The political left, and much of mainstream feminism, is characterized by an analysis of how systems and institutions shape our choices, a critique of capitalist media, and a commitment to a scientific/materialist worldview. But when faced with radical feminism’s compelling critiques of patriarchy, leftists and many feminists routinely abandon those principles. Radical feminist critiques of prostitution, pornography, and transgender ideology should be part of a consistent, coherent left analysis.
For the past three decades, I have been involved in a variety of political movements in the United States that critique the distribution of wealth and power. My politics are radical feminist, anti-capitalist/anti-empire, anti-racist, and ecological – positions that I will sometimes sum up with the term “leftist.”
For me, all those analyses are rooted in a challenge to the hierarchies that define virtually all of contemporary society. Such a politics rejects the domination/subordination dynamics that inevitably emerge from hierarchy – both within the human family, and between humans and the larger living world – which produce an unjust and unsustainable world.
In my experience, this collective commitment on the political left to challenge hierarchy is routinely rejected in the case of radical feminist positions, especially challenges to men’s commercial sexual exploitation of women. I believe those radical feminist positions are consistent with anti-hierarchy/anti-domination politics, but many who also identify as leftist disagree, sometimes vehemently.
My thesis is that in contemporary political debates, leftists criticize liberals for failing to strike at the systems at the core of hierarchy/domination, for being satisfied with tepid reforms rather than the radical change necessary to produce real justice. Yet when confronting the issues around prostitution, pornography, and transgender ideology, lots of leftists become liberals. My goal here is to describe these conflicts and offer a tentative explanation for them.
A hallmark of left analysis is a focus on systems and institutions, not simply on the individual choices people make in a moment within a hierarchical system. For example, capitalism’s defenders argue that in a system based on the freedom to choose, wealth inequality is the inevitable byproduct of some people’s greater talent and/or effort, and that this inequality is necessary for innovation and progress. Leftists point out that people do indeed “choose” but under conditions that often leave little meaningful choice for those struggling to survive, and that greed and self-interest are not the only human motivations that generate creativity.
Capitalists exhort people to improve their lives through education and effort, but no matter how virtuous study and hard work may be, individual choices won’t produce equity. While claiming to protect individual liberty, capitalism makes meaningful freedom more difficult for most people to achieve.
That critique of liberalism and individualism seems to go out the window for many on the left when they analyze prostitution – or as prostitution supporters like to call it, “sex work.” Instead of recognizing how the sexual-exploitation industries (e.g., prostitution, pornography, stripping, massage parlors) actually operate in patriarchy, many leftists argue that if women choose to engage in “sex work,” they should be free to do so, and no further examination of context apparently is relevant. Leftists, who are critical of capitalism’s relentless commodification of everything, seem to accept the commodification of women’s bodies for male pleasure (while some boys and men are prostituted, of course, the vast majority of people used in the sexual-exploitation industries are girls and women).
A simple question for those who claim to want to end sexism and foster sex/gender justice: is a society likely to achieve that justice if one group of people (women) can be routinely bought and sold for the sexual pleasure of another group (men)?
Prostitution is a “job” that is, as one researcher puts it, “multitraumatic.” (1) As one feminist philosopher explains, “if we apply the regulations currently applied to other forms of work to the selling and buying of sex, the acts intrinsic to the ‘job’ can’t be permitted; they are simply inconsistent with regulations governing worker safety, sexual harassment laws, and civil rights.” Another critic points out that “the logic underlying such arguments [from the left to defend prostitution] quickly reduces to a defense of libertarian capitalism.”
The leftists’ response often doesn’t go beyond the slogan “sex work is work,” with an argument that the real harm is created not by men’s sexual exploitation of women but by the stigma associated with, and criminalizing of, prostitution. This claim ignores the fact that radical feminists have long rejected the criminalizing of those who sell sex (primarily women) and advocated the “Nordic Model”, which imposes penalties only on sex buyers (primarily men). These laws put the focus where it should be – on men’s accountability for their choices to sexually exploit women, not on women’s choices to survive by selling sex – and fund the services women need to leave prostitution.
Media criticism is another key component of contemporary left analysis. For example, left critics of mainstream news organizations have argued that journalists’ claims that they simply present “the facts” ignore the importance of selection, context, and framing in constructing the news. Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky offered a compelling “propaganda model” that demonstrates how commercial news media tend to reflect the worldview of powerful people and institutions.
Just as news media never simply inform, entertainment media do much more than entertain. Movies and television shows are shaped by myriad value judgments and are never a simple presentation of an unfiltered reality. For example, critics from the left have pointed out that media reinforce the myth of meritocracy and support consumer capitalism, trade in racist depictions, and are filled with sexism and sexual violence (2). Even so-called “reality television” is never reality; shows such as “Cops” and “Live PD” are a form of “copaganda” that distort public perceptions of policing.
The one mass media genre that escapes consistent left scrutiny is pornography, the graphic sexually explicit material that saturates contemporary online culture. When it comes to pornography, the left seems to abandon concern about how entertainment media convey values and help shape attitudes, suggesting instead that pornography is simply “fantasy” that we need not take seriously. There are sexual fantasies presented in pornography, but there’s no rational reason that fictional depictions should be critiqued in some parts of the industry (Hollywood movies and network TV, for example), but ignored in pornography. If anything, men’s routine use of pornography as a masturbation facilitator should make us more concerned about how the images shape attitudes and influence behavior.
Pornography is, without a doubt, the most overtly sexist and racist media genre in contemporary culture. Women are routinely presented as not only accepting male dominance but seeking it out so they can achieve sexual fulfillment. Pornography routinely employs overtly racist stereotypes, such as the sexually aggressive African American man (3) looking for white women or the demure Asian geisha who lives to provide pleasure to white men, which would produce justifiable leftist outrage in any other media genre.
