The Emperor’s New Penis

By Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith

Men have been silencing women for ten thousand years and it’s happening still.

At the “Law and Disorder Conference” in Portland, OR, on May 11-12, two women were peacefully tabling, handing out literature, and selling books from our organization, Deep Green Resistance. A group of five queer activists came up to the table and one of the men began shouting at the women, using aggressive language and threatening gestures. He grabbed and defaced table materials. When one of the women went to protect the materials, he marked her arm and hand as well.

This conference states it has a policy of safer spaces, but “safer spaces” evidently doesn’t apply to women, because although most people in the room had no choice but to hear the shouting, no one, including the organizers, intervened to stop this man and his aggressive behavior.

A half an hour later, a male DGR member tried to engage in respectful conversation with these queer activists. They began insulting him, and escalated to throwing trash and food at his head. Apparently the “safer space” policy doesn’t apply to men, either.

The next day the DGR crew went back for more tabling, and an angry mob of queer activists again approached the table, yelling and cursing at them, and demanded that they leave. You can watch the video. The DGR members were respectful and courteous. They tried to de-escalate. Nonetheless, they were the recipients of bullying, threats, and silencing. Once again, for all their talk of “safer spaces,” the organizers did not intervene.

In a statement later released on the conference’s Facebook page, one of the organizers defended the attacks, saying, “Speaking personally as a white cis-male, it is not my place to dictate how anyone who feels unsafe or oppressed by DGR’s transphobia should respond to it.” So safe space does not in any way mean physical safety, as in freedom from aggression and assault. It means freedom to be aggressive and assaultive if you feel oppressed. What this in practice meant is that a man assaulted a woman for disagreeing with him, and destroyed books he disagreed with as well.

What’s his complaint?

He accused DGR of “transphobia.” This is absurd. The book and other materials never even mention the words “transgender” or “queer,” let alone include calls to dehumanize or harm anyone. They do, however, contain a feminist critique of gender. The disagreement is that queer/trans activists believe gender is a binary, and we believe it’s a hierarchy.

That’s it. That’s why they attacked us.

And in the time since, queer/trans activists have threatened DGR members with arson, rape, murder. They have created photoshopped pictures of us simulating bestiality. They have called for mass beheading of DGR members. We have done none of those things to anyone. Any member of DGR who did would be banned immediately. Yet queer/trans activists are accusing us of intolerance and hate.


Deep Green Resistance is an environmental organization, based on the eponymous book that we co-authored. DGR is also a feminist organization. Between us, we have spent six decades fighting sexual violence and writing about the patriarchal culture that creates rape and, through it, the class of “people called women.” Our analysis is informed by a century and a half of feminist theory and activism. Our views are in no way unique. We believe that a social system of male domination starts with human beings who are biologically male or female and creates two social classes of people: men and women. Socialization to either group can be a brutal process.

Men are made by socialization to masculinity. Being a man requires a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other. This is also the psychology required by soldiers, which is why we don’t think you can be a peace activist without being a feminist.

Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.

We see nothing in the creation of gender to celebrate or embrace. As feminists, we are abolitionists. Patriarchy is a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power, and we want to see it dismantled so that the category of gender no longer exists. This is also our position on race and class. The categories are not natural: they only exist because hierarchical systems of power create them (see, for instance, Audrey Smedley’s book Race in North America). We want a world of justice and equality, where the material conditions that currently create race, class, and gender have been forever overcome.

There are, of course, people who disagree with feminism. In their view, men and women display domination and submission, respectively, not because of social conditions, but because we have different brains. Gendered behavior is natural, they say, a function of our biology. Boys are naturally aggressive and active, while girls are naturally emotional and passive. The claim is often that prenatal hormones create these propensities, and that the “wrong” hormones can produce the “wrong” brain. Hence it is possible to have a man’s body with a woman’s brain (which adherents like to call a “lady brain”). Cursory research will reveal the variations and disagreements amongst the genderists. Some, for instance, believe that gender is a matter of costuming—what they call “presentation.” Their problem with gender isn’t gender per se, but that there are social constraints on what men can wear. On the other extreme are people who argue that their genitals are a “birth defect” that require surgical removal. Some people believe that their children’s genitals are a birth defect. And yes, we hope that readers will find that chilling.

We can’t do justice to the range of genderist beliefs in this short article. The point is that we disagree with them. Because of that disagreement two of our members were assaulted, assaults which the conference organizers neither stopped nor condemned, and which genderists have applauded all across the internet.

