Radical Feminism and the Failures of the Left

By Robert Jensen

Published in Julie Bindel Substack · May, 2024

[This is an edited version of a presentation to a forum on “The Left and Machismo” sponsored by Hombres por la Equidad in Mexico City on May 18, 2024.]

By Robert Jensen

I was politicized and radicalized fairly late in life, beginning at the age of 30 at the end of the 1980s, when I embraced left politics and radical feminism at the same time. Despite tensions between the two philosophies, I remain committed to both.

Back to the ‘80s: Until then, I had been a fairly conventional American liberal, albeit weighed down by considerable cynicism that was likely a product of the post-Watergate/Vietnam era, a newspaper journalism career, and my quirky personality. Ironically, left politics and radical feminism persuaded me that the world’s crises were more intractable than I thought, but at the same time cured me of my cynicism.

Instead of taking the lazy way out by thinking that we humans were simply nasty creatures bound to mess things up, I began to ask how ideologies and institutions shaped societies and influenced people, which showed me new openings for political action. Humans are nasty creatures and that we are bound to mess things up, of course, but I believe it’s worthwhile trying to be better and minimize the damage we do, and that’s more likely if we can critically analyze those ideologies and challenge the institutions.

As I sorted through all that, I viewed radical feminist and left politics as complimentary, not at odds. I soon learned that not everyone agreed. Why did I think that, and why did others disagree?

Both radical feminism’s critique of patriarchy and the political left’s critique of capitalism and imperialism offer analyses of systems and structures of power. By the time I stumbled into politics, both of these political movements had expanded to include a critique of white supremacy, and most everyone I met in these projects understood the threat of ecological degradation. A holistic politics that could face honestly the most serious threats to justice and sustainability seemed possible to me, and pursing that politics seemed like a path to a meaningful life.

That awareness of the role of systems and structures of power is crucial to these claims. Rather than focus on the bad choices that individuals sometimes make or the self-serving corruption of some politicians, a radical/left framework helped me understand the forces shaping those choices and corruption. Individuals should strive to make good choices and we should demand that politicians serve the common good, of course. But to be effective, we need to reckon with power and ideology, with systems and institutions.

In short, this political awakening led me to question the culture’s conventional wisdom: that male dominance and white supremacy are largely a thing of the past (women and nonwhite people should stop complaining so much), that competition in capitalism is necessary to foster innovation (alas, the poor would always be with us), that US power keeps the world stable (after all, the world is a bad neighborhood and needs a cop), and that high-energy/high-technology societies will always find ways to clean up the environment (there’s no need to reduce population and consumption).

Challenging the dominant dogma on all these fronts seemed to fit together. But I learned that finding a consensus on the left wasn’t so easy. All political movements can be contentious, of course, but fairly quickly I ran into a deep divide between radical feminists and much of the political left.

My introduction to the left’s failure to embrace feminism came in my antipornography work. Like most men, I had used pornography as a child and young man, but it always left me feeling uneasy. The radical feminist critique of the sexual-exploitation industries (including prostitution, stripping, massage parlors, escorts, and pornography) not only was intellectually compelling but made sense to me personally. Instead of struggling to “be a man”—to live up to patriarchal notions of masculinity—I found in radical feminism a path to trying to become a decent human being.

But that approach wasn’t popular on much of the left. Instead of sticking with the analysis of systems and structures of power, most leftists suddenly became champions of individual choice. When men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure, the left said that’s not necessarily exploitation but rather individuals’ free choices. Usually the left would focus on the conditions under which people make choices—how power creates those conditions and ideology obscures the severity of constraints. Apparently, that approach isn’t relevant when men’s sexual pleasure is at stake.

Eventually the conflict between radical feminism and the male-dominated left expanded to conflicts within liberal/left feminism. First, women who advocated for what they called an anti-censorship feminism challenged the radical analysis, leading to debates that were spirited but usually productive. But when an explicitly pro-pornography feminism emerged, and eventually became dominant in academic feminism and on the left, the radical feminist analysis of how men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure was pushed to the margins.

That would have been fine with me—if the radical feminist analysis had turned out to be wrong. But it wasn’t. In fact, as the pornography industry expanded, it became clear that this analysis of the harms created by the production and use of graphic sexually explicit material—what we typically call hardcore pornography—was on target.

