At a time when the feminist movement is growing stronger even as the word “feminism” itself has come to be misconstrued and maligned, what does it mean for a man to call himself a radical feminist?
For author and academic Robert Jensen, it implies belonging to a long tradition of women and men who simply want to get to the root of the problem of gender injustice – a definition based on the Latin meaning of radical as “root”.
For the past 30 years, Jensen, a senior professor of journalism at the University of Texas, has been known for his Left-wing political activism, his advocacy for an end to masculinity, and his activism against sex-based industries such as pornography and prostitution. His firm stand against pornography is unpopular among many other feminists who focus on the value of choice in consensual pornography, but for Jensen, it is merely a logical extension of the radical feminist critique of the ways in which sexual exploitation-based industries normalise violence against women.
“Radical is often taken to mean crazy or extreme,” said Jensen, whose latest book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, was published in 2017. “But by radical feminist, I mean the understanding that men’s subordination of women is a product of patriarchy and that the ultimate goal of feminism is the end of patriarchy’s gender system, not merely liberal accommodation with the system.”
Jensen, who is visiting India, has been speaking about politics, feminism and journalism in Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru.
One of Jensen’s seminal books is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, an impassioned personal commentary on why the world needs to do away with pornography altogether. His position draws from the school of feminism which views porn as sexist, racist, damaging to the women working in the industry and, most importantly, it is where gender-based violence is dangerously sexualised.
“Pornography, I learned from these feminists, was a key place where the domination/subordination dynamic in patriarchy is sexualised,” said Jensen in an email interview with Scroll.in. By reflecting on his own use of porn in his youth, Jensen found that it plays a large role in socialising boys into patriarchal masculinity. “That has obvious destructive consequences for women, but it is not in the self-interest of men to embrace it.”
This critique of the sex industry is even more compelling and relevant today, because the contents of porn, according to Jensen, have become increasingly cruel and violent over the years – “In the 30 years I have been studying pornography, that’s the paradox. In cultures that claim to be civilised, like the United States, pornography is more widely accepted yet more intensely sexist and racist than ever. The accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of the internet has contributed to this expansion and intensification, along with the pornography industry’s need to produce consistently more extreme material to keep the mostly male consumers clicking/buying.”
Many feminists don’t share this view on porn and other sex-based industries, and Jensen believes it is because this critique leads to an inevitable re-assessment not only of pornography but also of the general sexualising of male dominance, which he would like to see abolished. “People are afraid of that truly radical analysis, so precisely when we need that feminist critique the most, people avoid it,” he said.
In his books and essays, Jensen also asserts the need to completely eliminate masculinity, instead of merely redefining it in less toxic terms. “Recognising that masculinity is typically associated with an obsession with control and conquest, men often try to rescue the concept by offering characteristics of a healthy masculinity, such as strength, caring, or courage,” he said. “But it’s obvious that those are not traits that only men possess or should aspire to. Striving to be a ‘good man’ and create a healthy masculinity, then, turns out to be nothing more than striving to be a decent human being, male or female.”
A post-Weinstein world
Jensen may be at odds with other schools of feminism on many counts, but like most of them, he has been filled with hope in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, in which the powerful Hollywood producer was exposed as a serial sexual abuser by the scores of women he exploited. The scandal led to a flood of sexual harassment allegations against influential men in various industries around the world, and many of them have lost their jobs in the process.
“In my lifetime, I have never seen this kind of space for women to tell the truth,” said Jensen. “Like many, I am hopeful that this moment of accountability will not fade.” He believes that the world could well be at a tipping point at which the abusive behaviour of many men will not be tolerated the way it was for years.
To keep up the momentum of this movement, Jensen believes a radical feminist analysis is necessary – but he is not as confident about people’s willingness to go down that path. “There likely will be changes in institutional policies and some laws, but will people want to challenge the routine ways that men treat women as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure? One test will be whether this leads to a wider critique of the sexual-exploitation industries.”
Meanwhile, Jensen claims it is important for all men to challenge themselves by re-examining their own behaviour from the feminist lens. “That critical self-reflection is not always easy or fun, but I can testify that it has made my life richer and fuller.”