“Normal” men don’t talk about feminism. “Normal” men all know that feminism is for angry man-hating women or ivory-towered academics with no clue about the real world. Whatever feminists are talking about, how could it be of any interest to a 42-year-old Scottish bloke with various substance “misuse” issues, a lifetime of broken interpersonal relationships behind him, and no intellectual background who is doing his best to be “normal”?
Yet in a little over 18 months, I went from knowing nothing about a critique of institutionalized male dominance to embracing not only feminism but what is known as radical feminism. How did that happen?
The simple answer is a mental and physical breakdown brought on by pornography. The way men come to understand a radical feminist critique of patriarchy and the dominant culture seems to be either through a) being raised in a radical feminist environment or b) mental breakdown. Sadly, for me, it was the latter.
I had been striving to rid my life of the destructive influence of pornography for some time, but much to my disgust I could never get past four months without relapse. For men attempting to decolonise and dismantle the toxic influences of patriarchy and misogyny from their lives, there are no 12-step meetings or easy-to-find support groups, although thanks to the work of the anti-porn movement this is slowly starting to change.
After a final relapse at the end of last year left me feeling disgusted with myself, I started to write and share my experience with other people. Thanks to the internet, one of these people was Robert Jensen, a U.S. professor who has written critically about pornography. (See http://robertwjensen.org/articles/by-topic/gender-sexuality-and-pornography/)
I intend to explore the subjects of patriarchy, pornography and sexual imperialism in greater detail in the future, but for now I would like to share the fruits of the communication that developed organically between Bob and myself. I hope this communication will go some way to helping open up a dialogue that helps us collectively critique patriarchy and the dominant culture.
In the first exchange, I interviewed Bob through email. That’s Part I. At the end of that, he asked if I would be willing to respond to his questions. That’s Part II.
Part I: Doak interviewing Jensen
Barry Doak: Where does the term “radical feminism” come from? Who first used it and why is it vital in dismantling the dominant culture and patriarchy?
Robert Jensen: The contemporary use of the term radical feminism comes from what in the United States is referred to as the second wave of feminism, emerging in the late 1960s and ‘70s. The central feminist achievement of the first wave had been winning the vote in 1920, and second-wave feminists focused on sexuality, men’s violence, family structures, the economy, and remaining forms of legal discrimination. Second-wave feminists identified themselves in various ways (socialist feminism, Marxist, liberal, psychoanalytic, etc.), including radical feminists who saw patriarchy as a foundational system of oppression based on men’s claims to own or control women, especially women’s reproductive power and sexuality. So, in addition to struggles for reproductive rights, radical feminists have been at the forefront of challenges to men’s violence and to the sexual-exploitations industries (prostitution, pornography, stripping).
Radical feminist critiques of all the routine ways that men buy and sell women’s bodies for sexual pleasure is one of the fault lines in contemporary feminism. Radical feminists challenge those industries and men’s claims to have a right to use women, while various styles of liberal/postmodern feminism either avoid the issue, make arguments that women’s choices within those industries can’t be challenged, or actually celebrate these things as potential sources of “sexual liberation.”
BD: Some activists I know believe that the murder and rape of the planet and non-humans is a separate issue from the murder and rape of women and children. I find this distressing. It concerns me deeply. How would you respond to this?
RJ: There are different levels at which violence against vulnerable people within the human community, and the human assault on the larger living world are connected. First, and most obviously, both are the product of a claim of supremacy – humans over all other life, men over women, white over non-white, developed over colonized, rich over poor. Supremacist beliefs justify hierarchies, and hierarchies seek to legitimate exploitation and excuse violence. Social justice and ecological sustainability are inseparable at this point in history.
Second, there is a historical connection between these different forms of destruction.
When humans began domesticating plants and animals, we took our first step into claiming ownership of the world. As humans transformed from hunter/gatherers to settled agriculturalists, patriarchy emerged and men began claiming to own women’s bodies, their reproductive power and sexuality. Those two claims of ownership are at the core of the normalizing of hierarchy in human history. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there was no violence in human experience before agriculture, but only that the institutionalization of hierarchy emerges from those changes.
