Skip to content

More on Men

Osita Nwanevu
14 min read
The muscled back of the sculpture Hercules and Cacus in Florence, Italy.
"Hercules and Cacus" – Florence, Italy (Simone Pellegrini)

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


I didn’t expect to touch upon this subject again within the year when I filed my post on Jordan Peterson and masculinity discourse last fall, but it appears that we men are still in crisis. That, at any rate, is what the papers say. And they’re probably right. We’ve always been in trouble. “What’s the matter with men these days” probably isn’t that much younger than “where’d the sun go” as a question; I doubt we’re as likely to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction.

But that won’t be for want of trying. In The Washington Post, Christine Emba, a friend, has made a comprehensive case that the crisis of masculinity is real and cites a flurry of figures to prove it:

Worrying about the state of our men is an American tradition. But today’s problems are real and well documented. Deindustrialization, automation, free trade and peacetime have shifted the labor market dramatically, and not in men’s favor — the need for physical labor has declined, while soft skills and academic credentials are increasingly rewarded. Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market, with the biggest drop in employment among men ages 25 to 34. For those in a job, wages have stagnated everywhere except the top. Meanwhile, women are surging ahead in school and in the workplace, putting a further dent in the “provider” model that has long been ingrained in our conception of masculinity. Men now receive about 74 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 awarded to women, and men account for more than 70 percent of the decline in college enrollment overall. In 2020, nearly half of women reported in a TD Ameritrade survey that they out-earn or make the same amount as their husbands or partners — a huge jump from fewer than 4 percent of women in 1960. Then there’s the domestic sphere. Last summer, a Psychology Today article caused a stir online by pointing out that “dating opportunities for heterosexual men are diminishing as relationship standards rise.” No longer dependent on marriage as a means to financial security or even motherhood (a growing number of women are choosing to create families by themselves, with the help of reproductive technology), women are “increasingly selective,” leading to a rise in lonely, single young men — more of whom now live with their parents than a romantic partner. Men also account for almost 3 of every 4 “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide, alcohol abuse or an overdose.

Beyond that data, Emba finds evidence for a general malaise among young men especially in the success of right-wing influencers and gurus like Jordan Peterson, the Bronze Age Pervert, and Andrew Tate, who have both challenged contemporary feminism’s insistence that the world remains shaped by male dominance and offered up blueprints for the reconstruction of a self-assured male culture:

For young men in particular, the assumption of a world built to serve their sex doesn’t align with their lived experience, where girls out-achieve them from pre-K to post-graduate studies and “men are trash” is an acceptable joke. Then there’s the point-by-point advice. If young men are looking for direction, these influencers give them a clear script to follow — hours of video, thousands of book pages, a torrent of social media posts — in a moment when uncertainty abounds. The rules aren’t particularly unique: Get fit, pick up a skill, talk to women instead of watching porn all day. But if instruction is lacking elsewhere, even basic tips (“Clean your room!” Peterson famously advises) feel like a revelation. Plus, the community that comes with joining a fandom can feel like a buffer against an increasingly atomized world.

Of course, as harmless as being told to clean one’s room or get some exercise might seem, figures like Peterson, Tate, BAP, and adjacent political figures like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who’s just put out a book called Manhood, are quite plainly trying to shepherd listless young men into reactionary politics. And they will succeed, Emba insists, absent alternative models for masculinity from their ideological opponents and popular culture at large. “The BAPs and Hawleys find ways to celebrate aspects of the male experience — from physical strength to competitiveness to sex as a motivator — that other parts of modern society have either derided as ‘toxic’ or attempted to explain aren’t specific to men at all,” she writes. “At their best, these influencers highlight positive traits that were traditionally associated with maleness — protectiveness, leadership, emotional stability — and encourage them, making ‘masculinity’ out to be a real and necessary thing, and its acquisition something honorable and desirable. And the fact that they’re willing to define it outright feels bravely countercultural.”

Emba herself, meanwhile, remains uncertain what a counter to the counterculture here should actually look like. “I’m convinced that men are in a crisis,” she writes. “And I strongly suspect that ending it will require a positive vision of what masculinity entails that is particular — that is, neither neutral nor interchangeable with femininity. Still, I find myself reluctant to fully articulate one. There’s a reason a lot of the writing on the crisis in masculinity ends at the diagnosis stage.”

