The fall of men
Gender politics is obscuring rather than illuminating the problems facing young males today.
Journalists, authors and campaigners have been talking of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ for at least 50 years. It’s become a running joke. Every decade or so, a flurry of new books appear, interrogating the state of men and boys. And we’re in the middle of one such cycle. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it’s become common – at least in some, less thoroughly feminist circles – to see men as the primary losers of the post-crash economy. And this has renewed older concerns about the seeming decline of men as they struggle to find their place in a post-patriarchal world.
As Hanna Rosin notes in The End of Men, the crash hollowed out the American middle class, but affected men and women differently; it sped up economic trends that appeared to blight men and benefit women. Since 2000, the US economy has lost over six million manufacturing jobs. While job gains in sectors such as education, healthcare and services made up the difference, these are sectors almost entirely dominated by women. As a result, Rosin writes, men have become ‘unmoored’ and women have been left to ‘pick up the pieces’.
The drawn-out decline of manufacturing industries goes hand in hand with the rise of working women and the decline of working men – a trend that is reflected in the UK economy, too. According to the Office for National Statistics, between 1971 and 2013, the rate of women in work rose from 53 per cent to 67 per cent, while, for men, it has fallen from 92 per cent to 76 per cent. This, the ONS notes, is only partly the result of the reduction of barriers to entry for women – the end of workplace discrimination and the introduction of equal pay. Instead, it is the decline in male-dominated manufacturing – beginning in the 1960s – that seems to play the most crucial role in the fall in male employment.
But this is not just about the economy producing more ‘girl jobs’ as ‘boy jobs’ suffer. In the space of just a few decades women, have stormed the traditionally male professions. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2011 women held 51.4 per cent of managerial and professional jobs; 61.3 per cent of accountancy jobs; and about half of banking and insurance jobs. Trends suggest that women will outnumber men in medicine very soon. This reflects a phenomenon Rosin refers to as ‘Plastic Women’ and ‘Cardboard Men’, whereby women have been flexible, adaptive, seizing new economic opportunities, while men have stayed still, and shown a reluctance to change.
The shift in Western job markets has created a higher demand for university-educated workers – and yet, here, men notoriously lag behind. According to recent UK figures, women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men. And white working-class boys are the least likely of any other demographic to attend, at just 8.9 per cent. In the space of a few generations, the gender bias in higher education has reversed. Now, some administrators at US colleges have admitted to practising positive discrimination towards male applicants.
Though women are still underrepresented in both the boardroom and the corridors of power, the strides they have made have been remarkable. As Rosin puts it, ‘given the sheer velocity of the economic and other forces at work, these circumstances are much more likely the last artefacts of a vanishing era rather than a permanent configuration’. And yet, during this period, men’s position in work and the family has both remained stagnant and withered. Women now work more and parent more. While men work less and parent slightly more. ‘They lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one’, concludes Rosin.
The predicament men now find themselves in has accompanied a surge in interest in so-called men’s rights activism. Though it has existed – in one form or another – since at least the 1970s, up until recently it has been pigeon-holed as a cranky, embittered response to the rise of feminism and the gains of women. Now, it is finding mainstream purchase. In the UK, writer-cum-campaigners like Martin Daubney and Peter Lloyd are filling column inches and gaining prime-time TV-news exposure. Even some MPs, like Philip Davis, have begun to campaign on the plight of ‘men and boys’. Yet many of the concerns of the much-maligned MRAs have remained pretty constant.
Men’s rights activism as we know it today grew out of the work of Warren Farrell, a former feminist campaigner who once counted Gloria Steinem among his political allies. The founding text for the movement, Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power (1993), looked to redefine what were previously considered indicators of male power as indicators of male subservience. He turned the feminist consensus on its head, arguing that women and the family’s reliance on men – who were forced to succeed, provide and work all hours even as divorces surged – constituted a form of gendered oppression that society insisted on ignoring.
For Farrell, men’s economic and social dominance was a smokescreen. He defined power as control over one’s life. And though men were nominally free to exercise their social and economic freedom, he argued they remained socialised into accepting restrictive, self-destructive and unfulfilling obligations to their families and to women in general. In one bizarre passage, he pondered if men had become the ‘new niggers’: ‘Blacks were forced by slavery into society’s most hazardous jobs, men are forced by a socialisation into society’s most hazardous jobs… When slaves gave up their seats for whites we called it subservience, when women give up their seats for women, we call it politeness.’
