21 Reader Views on the Masculinity Crisis

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “Why are men and boys struggling? What should we do about it?” No other question has elicited so many responses, and they were especially varied, so this is a long edition.

Tim argues that we are confronting a perennial problem, not a new one:

The modern world is no harsher to men than the ancient or early industrial world. There have always been drunkards, criminals, vagabonds, and hermits, and more men than women among them. Men account for the overwhelming majority of megalomaniacs, warlords, sexual predators, and terrorists, past and present. I don’t know why men are more likely than women to engage in violent, self-destructive, or antisocial behavior, but we’ve been that way since the dawn of history. The only difference: Modern boys and men are going head-to-head with girls and women for the same grades, school placements, and jobs, instead of living in a completely different sphere.

In contrast, Alice believes that today’s world is unusually alienating to men and boys:

Largely due to social-media influences, males are expected to be “more sensitive” to women’s issues, while at the same time what makes them male, and therefore different from women, is being ignored or harshly criticized. While there is no harm in trying to raise boys to understand women a little better, I think it is equally important for women to understand that men are not women. They are men. And men and women are different in a number of ways.

We would never tell women to try and not become good mothers—this would go against every notion that we have about women. Yet men are constantly being denied (in a subliminal way) the right to be masculine. They are being cut off from the things that make them happy to be male. And these things are not exactly the same things that make women feel (essentially) feminine.

I grew up with three brothers. We liked to watch different TV shows and do different social things, but we always stayed close. We need to teach our young girls that boys are different from them. Despite a lot of criticism, most men are wonderful people. We girls are grateful to have them in our lives. So, let’s stop trying to feminize our boys; it is about as unnatural for them to do this as it is for a fish to try and breathe out of water. Both sexes should be allowed to grow and develop as God intended for us to do.

Glenn believes today’s moral culture is ill-suited to boys and men:

Imagine that you can be loved or respected, but you can’t have both. Given that false choice, I suspect most women would choose to be loved and most men would choose to be respected. Today’s culture gives boys plenty of opportunities to be loved, but young men shrivel on the vine for lack of a balanced diet of social nutrients. Give them an opportunity to earn respect and watch them thrive. Respect is not antithetical to love; it is, to some extent, an expression of love written in a masculine emotional language.

Stephen writes from the perspective of a man in a nontraditional role:

I earn nothing. I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series aloud, more than twice.

I quit my job of 10 years to become a stay-at-home dad. When I began, people looked at me as if I had stolen a baby. Then the “Mr. Mom” jokes began. Many could not fathom that I could actually change diapers and read bedtime stories, or that I would even try to do so. I do struggle to feel like I contribute to the well-being of the family, and I don’t typically feel like that as much as my wife does—but I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

A myth is “a traditional story accepted as history.” [Myths] tell us how the world works, and what we should do in it—what we should be. If your myth of “what a man is” results in a belief that no longer holds true in this world, what happens to your identity?

The world is different. Many have begun to acknowledge that women are equal to men, when traditionally this was not the case. However, virtues once set aside for men and women separately are not appreciated equally. Should men be beautiful? Should women be big and strong? Should a husband bake cupcakes? Should a woman repair the car? What if Mom is the breadwinner? What if Dad does the laundry? Do we even think these things are virtues, or are these just lazy stereotypes? We invest in identities that no longer fit the world we live in. We should simply try and become good people, yet we no longer seem to know what that means and grasp at predetermined roles from bygone days.

As a father who stayed home to raise boys: You help them to become what they will become and encourage them to be someone they can be proud of being. They want to be good people. Ask them what that means; they’ll tell you. You don’t decide who someone else should be anymore.

Finding yourself can be hard. Pretending you’re someone you’re not is acting, or fooling yourself. Our myths are too old––we need new ones that are worth believing in.

[Read: The trouble with boys and men]

Mike’s time serving his country informs his own identity and how he believes boys and men could be helped:

Addressing this issue sometimes forces you to say things that are sort of cringey, but in the interests of honesty, I feel like I earned my “man card” by entering the military as a young college-educated officer. Although I was only “in” for about seven years (Operation Desert Storm veteran) my service is a critical part of my self-identification and confidence. I think we have a confluence of issues which could be well-addressed with a national service requirement. We need to infuse boys/men with purpose, and shared work in service of a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, if you haven’t heard the term) is a great way to do that.

