Jessica Valenti is a feminist author, blogger, and mother. She’s also the founder of Feministing.com, one of the internet’s most visible and frequented feminist sites, and is widely credited with moving feminism online and into its fourth wave. I recently had the privilege of chatting with Valenti on feminist thought, action, and the shifting contours of the feminist movement.
Marina: In my time in college, I’ve perceived a huge degree of attention paid to the issues of rape culture and sexual assault—I’m thinking in particular about the attention paid to the Steubenville case and sexual assault policy activism at Harvard and elsewhere. It seems to me like this is a new and positive development. Would you agree?
Jessica: Feminists have been talking about rape culture on campuses for a long time, but the urgency has definitely been up, and the more mainstream conversations outside of feminist circles have also increased. A large part of that is due to the internet and social media and more people finding out about how egregious some of these cases are. So there’s certainly been an uptick.
M: What do you think is the reason for it?
J: I think the reason for it is online activism and the fact that so many more young people and young women are finding out about feminism and finding out about these issues through an online channel and becoming more active.
M: Related to that question, I have the impression that a pretty substantive proportion of women at my school and at other universities identify as feminists, which is a pretty fantastic thing. Do you think that’s a recent development? Is it different from when you were in college?
J: I think it’s definitely different from when I was in college. The feminists I hung out with in college were a pretty small group. I’ve even noticed this in the last five years: When I give talks at colleges, I ask everyone who identifies as a feminist to raise their hand, and when I first started giving the talks five years ago, about a quarter of the room would raise their hand. Now it’s gone up. So a pretty tremendous thing is happening. I think a lot of women used to be finding out they were feminists in college, and I think now because of the internet, more people are finding out that they’re feminists in high school.
M: You founded Feministing in 2004, which wasn’t that long ago, but already I feel that Feministing and sites like it are the most productive forums for feminist discussion and learning for feminists of my generation. What do you think that’s done for feminism?
J: I hope that it’s done good for the feminist movement. I think it’s really changed the dynamic of feminist discourse, both in that it has gotten more young people not only involved, but also using their voices in leadership positions in the feminist movement. Before blogs started happening years ago, if you wanted to be a feminist with influence, you had to be really tapped into the New York and D.C. elite, but now one of the biggest feminist blogs online is Feministe, and that was founded by a young mom in Indiana. So I think it’s really shifted feminism for the better, though obviously there are still hurdles and other obstacles to overcome.
M: What’s the biggest way in which your feminism or feminist vision has changed since you were in college?
J: I don’t know that my feminist vision has changed as much as the way that I do feminism has changed. I think when I started out in this work and became interested in feminism, I just wanted to take on everything, and I think a lot of young feminists feel that way because it can be so overwhelming when you figure out you’re a feminist and start to view the world through a feminist lens. It’s really overwhelming—you’re inundated with it all day, every day. When I started off I was like, “We have to end sexism; we have to start this huge feminist empire.” What’s changed about the way I do my work is that I try to be more specific with my goals, and that›s something I would advise a lot of young feminists to do. With my book Full Frontal Feminism, for example, I hoped that some women who didn’t identify as feminists before would identify as feminists after reading this book, and that was my goal. And since it was a small goal, I met it. I think that can make this work, which can be overwhelming and exhausting, more sustainable.
M: Hookup culture was in the news recently in a Washington Post article that decried what the writer perceived to be an epidemic of unfulfilling, unemotional sex among college students. I have some thoughts on the way that hookup culture is discussed in the media—do you?
J: Sure—I basically wrote a book about it. I’m kind of wary of the term “hookup culture” because young people have been hooking up for a really long time. Ninety-five percent of Americans have sex before marriage, and that’s been true since the 1940s. Casual sex is nothing new. It’s also really telling that a lot of the concern about hookup culture is about young women, not young men. I do think there’s a conversation to be had about unfulfilling sex and alcohol, because there’s a strong connection between those things. I don’t think the handwringing about young women having sex is useful because they come from this place that assumes that young women only want relationships and that they couldn’t really be interested in hooking up.
M: Right. I think I’ve used that same word to describe the phenomenon: “handwringing.” It seems to me that people lamenting hookup culture want us to return to a fictional past that was never real.
J: People have this bizarre idea about a time that didn’t exist. It’s not really a concern about young women’s health or wellbeing. It’s about a conservative freakout that gender roles are changing and about this desire for traditional gender roles where women don’t really like sex but just do it to have babies. It’s about a desire to reinforce traditional gender roles and using a fear of young women’s sexuality to do it.
M: There’s recently been a lot of controversy on our campus about Tyga, a rapper who is coming to perform at our spring concert, and the misogynistic content of his music. The problem of misogyny in Tyga’s music and hip-hop more broadly is really difficult. Do you think there’s a right way to handle that question?
J: I think that’s hard. I think that is exactly the way to handle it—it’s to organize and protest if you don’t want to see that person on campus. I’ve seen arguments that that limits free speech, and I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is. It’s not freedom to say whatever you want without criticism. It’s freedom to say what you have to say and for people to speak back. Rick Ross had a lyric about raping a woman, and feminist organizers started a campaign to have Reebok no longer have him be their spokesperson, and it was successful. Feminist organizing shows that there are consequences for what you say, and I think that’s an important way to fight back against rape culture.
M: What do you think are the biggest questions dividing the feminist movement today?
J: I think that’s really hard. I think probably it would be the best way in which to do work. It’s kind of the same disagreements that existed 30 years ago, which just goes to show how important they are. About whether to work inside the system, outside the system, how radical to be, how mainstream to be. So I don’t really think it’s issue-based, but rather model-of-activism-based, and of course a huge piece of that is the struggle for intersectionality in activism, which I think is still a huge hurdle for a lot of feminist organizations and a lot of individual feminists, too.
M: Do you think feminists have an obligation to question other structures of power, like racial and economic oppression?
J: Absolutely. You have not only an obligation from a moral standpoint, but I also don’t think you can have a true feminist lens through which to view the world if you aren’t looking at the world through a lens that incorporates racial injustice, economic injustice, injustice based on sexuality. All of those inequalities are related to one another, and you can’t take one down without taking down all of them.
M: I really loved your piece on Sheryl Sandberg’s book in the The Washington Post, and I really just wanted to include it on the agenda. What do you think she has to add to contemporary feminism? Why do you think it’s important that we not dismiss her perspective?
J: This relates back to what my goal has always been, which is to make feminist issues, goals, and ideas more available to the mainstream so that we’re not just preaching to the choir. Sheryl Sandberg isn’t a perfect feminist and doesn’t know all the feminist lingo and exists in a different world than feminist activists live in, but her potential for outreach and her ability to get conversations going about workplace equality and domestic equality can’t be underestimated. She has access to a tremendous platform. I’m always wary of attacking people for having a tremendous platform rather than trying to use their platform as best we can.
M: Are there any contemporary feminists whose work you most admire?
J: Oh my gosh, that’s a good question. There’s a lot. Jos Truitt, I think her work is incredibly important. Roxane Gay, Irin Carmon, Andreana Clay. Oh, and I should say the Crunk Feminist Collective.
M: Are there any words of advice you would give to young college feminists who just launched a feminist magazine?
J: I think that’s really hard; we could take a weekend retreat to find a full answer. I think what I said before: having a narrow goal, being really deliberate about that goal, and having a mission statement that incorporates that goal, so that if you get something to publish and are questioning whether you should, you can look back at the mission statement and see how it relates.
M: That’s everything. Thank you so much!
J: It’s my pleasure.