already familiar with everything she says.