I would reasonably reduce the active-duty military and put more money into the National Guard/Reserves. This opens up more realistic options to young men who would benefit from crawling through the mud with their fellow soldiers during training and committing themselves to something bigger. We should take our military-worship (“Thank you for your service,” etc.) and begin to cultivate similarly elite designations for wildfire fighters and other climate-related units (post-hurricane rebuilding). Climate change isn’t a shrinking problem. Those western firefighting jobs are frankly more dangerous and studly than virtually all military jobs. We can tie “America First” from the right (e.g., working to defend Americans rather than Iraqis or Ukrainians) with “Environmental Adaptation” from the left (e.g., acknowledging that climate change is a common threat). Yesterday: “My brother is a Navy SEAL.” Tomorrow: “My brother is a smoke jumper.”

Stephen worries that “a society which prizes competition overly much as we do in the U.S. condemns a majority to failure.” He writes:

Most of our students will not be valedictorians or quarterbacks. Schools have to reorient their criteria for success. The responsibility of each student is to learn who he or she is. And it is a life-long process. We should be abandoning class rank and ensuring that each child has mastered the skills deemed necessary (reading, rhetoric, and reckoning). Then the child should be given a say in what else they will learn as they discover who they are. Every person has a unique set of gifts, and society will benefit from all of them as long as they are not poisoned by a sense of inferiority created by a misguided effort to teach everyone (and test everyone) on the same standards.

Andrew is similarly skeptical of the prevailing socioeconomic ethos:

American culture is uniquely unsuited to “helping” boys and men because our core drive, over and over, is “success.” In that framing, what does it mean to “help” boys and men? Does that mean helping them Succeed but Better in the same role they’ve been doing forever—provider, big boss, hard worker—and just accepting that liberal capitalism has successfully defined both men’s and women’s ideal roles?

The “man” box is enforced both overtly and subtly by everyone you meet, if you’re a boy or man. Unlearning these roles makes you unattractive to both the job market and the dating market. It’s as much economics as sociology—men just need a damn break.

Nicole wishes that her late father’s evangelical religious community had taught a different message about manhood:

My dad was a good man, a loving father, and my mom’s best friend. He died by suicide at 52. The world is a worse place without him. His suicide was a shock—we didn’t even know he was struggling. There is no single cause of suicide, no single person or entity to blame. That said, I feel anger towards the gender stereotypes that dominate evangelical churches. I felt constrained by the church’s definition of a “good woman,” not to mention rampant gender-based abuse. I left the church my family belonged to; my dad didn’t. And I never considered how the church’s messaging might affect him, too.

My dad listened to Christian music, regularly read his Bible, and would quote scripture as a source of wisdom and inspiration. He internalized the supposedly “biblical” message that men are to be leaders, to be rocks, to be strong, to be providers. He carried that burden alone, despite a relatively egalitarian marriage. He never asked for help, never communicated pain. The church taught that anxiety and depression are symptoms of a faith defect, rather than a complicated biological disease. He quoted verses saying, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God,” as an argument against traditional psychiatric medicine. He thought that more faith and more prayer was the answer to mental illness.

The church plays a role in the prevalence of dangerous mental-health and gender myths. Too many men stifle their emotional needs to maintain a facade as a “strong man of God.”

Jim offers a psychological account of what ails men:

Boys and men struggle because so many of them have no idea how to deal with their advantages. There has never been a lack of males willing to use their advantage over smaller or weaker individuals. By taking advantage, [men and boys] create for themselves a metaphysical debt and impoverish those whom they disadvantage. Instead of holding their advantages in abeyance for when they’re needed to protect the weaker, they keep taking and taking in order to accumulate wealth and/or influence. Accumulation has one good purpose, and that’s to aid all.

