By Robert Jensen
Published in Nation of Change · January, 2015
For the past year, the media have been full of discussions of the endemic sexual violence in the contemporary United States, while at the same time pop culture has been celebrating the new visibility of the transgender movement. Both of these cases — which many take to be feminist successes — actually highlight patriarchy’s ability to adapt to challenges and undermine a radical critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of institutionalized male dominance.
In 25 years of being part of a radical feminist movement, I am less optimistic than ever about the capacity of our society to face the truth about the pathology of patriarchy. This culture of denial is not limited to sex/gender, but has become the norm in regard to the unjust and unsustainable hierarchies at the core of all of this society’s social, political and economic systems — with profound human and ecological implications.
Before defending this assertion, there’s a reasonable question to consider: Who cares what I think? I am, after all, a middle-aged white man, a tenured full professor at a large state university, with a U.S. passport, married to a woman. In privilege roulette, I am a winner on all the big identity markers: race, sex/gender, economic class, nationality, sexuality (the last one is complicated; more on that later). According to the rules of progressive politics, I’m supposed to preface every assertion I make with self-abnegation. Who am I to make claims about the proper analysis of these systems of illegitimate authority, given that I live on the domination side of all these dynamics?
Humility is a virtue, and people with my unearned advantages should double-down on humility. But false humility can become a rationalization for silence. Accepting the leadership of people from oppressed groups is an important principle, and privileged voices are not always needed in some debates. But on matters of public policy we all should be part of a collective conversation, and there also are times when people with privilege can say out loud what others say quietly in private. This essay offers my own analysis, but in solidarity with many others who share these views but feel constrained in speaking, out of concern for institutional standing and/or personal relationships.
This past year I have written about rape culture and trans ideology, in both cases anchoring an analysis in the problem of patriarchy. I’m often told that the term “patriarchy” is either too radical and alienating, or outdated and irrelevant. Yet it’s difficult to imagine addressing problems if we can’t name and critique the system out of which the problems emerge.
The late feminist historian Gerda Lerner defined patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.” Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.”
Like any resistance movement, feminism does not speak with one voice from a single unified analysis, but it’s hard to imagine a feminism that doesn’t start with the problem of patriarchy, one of the central systems of oppression that tries to naturalize a domination/subordination dynamic. In the case of feminism, this means challenging the way that patriarchy uses the biological differences between male and female (material sex differences) to justify rigid, repressive and reactionary claims about men and women (oppressive gender norms).
How should we understand the connection between sex and gender? Given that reproduction is not a trivial matter, the biological differences between male and female humans are not trivial, and it is plausible that these non-trivial physical differences could conceivably give rise to significant intellectual, emotional and moral differences between males and females. Yet for all the recent advances in biology and neuroscience, we still know relatively little about how the biological differences influence those capacities, though in contemporary culture many people routinely assume that the effects are greater than have been established. Male and female humans are much more similar than different, and in patriarchal societies based on gendered power, this focus on the differences is used to rationalize disparities in power.
In short: In patriarchy, “gender” is a category that functions to establish and reinforce inequality. While sex categories are part of any human society — and hence some sex-role differentiation is inevitable, given reproductive realities — the pernicious effects of patriarchal gender politics can, and should, be challenged.
In patriarchy, rape happens if a man forces a woman to have sex when the woman clearly has not consented or cannot consent. Only men who force women into sex in those situations are deemed to be rapists, only a small percentage of those rapes are reported to police, and an even smaller percentage of the rapists are arrested and convicted. The strategy of narrowing the definition of rape and limiting the number of men identified as rapists deflects attention from other questions about patriarchy’s eroticizing of domination and the resulting rape culture; from larger questions of how men are socialized to understand sexual activity, power and violence; and from the complex ways women are socialized to accommodate men’s demands.
Here’s one clear expression of this limiting strategy: “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.” Surprisingly, that statement is from a letter issued by one of the country’s leading anti-violence groups, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN. Even those working to end rape sometimes feel the need to ignore or avoid feminist insights, a phenomenon I explored in an essay last year.