As I’ve written before, we seem to be in a period of sociocultural reconstruction today. Having spent the last several decades working to tear down old shibboleths and oppressive hierarchies, we now find ourselves looking for solid footing on questions that remain difficult ⁠— to build up or recover more defensible principles for how to live. And Emba’s work on sex and now masculinity sits squarely in this reconstructive space ⁠— it’s animated by a probably correct intuition that we do need rules or at least guides for navigating all that remains thorny about gender relations even if we disagree about what, exactly, they ought to be.

That said, I’m not sure how widely perceived that need is on the question of masculinity. One can make a case that things have gotten materially harder for American men. But are those challenges fundamentally about masculinity to most Americans or American men in particular? Do most American men share Emba’s sense of confusion and anxiety about their place in society? I’ve found detailed data on public opinion here difficult to come by, but the General Social Survey doesn’t reveal any real gaps between how happy American men and women have been with their lives and work in recent years. If anything, American men today are a little bit more comfortable with their financial situations, more optimistic about their standard of living rising, and more likely to report finding their lives exciting than American women. I also happened across a 2019 survey from GQ where “1,005 Americans” ⁠— couldn’t find more detail on methodology, unfortunately ⁠— were asked for their thoughts on gender and “The State of Masculinity.” 48 percent of male respondents reported feeling comfortable with the changes in gender norms that had taken place in the prior decade. Interestingly, 43 percent of women said the same ⁠— the absence of a large gap there surprised me ⁠— and only 27 percent of men said outright that they actively disliked the way things had been going. Moreover, 42 percent of men and women reported not having discussed the state of masculinity at all. In another, perhaps better 2018 survey of American men conducted by FiveThirtyEight, SurveyMonkey, and WYNC in the early months of the MeToo movement, 65 percent of men who’d heard of the movement reported that they hadn’t reconsidered their behavior at work as a consequence, 85 percent reported not having reconsidered their past sexual behavior, and 86 percent reported that they hadn’t changed their behavior in their current romantic relationships. And just a few days ago, POLITICO and Ipsos put out a survey of their own on masculinity ⁠— one that frustratingly lacks a gender breakdown. Evidently, only 36 percent of Americans overall agree that “declines in the number of manufacturing and skilled labor jobs have made it harder for men to be financially successful” or that “entertainment and culture make it hard to feel proud to be a traditional guy.”

It’s a cloudy picture, but all this looks to me more like ambivalence ⁠— and even a remarkable stasis ⁠— than the kind of roiling and overwhelming angst about gender relations implied by the use of the word “crisis.” The urgency and universalizing language of the discourse might imply otherwise, but it’s not at all obvious that most Americans or even most American men are as troubled by the state of American masculinity as our columnists and think tankers are.

As with many of our cultural conversations, there’s an imprecision in some of the analyses that prevents us from talking directly about the thing we’re actually trying to talk about, though we do get a peek at the actual heart of the matter from time to time. And there’s just such a moment in a section of Emba’s piece where she quotes Of Boys and Men author Richard Reeves on the difficulty of coming up with a new, culturally progressive model for masculinity. “'I think I’m now trying to articulate more prescriptively, less descriptively, some of these discussions about masculinity and trying to send some messages around it' — here, his speech became emphatic — 'because, honestly, nobody else is f—ing doing it except the right.'”

What admissions like this make plain is that the “crisis of masculinity” in America as described by Emba, Reeves, and others has less to do with what most American men are actually thinking and feeling than with the conditions shaping partisan politics. Simply put, this discourse is being animated almost entirely by concerns over two semi-specific constituencies ⁠— disaffected working-class men and young men of all stripes predisposed to social conservatism ⁠— whose rightward views on gender are a perceived electoral and sociocultural threat to liberals and the Democratic Party. Here, as elsewhere, the distortions of our political system have distorted conversation ⁠— the hardships and acute cultural anxieties faced by men in the post-industrial Rust Belt or listless young men who listen to Jordan Peterson are worthy of discussion and our attention. But they are not, actually, generalizable to the point where one can talk coherently about “men” writ large being “in crisis” and we should be honest with ourselves about why they've garnered so much outsized attention. As far as the allocation of power in American society is concerned, some men simply matter more than others. This is the grim and true calculus underpinning masculinity discourse overall. But it’s not clear that the main parties to the discussion have gotten their numbers quite right.