And one point on terminology. I don’t use the term “rape” to describe anything other than sexual violence. I understand the metaphor of “humans raping the non-human world,” but it never feels right to me. Rape is a very distinctive experience, and I limit my use of the word to the act of sexual violence.
BD: What are the connections between radical feminism and environmentalism?
RJ: First, it may be trivial, but I never describe myself as an environmentalist, because the term has become associated with a fairly tepid liberal approach to ecological crises that doesn’t challenge human claims to a privileged position on top of the rest of the living world. There’s not a widely used term to replace it, but in this context I’ll use “ecospherist,” the understanding that humans have a place in the ecosphere rather than claiming a right to dominate the world.
Feminism critiques institutionalized male dominance, which arises out of claims of male supremacy. In patriarchal systems, men claim to own or control women’s bodies, and the predictable result is abuse and exploitation. Ecospherism critiques institutionalized human dominance, which arises out of claims of human supremacy. In most modern societies, humans claim that we can own the Earth, and the predictable result is abuse and exploitation. Both these ways of thinking arise in the same period of history, after the invention of agriculture, in the period in which hierarchies started becoming the norm.
All systems of illegitimate authority attempt to naturalize hierarchies that lead to disparities in wealth and power and that we have to resist – white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, contemporary forms of First World imperialism. For me, the pathologies of human supremacy and male supremacy are central to this vision of a non-hierarchical world.
BD: Say more about ecospherism? And what is connection to radical feminism?
RJ: Ecospherism argues that the appropriate focus is not on the environments that humans might care most about but on the ecosphere, the planet as a living system. Humans, not surprisingly, tend to be anthropocentric. We need to become ecospheric, to think about what it would mean to live without the claim/illusion that we control the larger living world.
Human claims to own the world parallel men’s claims to control/own women’s bodies. At the core of both ecospherism and radical feminism is a rejection of the hierarchies.
BD: I heard you talking recently and you mentioned how as a boy you instinctively knew that this idea of a “real man” was false. I too had a similar feeling as a boy. Can you talk about the negative effects the socialisation of patriarchy and toxic masculinity has on all children? Boys as well as girls, young men and young women.
RJ: There is always considerable variation, of course, but most men in the United States are socialized into a conception of masculinity that says “always be in control,” which translates into the goal of conquest and high levels of aggression and violence. For girls and women, the negative effects of that are fairly obvious, especially in the realm of sexual violence.
For a man, meeting those expectations delivers some short-term material benefits, but it also takes its toll. Men’s violence targets girls and women, but also boys and other men. The obsession with control limits our own ability to be fully human. It’s in our own self-interest, more broadly defined, to resist the system that gives us those short-term advantages and to push ourselves toward a deeper humanity.
Growing up, I didn’t know that was all patriarchal ideology, but I knew that I didn’t measure up, that I wasn’t ever going to be a “real man.” I tried to adapt to those masculinity norms as a young adult, but I wasn’t very good at it. When I discovered feminism, I realized there was a way out. I couldn’t give away the unearned privilege and power that came with being a man, but I could refuse to accept the ideology and struggle to find a different way to live.
BD: One of the most important things, I believe, a man can do is talk to other men about what it means to be a man socialised by patriarchy, and what it means to be a man suffering from the toxic effects of masculinity. Nearly all the men I have ever known – except for a few hideous exceptions, and thankfully they were few and far between – have in the quieter moments, or when asked a direct question, expressed discomfort with masculinity and patriarchy. What would you say to men who know that what is happening is wrong but are unable to express it articulately and directly?
RJ: That’s right on target, the importance of breaking through the macho posturing, to get to a place where honesty is possible. Like most moments in life when we have to make a choice to challenge the norms around us, the first step – one man speaking up and taking the risk of being mocked – is the hardest. But just as important is whether the man who speaks next will back him up instead of ganging up on him. It’s impossible to speak about uncomfortable realities by yourself, with no support. All it takes is one other man to shift the dynamic. I think a lot of those conversations start one-on-one, when one man senses that another man is open to that honesty. From there, it’s easier to plot a strategy for challenging a whole group.
