Feminism and Men: Shut Up and Speak Up
By Robert Jensen
[This is an edited version of a presentation to the Hombres por la Equidad (Men for Equality) conference in Mexico City on November 7, 2023. It draws on material from Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Spinifex Press, 2017); and the forthcoming “Dead Dogma”: Thinking Freely, Speaking Responsibly, Living Authentically (Interlink Publishing, 2024).]
Men who embrace feminism face a paradox that is inescapable.
Through feminism, I learned that I should move out of the center and not assume that everyone is waiting for me to speak. “Accept the leadership of women” is, appropriately, one of the commandments for men in feminist movements, which means not assuming that we men know best or that we have authority over women—assumptions that many of us men have learned to make.
But if we want to help build feminist movements, we need more men to become involved, to support women and challenge other men. Women can manage without us, but liberation movements can be more effective with support from people in positions of unearned power and privilege. And to build that support, we men have to tell our own stories about why we embrace feminism—in my experience, telling stories about the choices we made in our lives is more effective than lecturing men about what they should do. We can tell those stories in all-male spaces, but often our voices are useful to back up women in mixed settings.
So, shut up and follow women, but also speak up to connect with men and support women. Take yourself out of the center, but sometimes ask others to focus on your message. When to step back, and when to step up? It’s not always obvious, and it’s always tempting to justify decisions that coincide with what we want to do. If we are fearful of speaking in a situation, we might be tempted to say, “This is when I should step back and let women speak.” If we feel like mouthing off, we might be tempted to say, “I have a responsibility to speak now.”
My goal is not to set down rules for other men but rather to talk about how I have stumbled forward within this paradox.
I was a short, skinny, effeminate kid who was sexually confused around both boys and girls. And I was terrible at sports. In short, growing up in the US Midwest in the 1960s and ‘70s, I fell short on all the conventional markers of masculinity, which made childhood rather precarious, and the danger was intensified by abuse within my family. But I survived, pretty much intact, at least physically.
I stumbled through my 20s, by that time looking a bit more like a “normal” guy on the surface but still confused by the demands of masculinity. I was trying to act like a “real man” but making a mess of it, conforming to masculinity norms that didn’t feel right and still too afraid to confront my confused sexuality. I told sexist jokes with male friends, had a couple of furtive sexual experiences with men, and had trouble being emotionally present with female partners. I was struggling, often feeling miserable, but didn’t realize there was any other options.
At the age of 30, I stumbled into graduate school and discovered feminism, through my academic interest in freedom of expression in the feminist debate over pornography. As I studied, I realized feminism wasn’t the threat to men that I had been raised to think it was. Much to my surprise, the feminist movement that seemed most compelling to me was “radical feminism,” and the radical feminist women organizing against pornography made a lot of sense. They offered a coherent analysis of the sexist and racist nature of the pornographic images, detailed the harm to women in the production of those images, and explained the cultural consequences of flooding a society with those images.
And it turned out that those radical feminists—women I had been taught to fear, on the assumption that they hated men and wanted to take away our fun—also helped me understand myself. I had used pornography as a child and young man, and this critique allowed me to critically self-reflect about that pornography use, as well as ask larger questions about my life. Why had I been so afraid as a child that there was something wrong with me? Why had I been so miserable as a young adult trying to be a man? Radical feminism helped me understand the social system that was the source of my suffering. I had individual problems, but the big problem was patriarchy.
Definitions: Patriarchy, Sex/Gender, Feminism, and Radical Feminism
Introducing that term requires that we spend some time on definitions. Patriarchy, from Greek meaning “rule of the father,” can be narrowly understood as the organization of a human community (from a family to a larger society) that gives a male ruler dominance over other men and gives men in general control over women. More generally, the term refers to various systems of institutionalized male dominance in various spheres of life, private and public. Patriarchy is a social system based on the assertion that males and females were created or evolved differently for different social purposes, with men taking their rightful place on top. In patriarchy, the differences in male and female biology are assumed to produce significant differences between men and women in intellectual, emotional, and moral realms, which are used to justify men’s subordination of women and rationalize men’s attempts to control women’s reproductive power and exploit women’s sexuality. Whether grounded in God or evolution, patriarchal systems claim that the social differences are inherent and perhaps immutable, an odd idea given that patriarchy is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history.