In a widely shared recent tweet for instance, Richard Reeves cited polling data from a group called Equimundo: Center for Masculinities and Social Justice showing that less than half of Gen Z men believe feminism has had a positive impact on the world, evidence that would seem to back up the increasingly widespread presumption that young men are moving right ⁠— thanks, by implication, to overreach from cultural progressives and the influence of figures like Peterson and Tate. But as Kings College lecturer Alice Evans and Matt Yglesias have both noted, the rest of the survey showed that the youngest men polled held the most liberal views on every gender question:

And while the survey also shows interest among Gen Z men in figures promoting right-wing masculinity ⁠— nearly half reported ‘trusting’ one or more figures like Tate or Peterson ⁠— we’d expect that a substantial proportion of men in their or any generation would have right-leaning social views anyway. For context, a 45 percent plurality of Gen Zers identified as moderate or conservative in one 2020 poll ⁠— it’s a more liberal generation, yes, but relative to the rest of the electorate. It does not seem altogether surprising that a large minority of men, who tend to be more conservative in any case, would register interest in anti-feminist thought. And again, it is not actually clear that this proportion of men is growing substantially or durably.

They are conflated routinely, but the question of what ought to be done to reel in the men who are drifting towards a reactionary masculinity, as a matter of practical politics, is quite different from the question of whether the concept of masculinity, in any guise, is actually normatively defensible. In principle, would it be ideal for men to find their way to a more progressive masculinity or should we want men to seek out other, non-gendered ways of understanding themselves and their place in the world? As Becca Rothfield, another friend, noted in a recent newsletter post, there’s been a resistance among Reeves and his peers to engaging that question directly:

Reeves offers no first principles here: he makes no effort to defend the idea that we should structure our lives and loves in deference to the constraints of gender (although I strongly suspect that he thinks we should, probably for biological reasons; you know, testosterone and all that). Instead, he’s making the limited claim that, as a practical matter, people (and, in particular men) do define themselves in gendered terms—that, as I put it in my piece about Josh Hawley, men demand role models who are not just “good and, incidentally, male, but…good at being male.” Given that men want to be told how to be men, not how to be good simplicter, we on the left (or on the center-but-not-psychotic right) ought to provide them with models of positive masculinity. And if we do not, they will fall into the clutches of Trump and Tate et al.
I think this is a more reasonable version of the argument that we should attempt to rehabilitate masculinity than others I’ve encountered before—basically all of which are about how religious texts say gender essentialism is real or about how biology consigns men to aggressiveness and women to docility—but I remain fundamentally unconvinced, and I am going to tell you why! (Maybe I should insert this brief caveat: the reason I’m discussing whether we should rehabilitate men, and not whether we should rehabilitate women, is because there is an entire micro-hysteria about the lack of male role models—and, for whatever reason, there is no parallel sea of hands wringing about rehabilitating femininity, at least not in my social world. But I continue to think that gender, as a way of structuring human life, is bad for everyone [...]

I agree fully. It remains a mystery to me why we should bother parceling out positive human traits to the sexes ⁠— confidence, assertiveness, courage, and the like for men; sensitivity, vulnerability, and introspection and so on for women ⁠— if we do not actually mean, in this day and age, that women shouldn’t also be courageous and men shouldn’t also be sensitive. What’s left to make masculinity or femininity coherent and distinctive as far as matters of character and temperament are concerned? Is there an actual point to the exercise beyond trying to keep certain segments of the American male population from voting the wrong way and watching the wrong YouTubers?