BD: What you were describing there, I believe that is called something like the “second-person point of view” that holds the social elements of dominant culture together. How do we go about challenging something like that? What would that strategy look like to you at a societal level?
RJ: Yes, people who study leadership talk about the importance of the “first follower,” the person who joins someone who is taking a risk. Without that first follower, no movement or idea could ever achieve a critical mass. It’s a reminder that the obsession with being #1, always being the first person to do something, is counterproductive. We come into a new idea or action in many different ways, but in my experience, emotional honesty at the heart of motivation to change and take risks. When I began writing about the feminist critique of pornography, I realized I would have to include an account of my own struggles as a boy and young man with pornography use, or else I would be just one more academic writing from a distance. I’ve tried not to pretend that my experiences haven’t shaped my views, or that I don’t have a stake in the outcome.
BD: Donald Trump has been labelled “transphobic” for his attacks on the rights of individuals within the LGBTQ community, but the term transphobic is sometimes used as a slur against radical feminists as well. For the person who has very little knowledge of radical feminism or the language used, could you explain why radical feminists are not transphobic and why the use of the slur is designed to stifle and suppress a radical feminist analysis of the problems facing use within the dominant culture?
RJ: First, there are people who are transphobic, defined as fear or hatred of people who identify as transgender, and my guess is that most of those transphobic people are on the right. Radical feminists who critique the ideology of the trans movement tend to describe themselves as “trans-critical,” which is very different. In my writing on the subject, I’ve argued that some of the trans movement’s claims about biology are difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand, and that radical feminism offers a more compelling and effective way to challenge the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms/roles in patriarchy. I ask questions that require clearer answers than the trans movement has provided so far, and offer a challenge to that movement to embrace a radical feminism.
Because the trans movement includes a wide range of ideas about sex/gender and power, it’s difficult to generalize about whether, as a movement, transgenderism is explicitly feminist or anti-feminist. But whatever the case, I do not believe that radical feminism’s project of resisting men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s bodies is advanced by transgenderism’s policy demands, such as opening up female spaces to male-to-trans people.
BD: Should we be teaching children about radical feminism, to help them make decisions about sex/gender and their sexual identity?
RJ: We certainly have to find age-appropriate ways to talk to children about these things. And just as certainly, it’s not easy. Parents are being forced to talk about a number of things before children are emotionally/sexually ready for such conversations. But, as you point out, the culture has embraced a liberal/postmodern dogma that normalizes pornography and offers an incoherent account of sex/gender identity. My gut tells me that the pornography conversation should be proactive (given how early many kids will see graphic sexually explicit material and the likelihood they won’t ask a parent about it) but that the sex/gender conversation might be best in reaction to questions that a child brings to parents (on the assumption they will ask about that and trying to engage it too early may be more confusing). That’s speculative, not based on experience or evidence, and only a starting point for thinking. I would want to hear from parents who have found successful strategies.
Part II: Jensen interviewing Doak
RJ: Thinking back on your life, who were you raised to be? What were you taught about “being a man” as you grew up? What were the consequences of that socialization?
BD: I think about who I was raised to be often, and I still struggle to answer that question. Now, with hindsight, I believe this socialisation is actually designed to create “non-humans” – people completely estranged from themselves, their families, their communities, and the natural world. Capitalism and patriarchy teaches us to hate ourselves so it can mine us like an exploitable resource, not living, breathing, feeling, thinking human animals.
I always knew that there was something fundamentally flawed with the whole idea of “being a man.” Lots of boys and men I knew of where of the school of thinking – “Hit first, ask questions later.” My father admired these men but was not one of them himself, although it was an ideal he aspired to. So, I guess, from the very beginning I knew it was a construct, although I did not have the language to describe it as such. As a boy I was effeminate, sensitive, and depressed. I was ridiculed for these traits from a very young age.
What were the consequences of this socialisation? Where do you want to start – my sexual disfigurement, my broken relationships, the hours and hours in the drunk tank thinking I’d never see the light of day again? Love-making dictated by exposure to pornography and eroticisation of violence. The list goes on and on. I know lots and lots of men whose lives have been scarred in this way. I know lots of women, too. It is endemic in the dominant culture.
RJ: What led you to question that socialization? What experiences, emotions, existential crises pushed you onto a different path?
BD: I think for a man there is only one thing that can really bring them to this realisation, other than being raised/exposed in a radical environment/influence, which is a breakdown of some sort – hitting rock bottom and looking down and then looking up. For me, it was my recurrent use of pornography and engaging in behaviours that made me feel physically sick. Porn is a weapon of patriarchy, and it is pure hatred and violence against women. When you are exposed to this as a young boy just you are beginning to experience sexual feelings for the first time, it utterly traumatises you. There is no going back from it. I call this patriarchal cultural hazing.
RJ: How would you describe the analysis that helps you understand this? Feminist, environmentalist, anti-capitalist?
BD: These days I would describe myself as a “Radical Indigenous Warrior.” When I first answered this question I described myself as radical feminist, first and foremost because radical feminism gives a radical analysis of the dominant culture as a violent patriarchy. But now I add the phrase “indigenous warrior” to the word radical instead because so much of what I am now doing is looking at developing strategies based on that radical analysis but coupled with an indigenous worldview.
When I use the word “indigenous” I do not mean, as people in U.S. might use it, the First Nations tribes, but rather indigenous as in the definition of the Anglo/Saxon word “originating or occurring naturally in an area or environment” and in that sense we are all connected we are to our “land.”
But let’s be clear, a radical feminist analysis is the only analysis that deals with the underlying system of oppression of the dominant culture and provides a clear and specific language that allows us to articulate our oppression at a societal level. It also provides us with that same language which enables us to make real changes in our own lives.
Unfortunately, a man calling himself a radical feminist still can be divisive in some circles, so I prefer to call myself a “male ally” and not get bogged down in arguments that, although important for some, are not really what is important to me – fighting patriarchy at a grassroots level, building healthy communities and, basically, smashing patriarchy and developing a healthy patriarchy-free form of activism.
To me, radical feminism also speaks of a real opportunity to really do something about the problems facing us all individually and collectively at the moment. Radical feminism explains how we got here and how we can end it if we really want to bad enough.
Also, I know in my heart that the label we ascribe to this analysis, radical feminism, is really just the name we have devised for what it means to be a decent human being and wanting to treat others, women and children, and the natural world with respect and dignity, and understanding that we must live in symbiosis with those around us, human and non-human alike.
RJ: What is most difficult about confronting the person you were raised to be?
BD: The most difficult thing is that you are still that person and much of the time you are actually engaged in damage control rather stopping and full regeneration. The dominant culture is absolutely brilliant at making us, the individuals who make up the citizenry, take full responsibility for its crimes. So, that’s kind of difficult to deal with. You constantly remind yourself that you are still a fuck up and other people are usually only more than willing to remind you of that fact.
My activism is very personality driven and it’s about starting a collective dialogue about the damage done to us all by the dominant culture. It’s the last great frontier and once we break it down we might, finally, be in a position to effectively resist.
RJ: Where do you hope this will lead you?
BD: It’s not so much a question as to where it will lead me but rather where it has already led me. As the introduction to these interviews pointed out, my journey with radical feminism is only 18 months or so young. Although, I have been on this journey much longer, all my life, this active part is a relatively new piece of the picture.
One thing I am doing is I am organising a conference to take place in Scotland, which will focus on the importance of a radical feminist critique as well as nurturing the re-emergence of an indigenous worldview and a vision of “radical hope.” The conference is also going to focus on the importance of decolonising and dismantling patriarchy and misogyny from activism and our daily lives.
I am also using the radical analysis to help develop indigenous land-based spiritual practices as an active act of resistance against patriarchy and the dominant culture; neuro-decolonisation needs to be explored and developed further.
But more important than anything I hope this work will open a greater dialogue and conversation. I have spoken to female ally radical feminists who have attempted to work more with men and have been shut down, but sadly until we have a fuller conversation between men and women and we start to talk about a truly radical vision of sex, sexuality, and culture we won’t ever be in a position to do much.
As radical feminists/male allies/men we need to take control of the conversation on issues like prostitution, pornography and toxic masculinity. I hope my work will eventually help bring an end to patriarchy. In the meantime, we need to get the conversation started.