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"The Conversations Project" Stoltenberg Writings: A Radical Profeminist Critique

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This blog exists to challenge white heterosexual male supremacy as an institutionalized ideology and a systematized set of practices which are misogynistic, heterosexist, racist, genocidal, and ecocidal.

image of John’s book cover is from here

I will be offering my own critiques of what is being published by John Stoltenberg, co-creator (with Cristan Williams) of The Conversations Project (hereafter called The Project or TCP) and pro-feminist author of Refusing To Be A Man.

This flows from my previous post and John’s response to it. You may click here for that.

In this post, I continue to analyse John’s understanding of Andrea’s early writing on sex and gender. I seek to clarify and identify her position based on her words and begin to address some problems I have with The Conversations Project. The installment of John’s writings in TCP, that I am quoting from below, is titled “The Sex/Gender Binary: Essentialism.” 

(Quoted text, of John’s, is indented.)

… as [Andrea Dworkin] first articulated in Woman Hating, she did not believe there is a sex binary in the human species. And clarifying that became the second intention of mine in writing the piece. I wanted to explain that Andrea understood there is no essential division of humans (or material or ontological or biological or however you want to say it) into two discrete, fixed, and absolute categories of so-called sex.

This warrants careful analysis because I think partially incorrect conclusions are drawn from her statements. What Andrea was clear about was that ‘sex’, even if we observe its characteristics within patriarchal contexts, is not metaphysically dualistic or biologically discretely only two things. It is not neatly or purely divided into two distinct camps; the two named sexes are neither polar nor oppositional; here is no scientific basis for thinking there is. What we experience as ‘a sex binary’ (defined as “only female and male”), it is argued by Andrea and John, should not be viewed as all there is–in the here and now.

But discussion of this always exists accompanying a political framework and vicious reality; such discussions may reinforce or resist dominant political understandings and atrocities. For Andrea, the clearly stated agenda was highlighting and confronting the brutal and cruel violence of male supremacy: the fact that the binary reveals two sexes configured and lived as a political hierarchy; also as cultural difference. For John, within this first installment for The Project, the agenda is re-conceptualising ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.

While there is no ‘essential division of humans’, Andrea’s work does not refuse recognition that most people show up (in whatever language one speaks) as “female” or “male”. The problem for humanity isn’t that most people appear to be female or male, when born. The problem is what gets femicidally layered into those designations.

In Woman Hating, Andrea demonstrates that the dividing line is political, not objective. But she does not make a case for ignoring that mammals, including humans, exist in the world primarily as a dimorphic species. Very clearly she states: they do not exist discretely as such:

It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. — Andrea Dworkin [emphasis in italics, mine]

Notice the sentence doesn’t read: “It is not true there are two sexes.” (Period.) I suggest there’s a reason for that: because she’s speaking about it relative to what follows. And because she isn’t saying there are not two sexes in this world. And, in this world of ours, male supremacy is an ideology that enforces many things about ‘sex’ and ‘gender’; chief among them is the inferiorisation and subordination of women and girls to men, through various forms of violence, psychic and physical, religious and secular, intellectual and sexual, from the male Right and from the male Left.

John, I think you and I agree: only humans give overtly political and ethnic and cultural meanings to the two general biomorphic forms, and only humans get into insisting the division is discrete or not discrete, natural or God-given, masculinist or feminist.

In my view, those of us who are women inside this system of reality will never be free until the delusion of sexual polarity is destroyed and until the system of reality based on it is eradicated entirely from human society and from human memory. This is the notion of cultural transformation at the heart of feminism. This is the revolutionary possibility inherent in the feminist struggle. – Andrea Dworkin

In particular I’ve learned from recent online communications that there are those who identify as radical feminists who either do not comprehend or who disavow what Andrea said here about the difference between reality (the social-political hierarchy and polarity of gender) and truth (the infinite multisexuality that she believed to be intrinsic to the human species).

You move forward on a writing and speaking project to free us from the delusion of sexual polarity. You position The Project as at odds with radical feminists, not white male supremacists. The problem, here named, is with radical feminists’ alleged misread of Andrea’s work, not with anti-radical anti-feminists’ violence against girls and women. That’s a big concern.

