Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Robert Jensen & John Stoltenberg - Feminism and Masculinity


Is feminism what men need to curb our tendencies toward aggression and violence? I don't think so - but Robert Jensen does. His version of masculinity is something akin to self-hate - that being a man is toxic.

Jensen is the author of the popular book (among feminists), Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. The following is the publisher's blurb about the book.

In our culture, porn makes the man. So argues Robert Jensen in Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Jensen’s treatise begins with a simple demand: “Be a man.” It ends with a defiant response: “I chose to struggle to be a human being.” The journey from masculinity to humanity is found in the candid and intelligent exploration of porn’s devastating role in defining masculinity.

Getting Off seamlessly blends personal anecdotes from Jensen’s years as a feminist anti-pornography activist with scholarly research. In his trademark conversational style, he shows how mainstream pornography reinforces social definitions of manhood and influences men’s attitudes about women and how to treat them.

Pornography is a thriving multi-billion-dollar industry; it drives the direction of emerging media technology. Pornography also makes for complicated politics. These days, anti-porn arguments are assumed to be “anti-sex” and thus a critical debate is silenced. This book breaks that silence. Alarming and thought-provoking, Getting Off asks tough, but crucial, questions about pornography, sex, manhood, and the way toward genuine social justice.

I'm sure some see him as another male feminist doing harm to the efforts of men to find and create a mature masculinity - a non-feminized masculinity. I think they have a point. In one article, in fact, he points to feminism as the answer for men to our "quagmire of masculinity."

The quagmire of masculinity

posted on Counterpunch, October 22, 2007.

by Robert Jensen

Act I

I am having dinner on a Thursday night in a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village with two friends I’m wor king with on a documentary on pornography. We’ve had a long day and are happy to unwind. Near the end of our meal, I’m increasingly aware of the rising volume from a nearby table, where three college-age men and a woman are tal king and laughing just a bit too loudly. As it becomes harder to shut out their conversation, it becomes clear that much of the talk is about sex. The alpha male of the group (who is the boyfriend of the woman) is holding forth to the other two men about how to maneuver women into bed, including tips on the use of alcohol and a little bit of force when necessary.

As my friends and I get up to leave, I catch the eye of the woman, inquiring silently whether her situation would be improved if we stopped by the table and said something to the men. I read, or more likely misread, her expression as an invitation to do so. I trail behind my friends and stop at the table, trying to suggest -- in light-hearted fashion that isn’t too confrontational -- that their conversation was not only inappropriate in a public place but unacceptable anywhere. The men don’t take the critique well, and the discussion heats up a bit.

Finally, the alpha male makes a move to settle things by going for what he presumes to be the ultimate insult: “All I know,” he says, smir king, “is that I’m going home with her (pointing to his girlfriend) and you’re leaving with two guys.”


I respond: “Please don’t take this personally, but I just don’t find you sexually attractive. I’m sure there will be a man who someday will, but it’s just not happening for me.”


He accuses me of being gay. I accept the label and respond by telling him that, as a gay man, I can see into him and recognize him as gay as well. Not a smart move on my part, it turns out.

I quickly realize that things aren’t likely to end happily, and I make my way to the door. One of his buddies follows me and, just as I’m leaving, says, “It’s time for you to get the hell out of here.” My hand is on the first of two exit doors, pushing it open. I say to him, “Where does it look like I’m going?” He grabs me and reiterates the command to leave. I reflexively push back. “Listen son,” I start to say, reacting like an old guy to the 25 years between us. He’s bigger than me but drunk. As I push back, he starts to fall. I head for the second door just about the time my friends have come back to pull me out if necessary. As I’m wal king on the sidewalk outside, the other two young men have joined their friend in the doorway, cursing me with instructions not to come back, advice I fully intend to take. My friends hustle me away, wal king quickly to get clear of the place just in case the men decide to follow. One of my friends, Robert Wosnitzer, explains that he grew up around guys like that. “Those are the kind of guys who carry baseball bats in the trunks of their cars,” he says. “You have to be careful. They like this. They like to fight.”

Once we’re out of range, Robert and Miguel Picker turn to me and, appropriately, explain why I had better not pull such a stunt again. They count the four stupid men in that encounter: The alpha male, his two buddies, and me. They are right, of course. The fact that I wasn’t as crude and violent as the other three hardly absolves me. I had taken an unnecessary risk, putting others in a situation where they may have had to fight or be hurt, and I had done it out of the same macho posturing. Once engaged, I refused to back down, even though there was nothing positive that could come of the encounter and a real risk.

Act II

The next day I fly to an academic conference. I am still somewhat shaken by the previous night, not so much by the potential for violence (though I’m not a particularly physically courageous person) but by my own misjudgment and the lessons in that for me. It’s not what I learned about the world the previous night that upset me, but what I learned about myself.

