Sunday, December 2, 2007

Robert Jensen's Cartoon View of Men

I came acros this post on Hugo Schwyzer's blog on the new book by Robert Jensen, Getting Off: (Pornography and the End of Masculinity)

I think I'll pass on the book. Why spend money on a book that will inform me that hardcore porn can be hateful, cruel and repugnant? Duh! Maybe there are some people out there that view extreme porn as a positive good, as something to be celebrated and welcomed. But the plain fact is, porn is not good for the soul - this was a lesson the nuns and priests taught me way back in grammar school, and I've come to experience the truth of what they said as an adult.

I'm glad I won't be wasting money on his book, because his website was quite enough for me. It seems that most of Jensen's porn journalism focuses on the more extreme, hateful and misogynistic aspect of today's porn industry. This helps to make Jensen's astonishing revelation - that porn is ugly, mean and cruel - even more lame. No doubt this gives the book an extra buzz factor. And by concentrating on the most extreme and degrading porn, he's able to align himself with some feminists that claim that male sexuality is inherently sick and abusive.

He seems to delight in exposing feminists to its most extreme manifestations, so that feminists who might be wavering in their hatred of men might be set right:

A story about that: I am out with two heterosexual women friends. Both are feminists in their 30s, and both are successful in their careers. Both are smart and strong, and both have had trouble finding male partners who aren't scared by their intelligence and strength. We are talking about men and women, about relationships. As is often the case, I am told that I am too hard on men. The implication is that after so many years of working in the radical feminist critique of the sex industry and sexual violence, I have become jaded, too mired in the dark side of male sexuality. I contend that I am simply trying to be honest. We go back and forth, in a friendly discussion.

Finally, I tell my friends that I can settle this with a description of one website. I say to them: "If you want me to, I will tell you about this site. I won't tell you if you don't want to hear this. But if you want me to continue, don't blame me." They look at each other; they hesitate. They ask me to explain.

What got me interested in this topic, as discussed in Hugo's blog, and also over at feministing is the discussion of whether Jensen is a "self-hating male." Consider this quote:

“I cannot escape a simple conclusion: If men are going to be full human beings, we first have to stop being men.”

Jensen's point relies on his assertion that extreme porn is mainstream:

"The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyper-patriotic nationalism, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism."

Something is in the mainstream when it can be admitted to, enjoyed and spoken of in everyday, non-intimate company. Sports is mainstream. Oprah is mainstream. Reality TV is mainstream. Disney and Miramax are mainstream. I'd say something is in the mainstream when you can advocate for it on The View. If this stuff was mainstream he wouldn't have had to introduce it to his feminist friends - they would have known of it already. Quoting porn industry revenues of $4 billion says nothing about how mainstream something is. The drug industry is an order of magnitude larger than that, and hardly mainstream. People do drugs, and they often lie about it to their friends and families. Lot's of men enjoy porn, but they also hide it and feel ashamed of it.

Yes, this stuff is prevalent and easily available, but hardly mainstream. So all his profound claims about men and masculinity that follow from that premise are unfounded. If you visit Attica and talk to some black prisoners, you'll get a pretty distorted view of black male culture. If you talk to contestants in preteen beauty pageants, you'll get a pretty distorted view of modern family life. Want to learn what college students are thinking? Then visit Daytona Beach during Spring Break, of course! Want to learn what's on the mind of Middle Americans? Mardi Gras is the place to be! Naturally, the best way to learn about Muslims is to seek out and speak to the ones that download and enjoy beheading videos. You'll learn all you need to know about women by visiting romance novel publishing conventions!

I'm convinced Jensen's purpose isn't to expose nasty porn. His purpose is to use the characteristics of extreme porn to excoriate men in general.

I was going to ignore him, but then I had the feeling that Robert Jensen was the same guy that write this silly article about masculinity that annoyed me a while ago. He gets into a two confrontations - one with someone he characterizes as an "alpha male", and one with another academic that turns personal. He witnesses a third confrontation between someone he characterizes as a "computer nerd" and a stewardess. These confrontations are upsetting, but rather than process them personally, and draw lessons about how he might have acted, he draws some cosmic conclusions about masculinity in general:

Masculinity in three acts: Attempts at dominance through (1) force and humiliation, (2) words and argument, and (3) raw insults. Three episodes about the ways masculinity does men in, neatly played out during one long weekend.

Well, Robert - masculinity isn't about dominance - that is your narrow, cartoon view of masculinity. Maybe you are not happy with masculinity, but many men are. Men who gain legitimate authority through skill and hard work. Men that take pride in behaving honorably, and with integrity. Men that make hard, difficult commitments to the love and care for others, and have the inner strength to see it through in difficult times. Men that train and prepare so they can save and protect others when needed. Men that are surgeons, nurses, artists, firemen, fathers, schoolteachers and businessmen. For some reason Jensen thinks that 3 confrontations over the course of a weekend - never mind cops deal with 3 or more confrontations every hour of their working lives - tell him something about masculinity. Normal, everyday encounters, where men just live their lives, do their jobs, and avoid trouble don't factor into his view at all.