Today, Farrell’s US acolytes orbit around A Voice for Men, a website set up and run by former addiction therapist and trucker Paul Elam. The site reflects a mixed bag of men’s issues ranging from reasonable gripes, surrounding lopsided parental rules and the watering down of legal standards in sexual-assault cases, to peculiar obsessions. One of which is the fact that US men still have to register for the draft. Despite the fact there’s vanishingly little chance they’ll ever be drafted, this, according to the Farrell school of thought, is proof that men remain the ‘disposable sex’, the only section of society that can wilfully be submitted for ‘genocide’. As, apparently, does the fact that men still dominate professions – such as construction – that have high on-the-job fatality rates.
Though old-guard MRAs are certainly more whacky than their new, mainstream descendants, they all fixate on the most morbid sides of male experience. The most salient of them all being the rate of male suicide – which, on both sides of the Atlantic, accounts for the vast majority of the total. This is held up as proof that an unfeeling society is ignoring, and perhaps even feeding, a trend towards male self-destruction. If you point out that the reason young men, in particular, are vastly more likely to die at their own hands is that they’re unlikely to die at all – and that while men more often succeed at committing suicide, women more often attempt it – you’re just cast as part of the problem.
The men’s rights movement is often crudely depicted as a misogynistic, basement-dweller backlash against feminism. Its critics have shamelessly argued that it helped feed the murderous imagination of Elliot Rodgers, the 22-year-old who killed six people and injured 14 in Isla Vista in 2014, leaving behind a ‘manifesto’ extolling his hatred of women and minorities. MRAs like Elam certainly don’t help themselves – he once published a ‘satirical’ article announcing ‘Bash a Violent Bitch Month’, and has insisted that if he was ever on a jury in a rape trial he would acquit on principle. But the movement as a whole remains far more therapeutic than furious.
In truth, men’s rights is the mirror image of feminism. Over the course of the past few decades, the egalitarian demands of women’s liberation have been eclipsed by a new feminism obsessed with painting all women as victims. Not only do feminists today perpetrate myths about rape culture and the gender pay gap, they insist on connecting the dots between vast, unrelated issues – as if ‘sexist’ pop songs and tampon taxes are on a continuum with domestic violence. If you go looking for signs of female victimhood – if you disregard all other social factors and lump the experiences of all women together – you’re going to find it. Men’s rights has just shown that two can play that game.
Beyond the gender war
At a time when men in the West are facing economic and social uncertainty, a recourse to male gender politics has, paradoxically, only clouded the issue. If you tumble down the rabbit hole of men’s rights thinking, you find precious little to help you navigate the situation that presents itself. It’s not that MRAs are unconcerned about the fact that working-class men have effectively being decommissioned, that they have vanishing job prospects and are often unsure of their place in society as a whole. It’s that their insistence on seeing these purely through the prism of gender blinds them to the real forces at play.
In many ways, gender politics has always played this obfuscating role. Though previous generations fought to level gender inequalities, they recognised that these inequalities were economic, legal and social in nature. But gender politics – with its dictum, the ‘personal is political’ – recasts the challenges that affect either men or women in terms of gender-specific victimhood and esteem. Hence questions about how men or women are seen by society – how much they are valued – are suddenly hugely important. As men’s rights campaigner Peter Lloyd puts it, ‘turn on any TV channel or radio station and there’s a global conversation about men – sometimes disguised as being about women – taking place without us. These all slowly influence our worlds.’
The ultimate blind-spot of both the men’s rights movement and feminism is class. This is why privately educated women, attending Russell Group universities, feel comfortable calling working-class lads ‘privileged’. And the fact remains that it is not simply men and boys, but working-class men and boys, who are finding their life chances most limited by accident of their birth. If we want to grasp that nettle we need to work out how to replace those millions of manufacturing jobs that have disappeared – to carve out an economy and an education system that serves all. A men’s rights therapy session won’t help that.
There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. Why have women adapted so well to this new, post-industrial world, while men have lagged behind? Are women now destined to dominate higher education? But one thing is clear. If men really are lost, gender politics is no way back.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by: timchallies, published under a creative commons license.