So men and boys become indebted to their de facto subordinates and have no idea how to dispense with their debt, leaving them with no ruling principle besides hypocrisy. It is not a simple thing to assign blame. Too many are victims of an overwhelming global system that relies on consumption and acquisition. Besides the harm to the social fabric, struggling men frivolously waste their energy on acquiring, protecting, and spending their treasures, exhausting themselves physically, intellectually, spiritually, and ethically. The gentle methods of cooperation and care are not out of their reach, but are the opposite of what they’ve been taught to value. If men exercise their advantages to protect, there will be no place in their hearts for selfishness or aggression to enter. If advantages are used to nurture, the strong party gains the trust of the weaker, plus resiliency for their community. The weaker gains security, acceptance, and opportunity.  

Travis has a theory about what causes some boys to give up relatively early in life:

As a teenager I did a two-year stretch in juvenile detention. I was a C student at best in high school. Then I went into the Marines and became a three-time combat veteran by 21. I almost never went to college because I thought I was still as dumb as I had been in high school. My ex talked me into it by saying, “You don’t understand how many truly stupid people have diplomas. You’re actually smart; you’ll be fine.” She turned out to be right. I went to college on the GI bill, graduating at 26 with a 3.9 GPA in a hard-science major.

I believe the decline in success rates for men follows the increase in successful folks tending to date or marry other successful folks. If getting into the upper 10 percent of society seems to require one postcollege professional marrying another postcollege professional, you might as well give up on that if you’re not one of the guys who will do well in college. How does a blue-collar man who doesn’t think of himself as being cut out for college plan to get into the top 10 percent––[winning] the lottery, or somehow marrying a doctor without also being a doctor?

Many men give up before even trying. If individual college-earned success paired with marrying someone similar is what determines who makes it in this country, then it’s very easy for a lot of men to give up on themselves at very young ages.

Mitch reflects on vulnerability as his father related to it:

I am the son of a Minnesota farm boy who was the first person in his family to go to college. Stoicism isn’t a practice for Minnesotan boys who grew up on the farm—it’s the default way of being. I once saw my dad fall off an eight-foot ladder putting up Christmas lights, his femur landing directly on the concrete step leading into our house. My mouth hanging open, I watched him get up, grimace, and proceed to “walk it off” (he was a running back in high school, and no, he didn’t break his leg). He didn’t cry. He didn’t say anything. The message was clear. A man doesn’t show vulnerability, especially when in pain.

To be clear, my dad is a crier. I’ve seen him sniffling at weddings and dabbing his eyes at the climax of a movie. It isn’t about crying; it is about vulnerability.

In a world where connectivity is prized but we’re separated by filter bubbles; where so many entry-level jobs are dehumanizing (I’ve been a cook for years); where the male role models evincing stereotypical masculine ideals are obvious hypocrites, it would make sense to open up about one’s concerns with a trusted confidant. But this is antithetical to the consciousness of most men. Asking for help is a sign of failure, but internalizing an inflated sense of responsibility in an uncontrollable world is necessarily going to provoke feelings of despondency and inadequacy. Cue the guilt that comes for not living up to standards. And then the subsequent repression of that guilt leads to more problems.

What do we do about this aversion to vulnerability, among the other issues hamstringing men and boys? Find a way to communicate to boys that expressing emotions other than anger and ambivalence are legitimate ways to be a man. If you’re in pain or confused, it’s okay to ask for help—it doesn’t make you lesser; it makes you stronger. There’s no reason to feel guilty about falling short of an ideal masculinity that has been repeatedly revealed to be less than ideal (to put it lightly) over the course of history.

R., a professional statistician, got an unusual glimpse into how boys and young men think about the future:

Four years ago I was asked to analyze data for an organization that traditionally serves boys but also serves girls in middle and high school. The survey was about college and career plans. More girls than boys intended to go to college, but what caught my eye were the leading career choices. In middle school, the top careers for both boys and girls were actor and musician. By the middle of high school, the top choices among girls were nursing and teaching. Among boys, it was professional athlete, actor, and musician. The lack of realism among high-school boys as they are making decisions about their future (often without realizing it) struck me. Maybe it’s a disparity in maturity, or maybe it’s in the way girls are taught (probably both, and more, like most phenomena).

High-school education needs to include mandatory counseling, perhaps even a daily class inclusive of household economics and financial literacy, coupled with some form of career exploration, to introduce teens and especially boys to the facts of adult life and steer them to jobs and careers and the training for them, especially for those who aren’t college-bound. I’m not suggesting we track kids (though it’s not the worst idea), but that we formalize guidance so that it’s something every student receives, not just those who seek it out. We’ve instead let boys figure out their prospects through hard experience.

