A review and a defence of Robert Jensen’s book which argues for the value of the male perspective on a patriarchy that dehumanises both men and women. Review by Heather Brunskell-Evans (King’s College London).
I took Robert Jensen’s latest book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017) to a radical feminist residential weekend gathering. After 24 hours of living together, strategising and sharing personal stories, we were all somewhat exhausted after lunch one day. We were chatting lazily about this and that, with the Spring sun pouring through the window. Someone picked up my copy of Jensen’s book from the coffee table, and she idly remarked “Oh no, not another bloke telling radical feminists about their own movement and lecturing us on our own theories”. I was suddenly galvanised to sit upright on the sofa where I had been dosing. I found myself passionately defending both the author and the book. “It really isn’t like that at all” I insisted. “Jensen is describing his own journey with radical feminism, not as our ‘chivalrous defender’, and not expecting a ‘nice guy accolade’, but more selfishly, because radical feminism helped save his life”. There and then I realised I had relayed the book’s heartbeat, and that if I had to sum the book up in one sentence, I had just done so.
The book is broadly divided into three themes, interweaving Jensen’s personal, intellectual and political engagement with radical feminism. Firstly, he describes his life as cleaving neatly into two halves. In the first 30 years, he desperately tried to be ‘normal’, to fit in, to be ‘a man’, to be ‘realistic’ about how the world worked, but these strategies left him miserable. In the second 30 years, he has tried to face his fears and to understand the sources of that misery both in the particularities of his own personal circumstances and in the systems that structure society. His earliest understanding of radical feminism led him to attempt to give himself permission for his “feminine side”. He later realised the dichotomy ‘masculinity’/ ‘femininity’ does not enable release from the domination/ subordination dynamic. He tells us radical feminism eventually “taught me how to analyse that dynamic rather than to capitulate […] Feminism, I came to understand, was not a threat to men but a gift to us” (p. 71)
Secondly, Jensen explains that initially he intellectually repudiated the key concepts of radical feminist thought. In the radical feminist view patriarchy is a brutal sex/gender system that sexualises domination and subordination. Patriarchal power is the ability of men as a class to exercise ‘power-over’ women as a class, a power exercised in all areas of our private and public life, but particularly through the control of women’s sexuality and reproductive capacities, backed by violence. He analysed these propositions as unfounded, ideological and even hysterical. Despite his immediate disparagement, he began to realise feminist ideas spoke to his private loneliness and alienation, suggesting ways to untangle the ties that had bound him since boyhood. Later he came to embrace radical feminist thought for its intellectual coherence, and because it helped him bring together his intellectual and embodied self.
Jensen devotes three chapters to contemporary issues that are controversial not only in the dominant culture but within feminism itself: (i) rape and sexual intrusion; (ii) prostitution and pornography; and (iii) transgenderism and the biological and political claims of the transgender movement. In exploring these from a radical feminist perspective, he pin-points the crucial differences between radical feminism and liberal/ postmodern feminisms. For anyone confused about the theoretical differences and political stakes, Jensen clarifies them with ease, never letting go of a mode of analysis anchored to his embodied subjectivity.
Although liberalism and postmodernism are rooted in very different theories and sets of assumptions, Jensen illuminates how they are similar in their practical commitment to individualism in politics. Liberal and postmodern feminisms focus on how women’s choices within patriarchy can be ‘empowering’. In contrast, radical feminism offers a blunt assessment of patriarchy and demands that we work for dramatic changes, not only in public policy but in our personal lives and ways of thinking about ourselves. The radical feminist goal is revolutionary: it does not advocate liberal accommodation but an end to the cultural normalisation of the gender/sexual hierarchy.
Thirdly, Jensen proposes that radical feminism leads to a deeper critique of structures of power more generally. Radical feminism identifies how patriarchal societies tend to treat all relationships as a site of struggle for domination. Patriarchal pathology, for example, is at the core of our current ecological crisis and the threat to the ecosphere from unsustainable human systems. He compellingly argues that a radical feminist ethics, rooted in a shared moral commitment to human dignity, solidarity and equality, offers a different way of living our humanity. Toxic masculinity not only subordinates women, but cripples men’s “own capacity to be fully human” (p. 71). Comprehending the dynamics of patriarchy and devising strategies of resistance are painful. Nevertheless, he remains true to a pledge to be honest in his assessment of how the world works and to be self-critical about his own life. “To turn away from that task is to turn away from our own humanity” (p.166).
In conclusion, Jensen has explored radical feminist ideas about rape culture, the sexualisation of women’s subordination in pornography and prostitution, and the politics of transgenderism. Liberal/postmodern advocacy of ‘choice feminism’, and its repudiation of radical feminist insights into these issues, indicates the depth to which patriarchy is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary life. The existence of patriarchy is hard for men to countenance, including those liberal men who endorse women’s equality. Radical feminism causes men to reflect upon their privilege and status, demanding they re-assess their assumptions about what it means to be a man, including what it means to be a sexual man, and to give up their unearned ‘power-over’. Whether Jensen still needs courage to intervene into the vexed and sometimes brutally acrimonious debates within gender/sexual politics, he has put his head above the ‘manly’ parapet that defends itself against radical feminism. I recommend this book precisely because it is written by a man who reflects upon patriarchy as a social structure that dehumanises both men and women, and who does so without asserting a false equivalence between men’s experiences and the threats that women face and the injuries we experience.