Book Review: The End of Patriarchy

Book Review: The End of Patriarchy

The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men

Robert Jensen

When I first saw this book by journalism professor Robert Jensen, perched provocatively on the library shelf, I thought:  oh great, a white mansplaining about feminism.  I browsed the rest of the ‘new books’ section and came back to its blue cover.  I picked it up, browsed it.  On the plus side, I liked the idea of a man writing about feminism and trying to bring other men into that way of thinking.  On the other hand, he was touting radical feminism which has earned a bad reputation among transgender folks.  I decided to check it out and see what the guy had to say.

Turns out, I was right. On both counts.  The book provided a good overview of the various waves of feminism.  It’s meticulously footnoted and I took pictures of many pages mainly for the footnotes and original sources that I’d like to read for myself.  As for radical feminism, I’m in agreement with many of the points he made about the need to bring down patriarchy.  In fact, I was mostly right there with him through the first four major sections of the book. Not entirely with him because his views on gender are strictly binary and there’s more than a little bit of smug-white-dude-who-got-woke throughout.  But he made some good points about rape culture, the ways gender norms support patriarchy and racists underpinnings of the whole thing, which is to say, radical feminism makes good points about those topics.

And then we get to the part where I have to say, ‘and then he lost me’.  Or rather, his radical feminist views of pornography and transgender people specifically shoved me off the bus, ran me over and left me behind.

First, on the topic of porn.  I understand that porn and the sex industry have victimized and enslaved many people, mostly women and girls.  I understand many would rather be doing something else.  I also know that some make a conscious choice to participate in this work.  And I know some amazing queer and trans actors and directors making amazing, consensual, empowered queer and trans porn.  No mention of that by Jensen, no evidence that when he wrote this in 2017, he’d even discovered that there was porn made by and for queers and trans people, outside the norm of male-dominated mainstream porn. His views, and those I’ve seen from other radical feminists, is that there is no way to be both empowered and involved in the sex industry.  To be a part of that industry as a woman is to be subordinate.  And any one who sees what they do as ‘sex work’ rather than sexual exploitation, is deluded and would think differently if they could be separated from that world.

Next he tackles ‘transgenderism’, a term I find offensive and completely out-of-touch.  Clearly, he doesn’t know or value any one who is trans or they would have cleared him up about that term.  There are hints to what he’s going to say in this section within the one about sex and gender.  First, he doesn’t really get the need to split sex from gender (sex as biological, gender as a construct based on gender stereotypes and performance).  His views on biological sex are essentialist – he believes that your biological sex determines everything about your gender. I can tell you as a trans person, that’s highly problematic for us.  The gist of his (and radical feminism’s) beliefs about transgender people is this:  because the existence of a gender identity distinct from biological sex organs and characteristics can’t be proven by science – can’t be measured, tested, proven through scientific method – its not real.  And if it is, transgenderism (sic) is the wrong approach to taking down the patriarchy.  Well, with that you can certainly see how devoted he is to that end-goal, however, some of us are also existing as people whose every moment is not part of a political strategy, thank you very much. Jensen views transgenderism (sic) as a reaction to the restrictive gender boxes reinforced by patriarchy, not as a legitimate identity.

“I am not contesting transgender people’s account of their experience, but rather offering an alternative analysis to understand that experience.” Jensen’s alternative analysis is that we are only looking to transgenderism (sic) as a solution because we’re trapped in gender expectations. His protest that he’s not contesting our experience is completely nullified by his absolute disrespect for what we have concluded from our experiences.

I know I’m not the only trans or nonbinary person who has dealt with someone asking us to explain how we know our gender does not match our biological sex. “How do you know you’re not female?” I’ve been asked more than once. It’s dismissive and it’s also a trap.  If I can’t prove how I know what my gender truly is, then why should other people take me seriously?  Jensen leans on provability like a crutch.  Even as he hints that perhaps science will one day be able to prove transgender people exist, he clearly doesn’t think so and doesn’t think that possibility means he needs to believe trans people now in absence of that evidence.

There is also an attempt to argue against the legitimacy of trans identity by claiming that our need for and use of medical technology is part of what is leading the planet to the brink of large scale ecological destruction via climate change.  This argument is not as well constructed as his others and seems thrown together haphazardly.  It’s clear though that he sees gender confirming therapies as unnecessary, cosmetic surgeries and believes that a true feminist would work with the body they have, rather than needing to surgically modify it in order to be happy.

Other holes in the validity of his arguments – throughout the sections on porn and transgenderism (sic), he seems super defensive.  Many, many times he cites negative reactions he’s gotten from people as a result of the views expressed and comes across as insecure and rather petty.  There’s no evidence that he ever sat down and had a conversation with a trans or nonbinary person.  I thought maybe he’d be supportive of nonbinary people, after all, they are striking against patriarchal gender boxes in a revolutionary way.  But no, biological essentialism strikes again and how could anyone but an intersex person be truly nonbinary?

Am I glad I read the book? Sure, I found a lot I could agree with, and I now have a better grasp on what radical feminism is about in additional to dismissing trans existence. And I am inspired to read some of the source material cited from previous waves of feminism.  So it wasn’t a waste of time.

Would I recommend this book to anyone else?  Only if you can read it like an assignment from a gender and women’s studies course.  Not as the final word, but as a lot of words from a particular point of view from a white, cis*, het man. He’s a TERF**and a SWERF**.  So if you can deal with that, go for it.  Let me know what you thought.  Otherwise, there are lots of other, better, more inclusive works from which to learn about feminism, both historic and contemporary.

One additional thing to note, nowhere in this book do I see one very familiar TERF argument against trans people – that FTM trans people transition in order to gain male privilege and that MTF trans people had and continue to have and exhibit male privilege. I was surprised by that omission, frankly.  Makes me a little curious about how widespread that belief is within RF.

Read this book if  you think you can stomach it.  Otherwise, walk on by, no matter now inviting it looks on the shelf.

* Jensen does not like being called ‘cis’. He argues that he isn’t one, even though he identifies as male, which is the sex assignment made for him when he was born.  Make of that what you will.

** Jensen also does not like being called a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) or SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist).  He argues that he and radical feminsm don’t exclude trans people or sex workers.  They just believe we’re all deluded about our identities and/or the nature of the work we do.

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