Pt. 8, Discursive Ontology: Feminism, Identity, and Manhood

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Radical feminist John Stoltenberg responds to trans feminist Cristan Williams‘ questions regarding the discursive contexts Stoltenberg has used when conceptualizing “gender identity” and “sexual identity”. Stoltenberg expounds upon his contextualization of “manhood” while requesting that Williams discuss the ways “gender identity” is used within trans feminist discourse.

Keywords: Manhood Gender Gender Identity Language

Discursive Ontology: Feminism, Identity, and Manhood
BY John Stoltenberg

sub1bWow, well first of all, I’m humbled—quite blown away actually—that you quote Wittig and me in the same breath. Her words are so prescient and amazing. I’m thrilled that you have included her in our conversation.

You’re quite right to note that in Refusing to Be a Man I used the terms “gender identity” and “sexual identity” interchangeably. And your question reminds me of the Great Vocabulary Problem I faced when I began writing about all this stuff.

Back in the day, my objective was to figure out a gender theory that explained the world as radical feminists saw and named it in terms that made personal sense to me. I hoped that the terms I found would be meaningful to other people raised to be a man, but I was my own first audience.

Because nearly all of radical feminist writing was addressed to people called women, I had to do some very faithful translating. Centrally, I knew, I had to find a way to language the specious sense of self that male supremacy holds out as universal and optimal for everyone assigned male at birth. That speciousness was the core insight of radical feminism that changed my life, but I found conveying that insight to others who might also benefit from it a major communications challenge. The problem was always how to point to the fiction without reifying the very identity I was trying to interrogate.

In addition to the problem of naming the specious sense of self, I tried out several ways to name the people I was trying to communicate with about it. I didn’t want to inadvertently reify the specious sense of self in how I referred to them. Thus in some early work I spoke of “genital males” to mean humans whose external genital tubercle at birth was deemed long enough to categorize as a penis. In later work I spoke of “penised people” to try to point to so-called anatomical sexedness as merely an attribute, not a foundational identity (the way “curly haired people” says nothing definitional about who they are). But those efforts were flawed. The best I’ve come up with so far is “people raised to be a man,” because it focuses on the socialization without claiming validity or varity for the illusory end to which the socialization aims.

To name the illusory identity that male socialization is supposed to reify, I settled on the word “manhood”. Early on I abandoned the word “masculinity” for that purpose, because it’s a word better suited to connote a style or fashion of self-presentation. The operational difference between “manhood” and “masculinity” can be observed viscerally when someone raised to be a man is challenged for not being a real-enough man. That’s always a challenge to prove one’s “manhood”. Masculinity—whatever one wears or however one looks or sounds or moves—is but costuming and accessorizing. Masculinity does not prove manhood; it just dresses up its aspirants in ephemeral symbols. Proof of manhood can only be done dispositively in action that affects the inferiorization or negation of someone else. And that practical insight—which spoke to me deeply because I recognized its deleterious ethics in my own life—became my contribution to the radical feminist discussion.

Looking at my life through a lens of radical feminism—which is another way of saying “critiquing my life”—I became profoundly aware of an aspect of myself that troubled me. The dust-jacket copy I wrote for my second book states the issue succinctly: “Why do men so often act as if they are split in two—like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and why do even ‘good’ men display behavior that hurts others?”

I knew—as did Andrea, very well—that notwithstanding my ostensible stature as someone who espoused radical feminist principles, I did not always walk the talk. I was capable of really fucking up in ways that hurt others. And I determined I needed to understand why. Thus began my work on the book that got titled The End of Manhood1. In it I looked hard at the anxiety that people raised to be a man (myself included) have about the judgments on them that come from other people raised to be a man. And I discovered the dimensions of the secret social truces by which people raised to be a man validate each other’s manhood at hurtful cost to individuals they designate as lesser. I concluded that the drive to reify one’s manhood, or one’s gender identity as I now called it, ineluctably led to exactly the ethical lapses that I knew myself capable of and culpable for. When I was in manhood-proving mode was when I invariably fucked up.

I also knew myself—in a mode I could honestly call my best self—to be capable of empathic, supportive, and compassionate action. People who knew me to be a good and decent person were familiar with this self too. What I needed to understand was: What tipped me from this mode to the other, what flipped the switch? And I figured out that it was gender anxiety, the residual panic from a lifetime of male socialization trauma about whether I was a real-enough man.

That’s how I came to understand the difference between gender identity (which always requires manhood-proving action) and what I now called moral identity (which always expresses mutual selfhood). For people raised to be a man, gender identity and moral identity are mutually exclusive modes of being. We can flip back and forth between them, sometimes in an instant. Yet if we become conscious of the speciousness of the manhood against which we were traumatized to measure ourselves and that therefore sets off our panic, we always have a choice, moment to moment, which mode to be in.

Recently, as a consequence of my embattled online involvement in the so-called trans/radfem fray, I’ve been rethinking the language I’ve used to articulate the audience I’ve written for—the audience I’ve been naming “people raised to be a man.” For decades I’ve spoken of the need for such people to “refuse to be a man,” by which I have always meant an ethical disengagement from, and disloyalty to, the specious identity manhood. The notion of “refusing to be a man” has been misunderstood by many people since I first named it in 1974 (a few months after I met Andrea), but it’s really quite simple: It’s analogous to what “refusing to be white” would mean to anyone of Northern European ancestry who makes a conscious lifelong choice to resist white-supremacist beliefs, value systems, privileges, and behaviors. Similarly within the ethical framework that presents itself to anyone raised to be a man, choosing one’s moral identity over one’s gender identity is tantamount to “refusing to be a man.”

So I’d like to ask you, Cristan, How do you hear that language? What does it mean to you? And do those whose gender transitioning expresses a determination to literally no longer live as a man also have a way of naming or conceptualizing their disengagement from, or conscientious resistance to, the ethics of manhood proving (and the male socialization that drives and insists upon manhood-proving behavior)? I’ve never had an opportunity to ask anyone who would know. I’ve been supposing or assuming that experientially and volitionally the gender transitioning and the ethical disengaging are not the same thing. (Put another way: Transitioning to be a woman is not necessarily “refusing to be a man” in the ethical/transactional sense I mean here, just as “refusing to be a man” need not entail transitioning to be a woman; they are separate expressions and separate choices that may or may not coincide but do not inherently correlate.) But don’t actually know.

I hope that’s clear, and if not, I hope you’ll help me say it better.

About This Series:
What you are reading is a conversation between Cristan Williams and John Stoltenberg that began more than a year ago. In April 2014 John published a personal essay about Andrea Dworkin, his life partner for thirty-one years, titled “Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic.” Cristan happened to read it and had a question for John, which she asked him in the comment thread. Unaware of who Cristan was, John replied. Shortly thereafter Cristan contacted John asking if he would be willing to be interviewed in The TransAdvocate, where she is managing editor. One email led to another and before long the two were writing back and forth in what became a wide-ranging, nearly book-length conversation. After several months, they realized what it was all about: “the radical inclusivity of radical feminism,” a conviction that both Cristan and John deeply share. That conversation, which is ongoing, is being published for the first time in installments on this site.
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  1. The title was the inspired suggestion of my and Andrea’s dear friend and agent, Elaine Markson.

1 Thought.

  1. Much as I try, I can’t completely mentally disconnect “lover of testosterone” from “enactor of violence”.

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