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10 Questions for Radical Feminist Robert Jensen

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Robert Jensen

3,414 words

Robert Jensen [2] is an archetypal Leftist academic: a feminist, an anti-capitalist, an anti-imperialist, and someone who belivies in institutional racism. He was denouncing “white privilege” well before doing so became fashionable, and his feminism is of the radical variety, at odd’s with today’s wishy-washy “girl boss” posturing. I read his book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity as a teenager, and was impressed that unlike most conservative critics of porn, Prof. Jensen had actually done his homework. He interviewed people who worked in porn, and went through the gruesome task of watching the stuff in order to better understand it. Last week, he agreed to let me interview him via e-mail. We discussed, among other things, foreign policy, global fertility rates, and of course America’s favorite drug.

Hubert Collins: You are best known for your work covering two issues: pornography and racism. What I find interesting is that your views about race and racism have entered the mainstream. In 2005, when you published your book The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, very few people outside of academia discussed or were even aware of the concept of “white privilege.” Everybody knows about it now, and even presidential candidates talk about it. Similarly, you criticized sports teams using American Indian names in the early nineties [3]. That was not a common opinion back then, but today, teams are renaming themselves.

Meanwhile, your body of work on porn has not really gone anywhere (no offense). While it’s easy to find articles and TED talks about pornography’s harmfulness, our culture is absolutely saturated in it. The percentage of all web searches that relate to porn is in the double digits [4]. In the 1980s and 2000s, Republican attorneys general prosecuted pornography. In the 2010s, there was a Republican President whose past dalliances with a porn performer were publicly known.

What do you think accounts for the difference in influence between your work’s two main subjects?

Robert Jensen: First, it’s important to acknowledge that my writing on whiteness and racism [5] from the 1990s and early 2000s was not particularly original. W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of White Folk was published in 1901, and James Baldwin’s essays on whiteness came in the early 1960s. Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege was in 1989, and David Roediger’s book Wages of Whiteness came out in 1991. American Indian groups were organizing against Native nicknames and mascots in the 1970s. It’s not false modesty to point out I was following others.

I also have written a lot about pornography [6], anchored in the radical feminist critique, and there I’ve been following the work of women such as Andrea Dworkin [7]. I hope I have contributed something distinctive to that analysis, but by the time I started writing, women had been developing the critique for 20 years.

That said, you’re right about the feminist anti-pornography movement not gaining the traction in the mainstream in the same way that anti-racist ideas have in the same period. In fact, the feminist challenge to the sexual-exploitation industries (pornography, prostitution, stripping, massage parlors) has lost ground, not only in mainstream culture but in liberal and postmodern feminist circles. Much of the political Left embraces the “sex work” analysis, which legitimates that sexual exploitation, even though such support goes against Left analysis and principles [8]. And, of course, we’ve watched religious conservatives support a presidential candidate who had an affair with a pornography performer and who more generally embraces the sexual objectification of women.

Why the difference? One is that the pornography industry has successfully used technology that makes it easier and cheaper for people to access sexually explicit material, leading many people to think there’s nothing we can do about the problem. But I think the deeper reason is that patriarchy — institutionalized male dominance, anchored in men’s claim of a right to control women’s sexuality and reproductive power — has been woven so deeply into the fabric of everyday life for so long that it’s extremely hard to dislodge. Patriarchy, which is thousands of years old, has proved to be a particularly tenacious system of social control.

HC: So is that to say that sexual hierarchies are more entrenched in society than racial hierarchies?

RJ: I would say entrenched differently, and in some ways more vexing. One aspect of this is the support for patriarchy by some women, which I think is more common than support for white supremacy among non-white people. Some non-white people cut deals with white supremacy, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone who wasn’t white say, “Yes, I believe white people really are smarter.” But a significant number of women will say, “Yes, I believe men should be in charge.”

