American boys and men are suffering — and our culture doesn't know how to talk about it

Author Richard Reeves explains why he thinks terms like "toxic masculinity" are "profoundly unhelpful"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 16, 2022 4:00PM (EDT)

Sad Boy (Getty Images / Sian Cox / EyeEm)
Sad Boy (Getty Images / Sian Cox / EyeEm)

Our men and boys are in trouble. In the U.S., nearly four times more likely than women to die by suicide. They have more emergency department visits and deaths due to overdoses. They are less likely to receive treatment for mental health issues. They have a lower rate of participation in the workforce. They are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and autism. They are more likely than females to drop out of high school, and the ones who do go on to college are less likely than their female peers to graduate. They are barraged with constant and conflicting messages about what it means to be a man, and the consequences of failing to live up to other people's ideas about modern masculinity can be severe. And all of this is difficult to talk about because the simultaneous culture of misogyny and the war on women's rights is so intense, it has created a zero sum game expectation around our basic humanity.

But acknowledging the crisis in males takes nothing from the ground women are fighting to gain. And accepting that gender is only one element in a social strata that is also incredibly unbalanced around race and class is the only useful way forward for all of us.

In his provocative new book "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It," Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard V. Reeves peels back the misconceptions that are holding back meaningful gender equity, shows how both liberals and conservatives have made existing divides even worse, and offers simple, practical solutions for a brighter, more balanced future for all of us and our kids.

Salon talked with Reeves recently about our current inflection point, and why he hopes that he can persuade readers to agree that "terms like 'toxic masculinity' are profoundly unhelpful."

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It was interesting reading your book, having just dropped my daughter off at her university. Walking around the campus, we kept saying, "Where are the boys? Did we take her to Vassar in the 1950's?" The gender difference was striking.

Yet as a mother of daughters and as a feminist, my initial knee jerk response to a book like this is, "Oh, boo hoo for men. Men have it hard? Do you know about women?"

What you point out almost immediately is that when we think about the patriarchy, what we are really thinking about is rich, cis, white masculinity. We're not thinking of the ways in which our culture needs to be intersectional, needs to be thinking about the price that boys and men of color in particular are paying. So I want to start there. How do we deprogram ourselves when we think about the crisis in masculinity, starting with a crisis for men and boys of color in particular?

You're right, that's a big initial challenge. It's one of the things I worked hardest on in the book — to try and get past this initial understandable trigger of the small violins for young men and boys. Frankly, I shared some of those initial reactions too.

There's a couple of things. One is the increasing need to think about the complexity of class and race and gender altogether. There has been progress on many aspects of gender equality, much more so for women at the top than for women lower down the scale for sure. The growing gaps we see [are] by class.

There's a danger that we lean in, but don't look down. If we are occupying relatively high status positions, you look around and go, "What crisis?" to a large extent. It's not that boys from more affluent backgrounds and men can't have problems, just as girls and women from those situations can. But I go to great pains to say that this is a class and a race issue. Most men today earn less than most men did in 1979. It doesn't mean that I'm earning less than the equivalent men did in 1979. It just means that most men. When you look at the gaps in education, they just get bigger and bigger as you go down the scale. The further down the socioeconomic scale you go, the more magnified these gender gaps get.

It is incredibly important not just to look at this from the top of the pyramid. That doesn't mean there aren't still problems at top of the pyramid. There are, and you can talk about some of those remaining challenges for women. But partly because of the success of the women's movement at helping many women to do better, although not all, it requires us to just say, look, life's much more complicated now. It's much harder to just say that men are better off than women, because that's not true in many cases and in many spheres, although it does remain true in some. We have to pan out. We need a wider lens to look at this problem.

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You point out that these ideas that we have around men, boys and masculinity have been weaponized by the left and the right to create confusion about the role of men and boys in America right now. For those of us who are liberal, we need to look at our complicity in that as well.

You can be aware of the patriarchy and you can take steps to protect yourself without perpetuating this idea that masculinity is inherently toxic. Talk to me about what those of us on the progressive side of the dialogue are doing wrong. 

"Terms like 'toxic masculinity' are profoundly unhelpful to this debate."

