John Stoltenberg on manhood, male supremacy, and men as feminist allies
This interview was originally published in french on Isabelle Allonso’s website and was translated by Sporenda.
Q: “Refusing to Be a Man” was first published 23 years ago (1990). Do you consider that since its publication, the message of the book has inched its way somewhat in the mainstream, or is it still marginal?
I’ve been very heartened by the renewed interest in radical feminism, which—as I can see now on social media—is international. I always intended the ethical framework of “Refusing to Be a Man” to be congruent with radical feminism’s critique of gender as a hierarchy—and that critique definitely seems to be catching on, especially among young activists.
Q: In 1994 you published a book entitled “The End of Manhood.” Do you consider that we are indeed witnessing “the end of manhood” (or the beginning of the end?) or is it just an updating, an adaptive evolution, of manhood?
There is now definitely an updating, adaptive, “reformer” trend. I see it as an attempt to retain a core sense of gendered identity as “a real man” and at the same time act in ways that are “good.” You see this in the US, for instance, in organizing around the idea of “healthy masculinity.” (See my essay “Why Talking About ‘Healthy Masculinity’ Is Like Talking About ‘Healthy Cancer.”) But I honestly believe this reformer project, while well intentioned, is flawed. My book “The End of Manhood” is obviously not reformist; it’s radical, meaning that it goes to the root of how the identity manhood is constructed. In that book I articulate the difference between “gender identity” and “moral identity” and explain in everyday, practical terms why someone born penised and raised to be a man cannot inhabit both “selves” at the same time. He can flip back and forth between the two different identities—but they cancel each other out. So the “end of manhood” my book refers to is an opting out of the insidious quest to be “the man there” and to find instead one’s own truest self in the ethics of how one acts toward others.
Q: The thesis of “rejuvenating” manhood in order to perpetuate it is being supported by the very dynamic development of pornography, the globalization of the prostitution/traffic industry, the return of misogynistic religions, etc. And if that’s indeed the case, is manhood’s “new lease on life” due to its synergistic pact with ultra-liberal capitalism, and the new weapons that capitalism provides to patriarchy to keep women under control: in particular, the exploitation/merchandising of female bodies on an unprecedented scale?
There’s actually nothing new about that “lease on life” for manhood; only the methods of perpetuating it have changed. At bottom manhood is grounded in a “conserver” gender fundamentalism that goes back thousands of years. It doesn’t want women to be human, because that jeopardizes manhood definitionally; it wants only archetypal manhood, which exists only through domination of others treated unequally. And that’s of course the sense of personal identity that pornography, prostitution, and misogynist religions promise to penised people today. The “conserver” compulsion has been around, unchecked, a very long time. I completely agree, though, that it now has at its disposal the “new weapons” you name.
Q: The reasons you give for renouncing manhood are as follows (if I understood correctly):
• Moral reasons: If one wants to be “a man of conscience”, manhood has to go, as it’s always about making someone “less than human.”
• Relationship improvement: Manhood precludes any sincere affection and love; men are required not to feel anything toward anyone, or to bury their feelings so deep that they lose track of them.
Do you really think these reasons are enough to convince men to renounce the many privileges that manhood entails? More generally, do you think that major progress toward a “humanization” of mankind has ever been made through calls for ethics and justice alone?
First of all, your two paraphrases are indeed apt. And you remind me that years ago someone said of my work that it’s really about telling men how to be human. And I remember being surprised by the simplicity and clarity of that summary. I do believe (as I say in both “Refusing” and “Manhood”) that “the core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood”—meaning that one must focus on inhabiting one’s own moral identity and cease struggling to conform to, and measure up against, one’s assigned gender identity. (More recently I echoed that ethic in an essay—brashly titled “Why Talking About ‘Healthy Masculinity’ Is Like Talking About ‘Healthy Cancer’”—that explains further how and why the gender identity manhood is a constraint on conscience.) Can such a call for ethics and justice alone create change in individuals and in human society? Well, the record in history on that is spotty. As we know, for instance, unless “Love one another as yourself” (or some variant of that precept) is inscribed in people’s hearts, or “conscience,” it sort of doesn’t mean much; it’s just empty words. But the fact is, it does have meaning in human experience and human history; people do understand that it points to a better way to live—because one thereby inhabits a better, more rewarding sense of self and because one’s relationships are thereby made more fulfilling and harmonious. Calls to ethics and justice don’t alone create change. But when people witness other people’s positive, lived experiences from acting ethically and justly, that’s what communicates and creates the change.
