I spent the first half of my life trying to be a “normal” guy. That project didn’t go so well. The good news is that in the second half of my life I gave up trying, and things got better.
What led me to change course? An unexpected interaction with radical feminist writings that offered a critique of patriarchy, followed by the opportunity to meet radical feminists living in a patriarchal society who were working to advance the radical feminist critique of pornography and of men’s sexual exploitation of women in patriarchy.
A quick aside: Yes, I realize that I just used the phrases “radical feminism” and “patriarchy” three times each in one sentence. That’s part of my job, and probably the most important part, to be a guy who repeats those terms—the problem (patriarchy) and liberatory response (radical feminism)—until they no longer scare people off. That is the inescapable irony of being me. I leverage my presumed authority as a man to suggest that this presumed authority is a big problem.
My embrace of radical feminism was neither quick nor easy. Like most men in the United States, I was trained to think that radical feminists were angry man-haters and that whatever those feminist women had in mind, it likely wouldn’t turn out well for me. But eventually I embraced that unexpected encounter with feminism and feminists, which is the story I want to tell today.
Half a life ago, at the age of 30, I left my job at a newspaper to pursue a Ph.D., looking for the credential that would allow me to teach in a university. I was changing my career, but I didn’t expect graduate school to change me. I certainly wasn’t looking to upend my life, challenge my most basic sense of self, lose some of what I thought were my best friends, and teeter on the edge of an emotional breakdown for the better part of a decade. But that’s what happened to me as I embraced the unexpected gift of radical feminism, and I suggest others should do the same. I don’t have specific rules for how to do this, but I am certain that if you do it seriously, it will be difficult for you, too, and that struggle will take the rest of your life to resolve.
Sales Pitch to Men
This is my sales pitch for men: embrace a radical feminist critique of institutionalized male dominance, particularly the critique of men’s sexual exploitation of women. If you take radical feminism seriously, it will be a rough ride that never ends. But the payoff is not just that you will contribute to making a better world—your life will get better as well. By rejecting the failed project of trying to be “a real man,” we create the possibility—not the guarantee, but the possibility—of a richer, more meaningful life.
I offer my own story as evidence. I was born and raised in the American Midwest, the third of four kids in a conventional (that is, highly dysfunctional) family. Growing up I was short, skinny, and effeminate, bookish with no discernible athletic ability. By college, I was starting to outgrow that misfit profile and had begun my quest for normality. Though I started later than most guys, eventually I dated, had sex with women, told stupid sexist jokes with male friends, watched pornography, and wallowed in my unhappiness.
Those of us in that skinny nerd category are especially prone to thinking that we aren’t “man enough.” I had always thought that my problems stemmed from not being like the high school quarterback, not being the stud who got all the girls or one of the rich guys with the fast cars. But the more I talked to men, the more convinced I became that almost all men at some point in their lives don’t feel man enough. Even the men I thought were the “real men” were scared.
That’s not surprising. Masculinity in patriarchy—that is, masculinity in a system of institutionalized male dominance—trains men to be competitive, in pursuit of conquest, which leads to routine confrontation, with the goal of always being in control of oneself and others. But no matter how intensely competitive one is, no matter how complete the conquest, no matter how many successful confrontations, and no matter how much one stays in control—men are haunted by the fear that they aren’t man enough, that they can never stop proving their masculinity.
The way out of this masculinity trap is not to pretend that you aren’t a man in patriarchy; it’s not to look for a way to opt out of the category. I believe the path to a richer, more meaningful life is to embrace a radical feminist critique of patriarchy, especially of men’s routine sexual exploitation of women in patriarchy.
Some people think patriarchy is an outdated term, but institutionalized male dominance has not disappeared, even with the gains women have made in the past century. Borrowing from the late US sociologist Allan Johnson in his book The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, “A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered.” If that went by too fast: Male dominated (that’s a D), male identified (that’s an I), and male centered (that’s a C). DIC. I would offer a friendly amendment to Allan’s list, adding that in patriarchy men control knowledge (that’s a K). Ask yourself: Do we still live in a DICK society?
Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy
At the core of a patriarchal society is men claiming a right to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality. That’s key for radical feminism, that men—even in the 21st century, even nice, polite liberal men—often act as if they have a right to women’s bodies. That’s patriarchy. More than anyone, the late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin helped me understand this. “Women’s fundamental condition is defined literally by the lack of physical integrity of our bodies,” Dworkin wrote in her book Letters from a War Zone. The fight for reproductive rights and the fight against men’s violence are at the core of feminism. The women’s movement has made gains in these arenas, though those gains have to be defended, and there is much left to accomplish.
More distressing is where we’ve lost ground in recent decades, most notably in challenging the sexual exploitation industries— prostitution, pornography, stripping—where men continue to claim the right to own or control women’s bodies. These industries offer objectified female bodies for sale or rent. In so-called “civilized” countries like the United States and Germany—no matter what the legal status of buying and selling people for sex in any specific place—men take it as their right to use, and routinely abuse, women.
Before anyone leaps to the defense of the sexual exploitation industries by proclaiming that they empower women, let’s ask a simple question. We want to live in a stable, decent society, one with gender justice, among other forms of justice. Can you imagine a stable, decent society with gender justice in which one class of people (girls and women) can be routinely bought and sold for the sexual pleasure of another group of people (men)? Yes, the sexual exploitation industries are complex, like any other human enterprise, but the core dynamic is men buying and selling girls and women—and sometimes boys and vulnerable men—for the sexual pleasure of men.
Call that the argument from justice—taking seriously our claim to want dignity and freedom, solidarity and equality, for everyone. If we really hold the values that we say we hold, we should embrace a radical feminist critique of the sexual exploitation industries’ contribution to women’s subordinate status.
That is a contentious statement, even within feminism, and I don’t think it’s wise for a man to claim that he will settle a decades-long debate within feminism in 10 minutes. So, instead of focusing on women’s choices, let’s talk about men and our choices, the things we’re empowered to do with our unearned power and privilege in patriarchy. In addition to asking men to choose not to buy objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure because it is incompatible with gender justice—that’s the argument from justice—there also is an argument from self-interest. Whatever short-term material and psychological benefits men derive from embracing the dominant conception of masculinity in patriarchy—and there are lots of benefits that come with being a man—they come at a huge cost. Because we will never feel man enough, we will remain in an uneasy relationship to ourselves, to other men, and to women.
Pornography is an important example of these two arguments. Pornography is the most openly sexist and racist media genre in the world, both in how it treats women in the production process and in the images it produces—yet it is more prevalent and socially accepted than ever. The argument for justice challenges us to reject pornography if we want to support women’s claim to bodily integrity.
But pornography is popular with men because it works—it delivers a pleasurable physical experience, fairly quickly, with minimal investment. That is a short-term benefit of patriarchy. But when we use objectified female bodies for our own pleasure— when our sexuality is so tied to feeling power over women—we reduce the potential richness of intimacy, as sex becomes a quest for nothing more than “getting off.”
Another important aside: It may appear that I am concerned only about heterosexual men, but straight guys are not the only problem. While gay men are socialized to believe they are not real men, they also at the same time are trained to behave like real men. That’s why the radical feminist critique of heterosexual pornography is just as compelling when applied to the domination/ subordination dynamic in much of gay male pornography.
This is the argument from self-interest: Forgoing some of the short-term material rewards that come to men in patriarchy creates the possibility—not a guarantee, but the possibility—of something more. Letting go of pornography and male dominance means leaving the comfort zone within which men can achieve quick and easy orgasms, but it creates the space in which a new intimacy and sexuality can flourish.