So, I’m loo king forward to a low-key interaction with other academics, who are usually pretty harmless. At the end of that evening I’m in the hotel bar with one female and two male professors. We all seem to be of similar intellectual and political leanings, and the conversation finds its way to contemporary progressive political movements, especially the antiwar movement. I offer an analysis of the s tate of organizing in the United S tates, which one of the men takes issue with. I respond to his critique, and all of a sudden the conversation kicks into overdrive. He comes back to my points even harder, getting visibly upset. He turns the discussion from an argument about issues to an attack on me, suggesting that I lacked his experience and knowledge (he’s about a decade older).

With the previous night’s conflict on my mind, I back off a bit, responding to his arguments but trying to lower the intensity; I am not in the mood for a fight, even verbally. He presses forward even more forcefully. At this point, the other two people at the table are visibly uncomfortable. I move to end the conversation, suggesting that some of our disagreements couldn’t be resolved, that we were both arguing based on our hunches about complex processes, and that perhaps there was no point in pushing it. At this point, I don’t care about winning the argument and want to end an exchange that is uncomfortable to the others for no good reason -- no baseball bats are going to come out in this encounter, but no one is learning anything from this. He pushes one more time, implicitly demanding that I surrender to his greater knowledge and insight. One of the others finds it intolerable and leaves, and the tension finally dissipates. The conversation returns to a lower level, but it’s impossible to go back, and we quickly go our separate ways.


Sunday morning I’m on a plane heading home. Across the aisle from me is a man most easily described as a stereotypical computer nerd, in appearance and activity. He opens his laptop once we hit our cruising altitude and is buried in it the rest of the flight until the female flight attendant comes by during our descent to remind him to turn off his electronic device which might interfere with the plane’s navigational equipment. He ignores the first warning. She comes by again with a polite second warning, which he also ignores. Finally, it’s three strikes and he’s out. She stands over him and explains -- politely, but with an edge in her voice that says “enough screwing around, buddy” -- that he must shut off the computer. I’m chuckling at the scene, until I see that he’s angry. After the experience of the past couple of days, I’m not eager to be in the middle of another public expression of male dominance.

He looks up at her, his facial muscles tightening, appearing ready to tell her off, but he wisely holds his tongue. She holds her ground, and he finally backs off and powers down the laptop. Once she’s convinced he’s turned it off, she moves on. He sits, quiet but clearly struggling to control his rage. When she is out of hearing range, he looks over at me and, just loud enough for me but no one else to hear, mutters, “Bitch.” A trace of a smile comes to his lips, and he turns away from me before I can respond. In his mind, he has won. A woman had been in a position of some small authority over him and had forced him to obey her command. But, in the end, she’s just a bitch, and he’s still a man.

Masculinity in three acts: Attempts at dominance through (1) force and humiliation, (2) words and argument, and (3) raw insults. Three episodes about the ways masculinity does men in, neatly played out during one long weekend. By the time I get home, I am tired. I am sad. It feels like there are few ways out.

But there is, of course, a way out. It’s called feminism. It offers men a way to understand the nature of this toxic conception of who we are.

Feminism is a gift to men, if we are smart enough to accept it.

All three of these examples are form of immature masculinity - and feminism is not the answer. The real answer is mature masculinity.

When men are mature and self-possessed, they do not respond to aggression with aggression - when they are comfortable with intimacy, they do not need pornography - when men are mature, there is nothing toxic about masculinity.

There is another book, The End of Manhood, by John Stoltenberg, that also equates masculinity with toxicity and sees feminism as the answer (he was married to Andrea Dworkin, although he now considers himself gay). He is also author of Refusing to Be a Man, and this article (Why I Stopped Trying to Be a Real Man - published in Feminista!) plays some of the same chords:
If everyone trying to be a "real man" thinks there's someone else out there who has more manhood, then either some guy has more manhood than anybody--and he's got so much manhood he never has to prove it and it's never ever in doubt--or else manhood doesn't exist. It's just a sham and a delusion.

As I watched guys trying to prove their fantasy of manhood--by doing dirt to women, making fun of queers, putting down people of other religions and races--I realized they were doing something really negative to me too, because their fear and hatred of everything "nonmanly" was killing off something in me that I valued.

That's why I feel a connection to feminism. I want a humanity that is not measured against the cult of masculinity. I want a selfhood that does not reject fine parts of myself just because they are not "manly." I want courage to confront the things men have done in the world that are damaging to women and that are also leaving no safe space for the self I hope to be.

The kind of sexual connection that I always wanted with someone was about fairness and justice. I always thought that was the sexiest part of sex--the deepest possible feeling between two people. I thought sex and fairness should intrinsically be united, even before I knew the word "feminism."

Again, these are all examples of immature masculinity, not anything near maturity. These are little boys playing at being men.

We do not jettison the whole idea of masculinity on the basis of some clowns who have no idea what it is to be masculine.

Rather than say men are evil and masculinity is toxic, let's be more like women, and feminism is the path to that better world (please don't misunderstand me, I support equal rights and treatment for women), let's help men grow up and be mature, which means growing into a more adult masculinity, a more compassionate and loving masculinity.

Let's be clear here - men can love, honor, and respect women, treat them as equals in every way, be open and vulnerable with them, and fuck them lovingly and passionately. In fact, if we want to have the most passionate, wild, raw sex with the women we love - and the intimacy of love is crucial to doing that - we HAVE to be open and vulnerable, we HAVE to feel the passion, we HAVE to be present in ways we seldom are in our daily lives.

