Robert Jensen, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, Melbourne, Spinifex Press, 2017
U.S radical journalist Robert Jensen’s latest book ‘The end of Patriarchy’ is a great little introductory primer outlining the case for radical feminism. At a short 165 pages, and written in easily accessible style with all technical terms clearly explained, it would make a great gift for somebody new to feminist ideas. The book is particularly relevant for men who want to be better allies in the feminist struggle and who often badly need to hear and heed Jensen’s message – indeed, I include myself, someone who has struggled with many of the issues discussed.
One of the great strengths of the book, I believe, is Jensen’s clear definition of key terms, such as the basic difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ – that is, ‘sex,’ understood as the biologically determined category of male and female, in contrast to ‘gender’ which, Jensen suggests should be understood as the socially constructed ‘meanings attributed to sex difference’. I believe this is particularly important in the context of the often confusing way in which such terms are used within much contemporary feminist debate. Of course, Jensen is well aware that even this basic distinction is controversial with some arguing that sex itself is a social construction. Jensen, however, disagrees and, I think, makes a persuasive case for the distinction, as well as its importance within broader discussions.
The heart of the book is an attempt to persuade men of the continuing damage done to women by patriarchy – that is, ‘a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.’ And, perhaps more importantly, sensitively prod each of us to consider the ways in which we may participate in, and help to reproduce it. While Jensen effectively cites many of the alarming statistics, particularly the shocking prevalence of rape and sexual assault (which are likely to underrepresent the true scale of the problem), I often found some of the more anecdotal evidence just as persuasive – precisely because it rings so true. As somebody who has spent a lot of time around male football change rooms, for example, Jensen’s insights into the routinely aggressive way in which men often talk about women, resonated. Powerful too was his description of anti-violence seminars in which men are asked what actions they have taken in the past week to minimise their risk of being sexually assaulted – a question which, of course, is meet with uncomfortable silence or lame jokes. When women are asked the same question, hands are immediately and urgently raised!
Through such means Jensen is able to build his case that, notwithstanding the history of liberal feminist reforms, patriarchy stubbornly persists. Aside from direct violence against women, Jensen follows a long line of radical feminist thought in suggesting that patriarchy is powerfully manifested through pornography and the wider sex industry. Contrary to the common belief, for example, that porn is simply a ‘natural’ expression of male sexuality magnified by the internet, Jensen challenges us menfolk to view it as ‘one way in a patriarchal society that male dominance is eroticised, that male power is made sexually exciting.’
Of course, for many people engaged in contemporary feminist debate this book will be controversial, to put it mildly. Jensen makes strong critiques – though always in a respectful and sensitive way – of the trans-gender movement which, he argues is one manifestation of a prevalent but problematic form of liberal and post-modern feminism. Jensen claims to know from personal experience what it is like to feel out of step with prevailing gender norms, and thus to understand something of the experience of transgender people. But, he argues, the best way to respond is to embrace “radical feminism’s long-standing resistance to patriarchy” and its polarised gender norms. It has to be said, however, that on this issue Jensen is swimming against a very strong political tide. Still, one hopes his book is able to provoke some fruitful dialogue and debate about these difficult and divisive issues.
As somebody who is deeply concerned about the ecological crisis, Jensen makes several very interesting arguments for why overcoming patriarchy will be essential if humans are to live both in long term harmony with each other and the planet.
Though very challenging, this book is an important intervention. It left me with the sense that patriarchy is one of the most profoundly destructive and deeply ingrained forms of oppression today. And yet it also left me with a renewed sense of the importance of working to overcome it, both personally and politically. Highly recommended.
Review by Jonathan Rutherford
The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Robert Jenson is available at NIBS for $25. Copies can be posted out (inc mail charge) on request – contact us here.