Q: Male supremacy is not only about material privileges: The belief in the superiority of their own gender provides also major psychological benefits for men: feeling good about oneself, confidence, feeling of entitlement. These psychological benefit—similar to those provided by racism to white people—might be even more difficult to give up, particularly by men who are social/economic “failures” or are discriminated against. Why would men who are second-class citizens and have nothing to validate them except their belonging to the “superior gender” give up their only source of self-esteem and satisfaction?
That’s a really good question, and to be honest, I’m not sure I had a good answer until writing “End of Manhood,” where I figured out a key theoretical link between men’s dominance of women and men’s dominance of other men. I’d always suspected that we couldn’t effectively address, for instance, men’s violence against women without recognizing its relationship to men’s violence against other men—and vice versa: We could not effectively address men’s violence against other men without recognizing its relationship to men’s violence against women. But I did not fully understand exactly what that interconnection was until I was working on “Manhood.” (To more easily communicate that interconnection I have since given it a popularizable nickname, “the game theory of gender,” and I’ve summarized it in this video.) The short answer to your question is that those many men who are treated, as you put it, as “second-class citizens” have been consigned to that demeaned status precisely by other men who are proving their manhood (a gender-identity proof that can be achieved through racial and social-economic oppression as well as through sexual assault). The next challenge, as I see it, is to help penised people understand that in the social system of manhood-proving through dominance, nearly everyone loses—even allegedly alpha males. I’m no theorist of economics, and my meager understanding of capitalism is second-hand, but I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that manhood is analogous to capital in that it cannot exist without oppression and exploitation. So there simply needs to be a revolution. But first the potential revolutionaries, brothers and sisters alike, need to understand what’s at stake for them and why.
Q: Andrea Dworkin witnessed firsthand the betrayal of women by progressive men after the Vietnam war. The support of pornography and prostitution by most progressive men is the most obvious expression of this betrayal. Some feminists say that the only difference between progressive men and conservative men when it comes to women is that conservative men support the private property of women (in marriage) and progressive men support the collective property of women (through the “sexual liberation” of women granting unlimited sexual access of men to all women). Do you agree with this feminist view?
Absolutely. I also believe that male supremacy constructs male sexuality such that there is a literal eroticism of owning that accompanies both the private-property and the collective-property views of women’s bodies. (I wrote about this in an article titled “Male Sexuality: Why Ownership Is Sexy,” which unfortunately is not available online except here for a fee.)
Q: How do you see the place of pro-feminist men in the feminist movement? A number of feminists have reservations about it because, in their view, some of these allies tend to speak in their place and pretend to decide what feminism should be about. According to these feminists, men’s contribution to feminism can be of help only if it meets certain conditions: acknowledging their privilege, never forgetting that they belong to the dominant class. And do for feminism what they can do best as men: deconstruct male supremacy from the inside. Do you agree with these views or do you think they are too limiting?
First of all I don’t think any man of conscience—whether self-identified as pro-feminist or not—can or should presume to speak in women’s place or “decide what feminism should be about.” That’s just a baseline principle. Many women have justifiable grievances about individual men who have disregarded it. Those “me too” men ought to know better, and they should not require scolding and hand-holding from women to figure it out, because exemplary life lessons abound: Individuals from the dominant class in other struggles have found countless meaningful ways to be of use while analogously abiding by that principle—for example, whites in the black civil-rights movement in the US, sons and daughters born to wealth in the movement for economic justice, non-Jews in the movements against antisemitism. Such sincerely committed allies always recognize and acknowledge the privilege that stems from their membership in the dominant class. And often such allies have found that their usefulness lies in deconstructing, disrupting, interrupting, exposing, protesting, and defying such systems of oppression from the inside. Same holds for any man of conscience who wishes to be of use on behalf of feminist revolution. It’s not complicated.
Q: More specifically, do you think your “job” as a feminist ally would be to reveal the “secrets” of the dominants to the dominated? Is this something that must be done because women are by definition less aware of the extent, methods, and abuses of male domination than men (“Women don’t know how much men hate them”)?
Well, I wouldn’t call it a “job” (which in English makes it sound onerous), but I do believe I have a moral obligation to disclose as an “inside informant” how male supremacy operates to the detriment of women. The reason is very simple: To remain silent would be to conceal my complicity.