Starting in the 1960s, feminists challenged patriarchal claims that men’s domination and exploitation of women are natural and inevitable because of biology, distinguishing biological sex from cultural constructions of gender. Cultural ideas about gender emerge out of sex differences—obviously, if we were not a sexually dimorphic species it is hard to imagine the concepts of masculinity and femininity emerging—but today’s gender norms reflect the unequal distribution of power between men and women since patriarchy emerged and developed over the past few thousand years.
In recent years some segments of the transgender movement (I say “some segments” because there is no coherent or consistent account of sex and gender in that movement) have rejected this feminist account of sex and gender, and so it’s especially important to be clear about these terms. Sex differentiates between male and female based on the physiological characteristics associated with distinctive roles in reproduction. Sex does not change depending on social settings. Sex is binary and biological. Gender differentiates between masculine and feminine based on a society’s ideas about the meaning of male and female, and those claims are not uniform across or within societies and not static within any society through time. Gender is a social construction, one that in contemporary societies reflects thousands of years of institutionalized male dominance.
Feminism challenges patriarchy and rejects rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Feminism analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed as a class—the ways in which men as a class hold more power, and how those differences in power systematically disadvantage women in the public and private spheres. Gender oppression plays out in different ways depending on social location, because men’s oppression of women is affected by other systems of oppression—racism, heterosexism, class privilege, and histories of colonial and postcolonial domination.
Radical feminism understands patriarchy as the foundational system of domination and subordination in human history and rejects social hierarchies across the board. Radical feminists recognize that today one of the key sites of this oppression is sexuality—sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation. Radical feminists not only organize to end men’s violence and harassment but also reject the buying and selling of objectified female bodies in pornography, prostitution, and other sexual-exploitation industries.
King of the Hill Masculinity
Men routinely cause problems for women. But rather than assume men are the problem, it is more productive to talk about how men are socialized in patriarchy. Rather than thinking of men as “bad to the bone,” we should think of men as “breaking bad” under the influence of masculinity norms in patriarchy.
A metaphor I have used to explain the patriarchal conception of masculinity is the children’s game King of the Hill, in which the object is to be the one who remains on top of the hill (or, if not an actual hill, a large pile of anything or the center of any designated area). To do that, one has to repel those who challenge the king’s supremacy. That can be done in a friendly spirit with an understanding that minimal force will be used by all, or it can be violent and vicious, with both the king and the challengers allowed to use any means necessary. Games that start friendly can turn rough. In my experience, both male and female children can play King of the Hill, but it was overwhelmingly a game of male children. No matter who is playing, it is a game of masculinity. King of the Hill reveals one essential characteristic of the dominant conception of masculinity: No one is ever safe, and everyone loses something.
King-of-the-Hill masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek control over “their” women and find pleasure in that control, which leads to pandemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is dangerous for men as well. One thing is obvious about King-of-the-Hill masculinity: Not everyone can win. In a system based on this kind of hierarchy, by definition there can be only one person at the top of the hierarchy. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, and the king has to worry about who is coming up that hill to get him. The king can form alliances with others to stay on top, but those allies can turn on him when they see their chance to be king.
This isn’t just a children’s game, of course. A friend who once worked on Wall Street, one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition in the business world, described coming to work as “walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken.” Every day you faced the possibility of getting killed—figuratively, in business terms—and there was nowhere to stand where your back was covered. This masculinity means endless competition and ever-present threat. Normal guys don’t have to play this game every moment of their lives, but no guy will be seen as normal if he goes too far in challenging the rules of the game.
There is, of course, no single standard for masculinity that all men embrace and no central committee that sets the rules. As in most social systems, there is variation and resistance. But it is crucial to remember that this dominant conception of what it means to be a man is the product of patriarchy, and our goal should be the end of patriarchy. This definition of masculinity is increasingly being challenged but continues to dominate. We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from killing the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they dominate business competitors and make millions. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. We close the deal. The short-term rush crowds out the always-present isolation.