[Read: 12 readers on what the rest of the world does better than the U.S.]

Karen presents a different argument about failing schools:

Ordinary schools do not work for most boys, and one primary reason is the expectation that children will sit still for long periods of time. All three of my children found this challenging, but my eldest, who also had a severe learning disability, struggled most.

In the end, we wound up with our kids first in a Catholic school and then in expensive private high schools. In the Catholic elementary school, the teachers were expected to get the children moving—running around the school a couple of times was common—between the regular recess and lunch breaks. The boys’ high school required not just in-school PE but a mandatory three further hours of physical activity each week, on non-PE days, fulfilled either on competitive teams or via things like bike clubs. Meanwhile, the public schools continued to cut requirements for PE. Initially, we barely afforded the schools our kids needed—my husband was a pastor. We lived for a long time with all three kids in one bedroom. We took only camping holidays. In the end, all three children were on full scholarships for high school. We were unbelievably fortunate.

My grandson is highly gifted (he was reading at a grade-11 level at 7) and has mild ADHD. Once again, our family is working to keep a child in a private school. The psychologist who did his testing described his needs in a way that made it clear no public school could meet them. He’s happy as a clam—or perhaps some more active animal––because he learns best when moving, and both in his school, where he can study his subjects at his actual level, and in his beloved Saturday Mandarin classes, he’s allowed to stand and move around, so long as he isn’t disruptive. The results are astonishing. He’s years ahead in Mandarin because they tried letting him walk quietly around the edge of the classroom and discovered he learned faster than anyone else in the class.

Joseph’s observations about schools build to a controversial suggestion:

I have spent a lot of time in very gender-specific environments: I am both an aerospace engineer (very male workforce) and a figure-skating coach (very female sport). Observing as a coach, young boys are very different developmentally from young girls. It’s often hard to keep the boys in my classes under control for the length of the class, so I cannot imagine how these same boys could sit still in a classroom for six hours a day. The whole structure of the school environment seems like an unnatural fit for boys.

We need to deliberately recruit more male teachers so that boys have role models for proper male behavior, possibly by offering scholarships only open to men (scholarships only open to women have long been standard in engineering; we should consider the reverse in other fields). Boys are often wild and should have time in the school day to be so. Recess needs to be mandatory, and recess environments should not be completely sterile/rubberized. And teachers need not just deploy methods to help boys focus on learning, but also to occasionally allow them to learn through not-so-focused methods.

Boys are also far more frequently the receivers of discipline in school. We need rules and consequences to teach boys that certain actions are unacceptable, but many of these actions are inevitable and the punishments need to be minimally disruptive to boys’ learning. Making a boy sit outside because he is distracting other students means he is missing out on direct (i.e., from the teacher) and indirect (i.e., social skills with peers) learning. Having a time-out during recess is an illogical punishment; if the boy cannot sit still now, why try to make him do so later too? These punishments only serve to further slow kids’ development. I’m not entirely sure what would make a good discipline system, but to be honest, I think there is some merit to whacking wrists with rulers. While there are downsides to this, it does make an immediate and quick intervention.

Neyda argues that “red-shirting” boys, as the author Richard Reeves suggests in our October issue, is an imperfect solution:

I taught high-school English and journalism for 16 years at a public high school. I agree that children do often benefit from being “red-shirted,” but I worry about the implications of making “red-shirting” a rule. Ideally, education would be treated as an ongoing process. If a student wasn’t prepared to move from kindergarten to first grade, they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. There is fear and disappointment (mostly from parents) at being held back. That could impact a kid’s self-esteem. But only if we treat it that way. Not being ready to move up a grade does not have to be considered a failure. When our kids were infants, pediatricians told us that kids often reached milestones (talking, walking, etc.) at different rates. But public education is not built that way.

Lynne also critiques the proposal to “red-shirt” boys: “I totally get why you would want to have boys start a year later than girls,” she writes. “But I don’t want my 14-year-old girl in classes with boys of 15 and 16.”

