“It seemed that there was a need for a book that laid out the problem of patriarchy in plain language.” (Robert Jensen)
While we’ve never met in person, Robert Jensen and I have known each other (in that internet kind of way) for decades. We have friends in common, often wrote on similar topics for the same websites, and even shared some of the same publishers. There was huge difference between us, however. Jensen shrugged off his masculinity conditioning and supported radical feminism long before I did. And let’s face it, this is uncommon within the white male dominated “Left.”
Bob Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin and the national group Culture Reframed. He’s also the author of eight books, including Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). “When South End Press went out of business, Getting Off went out of print,” he explains. “So, I started to think about writing on the subject of sex/gender politics again. It seemed important to articulate the analysis I had learned from second-wave feminism, which has been pushed to the margins of social theory and politics in the past decade or two.”
Indeed. As I’ve written, in my self-education, I had no problem crossing paths with countless radical thinkers. But Andrea Dworkin? Mary Daly? And so many other wise and fierce women? No one ever suggested them to me. Therefore, between my male socialization and the ongoing marginalization of radical feminism, I’m a relative newcomer to the analysis Jensen puts forth in his brand new book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Spinifex Press, 2017).
It was with much enthusiasm that I reached out to Bob to discuss this essential work. Our conversation began with two claims he makes in his new book:
- Patriarchy is the appropriate term to describe the majority of human societies for the past several thousand years, including contemporary U.S. society.
- Radical feminism is the most coherent critique of patriarchy and should be at the heart of the comprehensive radical analyses needed to challenge the domination/sub- ordination dynamic that defines the contemporary world.
Mickey Z.: What made you resist these two claims when you first encountered them 30 years ago?
Robert Jensen: When I went to grad school at the age of 30, all I knew about feminism and gender politics was what I had picked up from pop culture and the news media, which meant what I “knew” were largely distortions from a period of backlash, when feminism was mocked and demonized. I had come into adulthood in a culture that was working very hard to undermine the compelling, and very radical, critique that second-wave feminism (from the late 1960s and ‘70s) had presented, and I didn’t have the personal or intellectual resources to know any better at that point in my life. So, for example, even though I was conflicted about my own pornography use as a young adult, I saw no reason to believe a feminist critique of pornography was of any use to me. That was, I assumed, just crazy feminist talk.
MZ: Why might a 20-something male resist these claims in 2017?
RJ: Today, the term “feminism” means so many different things that I suspect there are a lot of reasons young men might stay away. If a man’s exposure has mainly been to the rather arcane jargon of some academic feminism, it would be easy to dismiss it all as irrelevant theorizing. If a man’s exposure has mainly been to the liberal/postmodern brand of feminism that celebrates pornography as liberation, he might embrace some aspects but not look too deeply into anything that might challenge him. And other men likely see anything that calls out male dominance as a threat. But, at the same time, it’s likely easier for young men today to say, “I am a feminist,” though it’s less clear what that means when applied to real-life situations.
MZ: You write: “Radical feminism not only helped me understand the world in which I lived but helped me understand myself.” What resonated so deeply with you three decades ago and how have these feelings evolved since then?
RJ: No matter how much I wanted to dismiss feminism at first, I knew that this critique of patriarchy was somehow important not only to understanding the world but also to figuring myself out. At first, I think I felt this in an emotional, embodied way more than I knew it in an intellectual sense. At the same time, I also began to hang out with grad students doing feminist work, and they seemed like really great people, smart and fun. And, crucially, I met a man who helped me understand all this, Jim Koplin, who turned out to be a great friend until his death a few years ago.
By the end of that first year of study, I realized that my whole life I had been trying to live up to a standard of masculinity that was not only dangerous for girls and women but also toxic for boys and men. Feminism helped me understand why I was “failing” to be a real man and how such a “failure” opened up the possibility of being a better, and happier, person. Slowly, I came to understand how much damage boys and men do to each other as well as to girls and women. Given how deeply these ideas of man/woman are woven into the fabric of our society, one never really stops learning about how that all works.