Whatever the material benefits of masculinity, whatever power it gives one over others, it’s also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling. No one man created this system. Perhaps no man, if given a real choice, would choose it. But we live in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth and limiting our capacity to experience rich connections with others—not just with women and children, but also with other men—connections that require the vulnerability that “real men” so often run from. The Man Who Would Be King is the Man Who Is Broken and Alone. A normal guy is, eventually, a miserable guy.
Masculinity played out in sexual relationships, straight or gay, brings King of the Hill into our most intimate spaces. This doesn’t mean that every man in every sexual situation seeks dominance, but simply that there exists a pattern, and that it is the rare man who doesn’t struggle with these feelings. The cruel and degrading sexualized images of women so routine in pornography, and the routine way men use women through pornography, is painful testimony to this reality.
The fact that this corrosive ideology constrains men doesn’t mean it’s equally dangerous for men and women. As feminists have long pointed out, there’s a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being harassed, raped, and beaten by men, and men not being able to cry. But the short-term material gains that men get in patriarchy are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul—surrendering part of our humanity to the project of dominance.
Again, for emphasis: This doesn’t mean all men have it easy. Those other systems of dominance and oppression—white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism, international inequality—mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men, and men in the Global South suffer in many different ways. And sometimes life is just hard for everyone. A radical feminist analysis doesn’t preclude us from understanding those problems but rather helps us see them more clearly.
Feminism for Men in Practice: Self-Interest and Justice
Feminists and progressive men had been developing this kind of analysis for many years when I became part of a feminist movement in the late 1980s. My friends Sox Sperry and John Edgerton were part of those early efforts in the US by men on the left to embrace feminism, and their story is instructive.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, women formed conscious-raising groups to talk about their lives in a political context. In CR groups, women analyzed how problems such as an abusive spouse or sexual harassment on the job were not idiosyncratic but the product of patriarchal relations. The phrase “the personal is political” reflected this understanding of how the distribution of power in social systems shapes individual experiences. When they were young teachers in an alternative school in the Midwest, Sox and John came together with other men in a CR group to explore how socialization into patriarchal masculinity had shaped them. They told me that the conversations were difficult but invigorating, opening up new ways of being in relationship not only to women but to other men.
After more than a year of these meetings, some of the men decided they should not only talk about these issues but contribute to women’s organizing efforts to stop men’s violence and sexual exploitation. When these men who were getting politicized by feminism proposed that action to the group, some of the other men resisted, preferring to limit the CR group to their own emotional issues. The result, Sox and John said, was a split, with the men who wanted to be part of a feminist movement going off on their own. That led to the founding of a local Center for Nonviolence, which acted in solidarity with local women’s groups and eventually developed a batterer-intervention program.
My friends’ experience reminds us that men in feminism should recognize not only their own emotional needs in contesting masculinity in patriarchy but also their political/moral obligations. When engaging boys and men, we can call the first pitch the argument from self-interest. We should embrace feminism because our emotional capacities will expand and deepen, and our lives will become fuller and richer. But we can’t stop there. We also must make the argument from justice. If we believe in the moral principles we claim to believe in—such as the inherent dignity of all people and the right of everyone to live freely in safety—then we must engage in feminist political activity.
There’s a flipside to this as well. If we embrace the argument from justice but never challenge ourselves emotionally, we are unlikely to be trustworthy allies or effective activists. Anyone who has worked in political movements has dealt with people who can articulate the “correct” political line but have not engaged in the self-reflection necessary to live those principles in their own lives. I know this to be true not simply from observation of others but also because, looking back at my activist life, I can see where I used my commitment to a movement to avoid much-needed critical self-reflection. Because I can see that in my past, I try to be vigilant in honest self-reflection in the present, and I rely on friends and comrades—especially feminist women in my life—to keep me honest.
Complication: Accept the Leadership of Women, but Which Women?
This raises another inevitable tension in men’s participation in feminism. When contributing to feminist organizing, we should accept the leadership of women and listen carefully to feminist colleagues, but which women and which feminists? Not all women are feminists, and those women who are feminists don’t agree on everything. That means, inevitably, that I will take positions and engage in political activity that some women and some feminists don’t like. Though it can be uncomfortable, we men have to make our own political judgments and defend them, both in private and public.