If there's one thing I'd really like to try and achieve with this conversation and with the book, is to persuade more people on the progressive side that terms like "toxic masculinity" are profoundly unhelpful to this debate. We can have discussion about what it used to mean in academia and what its history is, and so on. But the way it's used now, just this broad brush term, is actually incredibly unhelpful. What lies beneath it is this sense that there's something potentially inherently wrong with boys and men, that those things need to be expunged, and somehow there's some kind of exorcism that we can go through. If we'd just get rid of that remaining bit of masculinity and if we could squeeze that out of you, then you'd be okay.

"The right thinks masculinity is the solution and the left thinks masculinity's the problem, and both are wrong."

That just sends a really quite negative message, particularly to younger men and to boys. They need to feel good in their skin, as we want everyone to. It's really important that we don't pathologize aspects of their lives without also putting them in boxes. This great moment is that we can relax a little bit about some of these distinctions without needing to pathologize them. But the right, the Josh Hawleys, so strongly have weaponized this issue, blaming feminism, blaming progressives, and there's a reaction from the left, which is, "Actually, we think masculinity is the problem." What happens is that the right thinks masculinity is the solution and the left thinks masculinity's the problem, and both are wrong.

Both ironically end up inflating the importance of it, rather than just recognizing there are some differences, largely inconsequential overall, but there are some differences. Particularly when you're raising boys and girls, it's important to be aware of those differences, not so as to elevate them but to in some ways to make them less important. We don't make the differences go away by imagining they don't exist. We reduce them. We turn down the volume on them by being aware of them and helping girls and boys and men and women to manage them so they become less important.

There's really a weird paradox here. Because of the polarization of this debate, we're actually making these differences and these issues of masculinity and femininity more salient, at a time when they should be becoming less salient. 

One thing is just to be careful about how we talk about this, how we engage with boys and men and don't, out of a completely understandable desire to continue to push for girls and women, inadvertently pathologize, toxify masculinity or boys and men. We need boys and men to feel good things about being male, not just bad things.

Peggy Orenstein wrote about this. She'd ask all these boys, "What's good about being a boy?" She just couldn't get any good answers out of them. And one of them said to her, saying, "That's a great question. You hear a lot about what's bad about being a boy." There is this sense, "Here's all the things that are bad about being a boy," many of which are indeed bad. But what's good about it? Is there anything good about it? Culturally, that's a really bad way for us to go. We've got to get a better balance.

It's very important for those on the progressive side of the argument to recognize that there are some gender inequalities that are going the other way. We already mentioned college as an example. Blindness to even acknowledging that there are any gender inequalities, even when they intersect with race, serves the cause of gender equality really badly. It allows people to think, you don't actually care about boys. And then the right comes to take that message up.

"There's a bigger gap in college completion rates now than when Title IX was passed, just the other way around."

It's really hard to counter the message, "You don't care about boys and men" if you put out, as the White House did, a gender equality document that hasn't a single gender inequality that goes the other way. Not a single one. Even when it came to things like school discipline, it talks about the fact that Black girls are at disproportionate risk of being disciplined than white girls. That's true, but it doesn't mention Black boys. Anybody can look at the statistics around school discipline, and see that there's a gender inequality affecting Black boys. And there's a bigger gap in college completion rates now than there was in 1972, when Title IX was passed, just the other way around.

That's important to acknowledge, even if you don't think most of the remaining gender inequalities to be addressed are ones where women are on the wrong side of it. We can have a good arguing session about that. It's crazy to suggest there are none, there are no aspects of life, whether it's suicide or education. This idea that gender inequality is just baked in as one way, is a profound intellectual error. I think it's becoming a big political mistake too.

These inequities affect everybody. It affects all of us when boys and men are in a mental health crisis. It affects everyone when you have incel culture rising up, when you have high suicidal ideation in boys and men. It's not something that we can just say, "Well, as long as more girls are going to college, I guess, progress."

We don't have men and boys who are encouraged to go into primary education. They're not teaching our children. They're not encouraged too. There's a disproportionate number of women in psychology and psychiatry, which is why we have this pathologizing of more traditional masculine personality traits. And then we don't have men going into healthcare and caring professions. So, as you point out, these more stereotypically masculine behaviors are then seen as a problem. They're seen as a problem in your five-year-old boy. They're seen as a problem when you go to talk to your therapist, and they're seen as a problem when you're the patient in the hospital.

You're right that if we just see these sorts of behaviors, which do vary, as inherently problematic, then we're hurting everybody. One of the reasons why I think people like Jordan Peterson and others are getting such huge audiences is because they just make a lot of young men feel heard.