So is Robert Jensen a self-hating male? Quite the contrary. Based on what I've read, he's rather full of himself. He has an introductory piece on his website, authored by Don Hazen:

"Robert Jensen -- Radical Man

So that you understand, Robert Jensen is a true radical, His positions on masculinity, race, and pornography are way out of the mainstream. He thinks that concepts of masculinity make men less than human and should be junked. "Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a "real man" is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it."

No he doesn't hate himself at all - he is too enamored of his own radicalism. Yes, such a daring, radical thinker! Us poor, dumb, mainstream people can't even get up and go to work, because our brains are fried from all the hardcore porn we've downloaded. And there Jensen is, a lonely beacon of light in the distance, telling us conquest and domination are wrong. And once again the only masculinity he can see is about control and domination. Nothing about skill, courage, creativity, honor, dependability, hard work, discipline, or faith.

The irony here is that he claims men use porn to indulge their hatred for women; Jensen uses porn to indulge his hatred for masculinity.

I read just about everything on his site, and the only original thought I could find, from this "radical man", is this piece of nonsense, from an article that relates Blow Bang porn to cluster bombs:
What do blow bangs and cluster bombs have in common? On the surface, very little; pornography and war are different endeavors with different consequences. In pairing them, I am not making some overarching claim about the connection between patriarchy and empire.

But I can say this: To be effective, contemporary mass-marketed pornography and modern war both require cruelty and contempt. The pornography I watched in the summer of 2001 was about the cruelty of men and men's contempt for women. The war I watched in the fall of 2001 was about the cruelty of Americans and Americans’ contempt for people in other parts of the world.

Although I have been involved in intellectual and political work around both issues for more than a decade, I was surprised at how strong my emotional reactions were to both the pornography and the war, and how similar they were -- just how deep the sadness went.

No, no "overarching claims" here - except those in the second paragraph. In general, if you want to make sweeping claims about culture, it's best to put aside the porn and Wolf Blitzer - a trip to the library might be in order. Yes, modern war "requires cruelty and contempt" - far different than the humane care with which the Romans, Genghis Khan and Atilla conducted war. The "cruelty of Americans"? - has he ever read about the Russian Front in World War II? Lots of cruelty - probably a thousand Russians and Germans died for every Afghan killed in 2001 - and nary an American in sight. I was astonished Jensen has a Phd when I read the above - no facts, no reasoning. Just dissociated concepts united solely by his feelings about them.

All the rest of the stuff is just rants about patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. He has an extensive list of articles on his site that covers the tired privilege dissection shell game. Agony pieces about his "coming to terms" with his white privilege. Nothing new or original there. The discussions of feminism, white privilege and imperialism pretty much tells me he sticks to safe topics that will be well received in academia and leftist circles - his own little mainstream of echoes. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this "radical man" to write something critical of members of a marginalized group or positive about heterosexual white men - he isn't radical enough to dip his toe in dangerous waters like that. No he is a true ideologue.

He doesn't even like Thanksgiving:

After years of being constantly annoyed and often angry about the historical denial built into Thanksgiving Day, I published an essay in November 2005 suggesting we replace the feasting with fasting and create a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.

. . .
Imagine that Germany won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday offering a whitewashed version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Imagine that the holiday provided a welcomed time for families and friends to gather and enjoy food and conversation. Imagine that businesses, schools and government offices closed on this day.

If he really thought about things in depth - which he doesn't - he'd have to admit the painful truth that he does indeed have a privilege. Not male privilege. Not white privilege. But the privilege of a ready made audience, who, as long as he uses words like misogyny and patriarchy, and frequently mixes in disparagement of American culture and capitalism, will rejoice at every word without reading carefully enough to see how vacuous those words are.

Are there problems with our conception of masculinity? Of course - I knew that before I read Jensen, and I've read enough Jensen to know I'll gain no insight from further reading.

Update: Hugo's third post in the series also quotes Jensen. When I read the posts, I'm wondering if my characterization was unfair.


jeff said...

I would also advise you against reading it, STF, (though it is a quick read)...I think there could be a useful book or two written about masculinity and porn, but this one isn't it. He doesn't just oversimplify male experience, he oversimplifies porn, which is sort of interesting--plus, he ignores (or pays lip service to) a whole facet of feminist thought in doing so.

As 'feminist' analysis of porn, this one is lacking.

(Hey! We agree on something!)

aTypical Joe said...

Yours is a fascinating well written counter-point to Hugo's posts, which I'm reading with interest as I try to come up with my own take on pornography.

My inclination is that porn must be made mainstream to remove the shame that leads to extremes. That might bring porn under the purview of social norms.

There are clearly serious negative consequences from porn as it is today. I liked the self-hatred construct and could see how it would apply to gays and gay porn.

You call that construct into question. I wonder what you think some answers or areas to look for answers are?

Sweating Through fog said...

Jeff - thanks - nice to be in agreement!

Joe: I don't have an answer on this. I'm very much opposed to censorship. As far as shame leading to extremes, I'm not certain. My view is that there are dark impulses even inside good people. It is a pit we can fall into. My sense is if the extreme stuff was in the mainstream, some would be seeking even more extreme stuff way out on the margins.

BTW - I've softened a little bit on Jensen. In Hugo's third post in the series, he quotes some Jensen that I found surprising. Perhaps I was wrong.