Radical Feminism: An Interview with Robert Jensen

Article by Florent Marchais

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. Dr. Jensen’s most recent book is The End of Patriarchy (Spinifex Press, 2017).

Ina Mittal is a neuroscience major at UT with a strong interest in feminist theory. Mittal recorded the interview. Florent Marchais is a philosophy major at UT.

Florent Marchais: We’d like to talk to you about your recent book “The End of Patriarchy.” So in “The End of Patriarchy” and your 2014 essay entitled “Some basic propositions about sex, gender and patriarchy,” in the journal Dissident Voice have become somewhat controversial in left-wing circles. You write that “Transgenderism is a liberal individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response… On the surface transgenderism seems to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination… at the heart of patriarchy.” How does radical feminism offer this deeper critique?

Robert Jensen: So the question I think, put on the table by the transgender movement, concerns the norms of masculinity and femininity. Boys are supposed to be this way, girls are supposed to be that way. And that critique of what I call a very rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy is a critique that is not new. Feminists have been making that critique as long as there has been feminism. So the first thing to recognize is that the critiques that one hears in the transgender movement is not new, it’s a critique radical feminists have been making for a long time. And, as is my preference in trying to understand a phenomenon, it is usually best to try to understand the system out of which the phenomenon emerges. In this case it is patriarchy. So I don’t think one can understand the problem of very rigid and reactionary norms we have involved in the culture around gender without understanding the system of institutionalized male dominance and patriarchy out of which they emerge. And so I think the radical feminist perspective offers the best route in understanding those gender norms. And I think the transgender movement, which is not always ideologically unified, doesn’t give a consistent critique of the patriarchal basis for those gender norms.

Florent Marchais: You argue that “If one takes seriously biological sex differences (male and female), then transgender claims are not clear” (p. 133) because “male and female humans obviously have different roles and reproduction.” (p. 122) It seems as if you believe biology is the defining factor for gender identity. If so, then you must be a materialist. Could you describe materialism and its relation to the argument about transgender identity?

Robert Jensen: The sex differences in the human species are a material reality. I have a body that will never produce an egg, that will never, as we say, menstruate, gestate, or lactate. My body is not designed to do that. Those are realities which have to do with reproduction. And given that reproduction is the way biological organisms make their way into the world, it is going to be important with how we understand differences. The term gender is usually used to describe the nonmaterial meaning that is assigned to male and female. So male and female are biological categories. Masculine and feminine are cultural constructs, or social constructions.  And one can critique those gender norms as feminism does without challenging the biological categories of male and female, of egg and sperm. That’s a binary. A lot of people say binaries are bad. “It’s sad to see the world in binary terms.” And often that’s true, the world is more complex than a binary. But in this case, human gamete cells are only egg or sperm. It is a binary. That’s the reality.

So, to go to your question, (I need) one more step. As I have written, if the claim of the transgender movement is that for one to be born unambiguously male, let’s say, that is not born into the category of intersex — which is a different question — people born with ambiguous chromosomes, genitalia, secondary sexual characteristics (which is a category we call intersex, which is a very small proportion of the human species), the trans claim is a different claim than the one around intersex. I was born unambiguously male. With chromosomes, genitalia, and secondary sexual characteristics. If I were to claim I was born unambiguously male, but I am actually female, that is, I actually should be in the biological category of female; what I’ve written is that I don’t understand what that could possibly mean.

That’s counter to the material reality of the world as I understand it. If the claim is that I was born into this gender category, but I am unhappy with, for any number of reasons, the characteristics assigned to the category of masculine, and in fact were perhaps more comfortable with the characteristics assigned to the gender category of the feminine, well, that I can understand. Most people can understand that because most people don’t feel completely in-line with their category. In that case, the radical feminist response is to recognize that those gender categories, those repressive, reactionary gendered categories are part of the patriarchy.

And the best approach is to challenge those patriarchal gender norms, not to suggest that one needs to switch from male to female or masculine to feminine. In other words, in a healthy society, a society that doesn’t have patriarchal gender norms imposed, any person would be free to be the person they are without having to claim to switch categories. So that’s the basic radical feminist position as I understand it, and as I try to write it as clearly as possible. So materialism… and there’s a long philosophical debate about the difference between idealism and materialism, but I think in the sense all it means recognizing that there is a material reality independent of human understanding of it, and that we start by trying to understand that material reality, and try to make sense of it. That’s what it means in this context.

Florent Marchais: I apologize for, like, posing the question (by saying) biology is the defining factor behind gender identity, because as you said, it’s like…

Robert Jensen: Yeah, it’s the defining sex identity. In the same way that we are a bipedal species, yes? Human beings walk upright. That’s a material reality about our species. We don’t walk on all fours anymore. What sense we make of what it means to walk upright, that is a cultural question. But the fact that we do is notably the case.

Florent Marchais: Let’s go back to “The End of Patriarchy.” In “The End of Patriarchy,” you explain that “the patriarchal social system of the contemporary United States has never been able to come to terms with the disturbing insight of radical feminism: rape is normal.” (p. 75) In light of new revelations by victims of sexual assault conducted by popular entertainers and politicians, have you become even more pessimistic about the growth of rape culture in the United States?

Robert Jensen: Well, the realities of sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual aggression, all of this stuff… They are not new phenomena. So, is the United States more sexually violent than it was 50
years ago, 300 years ago, going back to colonial times…? I don’t know. It’s hard to understand as we have essentially no data to understand how much violence was going on 150 years ago within the household or within social settings. In fact, our data today isn’t very good because reported sexual assault, as we are well aware, is a dramatically underreported crime. But even other methods to determine the level of sexual assault and harassment in a society are imperfect at best.