Take it seriously, don't discount what's happening. Don't just say, "You don't get it," or, "This is toxic." Say, "That's interesting. Let's talk about that." This this is quite visceral for me just as a parent, as a member of society — just having more care. And then care becomes an important part of the conversation because that means you need more men caring.

I think I quote [Gloria] Steinem saying that, "Where do girls and boys get their ideas of gender roles from? From all the people around them while they're growing up." One of the reasons to get more men into caring professions and teaching professions is so that we don't just perpetuate this intergenerationally. I find it really astonishing that feminists are not more worried about the fact that the teaching profession is becoming more female all the time, not just because of issues around pay, but just because of what that means, for what the signal we're sending to the next generation. We have twice as many women flying US military jets as we do men teaching kindergarten.

How can that not be an issue? Why are we not outraged about the latter number? I'm sure I want more women flying military jets, but just in terms of the impact on the culture and the impact on the next generation, I would go as far as to say it's more important to have men teaching kindergarten than women flying fighter jets. Not that it isn't important to have women flying fighter jets. I want the best people defending our country. But it's much more important to me that my boys can actually see men in the classroom and in the nursery and in the hospital, et cetera. And you get this mismatch, between the users of services and the providers of services.

In many cases it's really inverted. Substance abuse counselors, special needs educators, et cetera, many more men and boys are using those services, but mostly being provided by women. Psychology is another great example, and also something like social work, which used to be quite gender balanced, has swung incredibly female. Who's caring for these boys and men and in what way? Is it easier in some cases if there's a kind of gender match between the carer and the cared for?

We've also got a labor shortage of lot of these areas. I think a massive effort is required to degender some of these caring professions and teaching professions. We can't have one way degenerating in the labor market. If there are male nurses around and male carers around, it's easier for some things, especially very intimate kinds of care, it just is easier. And vice versa.

It feels to me like we have now an almost satanic panic level of fear around letting men have access to caring professions, particularly around children. And some men have earned that. There's a reason that we have this fear and trepidation. But if as parents and as children, we feel that men are to be feared, that the only reason a male would be a caregiver is because he's an abuser, that tells boys something about themselves and it leaves out a population of carers.

You talk about now some ways that we can get around this. It really starts very early and it starts very simply with one particular idea that you have. I want to ask about starting boys in school late. What will be achieved by that?

In one word, equity. A slightly longer description would be to try and level the playing field developmentally in education, because boys mature more slowly than girls. There's a gap right at the beginning, but in adolescents you see quite a big gap opening up in terms of brain development, particularly of the development of the prefrontal cortex, sometimes known as the CEO of the brain. That's the bit that helps you to plan, to think ahead.

Adolescents in particular, there's a period where psychologists talk about the gas and the brake. Gas is just risk taking, "Go for it, what the hell," and the brake is like, "Maybe not, maybe I should study, maybe that's a bad idea." Adolescence is this period where the gets bigger, more attracted to risk taking. Obviously with puberty, sex drive increases, et cetera. At the meantime, we haven't really developed the brake. Adolescence is a period where the gas outruns the brake, but much more so for boys as the girls and at different times for girls and boys too. Over the age of 15, some people think it's an up to a two year gap in the development of those particular skills.

It seems like there's so much resistance about it, because everyone is afraid that then if I send my kid to school later, he's going to fall behind. The terror of falling behind when they're already behind. Let them catch up.

They're already behind. This is a great example of how really rapid and positive social change can reveal new issues and have these consequences. My basic argument is that because of these differences in the rate of brain maturation,

"The education system is currently structured to be more female friendly than male friendly. "

You get these big gaps and they occur at these critical moments in adolescence, which puts girls on average at an advantage to boys. A 16-year-old girl is older than a 16-year-old boy developmentally. She's older in these particular skills, which are very important. They grow your GPA. They mean you print out your college letter. I've raised three boys and I've seen the difference between them and their friends at 16, 17.

By the way, what happens in upper middle class households is that huge compensatory efforts go in to propping up the boys. I quote a colleague saying, "I'm going to be your prefrontal cortex through high school. You don't have one yet. I'm going to step in." Through tutoring and that type of investment of time and so on, parents with means are basically just piling resources into their boys to compensate for this developmental gap. But that is not possible for a lot of others.

