Some Basic Propositions about Sex, Gender, and Patriarchy

New Books Highlight the Debate between Radical Feminism and Transgender Movement

     by Robert Jensen

Within feminism there has been for decades an often divisive debate about transgenderism. With increasing mainstream news media and pop culture attention focused on the issue, understanding that feminist debate is more important than ever.

Two new feminist books that analyze transgenderism (Sheila Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism and Michael Schwalbe’s Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination, which includes a chapter on “The Limits of Trans Liberalism”) are helpful for those who are concerned about the harms that result from the imposition of traditional gender roles but do not embrace the ideological assumptions and assertions of the transgender movement.

The propositions below are not taken directly from those books, whose authors may not agree with my phrasings. I am not trying to summarize their arguments but instead hope to bring greater clarity to the debate with a concise account of my position, which is rooted in a radical feminist analysis of sex and gender. I present these ideas as a series of propositions to make it easier for readers to identify where they may agree or disagree.

Biological and Cultural

We are a sexually dimorphic species, male and female. Although there is variation, the vast majority of humans are born with distinctly male or female reproductive systems, sexual characteristics, and/or chromosomal structure. Intersex people are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the definitions of female or male; the number of people in this category depends on the degree of ambiguity used to mark the category. Intersex conditions are distinct from transgenderism.

The biological differences between males and females that are tied to reproduction are not trivial; no species can ignore reproductive realities. Not all females have children, but only females can bear and breastfeed children, which no male can do. Therefore, human communities have always, and will always, recognize two distinct sex categories, male and female. There has always been, and always will be, some sex-role differentiation in human communities.

Other observable or measurable physical differences (average height, muscle mass, etc.) between males and females may be socially relevant depending on circumstances. Sex-role differentiation based on those differences may be appropriate if it can be shown to be necessary in the interests of everyone in a society. This claim is asserted far more often that is demonstrated.

People from varying ideological positions also claim that these biological differences give rise to significant differences in moral, intellectual, or emotional characteristics between males and females. While it is plausible that differences in reproductive organs and hormones could result in these kinds of differences, there is no clear evidence for these claims. Given the complexity of the human organism and the limits of contemporary research, it’s unlikely we will gain definitive understanding of these questions in the foreseeable future. In the absence of evidence of the biological bases for moral, intellectual, or emotional differences, we should assume that all or part of any differences in observed behavior between males and females in these matters are a product of cultural training, while remaining open to alternative explanations.

In short: males and females are far more similar than different.

Patriarchy

Today’s existing sex-role differentiation is the product of a patriarchal society based on male dominance. In that system, males are socialized into patriarchal masculinity to become men, and females are socialized into patriarchal femininity to become women.

In patriarchy, sex-role differentiation supports male power and helps make the system’s domination/subordination dynamic seem natural and normal. Moral, intellectual, and emotional traits are assigned differentially to each sex, creating what we today typically call gender roles. This patriarchal system of control—which is complex, adapting to changing conditions and to resistance—is designed to justify and perpetuate male dominance.

The gender roles in patriarchy are rigid, repressive, and reactionary. These roles constrain the healthy flourishing of both males and females, but females experience by far the most significant psychological and physical injuries from the system.

In patriarchy, gender is a category that functions to establish and reinforce inequality.

Radical Feminism

In contemporary culture, “radical” is often used dismissively as a synonym for “crazy” or “extreme.” In this context, it describes an analysis that seeks to understand, address, and eventually eliminate the root causes of inequality.

Radical feminism opposes patriarchy and male dominance. Radical feminism, which challenges the naturalizing of the process by which patriarchal societies turn male/female into man/woman, rejects patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender roles.

Radical feminist politics addresses a wide range of issues, including men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women and children. Many radical feminists critique the gendered dress/grooming/presentation norms imposed on females in patriarchy, such as hyper-sexualized clothing, make-up, and ritualized behaviors of subordination, arguing for the elimination of these practices, not for males to adopt them as well.

The goal of radical feminism is a world without hierarchy, in which males and females would be free to explore the range of human experiences—especially experiences of love, whether sexual or not—in an egalitarian context.

Transgender

Transgender is defined as “A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” The transgender movement rejects the automatic sorting of males and females into the categories of man and woman, but does not necessarily reject gender roles. Some in the transgender movement embrace patriarchal gender roles typically attached to the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity.

While not all people who identify as transgender have sex-reassignment surgery or use hormones or other treatments to modify their bodies, the transgender movement as a whole accepts and/or embraces these practices.