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You Can buy F. Roger Devlin’s Sexual Utopia in Power here. [10]

I don’t pretend to fully understand these dynamics. But at the core, patriarchy is about reproduction (a central drive for any organism) and sexuality (a powerful force in our lives). White supremacy shapes some reproductive and sexual policies, but it is not as centrally about those questions. White supremacy emerged out of struggles for control of resources and coerced labor, and the quest for wealth is also a powerful motivator. But it’s different than a hierarchy rooted in reproduction and sexuality, and bound to play out differently.

None of this means that patriarchy is always more salient than white supremacy in understanding human suffering. In many situations, racism can be a more powerful force than sexism, and vice versa. And these systems interact and reinforce each other. Life is too complex to come up with equations that explain and predict.

HC: Racial stereotypes and pornography are indelibly linked, and you’ve written about that as well [11]. Your focus is generally about how black men are portrayed as animalistic, primitive, and insatiable beasts in the very popular “interracial” genre that is overwhelmingly black men and white women. You’ve noted that this genre is popular with white men, and not just black men as is commonly assumed, making it akin to a modern minstrel show. Having worked the cash register at more than one place that rents porn, I can say two things about this: First, yes, many white men rent these videos, which I always found incredible; and second, many black men also rent these videos, and it was quite clear that they found them empowering, not demeaning. I imagine many black men find the same “racial catharsis” in these videos that they find in rap music that spits invective at police and whites or non-pornographic revenge films such as Django Unchained. What would you say to blacks who enjoy this type of pornography?

RJ: The porn producers I interviewed all said that the “black on white” pornography (black men having sex with white women) is made with the assumption that most viewers will be white men. But your suggestion about why black men might find it arousing makes sense as well. A niche market created for one group can also appeal to another group for different reasons.

My friend Gail Dines is the first person who explained to me that if the core appeal of pornography is the sexual denigration of women, then it’s not surprising that white men might find the racialized sexual denigration of women exciting. The same point goes for what Gail calls “pseudo-child pornography” that uses young-looking women — those over the age of 18, but who look younger — to simulate adult exploitation of teenagers. This was Andrea Dworkin’s key insight: Pornographers sexualize domination and subordination. They use every hierarchy that exists to intensify the sexual charge.

HC: Would you be willing to say that interracial pornography demeans white people as well? I get that talking about “reverse racism” isn’t exactly your beat, but the white women in interracial porn are almost always portrayed as bimbos who cannot resist the forbidden black fruit, and often talk openly about how white men are uniformly sexually incompetent, being just a bunch of nerds and weaklings. Some of the most brutal interracial porn, such as the popular White Trash Whore series, depicts whites through an even more demeaning lens: As a bunch of ignorant, poor, and incestuous hicks.

RJ: First, I would say that in some basic sense, pornography demeans everyone. It typically portrays women as objectified bodies that exist primarily for male sexual pleasure. It routinely portrays men as amoral sociopaths who value their sexual pleasure over the health and welfare of others. Second, the use of “white trash” stereotypes in pornography and more generally is not reverse racism but rather a consequence of white supremacy and capitalism. Black people didn’t invent the idea of white trash; higher-status white people did. White supremacy, like patriarchy, is a system that tries to naturalize hierarchy, and that plays out in complex ways. Wealthy white people created hierarchies [12] within whiteness as a vehicle for controlling poor and working-class white people.

I have argued that people who get labeled “white trash” should reject the “white” and embrace the “trash” — that is, reject the pathology of white supremacy and embrace solidarity with other marginalized people to challenge concentrated wealth and power. In that sense, I think of myself as white trash.

HC: Along with other observers, you’ve talked about how pornography is constantly getting more extreme — another thing I can confirm from having rented out the stuff. You memorably quipped [13], “Even pornographers acknowledge that they can’t imagine what comes after all this. One industry veteran told me that everything that could be done to a woman’s body had been filmed.” Do you have any guesses as to what comes next? I used to wonder about this myself, and could never come up with anything.