My initial involvement in feminism made that clear to me. I started working in the feminist antipornography movement in the late 1980s, when feminists were divided about both how best to analyze pornography and what policy proposals to support. From the beginning, some feminists told me I was wrong to accept the antipornography analysis and misguided to engage in organizing to advance that analysis. If I had changed course based on that criticism, then I would have been abandoning my comrades in the feminist antipornography movement. I had to make choices based on my best assessment. A man can’t “accept the leadership of women” without making a judgment about which women have the most compelling analysis.
There is still a vigorous debate within feminism about the sexual-exploitation industries. The fact that I use that term instead of the liberal/left framework of “sex work” indicates which analysis I continue to believe is most compelling, which feminists I work with. I believe in the goal of sex/gender justice, a world captured in the term “women’s liberation,” and I see no way to work toward that goal while accepting an exploitative business in which men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. Many feminists disagree. I can’t escape the work of evaluating competing feminist arguments.
Complication: Holding Power Politically, Feeling Powerless Personally
Some societies are overtly patriarchal, restricting girls and women from political power, education, and self-determination. In such bluntly patriarchal societies, men’s power in relation to women is obvious. But even in those societies, patriarchy doesn’t guarantee that all men will be powerful. As already noted, other hierarchies such as race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and nationality might impose constraints on some men.
In the US, women have won a right to suffrage and political participation, access to education at all levels, and the ability to live independently. As a result, many men may feel that they don’t have advantages over women, that feminism is not only unnecessary but unfair to men. In liberal patriarchal societies such as the US, men may reject the idea that they have unearned power and privilege, and even argue that they are at a disadvantage.
Many men have daily experiences that leave them feeling powerless. While that often is a result of those other hierarchies, some of these resentments revolve around gender. Imagine that a man has a female boss, from whom he must take orders every day. Perhaps that female boss harangues him for what she believes is his low productivity. In social situations, many men feel that women have the upper hand in heterosexual dating. Perhaps a man is unable to find a sexual partner and feels lonely. In those moments, it’s not hard to understand why a man might deny that he has unearned power and privilege. How do we respond?
First, a simple observation: The world is complex, and patterns in male dominance do not mean that every individual experience conforms to the pattern. But exceptions don’t negate the existence of a pattern. Women sometimes hold power in our society, and they can abuse it. Second, men who assume they should be in control sometimes resent being “deprived” of what they believe to be their natural right to dominance.
Finally, beyond complex situations, some simple realities of power endure, including the threat of sexual violence. An easy way to illustrate that is an exercise that anti-violence educators have developed to make the reality of rape visible to men. In an audience with men and women, the facilitator poses a simple question, directed first only to the men: “What actions have you taken in the past week to minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted?”
The men in the room usually are puzzled, because they can’t think of anything. When I have used this exercise, often a man finally will say, “Well, I tried to make sure I didn’t go to prison,” which elicits giggling, though prison rape is of course not a joke, nor is the fact that men outside of prison sometimes rape other men. After a moment of silence, most people in the room can see where the exercise is heading.
When the same question is posed to the women, they start shouting out their many strategies, which include always paying careful attention to where they are, at what time of day/night, with whom. Women talk about reducing the likelihood they will be in a place where a stranger could surprise them and take control without being seen. Women also talk about how they minimize the risks around men they know socially, such as at parties and bars, especially involving alcohol and the fear of being drugged. Women talk about the care they take when going on a date, such as alerting a friend that they are going out with a man for the first time and making sure the friend’s phone will be on in case of a call for help. And then there are the strategies around weapons—everything from pocket knives to pepper spray to car keys held tightly between fingers to increase the debilitating effect of a quick jab.
Women also talk a lot about decisions they make about clothing, one of the subjects that demonstrates how difficult it can be to juggle the expectations of men and the threat men pose. Going to a party or bar, heterosexual women who want to be accepted in a social network often strive to look attractive, which creates pressure to display their bodies in tight and revealing clothes. At the same time, the fear of rape can suggest a strategy of hiding their bodies in loose-fitting clothes. Different women make different decisions, but what’s most important in this exercise is for men to realize how present the threat of rape is in women’s lives and how many decisions they make about that threat.
Men usually will concede things are harder for women, but men’s next move is predictable: Not all men are like that. Agreed, not all men are rapists. We are identifying a pattern of women’s disproportionate vulnerability to abuse and discrimination by some men, not accusing every man of criminal behavior. But that’s not the end of the story.