Most radical feminists, who seek to eliminate patriarchy and patriarchal gender ideology, disagree with this transgender approach. Most radical feminists believe liberation is achieved through a political project that transcends patriarchal gender, rather than accepting those gender roles and merely seeking to allow people to move between the categories. Radical feminist politics focuses on challenging the patriarchal gender ideology that restricts the freedom of most individuals, especially women and others who lack power, to explore the fullest range of human experiences.

Nothing in a radical feminist analysis minimizes the social and/or psychological struggles of—nor provides support for violence against—people who identify as transgender or people who do not conform to patriarchal gender norms but do not identify as transgender. Radical feminism is not the cause of those struggles or the source of that violence but rather advocates for an egalitarian society with maximal freedom without violence.

Ecology

Many people, whether radical feminist or not, are critical of high-tech medicine’s manipulation of the body through the reckless use of hormones and chemicals (which rarely have been proved to be safe) or the destruction of healthy tissue to conform to arbitrary beauty standards (cosmetic surgery such as breast augmentation, nose jobs, etc.).

From this ecological approach, such medical practices are part of a deeper problem in the industrial era of our failing to understand ourselves as organisms, shaped by an evolutionary history, and part of ecosystems that impose limits on all organisms.

People are not machines, and treating the human body like a machine is inconsistent with an ecological understanding of ourselves as living beings who are part of a larger living world.

Public Policy

The state should not limit people’s freedom to choose, when those choices do not harm others. Disagreements can, and do, arise over identifying and assessing harms.

Transgender claims have led to a variety of policy debates, especially concerning the integrity of female-only spaces that are designed to foster a sense of safety and expressive freedom for females generally (such as cultural institutions) and particularly to create safety for females who have been victims of male violence (such as rape crisis and domestic violence centers). Forcing female-only spaces to accommodate people who identify as transgender reinforces patriarchy as a system and harms individual females.

Public funding for sex-reassignment surgery (such as through Medicare) raises serious public health questions that cannot be resolved by simplistic freedom-to-choose arguments.

Transgender practices involving children that are questionable on public health grounds (such as the use of puberty blockers) raise serious moral questions about our collective obligation for children’s welfare.

Intellectual Practice and Rhetoric

As in any contentious political debate, angry and uncivil words have been exchanged. People on all sides should be respectful and careful in choices of language.

Labeling a radical feminist position on these public policy issues as inherently “transphobic” or describing radical feminist arguments on the issues as “hate speech” are diversionary tactics that undermine productive intellectual and political discussion. A critique of an idea is not a personal attack on any individual who holds the idea.

This critical analysis does not demand that people accept these principles in constructing an individual sense of self. These propositions are relevant to such individual decisions, but are presented in the context of collective decision-making about public policy.

Conclusion

Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response. On the surface, transgenderism may seem to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy and a more promising path to liberation.

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007).

9 thoughts on “Some Basic Propositions about Sex, Gender, and Patriarchy”

  1. “Radical feminism […] advocates for an egalitarian society with maximal freedom without violence.”

    That is not true. Radical feminists actively scoff at the notion that boys need to be granted equal protection under the law from medically unnecessary alteration of their genitals.

    They bemoan FGM while completely dismissing the thought that the far more widespread reduction of boys’ genitals teaches these boys and the men they grow up to be, well, definitely nothing of value about the concept of consent and about respecting another’s boundaries.

    This is true of every single person who identies as radical feminist. There is no exception to that rule. They view violence against male children as entirely acceptable, some even welcome it as “payback” against the suppressor class.

    No, radical feminism does *not* advocate for an egalitarian society with maximal freedom without violence.

    1. Would you care to offer any evidence of your claims that radical feminists “bemoan FGM while completely dismissing the thought that the far more widespread reduction of boys’ genitals teaches these boys and the men they grow up to be, well, definitely nothing of value about the concept of consent and about respecting another’s boundaries”? Or that “This is true of every single person who identies [sic] as radical feminist. There is no exception to that rule”? You believe you can prove this?

      1. “You believe you can prove this?”

        Positivistically? Obviously not, and the idea that it could be is almost endearingly Anglosphere/American. But from reading radical feminist texts, listening to lectures, reading online discussions and from asking women who identify as radical feminists, I’ve never found a single counterexample. Not one, and I’ve been looking, because I happen to agree with quite a few other radical feminist positions.

