Click! Not a Knight in Shining Armor

As a teenager coming of age in the 1970s in mainstream culture in the upper midwest, I missed the United States’ radicalizing movements by a decade and several hundred miles. I developed conventional liberal politics in reaction to the conventional conservative politics of my father and his generation. But in a more basic sense, I grew up depoliticized–like most contemporary Americans, I was never taught to analyze systems and structures of power, and so my banal liberal positions seemed like cutting-edge critique to me. After college I worked as a journalist at mainstream newspapers, which further retarded my ability to think critically about power; reporters who don’t have a political consciousness coming into the field are unlikely to develop one in an industry that claims neutrality but is fanatically devoted to the conventional wisdom.

The raising of my consciousness began when I started a journalism/mass communication doctoral program in 1988, a time when U.S. universities were somewhat more intellectually and politically open than today. After years of the daily grind in newsrooms, I felt liberated by the freedom to read, think and talk to others about all the new ideas I was encountering. My study of the First Amendment led me to the feminist critique of pornography, which at the time was an important focus for debate about the meaning of freedom of expression. My first graduate courses were taught by liberal defenders of pornography, who were the norm in the academy then and now. But I also began talking with activists in a local group that was fighting the sexual-exploitation industries (pornography, prostitution, stripping), and I realized there was a rich, complex and exciting feminist critique which required me to rethink what I thought I knew about freedom, choice and liberation.

From those first inquiries into the sexual-exploitation industries and the role of a pornographic culture in men’s violence, I continued to think about how power is organized and operates around other dimensions of our identities and statuses in the world. After opening the gender door, it was inevitable that I would have to open the race door. From there, questions about the inherent economic injustice in capitalism and the violence required for U.S. imperial domination of the world became central. Finally, I began thinking more about how human domination of the living world is destroying the ecosphere’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.

All of those inquiries led me to the same conclusion: We live in a world structured by illegitimate hierarchies and based on a domination/subordination dynamic. More than 20 years after embarking on this investigation, I can see that clearly. But when I first started confronting these issues, I only knew that the conventional wisdom seemed inadequate, that the platitudes uttered by people in power seemed empty and that the rationalizations offered by the intellectuals in the service of power seemed self-serving.

Asked about my “earliest consciousness-raising memory,” I have no simple answer, because my awakening was such a gradual process. But there were some moments along the way, such as the day I read Andrea Dworkin’s 1983 speech entitled “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” in which she asked men for “one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old.” In that speech she pointed out that feminists don’t hate men, but instead “believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”

I also remember the crucial role of one friend in the anti-pornography group, a white man who was older than I and was a part of not only the feminist movement but the civil-rights, anti-war and environmental struggles. He provided me with a model for how someone with privilege could contribute to radical politics in a principled fashion. In my book on pornography, I wrote about one particularly important moment with Jim Koplin, when we talked about my motivation in volunteering with the group:

“If you want to be part of this because you want to save women, we don’t want you,” he said. At first I was confused–wasn’t the point of critiquing the sexual exploitation of women in pornography to help women? Yes, Jim explained, but too many men who get involved in such work see themselves as knights in shining armor, riding in like the hero to save women, and they usually turn out not to be trustworthy allies. They are in it for themselves, not to challenge masculinity but to play out the role of heroic man in a new, pseudo-feminist context. You have to be in it for yourself, but in a different way, he said.

“You have to be here to save your own life,” Jim told me.

Something about those words resonated in my gut. This is what feminism offered men–not just a way to help those being hurt, but a way to understand that the same system of male dominance that hurt so many women also made it impossible for men to be fully human. I came to understand that my interest in feminist politics was driven in large part by my own alienation from traditional definitions of masculinity. For me to tell a simple story about doing the right thing, implying nobility on my part, wasn’t going to cut it.

