I’m a member of a multi-partisan coalition working hard to encourage the creation of a White House Council on Boys and Men, to parallel the seven-year-old Council for Women and Girls. The founding director of our group is Warren Farrell, who has been deeply concerned about issues involving boys and men for 30 years. The coalition is concerned about five issues: education, jobs, fatherlessness, physical health, and emotional health.
We have a weekly conference call, and while I was on the last one I took a call-waiting from a friend, Judith, who told me the very sad news that a mutual friend, Susan, had just lost her 32-year-old son to a drug overdose. Ironically, Judith had lost her own 19-year-old son to suicide some 12 years before, and it had been Susan who called our home all those years ago to tell of that tragic death.
Their sons are two of at least six young men in my small town who have died by suicide or overdose in the last 20 years. One of the major concerns of the group with whom I work is the fact that male suicide is far more common than is female suicide.
We don’t discuss fatal drug overdoses as much, but there too the data is striking -- though not as lopsided: at least twice as many men die from ODs as women.
Actually, the most recent youth suicide in my town was that of a 15-year-old girl. Girls do take their own lives too, and, of course, they have fatal ODs. But it is my strong belief that a major reason we have not given suicides and ODs among the young the attention they deserve is because they are more of a male problem than a female one.
Think about it. Could you miss all the news stories on sexual assault on campus? Who doesn't know the 1-in-5 figure? How often have you heard about gender inequities in salaries? Who doesn't know the 79 cents to a dollar? But I have found that when I tell people about the 4-to-1 ratio of young males to young females committing suicide, the most common response is, “Really? I didn’t know that!”
But suppose the statistics were reversed? Suppose that it was young women killing themselves at four times the rate young men do. Or dying from drug overdoses at twice the rate. Would that not be front page news every day and a huge concern of feminists?
The young woman (girl, really) whose death recently rattled my community was a victim not only of whatever demons drove her to take her life at such a very young age, but possibly of the fact that what happened to her was more of a “male” problem than a female one. Perhaps we will have a greater chance of preventing such tragedies across the genders if we begin to have as much awareness and concern about “boys’ and men’s” tribulations as we do about those suffered primarily by girls and women.
Of course, thousands of people are working hard to prevent youth suicides and overdose deaths – and I applaud their efforts – but I submit that the fact that this is a problem found far more among males than females makes it less of a national focus than such issues as sexual harassment, campus sexual assault, and “equal pay for equal work.” Not to minimize those problems, but when you’ve spoken to a parent who has lost a child, then you hear unmatched grief.
There are positive signs about other "men's" issues that may bode well for more national attention to preventing these so untimely deaths. I can think of two offhand. One of these is autistic spectrum disorder. This is diagnosed in one out of every 68 children, but it is approximately five times more common in boys. Perhaps if it were more evenly distributed in the population, and surely if it were more prevalent in girls, it would have received a great deal of attention many years ago, but it’s time, so to speak, has come. And that’s a good thing for parents of girls as well as boys.
And most dramatically, and coming so very quickly, has been the growth in concern about concussions in football – an almost exclusively male problem. But this has led to concern about similar injuries in soccer (from “headers”), which nearly as many girls play as boys do.
For more than 20 years, Warren Farrell has written and spoken extensively on "male disposability," starting with his 1993 book, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex. Evolutionary psychologists will tell you where it comes from -- in a nutshell, for propagation of the species each female has always been far more important than each male. But this has become an evolutionary holdover from a time when maternal deaths in childbirth and infant mortality were both very high. One of the hallmarks of our modern society is the uncomfortable and growing realization that every human being is a fully feeling one. Perhaps political correctness has taken this a bit too far, but the impetus for what has led to PC is a good one, a beautiful one, a compassionate one.
Unfortunately, some feminists’ view of males as inherently deficient has allied with the longstanding evolutionary pressures to make their problems less salient to society. But my contention here is that if we really care about about girls and women, we must address these predominantly male problems with the same fervor we do female ones. Otherwise we will lose not only many many boys, but no small number of girls too.
In the last decade there has been attention paid to the need for us to encourage boys to open up about their emotions, and the long voiced demand made of boys to “Be a man!” – has lately been disparaged and discouraged. As a father who never said this to my sons and doubts that they have ever said it to theirs, I certainly believe in this. But we also need to see our boys and young men as every bit as needful of our nation’s full attention as girls and young women. Ultimately, this will help save our most vulnerable and suffering daughters as well as our sons.