We are experiencing a crisis of masculinity.
That's the claim of Canadian psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson. Peterson argues that feminism and policies like no-fault divorce have destabilized traditional family and social structures. As a fix for this, Peterson recommends a variety of things including "enforced monogamy" — a solution that implies men are oppressed due to lack of consensual sex.
Peterson’s claims have been broadly criticized but he does have his defenders as well. These often argue that the crisis of masculinity has been caused by feminism, which has led to "evolving norms…generating confusion and mixed signals," in the words of Cathy Young writing in the Los Angeles Times. Feminism has set men adrift. They are no longer sure how to be men, and as a result they are struggling economically and psychologically.
This weekend is Father’s Day, a holiday typically celebrated with displays of testosterone and gendered clichés. It’s also as good a time as any to acknowledge that there is indeed a crisis of masculinity. But it isn't caused by feminism and changing gender norms. Rather, men experience violence and oppression because norms are not changing. And it is, in general, powerful men who enforce these unhelpful and sometimes dangerous masculine expectations, not tyrannous feminist women.
As one example, consider male suicide rates. Men are the victims of three-quarters of suicides in the United States. This isn't because feminists have successfully carried out a campaign to keep men from having sex. Rather, male suicide rates are tragically high because of traditional, stereotypical standards of manliness.
Our culture tells men that they are supposed to be emotionally and physically strong and self-contained. It is not surprising, therefore, that men are less likely to seek medical help for mental health problems. A 2016 YouGov survey found that 28 percent did not seek out mental health care despite experiencing distress, as opposed to only 19 percent of women. A third of women told friends or family they had mental health problems within a month; only a quarter of men did the same. As Ally Fogg writes at the Guardian, "we tell boys not to cry, then wonder about male suicide."
Encouraging boys not to cry is dangerous; encouraging boys to love guns is even more so. "Guns are historically, stereotypically a masculine sort of thing," Lisa Gold, a psychiatry professor at Georgetown told Quartz. Connecting manliness with gun ownership exacts a brutal toll. Statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in 2016, men accounted for a staggering 85 percent of gun deaths in the United States.
Men own guns at three times the rate that women do. As a result it’s not surprising that they are more likely to be hurt or killed in a firearm accident. And it also makes them much more likely to die when they attempt suicide. Women tend to prefer poison to guns when they try to kill themselves. Men use firearms — and firearms are a very effective way to inflict harm.
Gender expectations and stereotypical views of men contribute to another crisis — imprisonment. Mass incarceration disproportionately affects black people and people of color. But it also, and relatedly, affects men.
Rates of female incarceration are rising; between 1980 and 2014 they increased by 700 percent, according to the Sentencing Project. But even so, men still make up close to 93 percent of prisoners. This is not just because men commit more crimes. A 2012 study found that men receive much longer sentences than women for the same crimes.
It's true that white feminists have at times weaponized stereotypes about the hypermasculinity and violence of marginalized men. Women's rights activist Frances E. Willard advanced her crusade against alcohol by suggesting that white women in the south were threatened by drunk, "dark-faced mobs" — an argument that implicitly justified lynching. Hillary Clinton infamously referred to some criminals as "superpredators," a racist dogwhistle.
But the penal system is not run by feminists. Instead, it’s run by politicians, who too often seek to bolster their own masculinity through tough-on-crime rhetoric. When Trump calls Mexicans "rapists," he's demonstrating his own masculine resolve by calling out and denouncing (supposedly) dangerous men. In this way men are ground up in the prison industrial complex in order to fuel the egos and the political careers of other men.
The crisis of masculinity Peterson's fans talk about is deliberately vague. The real crises of masculinity, though, are much more quantifiable. There were close to 45,000 suicides in the U.S. in 2016. There were approximately 38,000 gun deaths. There were around 2.3 million people in prison. Men bore the brunt of all of these problems. And yet the solid, demonstrable problems facing men are rarely discussed, while the fictional crisis of men oppressed by a lack of sex has obsessed putatively serious pundits.
Part of the reason why this happens is that the men most harmed by the real crisis are black, brown, poor, and mentally ill, and so are easier to ignore or erase. And part of the reason is that a narrative about women and feminists oppressing men seems dramatic and counterintuitive. A narrative about powerful men oppressing less powerful men is less exciting, and requires more self-reflection.
For Father’s Day, though, we should focus on actual challenges facing men, rather than imaginary ones. We are not in a zero sum battle of the sexes, in which gains for women’s equality erode male security.
Indeed, men need more feminism in their lives, more gender equality and a relaxation of rigid and counterproductive gender norms. In other words, feminism isn't killing men — toxic masculinity is. And it will continue to do so until both women and men are fully equal, and fully free.