We Must Stop the ‘Good Guys and Bad Guys’ Nonsense

We have to let go of an illusion – that there is some bright line between men who rape and men who don’t rape, between the bad guys and the good guys.

I am not as abusive as Harvey Weinstein, nor as narcissistic as Bill O’Reilly. I’m more respectful to women than Donald Trump, and not as sleazy as Anthony Weiner.

Judged by the standards set by these public reprobates, most of the rest of us men appear almost saintly, and therein lies a danger. The public disclosure of these men’s behaviour, from the routinely offensive to the occasionally criminal, is a good thing, and all those who have been harassed and raped should continue to speak out.

But we should not let the most egregious cases derail the analysis of how a wide range of men’s intrusive and abusive sexual behaviours against women (as well as against girls, boys, and vulnerable men) are so woven into the everyday fabric of life in a patriarchal society that the intrusion and abuse is often invisible to men.

Pause for the required disclaimer: Not all men are rapists. To acknowledge that sexuality in a culture of institutionalised male dominance (a useful shorthand definition of patriarchy) takes place within a larger framework of male domination/female subordination is not to accuse all men of rape.

Another required disclaimer: Not all sex in patriarchy is rape. To take seriously a feminist critique of patriarchy and men’s violence is not to suggest that intimate relationships can never reflect mutuality and equality.

But we shouldn’t ignore how we men are trained to understand ourselves and to view women. In a society in which masculinity is routinely understood as the ability to dominate (think about how the phrase “be a man” is usually a challenge to assert control) and in which sexuality is defined as the pleasure that men obtain from women (think about what men mean by the question “did you get any?”), we might want to do more than denounce the behaviour of the most abusive men and ask about how all boys and men are socialised into that masculinity and sexuality.

So, not all men are rapists. Not all sex is rape. The majority of men do not rape. Many couples have loving sexual relationships. But consider these other categories:

  • Men who do not rape but would be willing to rape if they were sure they would not be punished.
  • Men who do not rape but will not intervene when another man rapes.
  • Men who do not rape but buy sex from women and believe that payment gives them the right to do as they please.
  • Men who do not rape but are sexually stimulated by pornography featuring women in situations that depict rape-like acts.
  • Men who do not rape but find the idea of rape sexually arousing.
  • Men who do not rape but whose sexual arousal depends on feeling dominant and having power over a woman.

I shouldn’t need to repeat myself, but just in case: These men are not rapists. But should we take comfort in the fact that the men in these categories are not, in legal terms, guilty of rape? Are we advancing the cause of ending men’s violence against women by focusing only on the acts legally defined as rape?

We have to let go of a comforting illusion – that there is some bright line between men who rape and men who don’t rape, between the bad guys and the good guys. That doesn’t mean all guys are bad, or that we can’t distinguish between levels of bad behaviour. It means that if we want to end men’s violence against women, we have to acknowledge the effects of patriarchal socialisation, and such critical self-reflection is rarely a pleasant task, individually or collectively.

I will be happy if Weinstein goes to jail and if O’Reilly is never allowed back on television. I will be happy if women win lawsuits against Trump and if I never read another news story about Weiner.

But just as important as the consequences for individuals, the cascading stories of routine abuse should lead both conservatives and progressives to embrace a radical feminist analysis of men’s violence against women and a critique of the sexual-exploitation industries (prostitution, pornography, stripping).

Does the culture avoid radical feminist critiques of this violence and exploitation out of fear of where such critical self-reflection leads – the recognition that the routine nature of sexual assault and harassment is a product of our culture’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the sex/gender system and patriarchal sexuality?

If we decide not to talk about patriarchy because it’s too challenging, then let’s stop pretending we are going to stop sexual violence and harassment, and recognise that, at best, all we can do is manage the problem. If we can’t talk about patriarchy, if we can’t face the myriad ways that we men are socialised to seek domination in sexuality and everyday life, then let’s admit that we are giving up on the goal of a world without rape and harassment.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/. To join his email list, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html.

Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with New Perennials Publishing and the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. Jensen is the co-author, with Wes Jackson, of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published in September 2022 by the University of Notre Dame Press. He is also the host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Jackson. Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021); The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001). Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by Max

    14 November, 2017 at 12:18 am

    No, “be a man” means do the hard thing, the courageous thing, the difficult thing. The phrase has meaning because men have to earn manhood. "Be a woman" has no meaning because women are considered women simply by virtue of their biology. Call it female privilege. "sexuality is defined as the pleasure that men obtain from women". No, if that was true, there would be no such thing as male sex symbols. Nobody would believe that women masturbate and use vibrators so no company would bother to design, manufacture, and market them. Lesbianism wouldnt be considered a sexual orientation but mere asexuality. There is no "patriarchal socialisation". Culture derives from biology. We expect men to be more ambitious, bold, willing to take risks, and fanatically dedicated to their pursuits simply because men are disproportionately more likely to have the genes for those personality traits, and thus more likely to be CEOs, inventors, entrepreneurs, mountain climbers, astronauts,.. or to run for national public office.

    • Max well said thanks for this. Its very hard work to be a man so much is expected of us. And of course we have the highest suicide rates

  • 1) It is absurd to oblige men to embrace radical feminist theory. 2) It is equally absurd to portray radical feminist theory as the only correct analytical framework.

  • What about men who do not rape, would stop a man from raping a woman and find rape porn offensive.... you forgot to mention this. Yes there are very serious issues of violence and coercion against women and they need to be handled. you have not covered all the necessary basis in this article ...

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