“I’m not surprised,” women say, in response to the flood of revelations of sexual “misconduct” by men, especially men in positions of power.
But none of us—women or men—should be surprised, because the United States is a patriarchal society and in patriarchy men routinely claim the right to own or control women’s bodies for reproduction and sexual pleasure. Men—liberal and conservative—know that just as well as women.
In such a society, conservative and liberal men will often disagree in public about the conditions under which they can rightly claim ownership. Conservative men argue for control of women within the heterosexual family. Liberal men argue for more expansive access to women. In public, the policy debates about reproductive rights and sexual access rage on. In private, conservative and liberal men claim their “right” to do as they please, which is why women sometimes find it difficult to tell conservative and liberal apart when it comes to behavior.
What kind of world has that produced? A sexually corrosive pop culture (both in dating practices and mediated images), with expanding sexual-exploitation industries (primarily prostitution and pornography), and routine sexual intrusion (the spectrum from sexual harassment to sexual assault). Women are routinely objectified in pop culture, reducing complex human beings to body parts for male pleasure. Men routinely buy and sell those objectified bodies for sexual pleasure, in person and on screens. And when men believe they can take those bodies without challenge, some men do just that.
Male or female, we are should not be surprised when in a patriarchal society—a society based on institutionalized male dominance—men exercise that dominance. Of course patriarchy is not static nor unidimensional, nor is it the only system of illegitimate authority. Patriarchy in 2017 is not exactly the same as in 1917; patriarchy in the United States is not the same as patriarchy in Saudi Arabia. Race, class, religion, and nation affect how patriarchy plays out in a specific time and place.
Patriarchy also is not immune to challenge. Feminism makes gains, patriarchy pushes back, and the struggle continues Women advance in business, politics, and education, and men assert their control over women’s bodies where they can get away with it.
Radical feminism is the term for that component of the second wave of feminism (in the United States, the phase of the movement that emerged in the 1960s) that most directly confronts men’s sexual exploitation of women. In the three decades that I have been involved in radical feminist projects, this analysis has become more useful than ever in explaining an increasingly corrosive society, the mainstreaming of sexual exploitation, and the epidemic levels of sexual intrusion.
Yet both conservatives and liberals routinely dismiss radical feminism as dangerous, out of date, irrelevant. Why would an analysis that offers a compelling explanation of social trends be ignored? My experience suggests that it’s precisely because of the power of the radical feminist analysis that it is avoided. U.S. society is unwilling, or unable, to confront the pathology of patriarchy, a system of illegitimate authority woven so deeply into the fabric of everyday life that many people are afraid of naming it, let alone confronting it.
I remember clearly my first exposure to radical feminist ideas, when I was 30 years old, in the late 1980s. I knew that the women making these arguments, specifically about men’s exploitation of women in and through pornography, had to be crazy—because if they weren’t crazy I not only would have to rethink what I had learned about the sex/gender system in patriarchy but also change my own behavior. But radical feminism wore me down—with evidence and compelling arguments, along with an undeniable emotional honesty. Once I let myself listen carefully, radical feminism not only explained the oppression of girls and women but also helped me understand why I had never felt I could live up to the pathological standards of masculinity in patriarchy.
I had been taught that feminism, especially radical feminism, was a threat to men. I came to understand that it is a gift to us. Not the kind of gift that makes one feel warm and fuzzy but instead challenges us to be better than our patriarchal culture asks of us, to reject patriarchy’s glorification of control, conquest, and aggression.
I’m about to turn 60, and the half of my life lived with a feminist analysis has not always been easy, nor have I magically overcome all my flaws. But radical feminism allowed me to stop worrying about how to be a “real man” and start figuring out how to be a decent person.