Peggy Orenstein insists that we not flinch in uncomfortable conversations with boys and men about the dark side of sexuality. In her new book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, she reports on her refreshingly honest interviews with guys about how they understand what it means to “be a man” in the sexual arena.

Orenstein observes that while they hold “relatively egalitarian views about girls, at least in the public sphere,” these boys and young men seem to be “channeling 1955” when talking about an ideal masculinity: “Emotional detachment. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Athleticism. Wealth (at least someday …). Dominance. Aggression.”

How to make sense of this apparent contradiction? Unfortunately, Orenstein flinches in her analysis, unwilling to ask equally uncomfortable questions about the system in which we all operate (patriarchy) or to highlight the contributions of those who have boldly challenged patriarchy (feminists, especially radicals). The lack of political context and failure to acknowledge the insights of the resistance diminish the contribution that Boys & Sex could have made.

I am not suggesting that Orenstein’s avoidance is particularly unusual these days, nor am I arguing that she should have written an entirely different book (an annoying characteristic of some book reviews), one that was more historical or polemical. Rather, I am asking all of us to ponder: In discussions of the sex/gender system, why is it routine for even critics of men’s behaviour to be afraid to name the system out of which that behaviour arises? If an analysis builds on radical feminism’s critique of patriarchal sexuality, why is that radical critique so routinely ignored?

First, some definitions, to try to avoid confusion. By patriarchy, I mean a system of institutionalized male dominance, which varies in form depending on time and place, but always tries to get us to believe that the domination/subordination dynamic of men-over-women is natural. By radical feminism, I mean a critique of patriarchy that focuses on men’s claim to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality, a feminism that includes a challenge to any form of social hierarchy that flows from that domination/subordination dynamic (most notably: white supremacy, capitalism, and First World dominance).

Second, an analogy, to help make my point. In recent years, the conversation about white people’s distorted sense of entitlement — what we often call “white privilege” — thankfully has expanded. Can anyone imagine that conversation being productive without dealing with the system of white supremacy that has framed US history? Would it make sense to talk about white people’s understanding of that privilege in a vacuum, as if the centuries-long resistance movements of people of colour weren’t relevant? (Indeed, Orenstein’s chapter on the experiences of boys and men of colour includes this kind of necessary context.) But conversations about men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women are routinely conducted with an aversion to naming patriarchy and a hesitancy to embrace feminism.

Third, the consequences of this avoidance. Orenstein — the author of two previous books, Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughteris of course well aware of the reality of patriarchy and the importance of feminism. Yet in Boys & Sex, she writes:

“Feminism may have afforded girls an escape from the constraints of conventional femininity, offered them alternative identities as women and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but it has made few inroads with boys. Whether you label it the ‘mask of masculinity,’ ‘toxic masculinity,’ or ‘the man box,’ the traditional conception of manhood still holds sway, dictating how boys think, feel, and behave.”

It’s true enough that traditional masculinity norms — what I think is more accurately described as “masculinity in patriarchy” than any of those other labels — still dominate. But why has feminism made few inroads with boys? Has feminism — and, by extension, the women who have developed feminist critiques — provided for girls but failed to care about boys? Or have men failed to take advantage of what feminism offers, not only to girls and women but also to boys and men? I agree with the title of a book by the acclaimed feminist writer, bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody. But for feminism to help everybody — girls and boys, women and men — we have to be able to talk openly about it, resisting the myriad ways a patriarchal culture undermines that.

If it sounds as if this is personal for me, it is. Although I was late in coming to the critique of patriarchy, once I found it — or, more accurately, once I stopped avoiding it, with the help of many women and a few men — I recognized that radical feminism is not a threat but a gift to men, a way not only to press for justice for girls and women but also to challenge those stifling masculinity norms. Feminism is, indeed, for everybody, and men can’t blame feminists for men’s lack of courage in embracing a critique of patriarchy.