I contend that Andrea left behind any project to identify “an infinite multisexuality” “intrinsic to the human species”. I see no evidence of her interest in even naming it or further addressing it, beyond Our Blood–beyond her work in the 1970s, some of which she acknowledges was theoretically problematic. I source that in the other post.

Continuing, from The Project installment:

Some have accused me of being revisionist for pointing out this fact of Andrea’s intellectual framework, which they reject because they believe there exists a true, fundamental, natural, essential sex binary. But the reason I am sure I’m right is that Andrea’s understanding to the contrary expressed itself not only in her written work but in our life together. 

…Unfortunately in the ire about the piece that ensued in that faction of radical feminists—on the basis of its title alone, angry objections began appearing online even before the piece published—my three intentions got overlooked.

I won’t speculate about those accusers you don’t name. I don’t believe there is a “true, fundamental, natural, essential sex binary” in the way Andrea identifies it. Nor do any radical feminists I know. It’s unclear to me why you identify any faction of radical feminists at all. Are they really powerful and influential enough to warrant such attention? For whom are they an oppressive force in the real world?

My problem with your re-vision is that it has no meaningful connection to Andrea’s decades-long political project; you only set out bits of her early work as the justification for your new endeavor. You state it is “in her written work”. I see it in yours, not most of hers. As you know better than anyone else, her most ambitious, arduous writing came after Our Blood.

So, in order to ground this in her work, can you please identify where in any of her books after Our Blood, does she again mention these ideas? Why does an abandoned theoretical idea of hers get centered, while the issues she focused on in her last decades go unmentioned? What of her work post-1980 inspires you? And what does it inspire you to do?

If her name were never brought into this Project, there’d be no interest for me in wondering why you are making this your project: of course you can do what you wish with your life; you have options, as I do, due to various levels of privilege. And I can see how it relates to much of your earlier work. But you have made this project about her politics, not in your past writings (as I discussed in the last post), but now, in The Project.

Julie Bindel is a political lesbian and radical feminist colleague of yours. A year or so ago, did you run your project idea by her or other radical feminist colleagues–women you or Andrea associated with, whose politics you agree with?

I wonder if The Project’s focus and inclusion of Andrea’s work is being rejected by some feminist activists for other reasons. I contend it is your responsibility as a pro-feminist to take time to find out what the reasons are, especially from those you know. I think you ought to publicly engage with them to the point of mutual understanding. I don’t think you should conclude you already know what people are angry about, in other words. And I think it is presumptuous of you to chalk it up to this:

I have to acknowledge that in that essay I conflated what some people would distinguish as the meanings of the words sex and gender. I’ve used the words interchangeably in other contexts as well, which I know to some is a linguistic no-no.

I think “linguistic no-no” is belittling and dismissive. There are very serious reasons why such distinctions get made.

Drawing a bright line between sex and gender is quite the fashion these days; in some quarters it’s de rigueur.

Again, dismissive. And, curiously, the people who do this most routinely, in my experience are white academic sexual liberals, queer and non-queer. The people who least distinguish between the terms are radical feminists. Where do you overtly critique those sexual liberals and those queer theorists in The Project? Again, the focus on some “angry”, ire-ful white women becomes problematic very quickly, if you don’t take aim at those with far more institutional influence and power.

The thing is, if one believes (as Andrea did and as I do) that the notion of an essential sex binary is a fallacy, then the point of sorting out what’s “sex” from what’s “gender” becomes irrelevant. Understandably, such sorting is insisted upon by those who want to say that whatever vagaries and variables may go by the name of gender, there exists a fixed, essential binary of sex, some core definitional content divisible unequivocally into two. Well fine, if that’s what one wants and needs to say. But if one not only doesn’t want to say that but doesn’t see any point in meaning it—if one doesn’t believe those two so-called essential sexes are true—well then, what’s the point?

I don’t agree that many people’s effort to sort this stuff out is contingent on the existence of an ‘essential’ binary. That position comes from an astounding place of privilege. Here’s one reason why many people sort out what is ‘sex’ from what is ‘gender’: because the two non-essential sexes are real, and violence is done to real people. And feminists, especially, notice the sex of the people most targeted. Isn’t that reason enough? Not everyone can afford to start from a place of hypothesis and theory. (Andrea let go of this approach, as she acknowledges in Without Apology.) Most radical feminists build theory up from the ground of their oppressed and imperiled lives. That is precisely what Andrea did: listened to countless women, learned what she could, mined her own experience, and built theory from it. You start with the theory and go from there. That’s white, economic, and male privilege in practice.
I can hear my critics thinking, This dude doesn’t get that there are biological women; he must hate women.

