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June 26, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Q&A: Author discusses men’s role in feminism

Radical feminism can be for men too: This is one of the premises of the book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.” Written by Robert Jensen, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “The End of Patriarchy” pinpoints feminism and a critical look at patriarchy as a means of achieving social justice.

Jensen discussed the feminist arguments in his book during a visit to Ithaca College on Feb. 16. His work with feminist critiques of male dominance and patriarchy began during his time as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he studied pornography through a feminist lens.

Opinion Editor Celisa Calacal spoke with Jensen about institutional male dominance, radical feminism and ways men can embrace feminism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Celisa Calacal: Can you explain the synopsis of the book?

Robert Jensen: The book is my attempt to explain the problem of patriarchy and the feminist response to that problem, and specifically in a language that will be accessible to men, hence the title: “End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.” Now the title “The End of Patriarchy,” as I’ve been saying, is aspirational. I hope to see the end of patriarchy someday. I’m not predicting it or suggesting the end of patriarchy is here. But I am suggesting that this style of feminism typically called radical feminism is our best vehicle for trying to challenge patriarchy.

CC: What inspired you to write this book?

RJ: I started graduate school in 1988, nearly 30 years ago. And much of the work I did at that point was working with the feminist critique of pornography that came out of this radical feminist movement. … Within feminism today, there are both critics of pornography as well as defenders. So the radical feminist critique of pornography … focuses on how the pornography industry sells objectified female bodies primarily to men for sexual pleasure. So pornography can be used as simply a term to signal graphic sexually explicit material. With a feminist critique, it’s possible to see how pornography is one type of sexual exploitation industry in which one buys and sells women’s bodies for pleasure. Now, pornography’s complex, and there’s a lot of it, and there are a lot of different forms of it. But the bulk of the pornography industry from this feminist critique are, as I would say, objectified female bodies sold to men for sexual pleasure.

CC: Why is feminism the answer to a socially just society?

RJ: Feminism is one of a number of critical perspectives that I think are necessary if we are going to achieve social justice. To me, it’s a crucial one. If we understand the problem of patriarchy as the problem of institutionalized male dominance, we need a feminist analysis and feminist politics to challenge patriarchy. But feminism is, to me, not simply a critique of male dominance — it’s a way to understand the problem of hierarchy more generally. One form of hierarchy is male dominance. Of course there are other forms of hierarchy: economic hierarchies, racial hierarchies, hierarchies based on citizenship. From a radical feminist perspective, all hierarchies are suspect and need to be challenged. And that’s part of the larger feminist agenda. Now as I pointed out, lots of other perspectives make similar arguments. Lots of movements for justice mark the problem of hierarchies as well. So the way I would say it is there are a lot of doors you can enter this conversation from. And it’s important that we recognize the problem is not simply a single system of hierarchy, but the larger problem of hierarchies. And we focus on different issues at different times. Feminism helps us focus on particularly the problems of patriarchy, of institutionalized male dominance of gender and equality and very serious problems such as men’s violence against women, for instance, or the routine sexual exploitation of women and girls and even boys and men in some context in prostitution and pornography.  

CC: How do race and class intersect with the argument you make?

RJ: Well how they intersect depends on the specific issue, the moment in history or in the society you’re in. But you bring up the question of what’s typically called intersectionality: the understanding that no system of domination and subordination acts independently from other systems. And that’s a crucial factor in trying to understand problems of social justice. … There are lots of places where you can see how these systems interact. … There’s research that shows that AfricanAmerican girls are disciplined at disproportionately high rates in the school system. Now that’s a result of the intersection between racism and sexism, expectations placed on girls, expectations placed on African Americans, stereotypes about how people in those two groups act. And so if you’re an AfricanAmerican girl in the American school system, the disciplinary procedures you may be subjected to might be based on stereotypes about the intersection of those two identities of race and gender. That’s what we mean by intersectionality. It’s a way of recognizing it’s a complicated world. And we have to think about it in all its complexity.

CC: What does racial feminism look like for men?

RJ: Well the argument I would make — and it’s based very much on my own experience — is that while the vast majority of injuries visited upon people in patriarchy are suffered by women and girls, that patriarchy also presents a challenge to men. Men grow up in this culture with what some of us call a very toxic conception of masculinity based on conquest, control and domination. In other words, to be a man is to be in control, and to dominate and to be aggressive. Those are the hallmarks of masculinity in this culture. Now as a result of that, men have some advantages over women, but there’s also a cost to men to living out that toxic masculinity. And the argument that I would make to men is that there are two compelling reasons to support a feminist critique of patriarchy. One is what we call the argument from justice: It’s the right thing to do. The second is the argument from self-interest. And that argument says that while there might be some short-term material benefits to you, a man, for living in patriarchy — you might have an advantage over women in certain settings — that short-term, material selfinterest comes at a long-term cost to your own humanity and your own sense of self-fulfillment. So my argument is that men should do the right thing. … If you want to lead a rich and fulfilling life, you’re going to have a much easier time doing that if you can critique that toxic conception of masculinity and, to the degree possible, transcend it.

CC: Do you think modern mainstream feminism is working or is staying true to feminism?

RJ: Well, opinions will vary on what feminism actually is. Feminism is like any other movement. There are lots of different perspectives. There is no single feminist in that sense. … Here’s what I would say. I am a male in contemporary America. I was raised in a patriarchal society with that toxic conception of masculinity. What I can say is that by engaging feminism, especially radical feminism, I have been able to step back and critique patriarchy, try to be critically self-reflective about my own behavior in patriarchy and try to articulate a different conception of what it means to be a male human living in this society.

Celisa Calacal can be reached at ccalacal@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @celisa_mia