Jessica Valenti’s almost my hero

A while ago, I read Full Frontal Feminism, and then I just recently finished He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. There are some things I dislike about Valenti (sometimes she does seem to be trying too hard to be hip and humorous, for example), but she’s genuinely a refreshing feminist voice that is able to articulate well what we all know and often can’t express properly.

The book does get a little tedious by the end (she lays it out as 50 “different” double standards, even though most of them are different facets of the same double standard, just so her publisher can boast a long list as opposed to three really long chapters, I guess). Still, Valenti is able to point out many sexist phenomena without sounding like a whining perpetual victim. She’s also able to get across well how sexism against women is actually harmful to men, too, which is really important to progress. We can’t, if we want to live in an egalitarian society, keep thinking of problems between groups and oppressions as us vs. them. “They” may appear to have privilege and benefits, but even those privileges and benefits come at a cost of freedom for all groups.

For example, the expectation that women will either take their husbands’ surnames or consider it while men always keep their names clearly puts men in a position of privilege (his name is important but hers isn’t). Nevertheless, men are often like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. If they want to get out of the “royal treatment,” they face many obstacles. I thought it was just social pressures (my parents raised a huge stink about me wanting to take my wife’s last name), but apparently in many states a man cannot even take his wife’s name if he wants to, and in the states he’s allowed to change his name in the procedure is far more costly and involved than the woman-taking-her-husband’s-name procedure is.

Of course, there are also some supposed double standards that she exaggerates. For example, she makes it sound as if women are considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids, whereas men are not considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids. That hasn’t been my experience at all. The extent to which the double standard does apply, I think it has to do with single people thinking about the future, as opposed to married couples talking about the present. In other words, if a single man says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” instead of thinking he’s selfish, people just won’t believe him. They’ll think, “He just says that now. When he gets married, though, some woman will turn him around. I bet he’d make a great father.” If, however, a single woman says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” the selfish police will come out in droves.

When married couples talk about not having kids, though, the selfish label isn’t gender-specific. My wife and I definitely don’t want to have kids, and I think we’ve heard the selfish line about equally. No one has said, “Your wife is selfish.” They definitely think both of us are.

She’s no Susan Brownmiller, but Jessica Valenti’s got some good points to make, and she is now my… almost-hero.

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9 Comments

  1. “My wife and I definitely don’t want to have kids, and I think we’ve heard the /selfish/ line about equally.”

    I’m sorry for the personal question, but may I ask why? You seem like you’d be a great father, your opinions are sound and moderate, and the experience being a teacher would probably help. Honestly kind of reminds me of my father.

  2. It is funny that, in a world where virtually every problem we have is related to to human over-population, some people consider “not having kids” to be selfish. Actually having kids is the most selfish thing you can do and contributes to the increased risk of annihilation of humans and almost everything else on this planet.

    It is also kind of funny that most educated people these days choose not to have children. In fact there is a Darwinian problem here in that a significant amount of the human reproduction that is going on is amongst those people who are too stupid to figure out birth control. Since IQ is highly heritable this means that we are naturally selecting humans to become stupider over time.

    Ironically IQ testing is always normalized on an on-going basis so that it averages out to 100, so most testing won’t even pick up this problem.

    When Stephen Hawking was asked a few years ago why we hadn’t been contacted by more advanced civilizations, he responded by saying that he thought it was because when civilizations got just beyond our stage they destroyed themselves. Now that is funny and probably quite insightful!

  3. @mc
    Well, it is kind of a personal question, so I won’t go into all the reasons. I’ll just say that when it comes to having kids or not, my wife and I very much believe in asking “Why?” and not asking “Why not?” As we haven’t found a compelling enough reason to have kids, we’re going to plan not to have kids at this point.

    We have nothing against people who have kids, and we love other people’s kids.

    @Adam
    Yes, that is unfortunate. Nevertheless, it’s the truth. People, many people, have accused us of being selfish. I have read quite a bit of literature suggesting that having fewer or no kids is actually one of the most environmentally responsible things you can do to care for the planet. In the whole “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” scheme of the environmental movement, Reduce is the most effective measure. We’ll see how much this planet can take of human consumption.

  4. I’m guessing Adam is being facetious, but in case he isn’t, here’s my unwanted two cents.

    What you describe is called “social Darwinism” and is the basis for the pro-eugenics arguments that were made in the early 20th century.

    It is incorrect that “most” educated people choose not to have children.

    People who do not choose to attend college are not all “stupid”. That’s a tad condescending.

    When IQ tests are “renormed” occasionally, it is because over time, around the world, human IQs are getting higher generation by generation. As societies become more complex, the average member of society can score higher than previous generations. Our grandparents would have scored so low on our current renormed IQ tests that they would have been classified as below average. It is clear that IQ tests don’t measure “intelligence” in general, but a specific kind of intellligence.

  5. Ironically, in the Middle East, where islamically speaking a woman has the right to keep her name, ‘westernised’ Arab or Muslim women who are hip and often come from privileged backgrounds are tending to give up their family names.

  6. idyllicmollusk: What you say about IQ tests is quite true, but it is more complex than that. IQ tests are very culturally sensitive and also time context sensitive as well. If you wrote a US one from the 1940s today you would probably score below average, even if you score above average on today’s tests, just because the language and culture have changed so much. That all makes it very hard to say if people are getting smarter or not. The tests are very relative and hard to compare.

    And you are quite right, they generally do not measure innate intelligence, but rather more specific things more like problem solving instead.

    I can’t speak for other countries, like the USA, but here in Canada the majority of married couples under 35 now are choosing not to have children. There are exceptions to this and we do have high birth rates in some minority populations, particularly natives and some specific immigrant populations. Unfortunately this does result in relationship between education and reproduction.

    I wasn’t even alluding to “college” educated people as you supposed when I said “educated”, but high school. In Canada the birthrate amongst people with high school and up is quite low. Below that level the birthrate is much higher. Because IQ is quite heritable, that is a scary thought to me.

  7. @Adam

    Thanks for the reply. Hasn’t it always been the case that the poor have more children than the well-off? And yet we’ve always muddled through somehow. One reason is poor does not equal stupid.

    IQ is somewhat heritable. But it is possible for children to exceed their parents. Or fall below them.

    @PartisanEntity

    What are you talking about? What is “Middle East, where islamically speaking”? There are a whole bunch of different groups of people there, and these groups have different naming traditions than we do. I don’t think this statement is accurate.

    And who are “‘westernised’ Arab or Muslim women who are hip”? Are they arab muslim immigrants to the West, arab muslims born in the west, white muslims who converted in the west, black muslims in the west, christian arabs, ba’hai arabs, etc you get the point.

    Sorry to pick on you. I just like to squabble about inaccurately grouping people together, especially when it comes to westerners talking about muslims.

    Feel free to clarify.

  8. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Jessica Valenti, though I’ve definitely heard of the two books you’ve mentioned (and read criticisms of them). I think you make a good point after reading her work. Sexism does affect men too, often IMO in the form of confining expectations and norms of masculinity. Of course, thanks to you, I now know there are also legal restrictions! A man not being able to take on his wife’s surname? That’s absolutely ridiculous!

    I do have a question though… what writings have you read where the author sounded like a “whining perpetual victim?”

  9. I haven’t really read anything that makes the author sound like a whining perpetual victim, but I’ve read plenty of literature that could be more easily misconstrued that way.

    My point is that Valenti goes out of her way to make sure her writing is extremely unlikely to be perceived that way, even by antifeminists.

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