Orenstein need not have weighed down the book with a long analysis of patriarchy or an exhaustive history of feminism. But by bracketing out any assessment of the larger system and resistance to it — even when those ideas are so crucial to her own analysis — she contributes to the patriarchal culture’s strategy of denial and avoidance.

This failure is most evident in the chapter on pornography, a subject Orenstein recognizes as crucial in understanding the socialization of boys into sexuality, especially in a digital world that has:

“… given minors historically unprecedented access to sexually explicit media, most of it reflecting traditional gender dynamics and shot from the male’s point of view — often a hostile, narcissistic male at that: sex is portrayed as something men do to rather than with women. Women exist primarily as providers of male orgasm (the goal of every encounter); their own pleasure is presented as a performance to that end. The men themselves appear joyless, mechanical. Given its boundless novelty and availability, contemporary porn raises questions about how young people’s erotic imaginations will be shaped long before they’ve engaged in so much as a good-night kiss: the impact it may have on desire, arousal, behavior, sexual ethics, and their understanding of gender, race, and power in sexual expression.”

That’s an excellent summary of the pornographic reality in which children are being raised. It’s also an important part of the larger critique that the feminist anti-pornography movement has been offering for nearly a half-century, long before the internet made the misogyny and racism of pornography impossible to ignore. Yet nowhere in the book are these radical feminist insights mentioned, let alone explored.

What happens when the feminist framework of a critique is rendered invisible? We miss the chance to think about all the harms of pornography, not only to the boys and men who use it, but also to many of the women used in the production of it and the girls and women who live in a pornographic world. And we are diverted from a deeper critique of what pornography tells us about patriarchy. Radical feminist critics, most notably the late Andrea Dworkin, have argued persuasively that pornography eroticizes patriarchal domination/subordination, which means we can’t expect to successfully challenge pornography without challenging the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy.

One more lost opportunity: Orenstein states that “adults’ porn use is a separate issue.” Sure, we devise different policies about access to pornography for adults and minors. But does the misogyny of pornography, which she argues has a significant influence on boys, have no effect on men? Orenstein believes the research shows “that what we consume becomes part of our psyches unconsciously affecting how we feel, think, and behave” and that “media scripts influence real-life emotions and behavior, even when we think they don’t.” When male humans reach the age of 18 or 21, do they magically acquire immunity to the effects of media representations? Why not acknowledge that if we are to help boys navigate a pornographic world, we also have to talk about what the men in their lives — fathers, teachers, clergy, coaches — are watching and how it influences them?

Radical feminist critics of pornography have been making these kinds of claims for decades and often are ridiculed for them — labelled prudish or anti-sex (whatever that means) — not only by men but also by some liberal and postmodern feminists who have embraced pornography as sexual liberation. Perhaps Orenstein ignores the radical feminist critique to avoid being caught up in these contentious debates, but ignoring those insights leads to muddied thinking. For example, after detailing the problem, she states:

“Although porn has become a lightning rod for concern, then, it may really be more a symptom than the disease itself. Nor is its sexual explicitness an inherent problem: it’s the persistent depiction of women as things, and in degrading and compliant roles — less the sex than the sexism. And that is abundantly on display in the mainstream media boys consume throughout their lives.”

Radical feminists never suggested that pornography was THE problem, nor have they exempted the sexism of mainstream media from their critique. And if pornography emerges out of a patriarchal culture, then of course pornography is more symptom than disease. That’s true across the board: all manifestations of problems such as sexism or racism are symptoms, not the disease. Racist discrimination in housing is a manifestation of white supremacy, in some sense symptom and not the disease itself. But social change comes through targeting the symptoms while making it clear that they emerge out of a system. We fight white supremacy by going after racist practices. We fight patriarchy by going after sexist practices.

Once again, if this seems personal for me, it is. For the past three decades I’ve been a part of the feminist anti-pornography movement through writing and organizing. I’ve experienced the transformative power of that feminist critique and believe it should be part of an overall movement for social justice. But the critique can’t be considered if it is rendered invisible.