None of this skepticism should be taken as a denial of the fact that there are biological differences between people born male and people born female and that those differences often manifest themselves in the ways men and women behave and go about their lives. Ironically, the testimonies of transgender people going through transition have been far more illuminating to me on the reality of those differences than the bloviating and appeals to hoary gender stereotypes we get from culture pundits on the right and center. But we know too that those differences are more amorphous and given to overlap than we once presumed ⁠— what Emba calls “obvious truths about human nature” vis-à-vis gender no longer seem quite so obvious. Consider the belief that men have higher sex drives than women ⁠— a very recent meta-analysis of more than 200 studies published in Psychological Bulletin suggests that is generally true but perhaps overstated. Their analyses, researchers wrote, “indicated that, assuming normality, the distributions of male and female sex drive greatly overlapped (73%–78%), that the average man has a lower sex drive than 24%–29% of women, and that the probability of a random woman having a higher sex drive than a random man is 31%–35%.” “[T]he latter interpretation,” they continued rather amusingly, “is quite intuitive: When a woman with an unknown sexual motivation walks down the street, she will on average exceed every third man she encounters in her drive to pursue sexual gratification.” It seems plausible to me, moreover, that the gap between men and women on this front might collapse still further with time and cultural change.

Those intent on constructing a new masculinity should, in short, begin from a place of humility ⁠— a reluctance to assume that we’ve already got men figured out, that we know the enduring truths about what men are like are genuinely enduring and resistant to change. As someone recently suggested to me, I suppose I am open to the idea, though I don’t see much use for the old gender binary in principle, that a kind of transitional masculinity might be useful for the task of getting the reactionaries-to-be in line as we move gradually towards a truly post-binary future. But I’m still not sure what that transitional masculinity would look like.

It seems to me that there are two potentially complementary but distinct masculinities the pundits in this discourse are after. The first one we’ve bascially already got ⁠— a corrective masculinity aimed at scrubbing sexist and patriarchal norms and habits out of male behavior. “Real men,” we often hear these days, ask for consent, advocate for the women in their lives loudly, and reject dunderheaded machismo. They’re not afraid to cry, admit that they’re wrong, or wear pink. To me, all of this is well and good. But the “men in crisis” folks are pining for more ⁠— a second, affirmative masculinity aimed not at correcting male flaws per se, but valorizing uniquely male attributes in healthy, egalitarian ways. While corrective masculinity is still, in essence, about what’s been wrong with men, the affirmative masculinity-in-waiting would celebrate what’s distinctively right with men. And if there were something distinctively right with men as opposed to anyone else, I might find myself all for the project of building that masculinity out. But I doubt that’s the case. I don’t see any reason to believe that there are inherently positive qualities that are distinctively and intrinsically male or female. And if there were, it would be all the more reason to try eroding the differences between the sexes further ⁠— allowing anyone, regardless of sex, to access the full range of admirable human traits. Courage, vulnerability, confidence, and sensitivity for all.

The “men in crisis” discourse tends to imply there’s a naivete about this position ⁠— that it’s, again, inattentive to the realities of the political and cultural moment we’re in. “[M]ost people,” Emba writes, “don’t actually want a completely androgynous society.” And that’s likely so. But consider, by comparison, the way that we talk about race in America. I doubt most Americans actually want to live in a raceless society either; making racial progress, for most, isn’t a matter of aspiring to a country where everyone’s been blended together into a smooth, untroubled beige. Instead, most people aspire to colorblindness ⁠— race becoming a real, distinct, but mostly incidental fact of our existence, an interesting detail without the power to arbitrarily shape and shorten lives. We’re obviously much further from it than voices in the center and on the right are given to arguing, but I think colorblindness would be nice if we could get it. And similarly, I dream of an America where individuals are defined not by the configuration of their genitals but by the content of their character.

I don’t know that this would be as hard a vision to sell to most men as the masculinity discourse seems to presume ⁠— particularly if paired with real material and not merely affective remedies for the problems America’s most struggling men are facing in the here and now. As I’ve written previously, I can think of no better way to revive a sense of agency and purpose among working class men than ensuring they have good jobs and more voice in the workplace than they’ve had previously; maintaining a stable supply of father figures and role models for our most vulnerable boys will partially be a matter of addressing mass incarceration and the inequities of our criminal justice system. As for matters of the spirit, the thing to hunt for, I think, is a kind of virtue ethics ⁠— we ought to be telling ourselves that there are noble attributes any of us can aspire to and strive for. We all need guiding principles and a sense of direction ⁠— all of us always, not just men. Why return to gender for them when we could reach for ⁠— or create ⁠— something higher? A set of ideals, whatever they might be, grand and capacious enough to encompass us all?

A Song

“Protection” ⁠— Massive Attack (1994)