I am thinking, “He’s organising his writing to not be directly accountable to his critics, and is instead dismissively and incorrectly expressing their concerns.” I don’t think there are “biological women”, nor does any radical or feminist friend of mine. You know who does: most conservatives and liberals. But, in what has been published as part of The Project, you do not name them or their anger as objectionable.

I get why I have rankled these critics:

You continue to be dismissive in white and male supremacist ways. “Rankled”? How about legitimately pissed off? How about betrayed? Your privilege and lack of engagement allows you to term it as you do.

They believe something Andrea didn’t, and I’ve angered them by saying so.

Have the radical feminists you know well clearly indicated that’s what they are angry about? Some of these women we know in common. I’ve not heard them identify that as what they are angry about.

But beyond that I am honestly perplexed that a radical feminist politics of abolishing male supremacy should need to rest upon a biological determinant at all.

The radical feminism you and I know well, doesn’t rely on a biological determinant, or ”the sine qua non of [their] radical feminism”, as you stated in a recent comment to this blog. I think you are cherry-picking among radical feminists, for those who warrant your criticism.

Regardless, since this is presently a conversation between us, I don’t think it rests upon it.

Does one need to believe there is such a thing as a biological black person in order to know that white supremacy and its corollary race hate must be eliminated? Of course not. People with radical, to-the-root politics get that the purpose and function of white supremacy is to construct, assert, and maintain whiteness (which likes to think of itself as having an unequivocally physiological basis in the human genome somewhere but is in fact just phony-identity-defending hatred).

I’m not a fan of reducing white supremacy to an effort to reinforce a phony identity of race hatred. The problem is the material impoverishment and terrorism of Black and Brown people, and of genocide. I state that for the same reason I object to male supremacy being reduced to a problem of sex essentialism or sex hate, which I think The Project does.

Exactly the same justice-based, social-constructivist radicalism applies to manhood (which likes to think of itself as the birthright of biologically “real men” but is in fact just phony-identity-defending hatred). What’s driving both systems of dominance—white supremacy and male supremacy—is nothing innate in human nature; it is the drive to reify an identity construct that exists only through institutionalized dominance and acts of power over and against. But the problem of these two essentialisms—race and sex—goes beyond being analytically false and useless. As pet principles upon which to base an effective politics that has revolution and liberation as a goal, they are not only shortsighted but counterrevolutionary: Insisting on there being biological blacks plays into the malevolent cultural delusion there are and should be biological whites, which is precisely the fallacy white supremacists want to reify. Similarly, insisting on there being real biological women plays into the cultural delusion that there can and should be real biological men—a notion that Andrea saw through before I met her and that I began to repudiate shortly after knowing her.

I guess what I’m trying to express to you, John, is that lots of liberals, progressives, and radicals, and even some conservatives, don’t think race is a product of biological essentialism. Many people who are white supremacist know the history of the construction of whiteness over time–they know it as they reflect on their own families’ relative acquisition of wealth.

I’ve noticed that people tend to think of sex and gender metaphorically. Whatever the science, the data, the findings, the so-called facts, our brains like to conceptualize this dimension of human nature and experience in what are basically images: binary, category, continuum, spectrum, and the like. These are all merely metaphors, really, signs that seem to help us wrap our minds around meanings that in fact can be elusive and consequently easily contested. Disagreements pop up as to which metaphor is the correct one for whatever people want or ought to mean when they say the wordssex and gender. But really, we’re all talking metaphors, mental imagery for different human beings’ experiences of human embodiment.

Everyone I know tends to think of gender as reality, violence, oppression; as what Andrea called Life and Death. That paragraph, especially, is post-modern discourse of the problematic kind: the reduction of harsh and oppressive reality into matters of language, ideas, and disagreement.

I’ll pause here, John, and welcome your responses.

“An activist and writer at the blog, A Radical Profeminist”.


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