RJ: Most pornographers likely would have no moral qualms about increasing the level of overt violence in their material, but they worry that going too far would spark a cultural backlash and risk legal repercussions, which puts profits at risk. They have pushed the culture further than anyone could have predicted 30 years ago, when I first started writing about this. But pornography producers fear there is a tipping point, beyond which resistance will intensify. The negative reaction to media coverage [14] of Pornhub’s illegal use of girls is an example. The industry had to back down a bit. Meanwhile, while the “legitimate” pornography industry calculates these risks, others are uploading all sorts of overtly violent porn, revenge porn, rape porn. And there remains a more secretive trade in child sexual abuse materials (what we used to call child pornography), which is clearly illegal. Where will all this lead? It’s hard to predict, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t think we’ve reached the end of this process of sexualizing cruelty and degradation.

HC: Do you think pornography can be eradicated? To what extent should the legal system play a role in making porn hard to get?

RJ: Gail Dines points out that we are in the midst of the largest unregulated social science experiment in history: What happens when you raise a generation with easy access to sexist and racist hardcore pornography, starting when children are not yet emotionally and sexually mature? The simple answer is, “bad things happen.” As radical feminists have argued for decades, the current regulatory system of criminal obscenity law is a failure. In the 1980s, feminists proposed a civil-rights approach [15] that would take power away from the state and put it in the hands of the people harmed by the production and use of pornography. With modifications, I think that approach could be useful. But given the nature of Internet technology and the current cultural support for the sexual-exploitation industries, it’s hard to imagine law making much of a dent, at least in the short term.

HC: That’s probably enough about porn. You’re a staunch opponent of American military intervention. Do you think the anti-war Left and the anti-war Right will ever be able to work together to effectively fight the bellicose alliance between Wilsonian liberalism and neoconservatism? As a teenager, I loved this idea, but these days, not so much. I think Paul Gottfried makes a strong case for doubt in his 2010 article, “Is a Left-Right Antiwar Coalition Possible? [16]

RJ: I want to be clear that I’m an opponent of the use of United States military power to extend US dominance. That is, I’m against imperialism [17]. It’s possible to imagine the use of an international military force, of which the US military could be a part, to prevent a humanitarian disaster in some part of the world. But no US military operation in my lifetime (I was born in 1958) has been motivated by such a goal.

It’s plausible that in some other historical moment, the Left and some elements on the Right could have cooperated to challenge imperialism. But given the deeply reactionary and irrational nature of the current dominant Right-wing groups in US politics, it’s difficult to imagine collaboration. The Left could, however, reach out to conservative people — understood as different from anti-democratic Right-wing political forces — with an anti-militarism message that is part of a larger appeal for creating a decent, sustainable society.

HC: I’m a bit surprised by this claim. I’ve found that nearly all left-of-center people view NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s as humanitarian. Why don’t you?

RJ: The conflicts after the breakup of Yugoslavia were complex, and there were times that US and NATO forces prevented more killing. But I said “motivated” by humanitarian goals, and it’s hard to argue that was the case, as the United States sought to solidify its dominance after the fall of the Berlin Wall, what George H. W. Bush called the project of creating “a new world order” after the Cold War.

Here you will find a difference between the liberals of the Democratic Party, who usually supported President Clinton’s policy, and more critically-minded Leftists, who generally did not. That’s a familiar pattern: Democrats often object to Republican-initiated conflicts but fall in line behind a Democratic administration (and vice versa), while the Left maintains a principled critique of imperialism. The 1999 US bombing of Yugoslavia is an example. Calling it a NATO operation didn’t make it legal, and the claim that it prevented genocide is, to say the least, dubious.

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You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [19]

I don’t want to suggest that every politician is crass and supports policies only to expand and solidify US power. There have been people in Congress who consistently opposed militarism, for example. And in theory, what has become known as the “Responsibility to Protect” is a sound idea for a collective obligation to protect vulnerable populations. But in practice, it is applied according to the cynical interests of powerful states. If the United States really supported the principled application of international law, for example, most of the top officials in the Bush administration would have surrendered themselves to the International Court of Justice to be tried for crimes against peace and war crimes.

HC: In the coming decades, fertility rates in the West will stay below replacement level while fertility rates in Latin America, the Middle East, and most of Asia will plateau. Essentially, only sub-Saharan Africa will grow [20]. Between climate change, economic inequality, and possible Malthusian collapse, it seems inevitable that a human tsunami of African immigrants will head for Europe and America. What do you think happens next?