I wandered through the first 30 years of my life mostly oblivious to the workings of power, protected by my privilege. For the past 20 years I’ve been struggling to contribute to a variety of movements for social justice and ecological sustainability, getting my consciousness raised on a regular basis whenever I seek out new experiences that push me beyond what I have come to take for granted. Although I love teaching and put considerable energy into my job as a professor, my community and political activities are just as important to me. If consciousness-raising is an ongoing project, it’s not likely to happen in moribund institutions such as universities but will come through engagement with people taking real risks in political work.

More than ever, though, I’m aware that no matter how high anyone’s consciousness in the United States is raised, there may be very little we can do to reverse the consequences of modern industrial society’s assault on the living world. I don’t mean that there is nothing we can or should do to promote ecological sustainability, but only that the processes set in motion during the industrial era may be beyond the point of no return, that the health of the ecosphere that makes our own lives possible may be compromised beyond recovery.

That’s the central problem with my consciousness-raising story. My ideals haven’t changed and my commitment to organizing hasn’t waned, but the weight of the evidence suggests to me that our species is moving into a period of permanent decline during which much of what we have learned will be swamped by rapidly worsening ecological conditions. I think we’re in more trouble than most are willing to acknowledge.

This is not an argument for giving up on or dropping out of radical politics. It’s simply a description of what seems true to me, and I can’t see how our movements can afford to avoid these issues.

I try to avoid the temptation to cast myself as an epic hero who overcomes adversity to see the truth. More difficult is facing the possibility that the human species has been cast as a tragic hero. Tragic heroes aren’t characters who have just run into a bit of bad luck but are protagonists brought down by an error in judgment that results from inherent flaws in their character. The arrogance with which we modern humans have treated the living world–the hubris of the high-energy/high-technology era–may well turn out to be that tragic flaw. Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee the ability to control the destruction we have unleashed.

We live in a world dominated by those who not only exhibit that arrogance but embrace it, refusing to accept the reality of decline. That means our individual awakenings may be taking place within a much larger dying. To face that is to live in a profound state of grief. To stay true to a radical political consciousness is to face that grief.

This post is a part of a week-long blog carnival in honor of Feminist Coming Out Day.

A longer version of this piece appears here.

Cover of Robert Jensen’s book discussing his years as a feminist anti-pornography activist courtesy of


  1. Your book described what was only an internal swirling mass of disconnected-but-related thoughts that I have held for a long time. You finally explained to me why I got into a number of arguments with my friends about their treatment of strippers, girlfriends, and women in general. Why I wasn’t attracted to conventional “femininity” Why porn wasn’t enjoyable for the most part. The book also hardened my ability to stand up and refute people that I normally wouldn’t; friends, bosses, etc. Your book was one of a few watershed pieces of work that actuated a personal change.

    That said, What is your opinion of the user created porn content of the internet? I know that it runs the gamut from vengeful amoral ex-boyfriends to adventurous couples in love. Would you support something akin to a “loving porn” website or movement, or do you think that unlimited access to sex on demand is socio-aesthetically damning?

    • Jensen has made it clear through his writings that he is a disciple of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon. He is publicly opposed to all adult porn – no exceptions.

  2. Mitchell Dean Diaz says:

    I too was there in the John Stoltenberg days, going to NOMAS (the National Organization of Men Against Sexism) conferences, while protesting with John at the then Chicago Playboy mansion and trying to write a critical feminist masters thesis, as a beginning of a dissertation, on the Robert Bly MythoPoetic Men's movement.

    I even helped start a group in Austin called Men for a Rape Free Society; we worked with frats and men on campus with the help of Stephen Weinberg of Minnesota, to raise male consciousness re: the consequences of rape, and the stereotypical male thinking about how men know when a woman wants to have sex. At one particular Rape Awareness week panel I can remember a young man asking with all the stereotypical male sexist jargon how he could possibly help.

