The End of Boys

Titles like "The End of Men" are euphemisms.

Posted Dec 15, 2011

The titles of three recent publications sound almost like they are a joke. There was Maureen Dowd's 2005 book, Are Men Necessary? And then, in 2010, Hanna Rosin's article in The Atlantic, "The End of Men." And, most recently (September 2011), a debate at NYU on the resolution, "Men are finished."

The idea that the gender that has always been the dominant one worldwide could be in trouble might strike some as ludicrous and others as payback. And it is hard to feel sorry for grown men, especially those in positions of power and influence. But there is something that makes me much less than amused by those hyperbolic but not terribly off the mark titles: I am the father of three sons and the grandfather of three grandsons.

Perhaps there seems to be little need to worry about mature men. But there is a group that we should be very worried about: boys and young men (which includes my youngest son and all my grandsons). In the United States, indeed throughout the developed world, they are clearly not doing as well as girls and young women.

You may have already seen data comparing how young American males and females are doing today, but one of the best comparisons comes from Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in his oft-cited "For every 100 girls..." Here is a sampling of his statistics: "For every 100:

• tenth grade girls who play videogames for an hour or more a day, there are 322 tenth grade boys who do.
• girls who are suspended from high school, there are 215 boys who are suspended.
• young women who earn a bachelor's degree, there are 75 men who do.
• women ages 25-29 who have at least a bachelor's degree, there are 83 men who do.
• women ages 25-29 who have a doctoral degree, there are 80 men who do.
• females ages 15-24 who kill themselves, 586 males do.
• women ages 18-24 who are in correctional facilities, there are 1439 men who are behind bars."

I don't think anyone can legitimately argue that, as a group, boys and young men aren't having more problems than girls and young women, including falling behind them at every educational level, and yet, politically, this is still not a front burner issue. Why not?

Part of it is that those titles claiming the end of males or questioning their necessity all say, "men," a word that does not generally elicit concern or compassion. However, given the data, it is high time to think of those titles as applying to those who will become men: that is, boys—our sons and grandsons. I would urge that any time you see a reference to "The End of Men," think of it as "The End of Boys" because, ultimately, that is what it truly means. And ask not whether men are necessary, but whether boys are necessary. Think of that debate resolution as "Boys are Finished." Or, if you prefer, our sons and grandsons are finished.

I do understand that, for many, a shift to concern about males of any age will be difficult. I am well aware of the damage sexism has done. I always come close to tears when I talk about my late mother-in-law, a brilliant woman, born into relative poverty in the early 1920s, who worked at jobs far beneath her intelligence and abilities because that is what women did before the modern women's movement. At the age of 70 she graduated with honors from a prestigious college, but died four years later. I have rarely met someone so able to challenge arguments with great counter-arguments; she would have made a wonderful attorney. So I do get it.

But my three daughters-in-law, all born between 1961 and 1983, knew they could do whatever they wanted. They are, of course, the beneficiaries of a women's movement that was necessary and important—and still very much is in many parts of the world. But in our country today, and in much of the developed world, even the most casual look at statistics will show that it is our young males who need our help and attention far more than our young females.

Ultimately, I believe the impetus will have to come from the parents and grandparents of boys, though I can sense in feminists with sons the conflicts they feel around this issue. As author Phyllis Chesler has written, "Having a son, not a daughter, was a challenge to my passionate, woman-centered feminism."

Closer to home, I have listened to a feminist friend talk with concern about her only child, a son in his early 30s, who has struggled with work and relationships. In her own work, as a professor in the humanities, she has seen her classes dominated by young women, not only in numbers but in participation and academic performance.

"Why do you think this is happening," I asked her, referring to her classes.

She replied without hesitation, "It's the women's movement."

I know she is worried about her son, but, as I have seen so many times when parents talk about the problems their sons are having, she sees it as an individual problem, not as a social one. I am sure it is hard for her to accept the possibility that the feminism she so strongly believes in might have, by ignoring boys, allowed a progressively more unbalanced situation to develop, one in which her son is caught up.

A good role model for feminists today could be Dottie Lamm, former first lady of Colorado and well-known in her state for her activism, often on behalf of women. In an oped piece in the Denver Post in April 2010, titled "Boys Are Falling Behind in Education," Lamm begins with these words, "What's the next battle for an aging feminist? Boys.

"Granted, the battle for women's rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered."

And she ends with this:

"If a men's movement develops for boys, I'll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I'll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I'm going to do my darnedest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor."

I admire Dottie Lamm's courage, and feel that she represents the future, if we are to prevent the end of boys.

And lest you think "the end of boys" is too strong a term, consider the fact that, given the current situation, where so many boys are struggling and girls appear to have an unlimited future in our country, a growing number of prospective parents is using reproductive technology to enhance the likelihood of having girls.

Hanna Rosin starts her "End of Men" piece with a reference to biologist Ronald Ericsson, who, in the 1970s, found a way to separate the sperm carrying the Y-chromosome from those carrying the X, thus providing a means for determining the sex of one's child. By the 1990s Ericsson found that couples in the clinics using his technique "were requesting more girls than boys, a gap that has persisted...In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1..." Rosin also cites "a newer method for sperm selection, called Microsort...The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent."

And finally there is this from an August 10, 2011 New York Times magazine piece on "twin reduction," the highly controversial practice of doctors delivering only one of two twins by aborting the other. Doctors choose randomly which fetus to eliminate when both are healthy and equally accessible—unless they are of different sexes. Then "some doctors ask the parents which one they want to keep."

"Until the last decade, most doctors refused even to broach that question, but that ethical demarcation has eroded, as ever more patients lobby for that option and doctors discover that plenty opt for girls."

Other than infanticide, could anything more literally be the end of boys?

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