‘The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men’ forces liberals and the left towards accountability to women

the end of patriarchy robert jensen

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.

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  • fxduffy

    I don’t think it’s complicated. I think men should be pro-feminists (never feminists) in the same way that whites should be anti-racist. And just as whites support those black or people-of-color groups that they’re most in accord with, so too should men support those feminist groups and persons that align most closely to their politics.

    With all the Jenson coverage here, he’s beginning to sound like some kind of combo of celeb and voice in the wilderness.

    But as the above review says, there isn’t that much in the way of radical feminism around in this political era, so maybe Jenson and book are perceived as too exceptional to not underline. So don’t let me undermine them.

    • northernTNT

      He’s also VERY Catholic and from reading him I find a lot of his writing is from a faithful moralist position and not truly a feminist position. I am doubtful of his angle, though he is a great writer.

    • fxduffy

      I think my response was personal, and in the moment, as are many posts here and everywhere.

      What was chiefly on my mind was that since about 2000, when I started following radical feminist forums and blogs, the name Robert Jensen has, for all practical purposes, been the only male name I see cited, or placed forward for discussion. This probably has nothing at all to do with Jensen himself, and may only be a matter of his being the only public pro-radical feminist, or the only one to pass muster at these cites and forums.

      And since I discovered this cite (about 6-7 weeks ago I think) I’ve noticed about 6 pieces on him…. I’ve read part of one of his books, and several of his articles, and I would say that, for the most part, I am on the same page, but as this current review says, he is mainly summing up what many past feminist authors have written, so I am not exactly carried away by him.

      But if anyone who has read this current book can tell me that he devotes a chapter on how he personally manages as a radical pro-feminists to interact with liberal feminists and other women who do not share his central feminist positions, that might be worth the price of the ticket, esp if it’s honestly written. Because this is a thorny problem for a radical feminist, let alone a pro radical feminist.

  • Neighbor

    White feminism isn’t a thing. If you mean upper middle class feminism then say that please. The majority of white women in the US are non-affluent.

    • Leo

      Being non-affluent doesn’t mean someone white has the exact same problems as someone black and non-affluent though, and people below upper middle class in wealthy Western countries aren’t necessarily in the same position as non-white people in poorer countries, either. I can see that white feminism might for instance influence the ‘sex trade’, ‘survival sex’ narratives being applied. It’s more the term ‘white feminism’ gets used by white liberals as a silencing tactic than that it never applies and also did in the past, I think.

  • Richard Rich

    The most men can do is support radical feminist women from the sidelines. Pro-feminist men can’t make the arguments feminists make because they don’t share in women’s and girl’s experiences with sexual violence, street harassment, discrimination in the workplace, etc. So it’s easy for MRAs and their female collaborators to call them liars if they lack solid statistics to back up their claims.

    I’ve tried defending the feminist position on YouTube, only to get called a “white knight” who doesn’t care about men and boys. And the emotional responses are brutal because anti-feminists engage in a lot of gaslighting to make it seem as if males get the shorter end of the stick and females are afforded a position of luxury and influence in our society. These men are delusional beyond all hope and redemption.

    • DeColonise

      Yes, “white knight” is a common response from men placed on other men who challenge patriarchal norms and institutions.
      However I think its important that as pro-feminists (and for myself I usually lean towards radical and eco feminism and so on) we try and address the impacts patriarchal society has on us men. What does it actually do to us?
      I do care about men and boys because I’m a man myself and I know the violence done to plenty of men and boys by other men and boys for being, in their view, (and excuse my misogynistic language now) “pussies, cunts, sissies, acting like a girl, stop crying like a woman and start acting like a man” and the list goes on and on and on.
      I do care about all these males who are targets daily by macho/lad culture among us men.
      And this is the approach Men who calls you a “white knight” rarely have. They don’t give one second of thought about the male on male violence/intimidation/harassment in society.

      They just conveniently use statistics from it to bash feminism.

      Anyway. Not sure if there is a point to this post or if it makes any sense to you 🙂

      • Richard Rich

        @decolonise:disqus It makes a lot of sense. The people claiming to defend males prop up a system that continues to harm both sexes. I shouldn’t have to be berated by other men because I stick up for our Creators (females). It’s ludicrous.

    • Leo

      You’re right about the anti-feminists, they are a lost cause. I wouldn’t ask anyone to go seek them out to try to deal with them, because mostly it’s a waste of time (and the publicity they’ve gotten only encourages them even if negative). I do greatly appreciate though if I’m on a forum or comment thread and they’re being awful, if a man speaks up to tell them to shut it because they’re being ridiculous misogynists (no need to get into a debate with them, it’s pointless and only treats their misogynistic nonsense as though it’s a legitimate viewpoint. Debating them is counter-productive) or something of the sort. It can be very isolating for women otherwise. For instance for me as a female gamer if I comment on something as straightforward as the representation of a female character in a game, which I tend to do in a very casual way (that oughtn’t to make anyone overly defensive), and then end up getting simultaneously attacked and told there’s no problem whatsoever, how could I possibly think it’s odd for a mechanic to wear a bikini, or how unreasonable of me to think maybe sexual harassment and groping shouldn’t be being played for laughs (I tried calmly using my own experiences to explain that one. I do not want to have to do that again, it was pretty painful, men can help us sometimes precisely because they don’t share the same experiences), it is like being gaslighted and is very unnerving when no one says anything and they’re not challenged. I quit gaming (one of my main hobbies that I’ve loved since I was about four) for a long while and am only giving it one last try now, not because I actually find the representation of female characters to be that bad compared to other mediums (I think it’s often actually better than mainstream films and TV), but because it was just too much to have to deal both with the issues with representation that there are and to be told there was no issue whatsoever – if they could even just have said ‘yeah, I see your point’ it wouldn’t have bothered me. (I do also blame disingenuous LibFems for stirring up trouble and making them ridiculously defensive, and discouraging men from saying anything, as well as for providing the anti-feminists with a lot of their arguments. I had been able to talk about things like that with no problem, and plenty of agreement from male gamers, for well over a decade, before) Them going to such absurd lengths not to give anything at all, not to admit any problem even when it’d cost them nothing (hence my choice of a relatively minor issue as example), it just makes it feel so hopeless and as though men are not on our side at all, when anti-feminists are the loudest voices – I know they’re minority ejits but it does feel like other men agree when they say nothing no mater how horrible they get, and other men do still wind up benefiting from it.

      I know they’re awful to deal with, and wouldn’t expect men to waste their time, especially when it’s better used teaching other men who are not such irredeemable misogynists about feminist ideas, but when there is a conflict, not being left on our own sticking our necks out to deal with them is appreciated too.

      A lot of the work is also already done, by women – link to it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to support us.

    • Wren

      “Pro-feminist men can’t make the arguments feminists make because they
      don’t share in women’s and girl’s experiences with sexual violence,
      street harassment, discrimination in the workplace, etc”

      That doesn’t matter!! Do you believe us?? (I know YOU do, but I’m just saying)
      The problem isn’t a lack of experience, it’s the lack of belief. Honestly, when more and more people believe us, we will believe ourselves and the gaslighting won’t work.