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Do White Males Feel They Are Losing Their "Space?"

Men are facing new anxieties

Do many white American men feel that their “space” is disappearing with the new demographics of America? Do we hear echoes of the anxiety caused by the closing of the frontier in 1890, when the U.S. census decreed that the frontier no longer existed?

At that time, historian Frederick Turner reacted with alarm, because he believed that the open, seemingly limitless frontier with all its freedoms formed the rugged American character. He worried that American dynamism and energetic masculinity would vanish along with the frontier.

Henry James echoed this sentiment in his novel of the same era, The Bostonians: “The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities.”

Today’s closing frontier is not a geographical space but a psychological one. Ever since the founding of the nation, white men--especially straight white Christian men--have been in charge. They have been our presidents, our captains of industry, our generals, our Wall Street titans, and they held all the power. They were the ones in “The room where it happens,” as the Hamilton lyric observes.

Even men who had no wealth or celebrity or grand accomplishments could bask in the glow of white male hegemony. They could at least imagine themselves in those “happening” rooms because all the people there looked like them.

We (a researcher and a journalist) have been following the narrative of male anxiety for four decades, and we have seen the ebb and flow of such fears. Today, we believe, the anxiety is at fever pitch, fanned by the incendiary words of President Donald Trump. More than 60,000 psychologists and other mental health professionals signed a petition titled Duty to Warn, saying that the nation is in peril because of Trump’s mental Instability. He is exacerbating the male fear of “losing space” in today’s world

The Washington Post reports that in the wake of the battle over Brent Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the male-dominated Republican party “does not make a secret of its fear that demographic shifts and cultural convulsions could jeopardize its grip on power.”

At the same time, this same male anxiety has spawned a new movement dubbed the “manosphere,” that takes particular aim at women.

The Southern Poverty Law Center writes, “The so-called ‘manosphere’ is peopled with hundreds of websites, blogs and forums dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general. Although some of the sites make an attempt at civility and try to back their arguments with facts, they are almost all thick with misogynistic attacks that can be astounding for the guttural hatred they express.”

One of the movement’s supporters, Tom X Hart, writes on Medium: “There is now a fairly coherent community… dedicated to discussing what might be termed ‘traditional’ views on relations between the sexes.”

What does he mean by “traditional?” He explains it this way: “Women find being objectified and subjected to male authority sexually arousing. …It has probably always been true that in public, women, feminism aside, have insisted that they are not led by men. Women want to be led by men, but they don’t ever want this to be made explicit. A subtle game has to be played whereby the man pretends to be bossed while he is really making all the decisions, and quietly putting his foot down when necessary.”

Some in the manosphere insist than women not only have a duty to make themselves attractive but should also give sex to men on demand. This is a worrisome notion that has already led two murderers to go on a killing spree: 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a rampage at UC Santa Barbara in 2014, killing six and wounding 13. In his words: “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true alpha male. Yes. After I’ve annihilated every single girl in the sorority house, I will take to the streets of Isla Vista and slay every single person I see there.”

Then, in 2018, 25-year-old Alek Minassian intentionally drove a rental van into pedestrians on a busy thoroughfare in Toronto, killing ten people. Before the attack, he posted to Facebook: “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!"

Perhaps the manosphere’s greatest threat to women is not actual violence but the threat of it. Social media crackles with concerted efforts to drive women from public spaces with warnings of physical harm. Even if no actual violence occurs, the very threat has a major impact on women. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 2018, the number of threats against her became so extreme she considered moving to Europe.

The level of anger against women has perhaps never been higher. Shockingly, President Donald Trump mocked Dr. Ford at a televised rally, and suggested that all American men are in peril. In the age of Trump, “mad men” are getting madder. Hostility against women is moving into the mainstream. In 2017, researchers from the Wharton School of Business researched how women and men negotiate, and observed that since Donald Trump’s election there had been a marked “increase in men acting more aggressively toward women.”

And many women writers and critics have been driven from the Internet. Journalist Amanda Hess received this tweet from “headlessfemalepig”: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman... Happy to say we live in the same state. I’m looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head.”

In-depth interviews with dozens of female journalists from across the globe in 2018 revealed that women in the news face serious online harassment, from sexist remarks and inappropriate requests to threats of rape. The study was published in the journal Journalism.

Black women can be especially vulnerable. Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones was attacked online after she appeared in the remake of the male cult film Ghostbusters. She received vile racist comments, as well as the picture of a dead gorill. Jones wrote “I feel like I’m in a personal hell. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now.”

Meanwhile, in the tech world, online trolls have long attacked women in the video-game industry. During an online anti-woman campaign dubbed #Gamergate in 2014, two women left their homes because they feared for their own safety. The FBI said it would look into the harassment of game developers.

Anita Sarkeesian, a video-game critic who looks at the way video games portray women, had long been getting angry backlash for her critiques. But as #Gamergate unfolded, threats became so violent that she fled from her home after calling the authorities.

The men who make such threats may be small in number (though their number appears to be growing), but the power of social media greatly magnifies their impact. Never before have angry misogynists had such readily available power at their fingertips. Women cannot hope to use their talents to the fullest and build authentic lives if they are routinely driven out of public spaces.

There appears to be a growing belief that we are seeing The End of Men, to quote the title of Hanna Rosin’s best-selling book. In this scenario, men are losing power to women across the board. In fact, this is not true because while women are doing well with respect to college graduation rates, they are stalling out in the workplace.“While the country made progress on eliminating gender inequality in the latter half of the 20th century, progress has since slowed or stalled entirely,” according to a 2018 report from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The truth is that the more women succeed, the better men fare economically. The Harvard Business Review reports that every 10% increase in the female-labor force participation rate in a metropolitan area is associated with a 5% increase in median real wages — for both men and women.

Women’s wages keep men in the middle class. “The typical wife brings home about a third of her family’s total income, reports Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research. “Over the past few decades, families who had a working wife were more likely to be upwardly mobile. Since the late 1970s, the additional earnings of wives have made the difference between falling and slightly rising incomes for families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.”

So male fear that women are hurting them by moving into their spaces is misplaced. Often, when a woman moves in with a man, she brings her paycheck along. His life is more comfortable when that happens.

As feminists—and as mothers and grandmothers of men--we are passionate about changing the narrative of gender wars. We need to promote a new “win-win” scenario when it comes to women and men. No “frontier” is closing with female success. The economic pie just gets bigger for everyone, and that’s good news for all of us.

More from Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers
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