Rape is a crime committed by individuals, of course, but it is committed within patriarchy, and if we were serious about reducing the number of rapes, we would be talking about the roots of that violence in patriarchy. But such an analysis doesn’t stop at what is legally defined as rape, and leads us to a painful inquiry into the patriarchal nature of what the culture accepts as “normal” sex based on men’s dominance. Those same patriarchal values define the sexual-exploitation industries (pornography, stripping, prostitution) and the routine sexual objectification of women in pop culture more generally.
So, the comfortable notion that we can condemn the bad rapists, and then all other sexual activity is beyond critique, evaporates in a feminist analysis. That doesn’t let rapists off the hook, but instead asks all of us to be honest about our own socialization. Taking rape seriously requires a feminist analysis of patriarchy, and that analysis takes us beyond rape to questions about how patriarchy’s domination/subordination dynamic structures our intimate lives, an inquiry that can be uncomfortable not only for those who endorse the dynamic but also for those who have accepted an accommodation with it.
This past year, with the media full of stories about the way in which women are particularly at risk in and around predominantly male institutions (fraternities, big-time athletics, the military), there is surprisingly little talk about patriarchy, about the socialization of men into toxic notions about masculinity-as-domination, especially in these hyper-masculine settings. The focus is diverted into questions about rules and regulations, about whether a particular university official, police officer, or commanding officer failed to hold a rapist accountable. All are relevant questions, but none is adequate to face the challenge.
What are we afraid of? The possibility that we can’t transcend patriarchy, that significant numbers of men won’t engage in the individual and collective critical self-reflection necessary? Are we worried that, without such self-reflection, we will not significantly reduce the myriad ways men not only rape but exploit women sexually?
I am not preaching from on high about this; I am a product of the same patriarchal culture and my work in feminism hasn’t magically freed me from the effects of that socialization. If anything, it’s made me more acutely aware of how easy it is to slip back into domination/subordination patterns, even when I’m trying to identify those behaviors and resist. I am worried, too, but that makes me more determined to hang onto the feminist framework.
The debate within feminism over trans, transgenderism and transsexualism (terms vary depending on speaker and context) goes back to the 1970s (the publication of Jan Raymond’s “The Transsexual Empire” in 1979 is a flash point) and continues today (the publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ “Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism” in 2014 is a new flash point). For a fair-minded account of the contemporary debate, see Michelle Goldberg’s recent New Yorker piece, “What is a woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.”
In two previous essays, I articulated concerns about the transgender/transsexual ideology, rooted first in a feminist critique of the patriarchal gender norms at the heart of the trans movement, and second in the troubling ecological implications of embracing surgery and chemicals as a response to social and psychological struggles.
If one understands gender categories (man and woman) as being primarily socially constructed, then trans ideology actually strengthens patriarchy’s gender norms by suggesting that to express fully the traits traditionally assigned to the other gender, a person must switch to inhabit that gender category. For years, radical feminists have argued that to resist patriarchy’s rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms, we should fight not for the right to change gender categories within patriarchy but to dismantle the system of gendered inequality.
If one understands socially defined gender categories as being primarily rooted in biological sex differences (male and female), then trans claims are not clear. If someone says, “I was born male but am actually female,” I do not understand what that means in the context of modern understandings of biology. (Note that people born “intersex,” with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not clearly fit the definitions of female or male, typically distinguish their condition from transgenderism.) Although not all transsexual people describe their experience as “being shipwrecked in the wrong body,” as one trans writer put it, I struggle to understand, no matter what the metaphor.
If there is an essence of maleness and femaleness that is non-material, in the spiritual realm, then it’s not clear how surgical or chemical changes in the body transform a person. If that essence of maleness and femaleness is material, in the biological realm, then it’s not clear how those changes in selected parts of the body transform a person.
I have been asking these questions not to attack the trans community, but because I cannot make sense of the trans movement’s claims and would like to understand. I am not suggesting that individuals who identify as trans/transgender/transsexual are somehow illegitimate or don’t have the right to their own understanding of themselves. But if that community asks for support on policy questions, such as public funding or mandatory insurance coverage for sex-reassignment surgery, the basis for that policy has to be intelligible to others.