        They talk about FGM as the most horrible thing in the world while dismissing (when prompted, otherwise they simply never even mention it at all) any facts about medically unnecessary circumcision of boys. (They also completely dismiss the fact that there is a wide variety of procedures all labeled “FGM” or female genital cutting. All of those are thankfully illegal, but some of those illegal procedures involve no amputation of tissue.)

        Most of the radical feminists I’ve come across don’t even accept the moniker “MGM” because in their opinion it detracts from the suffering of girls and women. For them, it’s a simple attempt at appropriation, because obviously there’s nothing wrong with cutting up boys’ genitals. None I’ve talked with online or offline are willing to look at simple facts, e.g. that some boys actually die from direct or indirect complications of the procedure.

        None I’ve talked with online or offline or listened to or read anywhere ever even acknowledged the simple straightforward fact that there is no culture or area in the world where only FGM is performed. Wherever FGM is performed, MGM is also performed. Even acknowledging this fact is apparently too close for comfort.

        If there is a single exception, by all means please link me to that text or lecture or online discussion. Even a youtube video would do.

        1. Asking feminists to care about what happens to little boys’ foreskin is like calling black people out for not caring about racist poor whites. How is it our job to care about what happens to men in the patriarchy? We have to worry about us (i.e. women). Once again, a supposed “ally” of feminism is asking women to do their emotional work for them. We didn’t make the patriarchy, dude, y’all did. And equating foreskin removal to removing the clitoris is despicable. Stop scapegoating women and start working to change your own damn sex. They’re the ones cutting off foreskin and sucking little boys’ penis-blood, not us.

  2. @Martin.
    What power have women ever had to do anything about the man-made capitalist, medical institution. If you can recall history, man outlawed midwifery and burned women, who practiced natural healing and holistic methods, at the stake, labeling them witches. (a term that, to this day, is associated with fright, black magic and pure evil!)
    Women have had, and still have, enough trouble fighting for our own lives, and gaining rights, that should have never been taken from us, in the first place.
    Women have NEVER held exclusive political power, nor have been in authoritative positions, over men, to make decisions, laws, or to speak collectively, on behalf of men, as men have forcefully usurped the right to do, over women.
    Women are still fighting for reproductive freedom from out from under the control of male majority governing bodies, who still make restrictive laws where women’s bodies are concerned.
    To expect women to care or do anything about what happens to men, who are also live in a world, ruled by a male majority, is essentially, barking up the wrong tree.
    Throughout history, women’s voices have been largely ignored, even when speaking on their own behalf. Even today, men only value women according to their relationships with men. This is proven by identification through surnames of male lineages.
    A women can never name herself and is forced into identifying herself according to name of her father. If she happens to get married, which is the only socially acceptable way to gain societal worth, she is expected to take the name of her husband and fuse her identity with his, and be recognized according to her affiliation to him. At no point does she have her own identity, apart from a male.
    As a result, men prioritize men over women, because everyone is identified as male or through male affiliation. Women are still considered, culturally, as extentions of male personhood.
    This system was designed to reinforce male supremacy, and to keep women under the control of men. It ensures that men remain the prioritized majority, and the cultural expectation is that both men and women, prioritize men. The only way that a man prioritizes a woman, is if she is known to him, as in, she is an extention of himself, and even then, the priority is given to her, over other women, not himself, or other men.
    This is a very effective way to force women to compete amongst each other, to gain favor from men,
    because, without securing the favor of an individual man, there is no collective protection for her, since she has no societal worth on her own, and will never be given priority over men, and will be left unheard and ignored in a sea of screaming voices in the land of the willfully deaf.
    So, no, perhaps we are not concerned, with what happens to male genitalia, especially, when we live in a world where men use their genitalia like a weapon, against us, to prove that they hold all the power and are favored by law, when it comes down to his word over the word of a woman.

  3. I am an active radical feminist and have ardently campaigned against Routine Infant Circumcision which is the complete amputation of the prepuce organ. It is a barbaric form of torture practiced on innocent male neonates that leaves them mutilated and brain damaged and a contributor to the epidemic of male violence.

    I researched it and kept my two sons intact. I have also convinced other mothers to protect their children from this horrific medical abuse. Every radical feminist that I consider a friend either has no opinion on the matter as they are childless and engaged in work in other areas, or fervently agrees with me that this practice must be eradicated.

    Martin, your knowledge of radical feminism and radical feminists is very limited at best because your assertion is completely incorrect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *