Is Masculinity in Crisis? If So, What Should Be Done?

Are men being left behind?

Posted Jun 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

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Is masculinity in crisis? One might be inclined to conclude so, based on how numerous indicators of physical, psychological, and social well-being are trending negatively for males.

The problems appear early, as girls outperform boys throughout the school years. College ranks, once dominated by men, are now majority female, as men’s educational attainment increasingly lags behind. Men's troubles extend beyond schooling. "Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims,” writes Stephanie Pappas in the APA Monitor. ”They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.”

The workforce, a traditional bastion of masculine domination, is seeing similar trends. Alan Krueger of Princeton University writes: “Participation in the labor force has been declining for prime-age men for decades, and about half of prime-age men who are not in the labor force (NLF) may have a serious health condition that is a barrier to work.”

Psychologically, many men appear to feel that the defining traits of masculinity, including, “toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors” are “under attack.”

Indeed, the APA, in its recently published guidelines for therapists, has gone so far as to define traditional masculinity as a risk factor. “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.”

Several causes are cited for this so-called crisis. First, economic changes have rendered males’ biological advantage over women—physical strength and size—inessential for success. As Hanna Rosin wrote in the Atlantic: “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true.”

“The scientific evidence,” notes Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg, “shows that women have on average stronger skills in empathy, communication, emotion recognition and verbal expression, and corporate America is valuing those qualities.” As British sociologist David Morgan notes, economical changes tend to go hand in hand with societal shifts in behavior and attitude. Many such recent changes—such as the rising divorce rates (most often initiated by women), challenge to a dominant heterosexual model, and the rise of single-parent households (most often headed by women)--undermine or disrupt traditional masculine roles and identities.

Still, talk of ‘crisis’ should be considered carefully. For one, such talk often lacks nuance. A closer look at the state of men reveals a more complicated picture. Masculinity is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon, and generalizing across this vast, complex category is risky. To wit, the masculinity-related problems of middle-aged men are bound to differ from those of high schoolers. Further, males’ problems are not necessarily caused by maleness. Issues of class and race are often intermingled with or supersede gender effects. Poverty hurts poor men more than their maleness.

Moreover, judging change processes as they happen is not easy, given the limited perspective. To wit: the pain many men feel need not imply that something bad is happening to them. We don’t judge the success of surgery by how painful it was. The chaos and confusion men experience now may be transitory, marking the route to a healthier and more well-adjusted future for them and everyone else.

Additionally, it’s difficult to talk earnestly of a ‘crisis’ when men still hold most of the social power and high capital positions in the culture. In this context, a feminized workplace does not necessarily imply increased feminine power. Often, as professions become female-dominated they lose prestige and pay (e.g., journalism; book editing), or stir men to higher positions via the so-called ‘glass escalator’ (e.g., daycare). In other words, dominance remains in male hands, even if fewer such hands are needed.

Further, a crisis rhetoric is often enacted in the absence of a real crisis, for political gain. As Francis Dupuis-Déri of Quebec University notes, talking about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ can help male-dominant elements within the culture identify certain ‘enemies of masculinity,’ (say, feminism) and single them out for attack in order to preserve power. In fact, a long history exists of powerful elites, male and otherwise, activating the trope of ‘crisis’ to cement their hold on power.

Even among those who insist on seeing a masculinity crisis, opinions differ as to its implications. Some lament the apparent decline of old masculinity, pointing to men’s current confusion, impotence, and despair while extolling the clarity, stability, and dominance of yesteryear, back when everyone knew what men were supposed to be, do, and feel.

The appeal of this position is clear. Harkening to an idealized past is a common psychological defense, as our long-term memory finds it easy to linger on the good, particularly if we actually had it good. Moreover, to many, the current state of affairs feels chaotic, and to the human mind, even a deficient order is better than chaos.

However, the argument that the old order was better is suspect, particularly if those who are making it are old order beneficiaries, and if we take into account the voices of those who were silenced by the old order. In the minds of slave owners, slavery worked great for both themselves and the slaves. Not so much in the minds of the slaves.

