At a time when women are speaking out against sexual harassment and abuse, and hashtags around such issues are trending, there are activists and scholars who have dedicated years to researching Feminism and its importance in creating an alternative way of seeing the world.
Robert Jensen, professor of journalism, University of Texas, Austin, and author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men , is a political activist who has worked in the arena of radical feminism for the last three decades. He was in the city to give a talk at the invitation of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media.
Excerpts from an interview:
What got you interested in Feminism?
I began reading Feminist activists and intellectuals when I returned to graduate school in 1988, I was 30-years-old. At that point I knew nothing about Feminism. I really was trained like most men to be afraid of Feminism. But when I started to read, the clarity of it was very compelling. My first entry point into Feminism was the Feminist anti-pornography critique. Like most men in the culture I had struggled with my own use of pornography. All of a sudden there was an analysis that made perfect sense and not only explained women’s rejection of pornography but also helped me to understand myself as a man.
How did it help you to understand yourself better?
Men are socialised to see themselves as dominant. And there are some short-term benefits to that. We get the best jobs. But it’s a very constraining way to live. Masculinity is defined as dominance and control. Your capacity for empathy is stunted. Feminism helped me to understand limits masculinity put on me.
Radical Feminism often has been pushed to the margins. Do you agree?
The radical feminist movement was one component of Feminism that occurred in US in the 1960s and 1970s. But it’s pushed to the margin, I think almost everywhere in the world, but particularly in the US, from my experience. Especially the Feminist critique of pornography and prostitution, which is a critique on the way men buy and sell women’s bodies. I think that’s central to challenging male dominance. When I first ran into this idea it seemed very compelling, 30 years later it seems even more compelling if you see the intensification of the exploitation of women in the sex industries. I think radical feminism has been pushed to the margin precisely because it is radical. And it asks everyone to critically self reflect, including women because they too are socialised into a certain conception of femininity. Like all radical political movements it demands a lot out of us and it demands a lot of critical self reflection. The liberal defence of pornography and prostitution has been dominated in the US now for two or three decades.
You write of the gross inequality in pornography. Could you tell us about the link between Capitalism and pornography?
Pornography in its early years was largely an underground business. But in the 1970s the laws and the social norms started to change and that’s when we saw this explosion of the amount of pornography. When the digital revolution came along that just expanded even more. And it was also now a place to make profit and it became a business like other businesses of capitalism. And one of the problems of consumer capitalism, if you saturate a market then where do you find new customers? Early pornography had a set format but once that format had been exhausted, the pornographers had to find new ways to present sexuality. The pornographers’ image of sex tends to reflect the male side of sexual imagination that is rooted in dominance and control. If pornography has to expand that market, it intensifies that. My friend, Gail Dines probably the leading feminist critique says what you need to know about the pornography business is that it’s a business. People get derailed by the sexuality of it. But Gail has researched the business model of it and it’s changed. The real economic powerhouses in pornography are people who control the websites and tube sites. Men basically sell women’s bodies with other men for sexual pleasure. From the radical feminist perspective that’s inconsistent with a decent society. There will never be anything like gender justice, as long as women’s bodies can be bought and sold for sexual pleasure.
Some argue it depends on what you watch and there is Feminist pornography...
Like any other industry, there’s a lot of PR to mask the reality of the industry. How feminist is feminist pornography in the way it’s made? Those are the questions that can be asked. But the other question is how different is it from normal pornography? And often it’s not as different as you imagine. Simply labelling something feminist doesn’t make it better. But on the other hand, what if you made Feminist pornography under perfectly egalitarian condition? And let’s say the images produced weren’t the domination-subordination dynamic. It’s still a basic question. Why do we need pictures? Let’s say you want to create a healthy sexuality in society. But why do we assume we need pictures? Intimacy and sexuality is an arena of human life in which if you depict graphic sexual activity, it changes the nature of sexuality in the real world. From my own experience, I would argue that it’s not only a question of what kind of pictures are out there and how are they made. It’s a question of why we live in a society so saturated with this kind of material? What is it that’s missing in human interaction? So if people say pornography enhances my sex life, my question would be what is the problem in your sex life that requires enhancement? Because sexuality is different things to different people but to me at the core it’s human interaction. And I am not sure how movies enhance human interaction. Now people will disagree, and I don’t think it’s something I can impose. But I think it’s a part of a larger question of contemporary mass media in society. I always ask my students of 18-year-olds, how much of what you know of the world comes from a screen? From TV, film, smartphones, video games? I think Feminism doesn’t just make specific critiques on men’s violence against women. It also helps us understand a deeper problem of what I call “an overmediated society.” I always say there are three problems in an affluent society: we’re over-mediated, we’re over-medicated and we’re over-marketed.
The liberal argument is that pornography cannot be abolished...
One of the arguments in favour of pornography is what they call “catharsis”. The routine use of women in pornography and prostitution leads to the assumption that I can use women’s bodies whenever I want to. It is clear through a social science perspective there’s no support for that theory. But men love it. They’ve been repeating it for 40 years. It’s not consistent with common sense.
But with a millennia of patriarchy can we hope for another kind of world?
The work I’ve done in my political life, against US wars, against US capitalism, against patriarchy, against white supremacy, I fully expect there would be no meaningful progress on those issues in my lifetime. But that’s not the standard for evaluating whether they work or not. You prepare a ground run on which others will go forward. The other is how else does one lead a meaningful life? I’m fairly comfortable, It’s easy to disconnect from struggle. But what kind of life is that if you wilfully disconnect from the struggles for justice?