Stepping in It: A Critical Response to The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Robert Jensen
Reviewed in this essay: The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Robert Jensen (Spinifex Press, 2017)
One of the strengths of the alt-right has been simply providing moral justification for men to embrace patriarchal oppression. Without a way out, without an identity of maleness and masculinity that is liberatory and egalitarian, men seem faced only with the identity of being the oppressor. Thus I was intrigued when I saw Robert Jensen’s The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.
Robert Jensen writes from thirty years of study and teaching radical feminism, as well as a liberal Christian perspective, both of which deeply inform his perspective and contextualize some of my disagreements as a Pagan man. His book begins in a way recognizable to the witch: acknowledging the wisdom of his body which responded to radical feminism when his mind wanted to reject it.
In his first chapters, he outlines the problem of human inequality as beginning with agriculture, when patriarchal norms turned women into property and normalized male dominance and exploitation. Capitalist exploitation, then, is a consequence of patriarchy in his view, an outgrowth of the economic exploitation and objectification of the female body and the earth itself. Jensen applies this position to critique three contentious issues, listed here according to his chapter titles: “Rape and Rape Culture,” “Prostitution and Pornography,” and “Transgenderism.”
What I appreciate about this book is that his radical feminist perspective draws attention toward the larger socio-cultural factors that influence and constrain our choices. “Rape culture,” for example, provides a foundational argument that sexualized dominance reinforces patriarchal control: the threat of rape implicitly oppresses all women and frames sexual relations between women and men. He then teases apart the gray areas of sexual coercion that are not legally identified as sexual assault but nevertheless influence the choices of women.He accurately describes the normalization of sexual violence in culture.
While I do not believe he would be an advocate of the kind of sexual liberation I want, he argues well that we must be united in rejection of rape and sexual coercion to experience true sexual liberation, where all feel free to choose whom they share sex with.
The chapter, “Prostitution and Pornography,” starts from his core objection to sex work: that sexuality is expressed most fully in intimacy, and turning that intimate act into a site of commodified service degrades those who participate in it. This stance makes sense as both an outgrowth from his previous argument and an extension of his liberal Christian theology. It also speaks to the centralization of heterosexuality in his critique, for his formulation of patriarchy does not seem to extend to male sex workers and pornography made and exchanged between queer people. It is hard to make the same argument that I am engaging in patriarchal exploitation by watching gay porn, though exploitation may indeed be happening.
From my view of sex, it is a wonderful and sacred gift, and also one that is mine to wield as I see fit. My friends who are sex priestesses, erotic coaches, and sacred intimates engage in the exchange of money and sex in their own ways, bringing richness and healing to their clients. One key difference is their capacity to set the conditions of their labor, a capacity denied to sex workers who have been trafficked and enslaved, or who work for an exploitative pornography studio.
In the chapter on “Transgenderism,” his core question is whether “the transgender movement provides a politically productive route to challenging patriarchy.” In this, he raises questions about the ecological costs of transition, the medicalization of transgender identity, and the normalization of cosmetic surgery as trans care.
While reading this, some complicating questions came up for me. First of which is—who does Jensen imagine his audience to be? From the framing of the book, and knowing the historical relationship between radical feminists and transgender people, I assumed Jensen’s primary audience would be non-trans men. So discussing trans issues seems a strange direction, space that I wish had been used discussing how patriarchy contributes to ecocide or violence between men. The questions he raises about the ecological and social costs of gender-affirming surgery, including interventions that would be considered cosmetic for non-trans people, are questions that we must be confronting as a society about our medical practices as a whole.
The other complicating factor is that Jensen seems unconvinced that trans people should exist in a gender liberated world. If he does intend to engage trans people in good faith—when referencing trans people, he uses their pronouns and names with respect—then this makes his message unworkable. It is akin to anti-homosexual Christian activists who reach out to “lovingly” bring gay people back in the fold. No matter how much they couch their message in love and acceptance, the bedrock assumption is that you as a queer person should not exist, which makes them an adversary.
This adversarial stance arises from Jensen’s formulation of sex and gender. For him, the primary significance of sexual difference is reproductive capacity, with a recognition of intersex people. Other physiological differences between sexes, he argues, are largely overstated and unknowable given our current science. In his post-patriarchy world, we would be free to express our gender however we wish without the need to modify our sexual characteristics; thus, he sees genderqueer identity as unnecessary and the practice of transition as an alignment with patriarchy.
Dylan Ce/Curius Creature of The Alchemist’s Closet offers a contrary perspective from the lens of a genderqueer feminist in his article “Multiple Perspectives: Patriarchy and Genderqueer Identity”. He in some ways agrees that the expectation of sexual transition within the binary gender system collude with patriarchy:
“As a young genderqueer person, I believed that my only option was to identify as unequivocally male, especially in a public sense. Though I was femme in some ways, I focused on a core identity as a man and clung to it fiercely.”
Encountering and embracing genderqueer identity allowed Creature to move beyond the binary while still transitioning their embodiment.
The experience of being in a body that is “wrong” and needs change is itself a kind of bodily knowing, of the kind Jensen celebrates, but framing it as such troubles his theoretical minimization of sexual difference. People who engage in hormone therapy reveal the mutability of the body, how it is able to change its expression of secondary sex characteristics, and contribute to subtle but personally significant changes in personality, sexuality, sex drive, and emotional experience. Jensen talks of medical transition as a kind of violence to the body, but any surgical intervention is a form of violence. One does not gently coax cancer away, yet we do not pathologize people for their desire to have their cancer removed.
Overall, I disagreed with how Jensen framed his concerns as problems of “transgenderism” and not as problems arising from trans people attempting to survive under capitalist patriarchy. There is a problem of patriarchy imposing its beauty norms and binary gender expectations on trans people, compelling trans folk to engage in the pathologizing narratives and medicalization of their bodies and identities to be afforded the measure of dignity and autonomy that should be their birthright. Trans feminine people, furthermore, experience misogyny, sexual objectification, sexual violence, and constrained economic opportunities. Framing his argument in this way might have afforded a real opportunity to invite trans people into an alignment against patriarchy.
In the end, however, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men helped me sharpen and clarify my values against those of radical feminism. Thanks to Jensen’s definition of patriarchy, I better understand the strengths and limitations of that framing in building self-determination and liberatory community. Self-determination in body, sexuality, and labor within community are values I support. This book reminds us that radical feminism has something to offer that liberatory project, while unfortunately highlighting the tendencies that still alienate many
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.