Q: “Whenever a man tries to act as a real enough man, his actions have negative consequences for someone else, or the act doesn’t work.” Essentially, you say that being a man is about being harmful to someone. Is it not a very dark view of manhood, and shouldn’t you take into consideration the positive, protective side of manhood—or is “man-the-protector” only a misleading advertisement, a protection racket, to justify male domination?
Well, authentic protection doesn’t have a gender. The impulse to care for, nurture, support, sustain, keep and save another from harm, in furtherance of another’s well-being and wholeness—that impulse is not hardwired into the Y chromosome; it’s the positive, protective side of being human. You kind of answered your own question there: The gendering myth of “man the protector” is generally a cover for keeping someone down. When you’re truly protecting another for the sake of the other (not to prove your manhood or to earn a dominator badge), you’re really acting from your moral identity.
Q: You describe men as living in a quasi-permanent state of fear: of not performing manhood adequately, of being discovered as frauds and impostors, etc.
Manhood appears as a fiction permanently under attack from reality, a sort of punctured balloon that needs constant re-inflating.
Is the frailty of manhood as pronounced as you describe it? After all, manhood is certainly demanding for men individually but it’s not the only fiction maintained through propaganda and violence, and it must not be so fragile, as it has managed to last since the dawn of time?
To “do” manhood properly requires, among other things, a certain self-induced amnesia about one’s vulnerability, especially as it was experienced in childhood and boyhood but also later in life. I’ve never talked in depth with someone raised to be a man whose memories of that vulnerability were not still in him, however much he has tried to suppress them. The armored mask of manhood may appear from the outside to be credibly affixed. But from the inside, I believe, it is always to some extent ill-fitting. And men’s denial of manhood’s fundamental fiction is—like amnesia—a way of keeping memories of vulnerability at bay.
Q: I always thought manhood is mostly about being a coward, as it’s mostly about picking on people who are weaker than you. Based on that, one could say that the bully would be the ultimate expression of manhood.
Going one step further, if one reads clinical descriptions of psychopathic personalities, one can’t help noticing how so many of the traits defined as characteristic of this particular personality disorder are also traits that define manhood: lack of empathy, being self-centered and using others as means to your ends, lack of moral conscience, etc.
What do you think of these observations?
I think they’re spot on.
Q: Your books are full of very disturbing statements for stereotypical males: “In people born penised, the accompanying prostate gland is located much more conveniently for pleasurable stimulation via the rectum than the clitoris is located for pleasurable stimulation via the vaginal canal in people born vulvaed.”
Once, I said to a man who told me that women were made with all these orifices to receive penises, that men had two out of the three orifices that women have, and could therefore receive penises as well. This man was utterly shocked, in fact he was steaming mad.
Some of your statements on manhood must have on men the effect of a red flag on a bull. Did you face this type of reaction often, how do you deal with it, and do you see it as the best validation of your analysis?
Ha! Your images of “red flag” and “bull” are very funny!
That first sentence you quote—the complex one about the prostate’s position—actually astonished me too when it first dawned on me and I wrote it down. (It’s in “The End of Manhood” on page 212.) But there are a lot of astonishing things about how human physiology has evolved that don’t sync up with binary gender ideas at all. So yes, of course, that can come as a shock—and maybe even as a distress to someone who’s heavily invested in gender polarity. As Catharine A. MacKinnon has explained, “difference” constructs and maintains “dominance.” Belief in gender polarity is in fact, fundamentally, adherence to gender dominance. Letting go of the setup behind that system can seem very threatening—until one gets that only on the other side are real liberation, freedom, and equality.
Thanks very much for your time.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for your great questions.
John Stoltenberg is long-time activist against sexual violence, a cultural critic on gender and ethics, and the pro-radical feminist author of “Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice” (rev. ed. 2000), “The End of Manhood: Parables on Sex and Selfhood” (rev. ed. 2000), and “What Makes Pornography ‘Sexy’?”(1994). In the 1980s he worked with Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon on civil-rights anti-pornography campaigns, and since 2000 he creative-directed a sexual-assault-prevention media campaign that he conceived based on the theme “My strength is not for hurting.”
A former magazine editor, he continues to write about gender and ethics; blogs about theater in Washington, DC, where he lives; and works as a communications consultant to nonprofits. In 2013 he published a novel, “GONERZ”, in which he projects a radical feminist vision into a post-apocalyptic future.
He was the life companion of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin from 1974 until her death in 2005.