When Andrea Dworkin and other radical feminists began critiquing the misogyny of the pornography industry in the 1970s, the images were—by today’s standards—relatively tame. But Andrea and other critics saw the ideology of male dominance and white supremacy playing out in the images, which were produced through the routine exploitation of women. If those feminists were the first to analyze these features of the pornography industry, and those features have intensified over time, wouldn’t it make sense to take the analyses of those feminists seriously? That seems sensible to me, but not to most of the left or to a significant segment of the feminist movement.

This is what I have called the paradox of pornography. In my adult life, two trends are uncontroversial: First, pornography has become more widely available and routinely accepted in liberal and left circles. Second, the pornography industry has produced images that are more overtly cruel and degrading to women, as well as more overtly racist, than ever before. As the amount of pornography produced has increased and become more normalized, the degradation it portrays has intensified. Why would a media genre become more accepted by the liberal/left at the same time it becomes more misogynist and racist? Why would progressives who routinely critique sexism and racism give pornography a pass?

I have an answer: This radical feminist analysis of the sexual-exploitation industries has been ignored because it is compelling but isn’t cool. It’s not hip. It’s not the kind of thing that cool, hip people believe. And who doesn’t want to be cool and hip? Because a radical feminist critique points out that patriarchal sexuality really isn’t cool or hip, it’s unacceptable.

A more serious answer: The sexual-exploitation industries are deeply patriarchal, and fighting patriarchy is hard. It is the oldest of the oppressive social systems, going back several thousand years in human history, compared with several hundred for white supremacy and capitalism. Patriarchal ideas and modes of behavior are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that they can be hard to identify, let alone eliminate. Feminist organizing has forced some changes, such as improved laws against rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. But striking at the core of male dominance, especially at men’s sexual exploitation of women, produces intense backlash.

Although radical feminists have been marginalized for these critiques, the dominant liberal/left feminists typically didn’t suggest that the critique of the sexual-exploitation industries was antifeminist. But in recent years, the split between radical and liberal/left feminists has become even more heated over the question of transgenderism. Many (though not all) radical feminists challenge the ideology of the trans movement, which has led some pro-trans feminists not only to reject radical feminist arguments but declare that anyone who doesn’t embrace trans ideology is not really feminist. One liberal/left feminist journalist said that feminists who are uneasy about trans policies and insufficiently supportive of trans ideology are misguided but still feminist, but radical feminist critics shouldn’t be considered part of the movement. She argued that the term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminists) is inaccurate because “I don’t think that they actually are feminists.” Radical feminist women who have been at the forefront of the struggle against patriarchy for a half-century are, from this perspective, no longer feminist because they challenge the ideology of transgenderism.

In my forthcoming book, It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, I argue that trans activists are pursuing a politics that is intellectually incoherent, anti-feminist, and at odds with an ecological worldview. I develop that argument at length in the book, but I raise the issue here to point out, again, that the left is abandoning its own mode of analysis and theoretical approach when it embraces the transgender movement’s liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms.

Of course, I could be wrong. I have been wrong before, as have we all. In intellectual and political life, we expect people to make the case for their ideas. No one has the authority to dictate the truth by virtue of personal identity or political affiliation. When we challenge the analysis of others, we provide reasons for them to consider changing their position. What’s distinctive about my experience with radical feminism and the left today is that almost no one bothers offering me reasons why I should rethink the analysis of the sexual-exploitation industries and transgenderism. Instead, I’ve been told by many feminists and leftists that my positions are wrong (apparently that is self-evident), that it’s not their job to demonstrate why I’m wrong (I’m supposed to educate myself), and until I shift positions I’m not welcome in most feminist and left spaces (I’ve been shunned and shouted down more times than I can count).

Of course, no one has an obligation to engage me personally. But the radical feminist critique of the sexual-exploitation industries has for decades demonstrated that it is a compelling account of the ways men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. And the radical feminist critique of the ideology of the transgender movement offers not only a critique of patriarchal gender norms but a compassionate alternative for those in distress.

Whether or not one embraces radical feminists, I believe everyone should be paying attention to the arguments they are making, especially on the left. When progressive movements abandon analyses of systems and structures of power in favor of liberal individualism, we give up the hope of the radical change that is so needed.


Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics from Olive Branch Press.