So, in other words, trying to figure out is this a more violent culture today than in the past is hard to do. What isn’t hard to do is to see pop culture in the mass media, storytelling that surrounds us. We can see what I often call a more sexually corrosive culture than ever before, where certain kinds of routine ways in which women are depicted as sexual objects for male pleasure are common and in fact more visible than ever and more accepted than ever. So, in that sense, if rape culture means not only the incidence of violence, but the cultural support system for that violence that treats women in a certain way and approaches sexuality in a certain way, then yeah: rape culture is at an all-time high in pop culture. So, what is the possibility that this new wave of revelations that have helped women and men (not just women and girls, but boys and men who are victimized, although at a much lower rate)… What are the possibilities that this wave can significantly alter that commonplace rape culture? Well, nobody knows yet. One can only hope that the revelations will continue, and that men will be held accountable.

Florent Marchais: You quote feminist Kathleen Barry in your chapter of “The End of Patriarchy” in the chapter entitled “Prostitution and Pornography: ‘Sex Work’ or Sexual Exploitation?” She writes that “when the human being is reduced to body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being has taken place.” (p. 98) Some contemporary feminists are apt to argue that the autonomy of sex workers validates their work. You give convincing arguments as to why this is not the case. In your view, what can be done to abolish sex work and pornography (against which you argue in tandem)?

Robert Jensen: Well, women like Kathleen Barry for the better part of four or five decades now have been documenting the real-life expenses of women, women in everyday life who are victims of sexual assault, women who have been in the sexual exploitation industries, prostitution and pornography especially. We have a fair bit of data now about the patterns. So, take women in prostitution. We know there are elevated rates of abuse in prostitution. Women who are prostituted are at risk, disproportionately, to violence. Not surprising given the relation of male John to woman being prostituted. We know that there are higher rates of childhood sexual assault for women being prostituted. So we know how one develops the internal insight on how one sees one’s value being in performing sexual services for men. We know there are elevated rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Not surprising in that kind of work given what it takes to endure that.

So those are patterns. So now, there are also women who embrace it and say that it’s a choice. Yeah of course, because there’s a lot of variation in human species. But you look at the patterns and we see that most of the women who were prostituted, if they had other options, they would leave prostitution. And in fact, that’s part of what a decent society does: provide those opportunities. So, what’s the best approach if you look at the sexual exploitation industries and want to provide women with meaningful options? Well, what is called the Nordic model seems the most productive — it was pioneered in Sweden and has spread to other countries — which says take criminal penalties off the seller which is almost always the woman, in other words taking the women out of the criminal position, but leave criminal penalties on the man, who is almost always the buyer, what we would call a John — to recognize that you don’t want to add to the suffering of women by legalizing the buying, but discourage the normalizing of buying women’s bodies for sex.

Now in addition to that, the Nordic Model has increased resources for what we call exit services, in other words giving women meaningful options if they want to leave prostitution. Whether it’s healthcare, child care, education, other sources, whatever people need. That seems to be the most reasonable approach, and it works where it is used. So in the radical feminist community that critiques the sexual exploitation industry, that is the solution that is proposed. It is what we call the Nordic Model.

Florent Marchais: Is that called abolition?

Robert Jensen: So that’s what’s called the abolitionist perspective. So if you think about the sexual exploitation industry there are really two perspectives. One is the abolitionist perspective which says that prostitution is inconsistent with any vision of decent society and then there’s the harm minimization, sometimes called harm reduction perspective that says, yes, some of the conditions under which women, and occasionally men, are prostituted are horrendous, and so what we want to do is reduce the harm. But the radical feminist perspective says that the entire practice of prostitution is inconsistent with justice, and therefore we should work to abolish it. Everybody’s for harm reduction in some sense. In the immediate sense. The question is what is the eventual goal? Not only does the Nordic Model lead towards abolition, but it also leads toward the most harm reduction as well.

Florent Marchais: So you explain that “in academic circles… there is a dominant feminist perspective, and it is postmodern in character.” (p. 67) Could you give an explanation of postmodern feminism and why does “the radical feminist tradition offer the most compelling path to undoing patriarchy” (p. 66) rather than postmodern feminism, which you argue is “simply liberalism to the Nth degree?” (p. 68)

Robert Jensen: So in various times there have been various ways to categorize approaches to feminism. So as I look at the social and cultural landscape these days, I see a small but enduring radical feminism, a liberal feminism, maybe embodied by someone like Hillary Clinton, and a postmodern feminism, which I have trouble defining because the whole concept of postmodernism is a little slippery. But in the end, postmodern feminism is essentially a kind of hyper liberalism because of how it treats the choice an individual makes. All feminism then is the ensuring of choices, whereas radical feminism steps back and looks at the system and looks at the conditions under which choices are made. So a lot of this is about the concept of choice.

And of course, a lot of people do choose, but the more important question concerns the conditions under which people choose. The freedom to choose and autonomy are important values — the radical feminist position doesn’t say that you can ignore people’s choices or that you can impose choices on people. It says let’s try to create a world in which choices are meaningful, where autonomy is not just a term we used to rationalize the world we live in and what we choose within it, but a meaningful concept where we can pick choices from other meaningful options, not just the only choice available to you. So that’s the debate. It’s true in all sorts of other areas. You can think about the choices worker is making a capitalist economy. In other words, workers with minimal education and very few options, are choosing to work for $8 an hour at McDonald’s… well sure they’re making a choice in some sense, nobody’s putting a gun to their head, but are there meaningful options to choose from? Well that’s always the question.

 Robert Jensen Robert Jensen

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