So, women, note well: if you have the temerity to name male supremacy, men have the right to assault you in public. Shut the bitches up. It’s worked for ten thousand years, why would men change their tactics now? That shutting up has also involved harassing organizers and venues that dare to host DGR speakers and bookstores that carry our books. It also involves sexual threats against women. A photo of DGR speaker Rachel Ivey appears covered with glitter and the word “penis” in fat letters. For those who don’t get the reference, genderists throw glitter on people they don’t like. They call it “glitter bombing.” So the picture is suggesting that Rachel be assaulted with glitter and a penis. The word for that is rape.

This from people who are trying to claim the moral high ground as an oppressed minority. But the Emperor’s new penis is looking just like the old: same bullying, same threats, same assaults. Same sexual terrorism, same silencing. And feminism—the movement that tells the terrible truths about women’s lives and aims to change them—is being disappeared.

Starting with the category “woman.” Transgender activist Joelle Ruby Ryan has written that the terms “female” and “sex-class” are “offensive and passé.” One might reasonably wonder why Ryan is eager to claim membership in a group so declared, or why Ryan got a job teaching Women’s Studies if “female” is so offensive. But the bigger fault line here is between feminism and post-modernism, and its offspring Queer Theory. That a biological reality—female—can be called “offensive” shows how far down the rabbit hole Queer Theory has fallen. What’s next, gravity? And if female is “passé,” well, there goes life on earth.

But to make “sex-class” a dirty word means that the realities of women’s lives become once more unspeakable, each woman cut adrift in a hostile, chaotic sea. Apply the word “sex-class,” and that chaos snaps into a sharp pattern of subordination, from the small, daily insults to body and soul to the shattering traumas of incest and rape. The crimes men commit against women aren’t done to women as random individuals; they’re done because women belong to a subordinate class and they’re done to keep women a subordinate class.

But the solution to oppression is always embedded in the problem: you make common cause with the people who share your condition. Sisterhood is indeed powerful. The women who built the most recent sisterhood—the so-called Second Wave—are being derided by genderists like Ryan. The insults usually reference bad haircuts and fashion—because how women look is vastly more important than what they might try to do. A short catalog of their silly little projects: rape crisis hotlines, battered women’s shelters, abortion and birth control on demand, gender-neutral help wanted ads, sexual harassment laws, equal funding for girls’ sports, and a storming of the barricades in the trades and professions. Derrick’s mother stayed with her abusive husband because there were no battered women’s shelters in the 1950s. Lierre’s mother endured the torture of an illegal abortion because there was no other choice in 1961. These are life and death issues for women. Only someone very short on memory or very long on male privilege could call them “passé.”

But the basic truths of women’s lives are once more becoming unspeakable. Why? Because genderists are literally shouting feminists down to shut us up. They’ve declared “female” passé, probably because even they can see past the postmodern smoke and mirrors: they know they can never be biologically female. Instead, they’ve laid claim to “woman.” Their definition of woman lines up rather precisely with everything that the Princess Industrial Complex constrains girls into accepting and that sexual violations break women into being. The genderists claim that this is all natural, eternal, basic to the structure of the universe. A typical comment: “There is a distinct, substantive, immutable feminine gender, and it can not be transcended.” This is what systems of power always have to imprint on our psyches: not only is this state of affairs natural, resistance is futile. We beg to disagree. Some of us are living proof that feminine gender can be transcended—and the feminist movement is even larger proof that it can be fought.

But the genderists don’t want to resist gender. They are, in fact, quite attached to it. Writes one, “It would be a crying shame if ‘woman’ and ‘man’ ceased to be relevant categories for me to play with.” Substitute poor and rich or black and white if you don’t understand how offensive that is. People being oppressed are not categories to be played with. If you understand that, the only question left is: are women people?

The strangest part of this whole debate is that feminists are being called biological essentialists. The genderists baldly state their belief in “brain sex” and the immortal, even cosmic, nature of femininity . White supremacists are the only people who believe in the “Negro brain.” But talk of “lady brains” is completely accepted across progressive communities if it comes from genderists. Feminists, in contrast, start with Simone DeBeauvior: “One is made, not born a woman.” It’s that making that we intend to stop. It can be stopped because gender is a social process. It’s the genderists who claim it’s biological, immutable. Yet we get called essentialist?

And it’s the genderists who conform. For all their talk of gender-bending, their goal is cosmetics, costumes, and surgery to match their bodies to gender caricatures. They are permanently altering their bodies—removing healthy organs and in some cases the ability to ever experience sexual pleasure again—to better fit a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power. This is now being done to children and some of the children already regret it. Please read that sentence again. Please.

The children should be an alarm call but no one is listening. There are historical precedents from which left-leaning people should have learned. Much of the Progressive movement embraced eugenics, until the optimistic, shiny promise of science produced punctual trains to crematoriums. Similarly, in the 1950s many liberals believed that chemical castration was the compassionate approach to homosexuality. We look back in bewildered horror but refuse to see that it’s happening now. The unfit are being chemically sterilized once again. People are being surgically mutilated in the service of social conformity. Children as young as eighteen months are being “diagnosed” as transgender. What does that even mean in someone who has yet to speak her first word? She preferred the blue pacifier to the pink? The real question: so what if she did? Girls can’t like blue, play rough and tumble, take up space, run for President? Apparently not. Free to Be, You and Me, through Surgery. The prison of gender is locking down ever tighter.