So, I am not discounting the experience of people “whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth,” the American Psychological Association’s definition of transgender. Instead, I am exploring alternatives to the trans accounts of that experience. For me, this is not an abstract question. As a child, I struggled with gender norms and sexuality. I was small and effeminate, one of those boys who clearly was not going to be able to “be a man,” as defined in patriarchy. My sexual orientation was unclear, as I struggled to understand my attraction to male and female, something that could not be openly discussed in the 1970s where I was growing up. And my early life included traumatic experiences that further complicated my self-understanding.
The story of my struggle has its ups and downs, with many moments of self-doubt and despair. Eventually, I came to terms with gender and sexuality through feminism — specifically the radical feminism that emerged from the anti-rape movement and critiques of the sexual-exploitation industries — and that politics gave me a sensible framework for understanding my history in social and political context. I often wonder what would have happened if, when I was an adolescent in the midst of those struggles, the culture had normalized trans ideology. I can’t see how a trans path, which does not demand that one wrestle with the pathology of patriarchy, would have left me better equipped to deal with gender and sexuality.
My experience doesn’t fit in the category of “gender dysphoria,” as I understand it, and I’m not projecting my experience on everyone who struggles with the brutality of patriarchy’s sex/gender system. I’m simply suggesting that the liberal ideology of the trans movement (liberal, in the sense that it focuses on an individual psychological response to structures of power and authority) is inadequate, and that demonizing those who raise relevant questions benefits no one.
Supporters of patriarchy have had to yield to some of the demands of feminism, such as giving women access to previously closed-off opportunities in education, business and government. Most men committed to patriarchy have been willing to condemn the most abusive behaviors that come from institutionalized male dominance, so long as the core ideology is protected. These relatively small concessions, which do constitute a kind of progress, are often accepted as adequate, perhaps because a more direct confrontation with patriarchy is dangerous.
I think that’s why the current mainstream conversation about sexual violence so rarely confronts the patriarchal gender norms at the heart of the violence. Rather than going to the root of the problem, most commentary focuses on how changes in policy can minimize the risks to women and increase the effectiveness of criminal prosecutions of men who rape, as it is narrowly defined in the law. And given the very real suffering that results from men’s violence, anything that reduces that violence is important.
That’s also why the current mainstream conversation about trans so rarely directly challenges the rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy. Rather than going to the root of the problem, most commentary focuses on how changes in individuals can alleviate their distress because of gender norms. And given the very real suffering that results from oppressive gender norms, anything that provides individual relief is important.
No one has a magic strategy to end men’s violence or eliminate oppressive gender roles. It’s possible that, given how entrenched patriarchy is worldwide, there is no way to overcome male dominance, at least not in the time available to us as the ecosphere’s capacity to support large-scale human societies erodes. But it’s difficult to imagine any progress without a deeper critique of patriarchy’s definitions of masculinity (dominance, competition, aggression) and femininity (demure, passive, objectified).
I’m not telling anyone how they must understand these issues or themselves, but I can’t see the value in suppressing critical questions out of a fear of being seen as too radical or insufficiently inclusive. Political movements are based on a shared analysis of the world, and that analysis can’t be fully developed unless relevant questions are open for discussion and debate.
My concern is that when a feminist analysis of rape in patriarchy is offered, mainstream voices dismiss it as “too radical.” Some of my friends in the movement against sexual violence have told me they feel pressure not to talk about patriarchy and feminism in their institutional work. That’s ironic, since rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters typically were started by second-wave feminists with a radical critique. Many of those who staff those organizations today bring a radical analysis and spirit to that difficult work, but the fundraising and public-relations efforts for those centers tend to avoid the subject.
My concern is that when a feminist analysis of trans ideology is offered, mainstream voices dismiss it as not adequately inclusive. Friends have told me that they suppress their questions out of fear of being labeled transphobic and marginalized in work and personal networks. There are trans activists who incorporate a critique of patriarchy into their work, and more open conversation about these strategic questions would be beneficial to all, especially given the heightened vulnerability of people who identify as trans to sexual violence.
My concern is that we are losing the ability to face the pathology of patriarchy honestly, and we can’t fight what we can’t name. There is no guarantee of success in the struggle against patriarchy, but as James Baldwin put it more than 50 years ago, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”