Fun. Cool. Edgy.
According to Jessica Valenti, feminism is all of these things—though her adjectives may challenge some stereotypes.
“People are too busy envisioning Birkenstocks in their head or something,” she joked.
Valenti spoke last night to an audience of mostly young women in Barnard’s Held Auditorium. She is the founder and executive editor of Feministing, a feminist blog and online community. She has written three books and co-edited Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Valenti talked about her work on Feministing and in editing Yes Means Yes, and she discussed issues including rape and sexual assault prevention.
The lecture and subsequent question-and-answer session were part of the fourth annual Jeanne Clery Lecture Series. The Barnard Columbia Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center organized the event. The lecture comes at the end of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which at Columbia and Barnard has included events such as Take Back the Night—a march for sexual assault awareness.
Valenti said the aim of Yes Means Yes is “to heal a sexual culture that is profoundly broken.” She said that current society is characterized by “rape culture,” which, she claims, holds women disproportionately responsible for maintaining their sexual safety. “The onus is on the woman not to get raped, not on the rapist to not commit assault,” she said.
Valenti also spoke against what she called the “purity myth,” a cultural construct that celebrates the pure, virginal girl. “The purity myth is an integral part of rape culture,” Valenti said, “because purity is the desired norm, it is fetishized and sexualized.” She cited the sale of “training bras for toddlers” and girls’ panties that read, “Who needs a credit card...?,” to gasps of disgust and uncomfortable laughter from the audience.
“I feel like the Internet is the new public space,” Valenti said, on her attempts to merge feminist activism with non-traditional media and pop culture. For example, Yes Means Yes is organized by themes, not sequentially, a way of organizing which was inspired by tagging and linking online. “It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure anthology,” she explained. “Every time you pick it up you can read it in a different way.”
Valenti used an informal tone throughout her talk, peppering the tough topic with sarcasm, jokes, and swear words. She said she uses a similar tone on the Web and in her books—a decision she said was “very strategic” made in order to reach a wider audience. “Feminism should be accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford to get their Masters and read Foucault,” she said. “I try to keep it real.”
When asked how Barnard and Columbia students could incorporate activism into their everyday lives, Valenti emphasized little things and interpersonal conversation. “Its not the big signs that’s the activism,” she said.
Nora Feinstein, CC ’11, said that she was a big fan of Valenti and Feministing, but expressed regret over feminism’s image in mainstream culture. “I wish that feminist wasn’t such a dirty word, including at Barnard,” she said.