I've been doing a lot of reporting on this from private schools, and it's striking how common it is. There's one school in, at a prestigious east coast school that shared their data with me. I looked at the birth dates of their graduating seniors, and 20% of the boys were old for the year. Why they got held back is a different matter. It wasn't for athletic reasons. It's not a very athletic school. But one in five. And that number is also even in public schools, roughly what you see for summer born boys of parents with a BA. There are these massive race and class gaps in this decision to delay entry and massive gender gaps.

There's a development gap. In many cases, private schools are suggesting very strongly to parents, "We think you should hold your boy back." It's not the parents. It's the schools. Meanwhile, the public school system works on this industrial model of, everyone starts at the same time. I realize this it's a strong proposal in many ways, although it wouldn't require us to really change the education system very much. In my view, it would somewhat level the playing field.

Girls have always had this advantage in the school system. There's nothing new here, but we didn't see it because previously girls didn't go to college. Girls were doing better in high school than boys in the '60s. But now the gap is much bigger. By opening up all these opportunities for girls and women in education, what's been revealed is that actually there's a structural inequality in the education system. We couldn't see it under conditions of patriarchal sexism or whatever language you want to use. It wasn't visible.

Now that we've taken a lot of the barriers for education for girls, suddenly we're like, wait, what's going on? It's not just that girls caught up. They've blown past. We're realizing, wait, hold on. There's something about the school system itself. Then of course we can add on the fact that the teaching profession is becoming more female by the year. At the heart of it, it's just this recognition that a 16-year-old boy is younger than a 16-year-old girl. And our education system ignores that fact.

I worry that by putting them in at the same age, it means that the boys are developmentally behind. I just worry that over time that sense of always being behind, particularly for the younger boys, can then get entrenched. They spend their entire educational life feeling like they're behind, feeling like they're struggling. One of the results of that is the boys are much likely to be held back. That's where we started around the need to intersect by race. One in four Black boys have been held back a grade by the time they finish high school. One in four.

The conversation has been changing over the past few years, but there is this fear, because we live in a very binary culture, that if we pay attention to boys and men, if we look at what they need and how to help them, that then we are once again going to be setting back women's rights and we are going to set back women's gains. What do you say to those people?

That's an example of a broader problem, which is a politics and a discourse that is framed in zero sum terms. To pay attention to group A means ignoring group B. It's a sense of just, if we give an inch, then "they," the other side will take a mile. Even just an acknowledgement that there could be some issues here. If we even just acknowledge it even just an inch, boom, we've lost.

I think it's completely wrong. It's not where most people are, and it is distorting so many of our debates. This is a great example of it. It is perfectly possible to think two thoughts at once. And increasingly we need to, because I want to pay huge attention to some of the struggles with boys in education and especially Black boys and working class boys. 

I'm going to give myself permission to say, it isn't it zero sum, and it's not binary. Honestly, we all need to give ourselves that permission, because otherwise we're just digging ourselves deeper and deeper into these trenches, and a growing gap emerges.

It's one of the reasons why I eventually almost forced myself to write this book. This gap rose between what we publicly feel like our views need to be and what we're privately worrying about. That's the gap I'm trying to write into because I think a lot of people are really worried about boys and men, their sons, their fathers, their brothers. They're right to be worried. Some of those worries aren't just about the individual boy or man, because there's some tough things happening right now. It's dislocating for men, and our services aren't serving well. I can't emphasize this strongly enough. It's just incredibly bad politics, but also to some extent it's culturally irresponsible not to take seriously the problems of boys and men, even as we continue the fight for women's rights. It is not zero sum.

Anybody that frames it that way, whether left or right, is not our friend. They're not on our side, our side being ordinary folks just trying to make this work. What they're trying to do is weaponize one kind of discontent against the other. That doesn't help. That doesn't help my sons. It won't help your daughters. It won't help any of us in the long run. We're all just trying to make this work.

They don't feel listened to, and they don't feel like we're taking their problems seriously. I quote somebody saying, "It is an axiom of politics, that if responsible people don't deal with problems, irresponsible people will come along and exploit them." It's a test of our cultural responsibility right now to just take this stuff seriously, without in any way giving up any of our previous gains. I'm a diehard feminist. I hope that comes across. But if diehard feminists can't count themselves among the people who are leading the charge to help boys and men, then we've lost, and this is not going to end well for us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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