Nels asks a pointed question:

Are boys actually getting worse at school, or are girls simply showing that, when placed on an equal footing, they can surpass us? We have always known that boys are more likely to make bad decisions and become criminals, so it seems likely that this was an inevitable thing to happen to a society that becomes equal. Perhaps it is natural that girls should be more highly educated and more suited on average to work that requires more education.

Jaleelah wants women to be treated as role models for boys:

My generation is purposeless and lonely. That loneliness, however, is not equally distributed: My generation is populated by lonely, angry men. In my experience, women are great at getting along with men in non-romantic contexts. Women understand that friendships can be deeply rewarding; they see men as more than just potential opportunities for sex. Large numbers of men, however, can’t envision a happy life without a loyal female partner. That’s because people refuse to see women as sources of skill and knowledge. Society laments the lack of empathetic male role models for its sons. Why can’t it teach boys that women’s friendship-building skills are admirable and useful? The solution for men’s anger isn’t to convince women to return to being their domestic servants. Society must teach boys to look up to empathetic women, who can in turn teach them to build stronger platonic and intellectual relationships.

Robin wants to bring back the tradition of teaching skills:

My suggestions are to revitalize the Boy Scouts, or a new version of it, and to reinstitute “maker” courses in high schools, such as woodworking, mechanics skills, welding, etc. The common theme is to teach boys skills that used to be a source of pride and achievement. I think of my husband’s upbringing in Scouts and the joy the boys had at a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. They cooked on a wood-fired stove; they hiked in mountains where they had to watch for rattlesnakes; they tied knots; they brought water up from a creek; they played pranks on the men by way of letting them know they adored them; they taught the younger boys. It reminds me of David McCullough remarking, in1776, that George Washington’s army was made up of coopers and farmers and men of practical skills who could install cannons in Boston Harbor overnight without the British hearing them. Learning practical skills is a source of accomplishment and grounding that could help our boys and men.

Melanie argues that childhood trauma is an underacknowledged factor in this discussion:

Why are boys and men struggling? Because we allow children, as a whole, to suffer vast, largely preventable trauma; we don’t recognize or mediate it; and we get it especially wrong with boys. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study published in 1998 demonstrated that two-thirds of all the children in a sample experienced a childhood trauma so profound that it had the potential to affect physical, mental, social, and financial health throughout their lives. When today’s children are asked the same questions, a huge and rather similar number reveal significant traumatization.

This traumatization causes massive pain and massive destructive tendencies; boys and men have traditionally tended to direct that pain outward. Women and girls have traditionally directed that pain inward. Addiction and suicide measure pain directed inward; crime measures both (since so much crime is related to drug use and some is related to violence). We shouldn’t see the rates of suicide and deaths due to long-term alcohol and drug use as a result of a sudden paradigm shift, but rather the cumulative consequences of a lifelong struggle with pain. Suicide can be conceptualized similarly––someone who was dealing with significant emotional pain as their backdrop lost their grip on something that was keeping them from plunging into the abyss. That can mean the loss of a relationship, a status, such as a job or role in the community. The traumatization also causes difficulties in formal educational settings and employment.

Not only have we failed to invest in the programs that prevent adverse childhood experiences, but we have failed to normalize discussion of surviving them in any meaningful way. This takes a particular toll on men. According to the ACE Study 15 percent of boys are sexually abused as children; it typically takes survivors decades to disclose, and it typically takes male survivors longer than female survivors. We have yet to embrace child sexual abuse as a social issue that deserves concerted attention (current right-wing hysteria around “grooming” does not count!), and we have yet to consider the voices of abuse survivors as distinctive and worthy of being heard. The delay in disclosing abuse is related to a delay in how survivors process and acknowledge abuse; that this trauma is predictably processed in middle age could be another factor contributing to the increased suicides and substance abuse among men in this age bracket.

And Shawn urges advances in storytelling:

All the statistics in the world won’t change most minds, but good stories can change the world. The problem is, we really like stories of powerful men who accomplish great things and hate stories of ordinary men who fail. Since we mostly tell stories of powerful men who succeed, we think men must be powerful. Anything that contradicts this idea won’t ring true, even if it is. Most people won’t address the problem because they can’t believe it is real. I don’t know how to tell a story of a struggling man and make people want to hear it. Until someone figures that out, helping men will never gain much traction.