RJ: First, the problem isn’t that fertility rates are falling but that they aren’t falling fast enough. That problem is exacerbated by extended human longevity in the high-energy/high-tech era, creating an unsustainable human population. The immediate need is to dramatically reduce per capita consumption in the First World — not just of the top 1% or top 10%, but of everyone except the poorest. The age of affluence is drawing to a close. The long-term challenge is to get to a sustainable human population, which is likely half of the current 8 billion and maybe half of that again. That means fewer births and a different attitude toward death.

A sensible and humane policy would be for the United States and all the developed nations to open their borders to unrestricted movement, part of the project of creating an equitable distribution of wealth in the world. That’s a tall order, given the political appeal of xenophobia, not just today on the Right but throughout human history.

HC: But once there are billions of Africans heading for an old and infertile Europe, what scenario do you think is most likely: that the Old Continent invites a new era of multiculturalism, like Angela Merkel’s Germany, or makes itself into a fortress, like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary? I myself wonder if a kind of intercontinental war might break out.

RJ: I’m always hesitant to make predictions, in part because conditions can change quickly. But given recent history — both the large migrations due to war and climate, and the rise of authoritarian White Nationalism — one would have to assume that many countries will create more barriers to migrations. Localized conflicts seem inevitable, though whether it would lead to expanded wars is anyone’s guess.

HC: You are a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. What’s your pitch to Right-wing men (who are most of the people reading this interview) for why they should be feminists, too?

RJ: I would start with a bit of history. Humans have been successful in evolutionary terms because of our capacity for cooperation and a long history of generally egalitarian social relations, including relations between men and women. Our gathering-and-hunting ancestors did not, for the most part, organize their societies in hierarchical fashion, and different sex roles didn’t automatically result in institutionalized male power. Patriarchy is a rather recent phenomenon, arising only after the rise of agriculture and, ironically, what we call civilization. So, it’s important to reject the idea that patriarchy is “natural,” in the sense of always present in human history and therefore inevitable. It was not and is not.

To Right-wing men, I would make the same argument that I make to Left-wing men, that embracing patriarchy makes it impossible for men to be fully human. When men invest their sense of self in the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy, they cut themselves off from their full humanity. When men believe they can own or rent women’s bodies, they destroy the possibility of experiencing real intimacy. So, it’s always important for men to support feminism for moral reasons, to help advance justice. But it’s also in men’s self-interest, to be willing to give up some of the short-term material benefits of patriarchy to embrace a fuller range of human emotions and capacities than patriarchy allows. That’s why I say that radical feminism is not a threat, but a gift to men [21].

HC: What makes you most optimistic about the future, and most pessimistic?

RJ: I don’t think in terms of optimism or pessimism. I try to deal with reality. To me, that means recognizing we are moving toward levels of ecological instability and social decline that will, at some point, be best described as “collapse.” In some parts of the world, that collapse is already underway, but eventually it will become a global reality. The high-energy/high-technology era is drawing to a close. Either we plan rationally for change, or larger forces will direct that change in ways that will be inhumane and destructive beyond our imaginations. I don’t think that’s pessimistic, because by dealing honestly with reality, we can make more intelligent decisions about how to focus our attention on projects that will be most useful. Planning for a down-powered future requires us to make a lot of choices about what to hold onto and what to leave behind. Those decisions require an honest accounting of the biophysical limits of the planet and of human nature, especially our tendency to use as much energy as we can get our hands on.

HC: Any final thoughts? Perhaps a book recommendation?

RJ: Given my last answer, I am tempted to recommend my forthcoming book, co-authored with Wes Jackson: An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in fall 2022. But that’s more self-promotion than recommendation. So, with the same concerns in mind, I recommend The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic by Stan Cox. Stan is a friend, and one of the smartest people I know personally. He’s a skilled plant breeder, most recently working on perennial sorghum, and a sharp political analyst. He also has a wickedly dry sense of humor that I appreciate.

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