When radical feminists began to challenge the pornography industry in the 1970s, the left largely ignored or ridiculed the critique, endorsing a liberal/libertarian approach based on the primacy of freedom of choice. Even when it was clear that the pornography industry was eroticizing male dominance and racism to keep the predominantly male consumers paying for more, leftists mostly ignored how the profit motive led to intensified sexism and racism. Feminist critics were labeled prudes for their failure to see that it’s all just harmless fun.
Decades later, the radical feminist critique of the harms of pornography (4) – to the women used in the industry, to women against whom pornography is used, and to all women who live in a society in which sexual brutality is eroticized and widely circulated – is more compelling than ever. The routine degradation of women and the racist portrayals of African Americans and other people of color continue. Yet the left has yet to embrace the critique.
The left tends to think of itself as scientific and materialist. I use those terms here not in the specific way they show up in Marxist theory, but in a more general sense. Leftists argue that we should make rational claims that can be defended with evidence and logic (as do a wide variety of other people, of course), and any claim inconsistent with the material realities of the world should be rejected. In my experience on the left, any type of theological claim cannot be the basis for public policy, no matter what one’s personal beliefs.
These commitments are ignored when leftists support the ideology of the transgender movement. Radical feminists have long argued that sex categories (male and female) are biological realities tied to reproduction and that gender categories (masculine and feminine) are cultural constructs. Sex is a material reality, and gender is how a culture imposes meaning on that reality. The transgender movement includes people with widely varying ideas about this, but a claim often repeated in that movement is that sex itself is a social construct. But “social construction” implies that something could be constructed differently. Marriage is a social construction, for example. At one point in the United States, only heterosexual couples could get married, but now same-sex couples can as well. Humans tend to be a pair-bonding species, but the meaning of “marriage” could change because it is but a social institution.
Sex categories and human reproduction are a different matter. I am biologically male (with no traits that would put me in the category of intersex, a very different question than transgender). I cannot menstruate, carry a fetus, or nurse a baby. That is a biological reality, and not subject to change through cultural redefinition. Not all women have children, but only women have children; no one can socially construct me into pregnancy.
This matters because in patriarchy, girls and women face specific threats to their psychological and physical safety by virtue of being female, most notably men’s harassment and violence. Certain kinds of single-sex spaces (such as changing rooms and prisons) and institutions (girls and women’s sports) exist to give female humans some measure of protection from male dominance. If there is no impediment to men claiming to belong in the category female, it opens those spaces to men who can use the ambiguity over transgender identity to exploit women. High school boys who identify as girls and then compete in athletics as females undermine the opportunities for female athletes.
Transgender people need protection from violence and discrimination, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled, but not at the expense of the right to privacy and security of girls and women who want access to single-sex spaces and refuse to capitulate to “a patriarchy that suggests women must always sacrifice so that the male-bodied can be comfortable,” as one legal scholar puts it. If a transgender ideology that erases sex differences becomes normalized, it’s reasonable to expect more constraints on the freedom of girls and women.
The transgender response is often simply to repeat, “trans women are women”, without offering answers to important questions – what does that actually mean, why are feminist concerns about the implications of that ideology irrelevant, and why is radical feminism’s longstanding challenge to patriarchal gender norms not a productive path? In my experience, the left has largely accepted the policy proposals of the transgender movement without asking for a more coherent explanation and without providing safeguards for girls and women. Daring to challenge that ideology can get one shouted down in public and expelled from left organizations, experiences with which I am familiar.
The end of patriarchy?
Why do leftists so routinely abandon some of their core principles and practices when dealing with radical feminist critiques of patriarchy? Why do leftists so easily embrace liberal individualism and accept arguments that are unclear and/or incoherent when they involve sex/gender and sexuality? My tentative explanation: fear and a lack of imagination.
I don’t mean that as an insult, as if leftists are cowardly and insufficiently creative. In this context, “fear” simply recognizes that it can be scary to rethink basic assumptions about ourselves and our social world. In this context, “lack of imagination” simply recognizes that it can be difficult to construct a new sense of self and society when those old assumptions are gone. I know this, because I am often afraid and regularly struggle to imagine new ways of living. When I first encountered the critique of pornography, for example, I mocked the radical feminists who were challenging male power rather than critically self-reflecting on my own life. But today, I find radical feminism to be a source of strength (watch my TEDx talk below).
When discussing my book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (5), I joke that the title is aspirational and not a prediction. I don’t expect to see the end of patriarchy in my lifetime. Given my age (I was born in 1958), I also don’t expect to see the end of capitalism, Western imperialism, or white supremacy. But my guess is that patriarchy will take even longer to dismantle. Patriarchal attitudes are woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives – especially our sexuality – that it can be difficult to see how the system shapes us and frightening when we start to understand it.
I understand the fear of confronting a powerful system and the difficulty in imagining something new. But we can start with policy proposals that are viable today. The Nordic Model that addresses prostitution is working in several countries. Feminists have created pornography education campaigns to respond to “this public health crisis of the digital age.” And we can challenge transgender policies that erase the material reality of sex differences in patriarchy.
- Farley, M., “Prostitution and Trafficking in 9 Countries: Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Trauma Practice, 2003.
- Haskell, M., “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Dines, G. “King Kong and the White Woman: Hustler Magazine and the Demonization of Black Masculinity,” Violence Against Women, 1998.
- MacKinnon, C.A., and Dworkin, A. (Eds.), “In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings,” Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Jensen, R., “The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men,” Spinifex, 2017.