Most men aren’t rapists, but what about the actions of men that don’t meet the legal definition of rape but that women experience as a form of sexual intrusion? How many of us who have never raped have engaged in coercive sexual behavior? How many of us have engaged in sexual relationships assuming that our pleasure was most important? How many of us have used pornography that depicts sexual coercion?
Most men aren’t rapists, but we should ask women: Have you ever been on a date with a man who pressured you into sex? Have you ever engaged in sex because you were afraid if you said no that the man would hurt you? Has a male partner ever demanded that you engage in sexual acts that were uncomfortable or painful for you? Have men pushed you to watch pornography with them when you didn’t want to? Have you ever had a sexual experience that didn’t meet the legal definition of rape but was traumatic?
So far, I’ve focused on heterosexual relationships. But can the domination/subordination dynamics of patriarchy shape the experiences of gay men as well? Take a look at gay pornography and the answer seems clearly to be yes. Can such patterns also show up in lesbian relationships? Yes, though such dynamics are less common. But if the problem is patriarchy, then no relationship is safe from hierarchy.
These patterns do not mean that men always feel powerful or have power in all situations, which is true in all systems of hierarchy. I am white in a society still shaped by longstanding white-supremacist ideas and practices, but that doesn’t mean in all situations I feel powerful in racialized situations. Yet when I am stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation, I have never felt the fear that so many black and Latino people routinely feel. That’s not because police never harass or abuse white men, but because there are patterns of officers’ use of force, especially deadly force, that mean I feel less vulnerable.
The world is complex, but in a complex world we can identify patterns of injustice and work for liberation.
Not an Ally: “You have to be in this to save your own life.”
In social-justice movements, there is a lot of talk these days about how those of us in positions of unearned power and privilege can be allies to those in marginalized groups. But I shy away from the term “allyship,” and not just because it is so clumsy. I don’t think of myself as an ally, but rather as someone trying to be fully human. A story about my first experience with feminist politics will help explain.
While I was in graduate school, I was observing the work of Organizing Against Pornography, the feminist antipornography group in Minneapolis. The organization was founded and led by women but had one key male volunteer who helped to run the office. After I had hung around long enough to demonstrate that I was serious about being part of the effort, Jim Koplin took me aside for a talk about the role of men. “If you want to be part of this because you want to save women, we don’t want you,” he said.
I was confused. Wasn’t the point of critiquing men’s sexual exploitation of women to help women? Yes, Jim said, but too many men who get involved in such work see themselves as the proverbial knight in shining armor, charging in to save women. They usually turn out not to be trustworthy because they are in it for their egos—not to challenge patriarchal masculinity but to play the hero. “You have to be in it for yourself,” he said, “not to prove how special you are.”
“You have to be here to save your own life,” Jim told me.
We are allies to women in this project, he said, but we have to see how important challenging patriarchy is for ourselves. Once again, for emphasis: That’s not because men face the same threats as women, but because challenging patriarchy gives us a shot at being fully human. Instead of striving to “be a real man,” we can struggle to be human.
I’m grateful to the women in that group and to Jim, all of whom were crucial to my education. I continue to understand my own embrace of feminism to be rooted in a commitment to principles and my desire to live a richer and more rewarding life. But it has never been easy. I have not always chosen wisely, and I continue to struggle with difficult choices about when to shut up and when to speak up. I routinely doubt that I can live up to the words I have written over the years on these subjects. It might seem self-indulgent for someone with all my unearned power and privilege to be afraid, but I don’t think I’m alone in this.
So, I’ll end with an insight about fear from the late James Baldwin. Starting in essays in the early 1960s, Baldwin wrote not only for black people but offered white people help in understanding ourselves, and he refused to be constrained by narrow conceptions of masculinity. In those struggles, Baldwin identified a key problem:
“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
I want to contribute to feminism and other liberation movements because I believe in justice. And because I want to be alive.
Robert Jensen, Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the forthcoming book “Dead Dogma”: Thinking Freely, Speaking Responsibly, Living Authentically (Interlink Publishing, June 2024) and co-author with Wes Jackson of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. His other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Other writing by Jensen is available at https://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive new articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.