    The response was swift and deftly served-up by one of the feminist moderators. The guy was publicly humiliated. Then she asked me how we could get more men to do what I, what we were doing in Men for a Rape Free Society, including testifying during Rape Awareness week how we ourselves had been complicit in the mistreatment of women. My response was simple and based on the previous interaction with the young guy: that when you see a young guy, obviously curious about the solution, wanting to be a part of the solution, who doesn't know how yet to present his questions without sounding like the stereotypical male, DO NOT SHOOT HIM DOWN, don't humiliate him. He wants to know, or he wouldn't be here asking.

    But alas, that was also my personal experience in grad school taking feminist theory classes. Although working alongside the likes of Michael Kimmel, whom I had met at a NOMAS conference in Chicago, at my University I got tired of having to justify my reality as one of the only heterosexual males to be studying Feminist Theory. It had been a courageous choice on my part to move from the comfort of a prestigious white male dominated Marriage and Family area of study in Sociology (motivated by the desire not to be like my father, an abusive high achieving first gen Mexican/Native American) to a marginal area like feminist theory, but they had the answers, at least analytically, it seemed.

  3. Mitchell Dean Diaz says:

    Part 2: Unfortunately, this was also at the time of the big PC protest nationwide, with our university on the cover of time, over the forceful indoctrination of students in multicultural studies, where a few wanted to make multicultural studies a course requirement rather than an elective, and sought to have it integrated into the comp and rhetoric component of the english writing requirement. At any rate, the radicals shot themselves in the foot on that one, and there was a great rift and backlash as a result. Not a good time to be a heterosexual male in feminist theory. Needless to say, it became nearly impossible to get the academic support I needed to write my thesis or begin to put a committee together to write a dissertation. The damage had been done. And yes, I also a young man, had probably said some things early on that made my professors and classmates dubious of my intentions.

    Nevertheless, I like the young man, was operating from a place of good intention, though it nevertheless, in this environment, became just to oppressive to deal with any more. So I left, and ironically a dormant drinking problem (from my childhood when my father died) reared its ugly head and I found myself not just in men's group therapy but attending Robert Bly lectures, hanging out with John Lee and Shepard Bliss, and doing therapy still years later, in recovery, with Dan Jones. Even more ironic was the day I saw the feminist professor I loved the most and most wanted to work with the most but had come to despise because she made me feel like the young man at the rape awareness rally, and Icould never seem to get beyond stammering panic attacks in her presence, asks me: "Don't you ever miss it? Don't you want to come back?" To which I replied, "No. No I don't." And she said, "Why?" But I did not have the heart to her, "In large degree, because of you." (And truth be told, in large part because my male, renowned, Marriage and Family professor was no help at all.)

    And I was indignant, that not unlike my father–or my mother for that matter–in our dysfunctional academic setting, that she was just as oblivious, Billy Bud like, with regard to her complicity in thwarting the development of a future colleague.

    Most all is forgiven, and I still consider myself a pro-feminst man amidst a sea of shark like males, and women friends who lament to me about them. This time around, I just choose my battles wisely and more often try to operate as an example rather than some kind of warrior. And I might add for those who still consider it a Battle of the Sexse: it took the combination of traditional therapy, recovery from alcoholism, the mythopoetic men, and feminism to realize how to truly be true and honest with myself so that I might have any chance at contributing constructively to effecting a just change. The personal is political. And I agree with Catherine Mackinnon, until such time as there is parity in the courts and in congress there will be no real social justice, and as regards personal behavior, I believe what William Graham Sumner said, "State ways cannot change Folkways." That I believe, with societal support or not, must come from the heart and be nurtured.

  4. Robert-

    “You have to be here to save your own life,”

    I agree. Dehumanization is a two way street. Sure, pornography dehumanizes those portrayed- but it also dehumanizes the viewer.

    Thanks for the article.

  5. Jim Koplin, referenced in this article, died yesterday of heart failure related to pneumonia. He was a life-long fighter for justice on a number of fronts, and a teacher both in university settings and in his everyday dealings with people. I will miss him.

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