And the female body is the cage. Most women are at constant war with their bodies, and it’s a war we lose before first grade: fifty percent of pre-school girls think they are “too fat.” If a girl makes it through that battlefield, with its devastating cultural terrain of dehumanizing and sadistic images, the big guns are waiting: by the time they’re ten, 90 percent of girls have been subjected to unwanted sexual attention by neighborhood boys, and by the time they’re eleven, it’s adult men threatening the violations to that same 90 percent. This is the meaning of “female” in patriarchy, learned early and often: an object to be publicly used. Get used to it, girls. Meanwhile, eating disorders, the slow, grinding punishment of the female fat cell, have the highest mortality of all mental illness.

The most heartbreaking element of the transgender narrative is their hatred of their bodies. In the war between culture and nature, gender and body, the body loses. And that defeat is turned into an identity. The only parallel claim is made by the anorexics’ Pro-Anas, who insist their wrenching disjuncture of self and body is a legitimate identity. We have no doubt that people hate their bodies: willful starvation and surgical mutilation speak with a stark, eloquent evidence. The question is why.

Guy Debord wrote presciently of the society of the spectacle, where “being becomes having and having is reduced to merely appearing.” This is, of course, what has happened, and then some: commodity fetishism has conquered every human relationship, including, finally, that between body and self. Instead of inhabiting “the soft animal of your body,” as poet Mary Oliver so sweetly puts it, the body is an object to own and then to starve or slice until it approximates the punishing, promising image. Our genitals are now a commodity to be obtained rather than tissue to inhabit, the exquisite nerve endings where animal meets angel severed to create a surgical simulacrum. Perhaps the commodity has finally been defeated by a greater force: the image itself.

The body has certainly fallen to its assault. Writes a detransitioned 22-year-old woman, “I saw myself in the saucy lankiness of scruffy rock gods, the devil-may-care grins of thrill seekers in films, the deep pain of confusion written on the faces of James Dean and Johnny Depp, but I could not see myself in any of the women I looked at.” In the service of the image—and sundered from her body by sexual abuse—she had her breasts removed at seventeen and started taking testosterone, which nearly killed her. Which is more toxic: the chemicals injected to destroy one’s natal sex or the culture that makes that sex a prison? And why are we not allowed to ask that question?

An identity based on a hatred of the body by definition cannot be liberatory. Those soft animals are our only homes. Driven from our bodies, we are permanent refugees: there is nowhere else to go. The whole point of feminism is to stop the breakage: the incest, the rape, the battering, the so-called beauty practices like Female Genital Mutilation that amount to a life of torture. That means we have to stop the ideology, too, the one that says men are human while women exist to be conquered and used, the one called gender. Measured by either sheer volume or effect, the ruling image of the age, the one delivering the ideology, is the pounding sadism of pornography. And the prison cell called “woman” grows ever smaller. From an athlete’s basement in Steubenville, OH, to a bus in New Delhi, and back to another Ohio basement, this one a decade long: do not call that prison passé.

Isn’t all this worth discussing? Why do we have to plead something so basic: in a pluralistic democracy, people can hold differing beliefs? Ideas qua ideas are our only defense against the human tendency to fundamentalism with all its attendant horrors. That’s why books are so much more fragile than paper, and why they need our defense. We don’t say that as writers but as citizens.

Right now the gender fundamentalists are doing their best to shut down dialogue. They’ve damaged books—books that don’t even mention their concern—pressured bookstores, and silenced speakers scheduled at universities. It should come as no surprise that they are using the final tactics of all fundamentalists: bullying, threats, assault. And they’ve done this with increasing frequency and intensity. How long does it take to see the pattern?

What’s most disturbing is the public response. Men who have assaulted women are held up as heroes; the angry mob is celebrated. There is a war against women on the left as well as on the right. If you don’t believe us, speak up and see for yourself.

And then speak up because justice demands it. Name the sex-caste system as rape culture. Stand with women against that culture. Protect children from medical intervention. Defend the human animal, the integrity of body and brain, flesh and fat. There is nothing wrong with it. Especially there is nothing wrong with anyone’s genitals: not ever.

And shield the books. When the bullies go after the books, surely it is time to notice. And notice that it’s the same male Emperor, the same sexual threats, the same silence for women. Notice before women are lost once more in that same, unspeakable sea.

Originally published in Counterpunch

Filed in Essays
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