None of this requires feminism - it requires that we fully embrace our masculinity, and that we realize it is soft and tender as well as firm and wild. When we embrace our deeper masculine selves, the feminists might notice that we are not so bad after all.


Duff said...

A mature, masculine man can be a feminist. I think that's what these men are pointing towards. But I do agree that Jensen's conclusion from experiencing several examples of immature masculinity a bit odd. It would have been a stronger conclusion to say "that's why men should study Gender Studies, including feminism, and take the arguments from this inquiry seriously."

As an interesting counterpoint to the David Deida style "fuck the world/woman open" masculine sexuality as aggression rhetoric, I've been reading Marnia Robinson's book Cupid's Poisoned Arrow:

Robinson does not claim to be a feminist from what I can tell, but instead gives arguments from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology (of the "selfish gene" variety) that orgasm for both men and women has the biochemical effect of creating desire to leave the relationship in favor of new partners. This makes intuitive sense to me, and also fits with my observation of Deida-ites and other "sex positive" folks who can't seem to stay together despite the multiple full-body all night orgasms. For those of us who prefer monogamy, Robinson may have a clue as to why bigger, better, longer sex may be the problem itself!

There may be a synthesis here somewhere with the Taoist sexual alchemy stuff Deida promotes as well (especially the part about men not having ejaculatory orgasms), but Robinson emphasizes "non-foreplay bonding behaviors" like cuddling in conjunction with non-orgasmic sex as the key to long-term relationship harmony. And this goes for BOTH men and women--for the dopamine cycle is largely the same in both sexes.

See also her Psychology Today column:

william harryman said...

Thanks Duff,

I order that book - sounds interesting.

Both of these men that I mention are "feminists" and both think that masculinity is poison - Jensen is worse, and Stoltenberg advocates that we become human beings rather than men or women, but he tends to favor women's perspectives while seeing men as dysfunctional.

I think guys like these seem to see gender as purely social constructs, which is a feminist stance, and neglect the fact that we live in MALE bodies. Try as we might to transcend this, we are biological beings.

Anyway - yeah, the Deida thing is also a problem - I am getting back to his work in effort to see if there is anything really "integral" about it - I'm not sure that there is.


Duff said...

Yea it's tricky because gender is a social construct but sex is biological, and sex influences gender but doesn't totally define it. (I think most feminist and gender theorists would agree with what I just wrote at least.)

I haven't read Jensen or Stoltenberg though so I can't really comment on them specifically other than what you quoted here. But it certainly is the case that some sociologists and feminists take the notion of social construction to the extremes and don't give any weight to evolutionary psychology or biological factors.

p.s. Hope you enjoy the book! I'm just getting into it myself after reading a number of Robinson's articles on Psychology Today. It certainly is an interesting perspective but I'm not sure I totally agree so far.

panvega said...

You write:

"(please don't misunderstand me, I support equal rights and treatment for women)"

Yet you seem highly suspicious of feminism. What do you call your stance then?

In other words--I don't understand how you're defining feminism, if you think it's not part of the answer. Feminism is the movement to end sexist oppression--anywhere it is experienced, no matter what your gender/identity. I can't imagine a self-actualized person who isn't a feminist.

I'm left wondering what your problem with the F-word is.

william harryman said...


I have no issues with feminism as a social and political goal - as long as it does not try to make men less than, worse than, or more evil than women - there are a lot of militant feminists who feel men are evil, useless, and no longer necessary - some men, like Jensen, are willing to give up being a man out of some sense of guilt for how other men in the past (or present) has mistreated women - on the other hand, there are many feminists who love men and who want all of us to be equal in every way possible

mature men do not need to go such extremes as those in this post - a mature man is feminist by default, because ALL human beings should be treated with respect and compassion and have equal rights before the law: men, women, gay, straight, bi, trans, intersex, religious, atheist, whatever

men do not need to adopt a sense of self-hate (which is what a lot of men do) to be feminist - the people I singled out above have done exactly that - it does nothing to make men more balanced and whole, it simply avoids the issue altogether, which is the cowards way out, imo

Anonymous said...

I personally thought 1 or 2 were perfectly reasonable ways to act.
In act 1, The man was being very offensive and it was only the right thing to do to confront him, if he's going to be an asshole then you might as well take his disgusting remarks and insults and twist them to your advantage.
In act2 it's understandable to get angry over an argument it's just a part of lif.

william harryman said...


the author is pointing to the behavior of the other men as examples of why men must be feminized, although his own behavior in the 1st one is also lame and immature

in the first example he allowed the asshole to control the conversation rather than staying on the topic of his abusive talk toward the woman - he should not have allowed the guy to steer the conversation, which is what caused it to escalate

in the 2nd example, he sought to establish his own perspective as correct rather than seeking common ground when it became apparent the other guy was going to go for dominance - not a wise move on his part to allow it to escalate

but none of this requires men to be women, it seems requires us to grow up and transcend the dominance perspective