Reviewed by Layla Khoury-Hanold
On paper, the themes of motherhood, misogyny, consent, and control don’t seem totally related. But those four words appear together on the cover of Touched Out (Beacon Press, September 2023), a hybrid of memoir, cultural criticism and theory by Amanda Montei.
By the time you finish reading the first chapter, “Beginning,” Montei leaves no doubt that motherhood and the cultural of misogyny intersect in such a palpable and visceral way for women and their bodies, that it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been rendered in this way before.
Then again, creating something new by examining one’s experiences in the context of cultural reckonings like #MeToo, and societal constructs such as patriarchy and capitalism, is how Montei has always made sense of her world. She is an academic and a writer with a penchant for cultural criticism. So perhaps this book really could only have been conceived by her, as she was still in the throes of early motherhood in a global pandemic. As she writes in the early pages, “This book considers long-held beliefs about women’s bodies—about who and what they are for—but also the ways such beliefs shifted for women of my generation, and how they might shift further on the heels of a national parenting crisis.”
Each chapter in Touched Out weaves together Montei’s personal history with popular culture and the writings and work of classic feminist thinkers such as bell hooks, Silvia Federici, and Adrienne Rich. With this approach, Touched Out captures the universal ruse that so many women in America find themselves bamboozled by: Thinking that they’ll find love, belonging, and fulfillment in becoming a mother only to find that the way they have been conditioned to think about their bodies, care work, and familial norms all but guarantees that they’ll lose themselves in the process.
The narrative arc of Touched Out traces Montei’s motherhood journey with reflections and critiques on American rape culture and the frequent unwanted touch she encountered as a teen and young adult, when hook-up culture and binge-drinking were de rigeur. For example, in the “Pleasure” chapter, Montei talks about enjoying breastfeeding but also feeling consumed by the pressure to breastfeed under the prevailing “Breast is best” mantra of the time. “For many women, the pressure to breastfeed becomes the first deep denial of their bodies’ needs and desires,” she writes. Before reading that line, I hadn’t considered how conversations around breastfeeding omit questions of autonomy or ignore a parent’s prior relationship with their body, let alone any trauma they may have encountered.
Throughout motherhood, women systemically deny their needs because they’ve been conditioned to believe that a mother’s worth is measured by her selflessness. As a result, it keeps women quiet and renders the labor of care invisible and unvalued—women believe that this is what they signed on for, even if they never imagined it would look this way. Indeed, as Montei writes in the “Work” chapter, “How well hidden was the incredible volume of labor it took to maintain a home and raise children, to keep a society moving—so well hidden, in fact, that I never saw all the labor coming.” This is in large part, Montei argues, because women are conditioned from a young age to seek acceptance by getting attention for our appearance, to receive love by putting men’s pleasure first, to obtain belonging by staying compliant, and to gain fulfillment in caring for other’s needs before our own.
Like many things that define motherhood, Montei’s experience has been a both/and situation. She writes that she “was spellbound by her child’s presence,” but that “the amount of time she spent pleasuring and caring for others now outnumbered the amount of time I spent caring for myself.” It’s no wonder that motherhood all feels like too much—“too much touch, too much posturing, too much meeting demands, too much trying to say the right thing and be nice nice,” as Montei writes in the “Body” chapter. This chapter really drives home the intersection of motherhood, misogyny, consent, and control, perhaps best summed up by this line: “Like many elements of American motherhood, women’s profound struggles with something as critical as touch to human intimacy and development have been mostly written off as par for the course—as a natural condition of biology, perhaps even of the feminine condition, but also as normal, a vague designation that sidesteps culture and politics.”
In Touched Out, Montei has done deep emotional and critical thinking work to arrive at the profound revelations and theories that have helped her articulate her own story. In turn, Montei gives readers, particularly women, new language for parsing through their experiences in the realms of both sexual consent and motherhood. It might raise new questions, but this is a necessary evolution in the discourse about women’s bodies, so that women can consider how they want to take back their bodies, how they want to care for themselves while caring for others, and where, how and when they find pleasure. It should be a must-read for anyone involved in raising children, particularly to address definitions and a framework for discussing consent and to help children develop the self-trust and self-knowledge that will inform their own definitions of bodily autonomy.