Now far in the rear view mirror, the (Bill) Clinton years seem like a turning point for contemporary social movement strategy. For that generation of young people onward, progressive politics was remade to be more air-quotes inclusive, without reconciling contradictions, amid a succession of White House losses. It worked, though perhaps too well. The country today concludes eight years of the first African-American president, avoidant on race and engaged in military intervention abroad as well as deportations at home. And, as Jodi Dean remarks in The Communist Horizon, ideas like diversity and dialogue are now part of international corporate culture. Change it is. Victory? That verdict is still unclear.
It is impossible to read Robert Jensen’s The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men outside of this political incoherence. With a focus of presenting radical feminism to men and the larger progressive movement that are (along with the wider feminist movement and women’s studies) often in opposition to it, Jensen is swimming against a 30-year current. Moderate to hardline left politics, in its aspiration to be mallcore, has rejected radical feminism with all manner of Tumblr buzzwords and posturing that makes individual choice the cardinal question. Regardless, the longtime progressive, whose views on racial and gender justice have run him afoul of everyone from anarchists to the far right, continues to raise complicated questions that leftism has no tidy explanation for, even a generation and a half after the (Bill) Clinton years.
Arguably, part of liberalism’s inconsonance has been centering nascent choice and identity through a radical libertarianism that is wildly subjective, even destructive. Like the Rachel Dolezal incident for people of colour, an outcome of laissez-faire brocialism is a state of affairs that centers men’s desire, gaze, and whims absent of their impact on women and girls. In our daily parlance, it is every problematic guy on campus claiming wokeness, Donald Trump arguing he sides with same-sex marriage, random Twitter egg avatars simultaneously praising feminism and railing against SWERFs and TERFs, and worse. Dominant groups remaking progressivism to fit their desires is nothing new, certainly, and has dangerous consequences, including sexual assault in activist communities. It thus should come as no surprise that progressivism and white feminism are often questioned as out of touch with women of colour and non-affluent people.
Beyond identity, Jensen raises the point that it’s impossible to write off how the hallmarks liberalism avoids talking about shape women’s hopes, fears and experiences. When biological differences are the basis for, as Jensen points out, the hierarchy and social inequality that gave rise to patriarchy, how we see harm, human relations and normalization matter tremendously. Clearly, this acknowledgment does not mean women are the sum of sex and race. However, it’s an important challenge to dogma that implies women’s oppression is mythology, optional, or doesn’t exist. In short, The End of Patriarchy is a necessary remonstrance of the sort of subjectivity that has grounded the left for decades.
If you’re familiar with feminist theory, The End of Patriarchy is a refresher for things you may already know. Jensen’s critiques of pornography and the commercial sex industry, for example, have been stated elsewhere, most famously in Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Jensen himself says his thoughts are nothing new, and have been offered by a constellation of radical feminists he cites. The collection of various philosophical and practical underpinnings of radical feminist thought, especially as an introduction, is nevertheless outstanding, as are the data, many poignant stories, and efforts to appraise underlying assumptions about radical feminism.
This work exposes a few open wounds worthy of discussion. For men who believe in feminism and want to be respectful allies, these matters are especially meaningful.
As someone resonant among progressives through many books, organizing efforts and speeches, Jensen has a cachet few have. He’s the guy liberals have read on Counterpunch, Yes and Truthdig, among others. Where the lefty brosphere — those porn-loving, sex-buying, rugged-individualism-hawking “feminist” dudes on social media — and allies attack and/or no-platform women such as Julie Bindel or Germaine Greer, Jensen appears keen to challenge a constituency that knows him quite well (among many, better than even Greer or Bindel), but may not be as open to radical feminism. His willingness to frame this in progressive tones — illustrating debates over prostitution with theories such as false consciousness; intersectionality comes up at several points; and patriarchy as an axis — makes it tougher for leftists to simply wave him off.
Yet The End of Patriarchy implicitly forces the reader to ask about the limits of celebrity and worries others use such voices to marginalize women. Jensen is clear about this potential and tries to address it directly, although the outcome ultimately is out of his hands. The rupture is reminiscent of what’s described in Sara Evans’ important work, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. In it, Evans considers the contradictions of young white Northerners’ involvement in the Black Southern freedom struggle. White female organizers were aware, Evans indicates, how their sex and race could impact Black people with whom they were organizing. Similarly, Jensen alludes to concerns of women, not just in cooptation, but male power and privilege. Like many of the discussions in The End of Patriarchy, Jensen provides no easy answers.
In addition, throughout the book, Jensen is critical of himself as a male arguing for radical feminism. This self-awareness permeates a lot of the thoughtful ideas and exceptional critiques of liberal approaches, because it broaches controversies that have long been part of social movements. What does it mean to be a man who campaigns for radical feminism where men are impacting feminism is dubious ways? What does maleness mean when one seeks to say, well anything, about women’s activism, political theory, and organizing, be it liberal or radical? Can a man who thus has male privilege make a difference in abetting a kind of feminism some liberal women despise and speak against? How can a man who sees the importance of radical feminist thought most appropriately act in solidarity? Jensen deftly scrutinizes these tactical considerations, and he’s certain to prompt conversation.
Jensen is highly regarded, through past writings like Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, for pushing men to be more self-critical of themselves and male privilege. The End of Patriarchy is similarly situated to interrogate men more, and support the organizing for which it advocates.
Ernesto Aguilar is a writer and community media producer.
The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men will be available in North America and the UK on January 17, 2017.