Let me describe in detail what a non-pornographic sexuality looks like… Don’t worry, just kidding. I’m not going to subject you to that, partly because it would not be appropriate here, but more importantly because there is no recipe for healthy nonpatriarchal sexuality. Instead of description, let me offer a metaphor. A lot of talk about sexuality in contemporary culture is in terms of heat: Is the sex you’re having hot? Hot sex, we’re told, is the best sex. That got me thinking about a phrase to describe arguments that are intense but don’t really advance our understanding— lots of blustering and shouting but not much listening or learning. We say that such a debate “produced more heat than light.”
What if our sexual activity—our embodied connections to another person—were less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light?
There is no intimacy instruction manual to tell us how to generate that light, but I know that in my own life, the possibility opened up only after I had embraced radical feminism and started the long, difficult, and never-ending work of dismantling my pornographic imagination. My capacity for joy has expanded in the second half of my life, along with my experience of grief.
Men’s Struggle to Be Fully Human
The masculinity of competition, conquest, confrontation, and control can be efficient in seeking pleasure of a certain kind, but it knows little of joy. Patriarchal masculinity teaches us to control our pain, but it can block us from experiencing the grief that is part of a full life. Chasing pleasure and controlling pain is patriarchal. Opening ourselves up to joy and grief is to be fully human.
Men’s struggle to become fully human is important, not only for us but for women. Remember the argument from justice? Our task is to end men’s violence and to end men’s sexual exploitation of women, both of which are rooted in men’s claim to own or control women. Men cannot simply say to the world, “Hey, I’m giving up unearned patriarchal power and privilege,” but we can reject those aspects of patriarchal masculinity that are within our control, such as refusing to participate in the sexual exploitation industries. And we can be clear that we are doing it both for ourselves and to contribute to the radical feminist critique of patriarchy.
I’m 60 years old, with half a life spent desperately seeking to be a normal guy, and half a life in resistance. The second half of my life has not been without disappointment and despair—as I said, embracing radical feminism doesn’t magically make life easy. But even at my lowest points in these past 30 years, I would never have chosen to go back to “normal.” I have never regretted that decision, in part because I believe in the pursuit of justice but also because my life is better now because of the relationships radical feminism has made possible.
The most important of these relationships was with Jim Koplin, the anarchist-influenced radical feminist and antiimperialist I met 30 years ago. It was Jim who helped me understand what was possible for men through radical feminism. He was the first man with whom I felt truly safe, the first man in front of whom I was truly vulnerable, the first man to whom I could say, “I love you.” He was the man who made it possible for me to stop lying to myself, both about who I was and about the intolerable cruelty of the world. And none of that would have been possible without his commitment to radical feminism.
One of the first things Jim gave me to read was a speech that Andrea Dworkin had given to a men’s group, called “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape.” That was her response to the common question feminists face, “What do women want from men?” Just give us one day of rest, she said, “one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old.” That will not happen until men take seriously feminism, which is also the vehicle for saving ourselves. Dworkin said it bluntly:
“We do not want to do the work of helping you to believe in your humanity. We cannot do it anymore. We have always tried. We have been repaid with systematic exploitation and systematic abuse. You are going to have to do this yourselves from now on and you know it.”
My friend Jim knew it, and he helped me understand it, and we helped each other try to live it. Jim’s deep capacity for both joy and grief made him one of the most fully human men I have ever known. Since his death, I talk about Jim as often as I can, to acknowledge the lifeline he provided for me and encourage us to provide that for each other.
In some ways, letting go of normal makes day-to-day life harder, but it also makes life more meaningful, in a way captured by the writer James Baldwin:
“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
That’s why I repeat, over and over, to as many men as will listen: We are told that feminism is a threat, and in some sense that is accurate. Feminism is a threat to our ability to hang on to normal guyness. But once we let go of the patriarchal pathology of normal, we can more easily embrace touch, change, love, and live. When we let go of normal, we can see that feminism—especially the most radical feminism we are trained to fear the most—is not a threat but a great gift to men.
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 rjensen@ austin.utexas.edu or online at robertwjensen.org. A version of this essay was presented in May at TEDxRuhrUniversityBochum, “Embrace the Unexpected.”