Here’s one last example of the problem of ignoring patriarchy and radical feminism, which takes us beyond heterosexuality. Orenstein recognizes that the way men are socialized into masculinity also affects gay men. One of the gay men she interviews points out that for many in his community, “the thrill really is the anonymous, quick sex,” which leads him to worry that “as a community, we’ve gotten to a place where we don’t value intimacy or connection. It’s framed as liberating and sex-positive and people finding their tastes, but I think a little of that is true, but it’s also another ground on which violence can occur.”

This young man is articulating a feminist critique but seems not to recognize that. He goes on to say:

“For me as a gay man, demanding more intimacy in some of these relationships actually feels subversive, even though it’s more heteronormative. And maybe someday I will be in a monogamous relationship, and maybe what’s ‘queer’ will be more about household chores or our work life, or the people we’re friends with or where we live or how we dress. I don’t know.”

Orenstein offers readers no help in understanding the young man’s confusion. A feminist critique of a “heteronormative” society doesn’t imply that everything associated with heterosexuality is bad. Wanting a monogamous relationship based on intimacy isn’t somehow suspect simply because it’s often asserted as an ideal in heterosexuality. Such intimate relationships are an understandable goal of many people, both straight and gay or lesbian. If a “queer” division of household chores rejects the idea that one person must fill a traditional “housewife” role, well, that’s a longstanding feminist position. In short: Gay men have as much to gain from radical feminism as straight men, as Christopher Kendall has demonstrated in his analysis of gay male pornography.

Boys & Sex is written for mainstream readers, and it’s easy to understand why Orenstein might want to downplay controversial political battles. But trying to make an analysis more palatable by ignoring difficult issues is a losing game. One of Orenstein’s subjects offers an example of that. This college student had learned all the rules and terminology about navigating consent in sexual relationships with women, but says, “I realized I was becoming, like, a feminist fuckboy. The kind of guy who says all the right things, but still treats women badly. And that feels horrible.” After a pause, he admits that, in fact, he liked it, but he was growing more uncomfortable with that kind of pleasure. After another pause, he says, “Because there’s more to me than that.”

There is more to every man than using women (or other men) as objectified bodies for sexual pleasure. No boy is born with that programmed into his genes, and we all can resist that socialization. But how are we men supposed to transcend patriarchal training if everyone avoids talking about patriarchy? How will we find another way of living if feminist challenges to patriarchy — especially the most radical challenges that have done the most to expose the corrosive nature of patriarchal practices — are hidden away?

Orenstein shares the goal of transforming “the rules of male psychological development and sexuality,” which for her means:

“… Raising boys to be compassionate and egalitarian; respectful of others’ boundaries; capable of connection, vulnerability, honest communication, emotional expression, and love; able to develop and sustain authentic relationships; able to be happier and more fulfilled; able to see women as true peers in the classroom, boardroom, and bedroom. Raising our boys to be the men we know they can become.”

I agree with those goals, but I would offer a friendly amendment to that last sentence and to the last phrase of the book’s title, the New Masculinity.

We should raise our boys to be decent people rather than fret about how to define a new masculinity, which traps us in the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” A better question: What does it mean to be a person? In feminism, women don’t talk about how to create a new femininity, because femininity in patriarchy is a marker of subordination to men. Likewise, masculinity in patriarchy is the marker of male dominance, and any new definition that doesn’t come with a challenge to patriarchy is fatally flawed.

If we are serious about a world in which girls and women are truly safe, and boys and men are capable of expressing the full range of their humanity, we need a radical feminism to challenge patriarchy. Conservative and right wing opposition to that project is to be expected. But it’s long past time for liberals and the left to embrace the radical feminist challenge that gives us a fighting chance.

“Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity” by Peggy Orenstein is published by HarperCollins.

Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached at [email protected] or online at robertwjensen.org.

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