The 'lamenters' often lay blame for the current sorry state of men at the feet of women, as manifested for example in the angry discourse characterizing such fringe online communities as MGTOWs (men going their own way ) and Incels (involuntary celibates).

Yet this position leaks in several ways. First, it assumes that the gender equation in society is a zero-sum game. It is not. The data suggest that both men and women, for example, benefit from women’s equality. Additionally, men’s struggles and their causes are varied, and often quite unrelated to women altogether. Male suicides, for example, have more to do with gun ownership than with the behavior or status of women. Moreover, as Dupuis-Déri writes: “Epidemiologists also note that suicide rates rise in times of economic crisis, a phenomenon that cannot be attributed to women, since they do not run the economy.”

The lamenters also point out that traditional masculinity has not emerged out of nowhere or by chance but rather manifests our evolutionary past, and hence is coded in our biology. The traits of masculinity are part of man’s biological nature, goes the argument. Trying to take the aggression out of the man is like trying to take the aggression out of a tiger—that is, both cruel and futile.

Indeed, some of the traits associated with traditional masculinity are biologically wired. Temperamental differences between boys and girls—with boys showing lower fear levels and higher activity levels, for example—appear in infancy, prior to and regardless of gender socialization factors. Such differences are bound to inform developmental trajectories.

Yet the claim that challenges to traditional masculinity are wrong or doomed because they subvert ‘nature’ is weak. First, while emerging from biology, all behavior happens inside a cultural context. Human culture—in its effects, dynamics, and processes—can no more be meaningfully reduced to biology than a tree can be reduced to a seed.

Thus, while aggression, for example, may be biologically programmed, its manifestations and meaning are shaped culturally. In this process, cultures routinely go ‘against nature’ as they seek to channel, modify, and shape raw biological tendencies into effective tools of cultural survival. To wit: Most husbands are physically stronger than their wives, yet the culture may forbid using physical strength as means of spouse control.

Further, natural selection works in mysterious ways. After all, it led to the development of human culture, and within it human morality, which over time led to the effort to save and protect the weak young—in effect subverting biological evolution itself, which works by killing the weak young. One of our proudest achievements (saving vulnerable babies) thus amounts to a successful subversion of the most fundamental biological, natural process.

On the other side of the fence from the lamenters are those who argue that the masculinity crisis represents a positive advancement. In the strong version of this view, traditional masculinity is the problem, and we are now in the process of getting rid of it. Here too, the position carries some water. Clearly, several manifestations of masculinity can be problematic, for both men and women. The ‘manly’ refusal to see a doctor may result in premature death for men. The male preference for hiring gender peers may unfairly halt the advancement of deserving women, etc.

Yet this view has obvious limitations. First is the failure to consider context. The APA’s recent guidelines are a case in point. They frame traditional masculinity as a health risk. Yet, traditional masculinity does not—indeed cannot—exist independently of specific historical and cultural contexts. Clearly, in a historical context, masculinity has been quite successful. Otherwise, how would it come to dominate (and create, along the way, the very science now used to justify its dismantling)?

Even today, masculine qualities are clearly adaptive in certain contexts. You need your soldiers to be aggressive, your athletes competitive, and your astronauts stoic. Cultures can thrive without true risk factors like poverty or diabetes. Yet no culture has ever thrived without a strong contingent of its citizens manifesting masculine traits. To the extent that masculine traits are linked to ill health, the problem does not reside with the traits, but their contextual fit.

This is important distinction, because it locates the problem not in masculinity or in society, but in the interaction between them. If we accept this formulation, we may then seek to address whatever real problems mark the ‘crisis of masculinity’ not by angrily ending or stubbornly ossifying masculinity, but by upgrading it.

Two aspects of an upgraded system that are relevant here are range and flexibility. Toolkits are upgraded when you add tools (range) and improve your skill in using them (flexibility). Similarly, the true project of psychology (and society) with regard to men may involve upgrading the range and flexibility of their masculinity traits. This means incorporating more skills into the definition of masculinity— in Sweden, paternal leave is now a norm of masculinity—and applying existing skills in new ways, thus adapting to and enriching, rather than succumbing to or fouling, the changing sociocultural, historical, and economic landscape.