MZ: If males as a class oppressing females as a class is the foundational cause of all violence, oppression, and hierarchy—and everything females do has been fetishized and weaponized and used against them—what chance does this culture have for drastic and sustainable social change if men themselves don’t step up as the frontline soldiers?
RJ: First, I would say “a foundational cause of institutionalized violence…,” reflecting my caution about claiming to know all that much about human behavior; people in pre-patriarchal societies were capable of acting violently and being greedy, of course. But I do think it’s sensible to mark patriarchy as a foundation of societies structured on domination and power.
Second, let’s recognize the culture may not have a chance, at least in the timeframe available, given ecological crises. It’s extremely difficult to dislodge systems of domination/subordination. Even when a society commits to formal policy changes (ending legal segregation, for example), we see how difficult it is for the dominant group to let go of the ideology of superiority (note the enduring power of white supremacy, in both overt and subtle forms). Dislodging patriarchy is even more challenging, given how deeply it structures people’s sense of themselves, men and women.
That said, change often happens slowly, and always unpredictably. We act without guarantees, but with hope for making the world a better place in whatever ways we can. And we do that for a variety of reasons. The motivation to act for justice should come from moral principles (it’s the right thing to do) but it also comes from self-interest. Men have a self-interest in rejecting a sense of being dominant for a more fulfilling way of living, one based on mutuality and joy rather than conquest and fear.
MZ: The subtitle is “Radical Feminism for Men.” Considering how third-wave feminism has dramatically diverged in so many ways from the second-wave, what do you feel a “liberal feminist” might gain from reading your book?
RJ: Liberal feminism has proved no more effective at achieving systemic change as has liberalism in realm of racial or economic justice. Liberal politics has removed some of the formal barriers in affluent societies but not dealt with the injustice at the heart of systems of domination/subordination. So, most women have more options today than when I was born, which is a good thing. But conservative men continue working to re-assert control over women’s reproductive power, and liberal men have shown little interest in ending men’s violence and lots of interest in exploiting women sexually. Privileged women can “lean in” to maximize their wealth and status, but women remain disproportionally poor.
Radical feminism, like other radical movements, can help people overcome their fear of confronting real power. It is scary to confront honestly any system of domination, but it’s possible when people come together with a shared analysis and shared goals. Getting radical analytically opens up new ways of living.
MZ: Besides buying and sharing your excellent book, what would you suggest to someone (men, in particular) reading this interview in terms of doing their part in the struggle against patriarchy?
RJ: One of the first things I did when I discovered feminism was to volunteer for a feminist group, in that case an anti-pornography education group. Rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters offer opportunities for men to for men to get involved behind-the-scenes and in support roles. As do abortion-rights groups. And in other community and political groups working on other issues, men can argue for making connections to feminist ideas. Any time we help organize for gender justice, we are contributing to the end of patriarchy.
I also think it’s important for men to talk with each other about these issues in groups that are designed to minimize the macho posturing. Second-wave feminists used “consciousness-raising groups” to create such spaces for talking about their lives in a critical political framework. Men can do the same thing. Reading a book together can be the basis for starting such a group.
And I think the issue of pornography is particularly important, as more and more men are talking openly about their concerns about their porn use (such as). A feminist analysis can take those conversations beyond the personal to the political.
MZ: I’m sure you’ve been interviewed many, many times in your life. So, before we wrap up, I’m wondering if there’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked but it hasn’t happened yet. If so, please share that question and your answer to it with us now!
RJ: The question someone should ask me is, “You’re not that smart. How did you get to be a professor at a big state university and write books?” It’s true; I’m not that smart, which turns out is a great incentive. I work hard to understand the things that I think I can get a handle on. Showing up on time, being organized, and getting work done is just as important as being smart. Knowing that you aren’t the smartest person in the room makes you realize that you had better show up on time with your work done.
Mickey Z. is currently writing two books, a political memoir called How to Change Minds & Influence the Future: Rebuilding Activism From the Ground Up (Microcosm Publishing) and a fusion novella entitled stain red. In the meantime, he can be found here.
BOOKS: The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Mickey Z. interviews Robert Jensen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://worldnewstrust.com/books-the-end-of-patriarchy-radical-feminism-for-men-mickey-z-interviews-robert-jensen.