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

09LowResAnthony 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.

Our Bodies Will Not Be Machines: My Resistance Will Be Bloody

I am thirteen and bleeding all over the floor of Renee’s bathroom. It is the middle of the night. I thought I had to pee, but it’s just that my period has started. I can’t predict these unpredictable occurrences. My stomach hurts. I feel queasy. But my flow is so heavy it’s running down my leg and making a mess on the floor. I mop up what I can. I swallow my pride and wake my friend to wake her mother. We need assistance. Thankfully, in an act of female teenage solidarity, no one ever hears of this story. Until now.

I am fifteen, crawling on my hands and knees through the halls of my high school. I have cramps so severe I cannot walk. I am pale and my English teacher is concerned that I might be passing out at my desk. Thankfully, most everyone is in class, so few people have to see my humiliation. But humiliation is the least of my concerns right now. Basic bodily functioning is my only priority at this moment. No one ever mentions seeing me do this.

I am nineteen and even being on the pill can’t cure me of cramps so bad that once again I cannot walk. I am slumped on the tile floor of the university dining hall bathroom. I might be passing out. A male friend is brought in to find me and carry me back to my dorm room. He never mentions this again.

In each of these moments what isn’t mentioned is that these moments aren’t mentioned. Women are supposed to be quiet about something that our bodies do every single month for thirty or forty years. Don’t make a big deal of your experience. Don’t gross anyone out. This is shameful and people will mock you. Or they willfully ignore it.

Don’t smell of flesh and blood. Don’t leak or leave a bloody stain. Stuff your cunt up. Eat ungodly amounts of pain-killers. Alter your hormones with birth control pills, regardless of the sex you may or may not be having. Don’t let cramps get you down; girl, let’s see that smile! Don’t rest; taking a day off work just proves women are weak and unreliable.

Patriarchy and Capitalism are cozy bedfellows. They are happy to convince women that their bodies are disgusting, so they can sell us one more product to make us more “productive”, to make my vagina smell like candy or flowers, anything that will stop these cunts from bleeding.

blood

HARDER FASTER STRONGER MORE

Anti-Capitalist efforts have always maintained the dignity of the human person, that our dignity is inherent in our being, and is not more nor less dignified according to our material wealth. Our bodies are not machines, and therefore we cannot work 12, 16, 18 hours a day. Thanks to the Socialists of the past, we now have an 8 hour work day.

Except, we don’t really. Our paid work may only be 8 hours a day, but there is no room for rest in our society. In 1974 Silvia Federici tackled the issue of the unpaid work of housework, done almost exclusively by women. She says “the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it”. By denying that housework is work, that raising children is work, Capitalism can ignore women’s needs for equality of time, reimbursement, and support. If it’s not work, we can continue to underpay house cleaners, nannies, preschool teachers, (some) cooks, and so on.

We are encouraged to work ever longer hours. We are isolated in our nuclear families, not sharing the collective labor our lives require. Our communities are designed for long commutes. You can sleep when you’re dead. Play hard. Never give up. Always improving, never just being. There is no room for pain, or rest, or love, but our bodies are not machines.

“Women’s work,” women’s bodies, women’s embodied experience, in fact, all human embodied experiences, are inconvenient for the Capitalist enterprise. Because our bodies are not machines.

EMBRACING MY BLOODY BODY

In my late 20s, when I was in graduate school, I decided to try an experiment, because I could, because I had the flexibility to do so. I decided to give myself a 48 hour menstrual holiday. I was on the pill and could ensure that my period always started on a Friday. I would not make any plans. No studying if I could help it. I hung out in my pajamas, eating cheese burgers, napping, and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And bleeding onto cloth. No pushing myself to look good (when I was bloated and heavily bleeding). No trying to socialize (when I was spacey and queasy). No needing to be ON. No bleached cotton and chemicals blocking me up.

It transformed the way I felt about my period and my body. I stopped hurting as much. I stopped experiencing PMS symptoms as strongly. I started looking forward to my body releasing and resting. I started wondering how many other people, particularly women, were pushing through pain and discomfort, ignoring their bodies, menstruating or not.

It changed the way I understood bodies, period. My compassion for others’ bodies increased.

BY BEING SOFT I WILL RESIST

These days I don’t have “days off.” I have small children, born of a body so used to pain that labor was not that much worse than my cramps. When I am menstruating, I continue to observe my monthly holidays. I try not to schedule anything. We eat leftovers. I put my feet up. I embrace the blood that keeps my womb clean and healthy. I settle into a space, mentally, physically, and spiritually, that feels liminal and helps me wander between the realms of life and death, of this world and Other worlds.

By resting and embracing my bleeding I resist the fetishization of my female body. I don’t have to smell like a prepubescent female. I can smell like the animal I am, iron and flesh, pheromones and earth. I listen to the completely natural urges of my body. Sometimes the slickness and warmth sing a song of sex, needing salt and a firm hand. Other times I want not a single touch, as if every inch of my flesh has gone on strike.

Instead of purchasing conventional period products, I have acquired, over time, cloth products, made by women who work out of their home. They are more environmentally sustainable, easily washable, more comfortable, and supporting, not some corporation, but a family and/or independent craftsperson*. I step outside the conventional model and resist – economically, environmentally, bodily. One act of resistance leads to another.

BLOODY WILL BE THE WAY

I resist Capitalism by not being “productive.” I resist by refusing to accept that my body or your body is a machine. Our bodies need to rest. Our bodies need time and space to heal, to purge, to grow, to be. Honoring my body shows my kids that the female body is not disgusting, but a cause for celebration.

Blood is life. The blood that pumps in my body and your body every moment of every day is life. Your heart’s blood and my cunt’s blood. A bleeding woman is a powerful woman. A bleeding woman can grow a life in the hidden spaces of her body. A woman who resists hiding her power, in her sex, in her blood, lays bare her connection to the sacrality of life, of our flesh.

Who better to understand this than Pagans? We understand the balance on the knife’s edge between life and death. We understand that life is sacred, that blood and sex are sacred. The Capitalist system denies this sacredness and tries to shame us, male and female alike, by insisting that we soldier on, cover up, and purchase more goods to Get Through.

The body is a site of resistance. Resistance to Capitalism and Patriarchy may begin with a glimmer of a theoretical idea, realization, or hope. But those ideas must flower in relation to our lived, embodied experience. Resistance begins in these personal moments, in the ways we love, the ways we bleed, the ways we live and die.

I saw the tentacles of control between the two-headed hydra of Patriarchy and Capitalism, passing our bodies around. I cut one tentacle, only to see that we are tangled in others. But the confidence to cut one tentacle leads to cutting more. Resist once and you can resist again.

Resist beautifully. Bleed.

*Ironically, this form of resistance has finally been noticed by Capitalist powers and the FDA has decided that cloth pads are “class 1 medical devices” and must be regulated and taxed accordingly


Niki Whiting

Niki Whiting is a mother and a student of theology. She was born and raised in Alaska and currently lives in Olympia.


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