Thirty years ago, when I first started dating my wife, we went to a loud, garish bar with another couple. Within the first few minutes, my eyes, of their own accord, observed the progress of an attractive woman as she walked past us. My then-girlfriend noticed my indiscretion and stormed off to the other end of the bar. I will never forget what happened next. She calmly ordered a drink and glanced about the room. Within moments, she was gaily talking to numerous suitors while I stewed. About fifteen minutes later, when her drink was finished, she sashayed back to us, with her head held up triumphantly.
This moment stuck with me because it drove home an important insight: in the competition for mates, women have more value than men. By contrast, after I had been appropriately chastised, my wife apparently never thought about the incident again. She had no recollection of that night when I mentioned it decades later.
In recent years, the #MeToo movement has exposed what happens when the balance of power between the sexes favors unaccountable men. The term “toxic masculinity” has come to signify hyper-masculine and often threatening behavior used to gain power over others. Most social scientists believe that oppressive gender roles and negative patterns of male behavior are socially constructed. The problem, they assure us, is not that men are inherently bad. The American Psychological Association, for example, issued guidelines explaining that sexism is a byproduct of male privilege caused by growing up in a patriarchal society. According to the APA, pressure to conform with “traditional masculinity ideology” explains why men “shy away from directly expressing their vulnerable feelings and prefer building connections through physical activities and talking about external matters (e.g., sports, politics, work), engaging in ‘good-natured ribbing,’ ‘exchanging jokes,’ and seeking and offering practical advice with their male friends.”
To combat “toxic masculinity,” the APA suggests teaching boys to express their emotions and insecurities more openly. This would make men happier, the APA says, because components of traditional masculinity such as stoicism, self-reliance, and competitiveness deter men from forming close relationships with other men. But what if men, as many biologists argue, really are born less “nice” than women? If that’s true, then our task is not simply to strip away negative social constructs. Teaching boys to express their emotions so they can be more like girls may not be effective. If there are innate differences between the behavior of most men and most women, the lesson my wife taught me thirty years ago about decency and restraint may be something that women have always needed to teach men—and still need to teach them today.
Parental Investment Theory
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the brains of men and women exhibit observable physical differences that result in innate psychological differences. These differences are numerous and complex. However, there is a simple theory, supported by a strong body of empirical evidence, that explains why males and females in all species are motivated to behave differently.
Parental investment theory, first articulated by Robert Trivers in 1972, predicts that the sex that invests more in its offspring will be more selective when choosing a mate. Since the male contribution in most species is comparatively small, their reproductive success depends on how many females they mate with. By contrast, the number of offspring females have is limited by the greater physical investment they must make in the gestation, birth, and rearing of the next generation. This makes females more discriminating, and it is why a female offer to have sex is vastly more valuable than one from a male. As Steven Pinker puts it in his book, How the Mind Works:
Males compete and females choose only because the slightly bigger investment in an egg that defines being female tends to get multiplied by the rest of the animal’s reproductive habits. In a few species, the whole animal reverses the initial difference in investment between egg and sperm, and in those cases females should compete and males should choose. Sure enough, these exceptions prove the rule. In some fishes, the male broods the young in a pouch. In some birds, the male sits on the egg and feeds the young. In those species, the females are aggressive and try to court the males, who select partners carefully.
In his book, Pinker points out that the validity of parental investment theory for humans is supported by studies showing that, when evaluating a romantic partner, women place a greater value on status, earning capacity, and stability than men do, and that men place a higher value on youth and looks than do women. These differences persist regardless of how successful women are. Doting fathers, Pinker relates, are less likely in humans than in many species, because the child develops for a long period inside the mother and it is hard for the father to be certain that the offspring is his. However, it is still possible to have devoted fathers if females choose mates based on the ability and willingness of males to invest in offspring. Males are also more willing to invest when they can be more certain of their paternity.
Respecting the Dignity of Women
The investment women make and the bodily burden they bear in the reproduction of the species give them a superior position in the romantic marketplace, which confers a dignity that civilized societies expand upon. Civility in any society depends on the degree to which men and women respect the dignity of women. When the superior position of women is not recognized, both sexes pay a high price.
Many feminists complain that men put women on a pedestal in order to restrict their freedom. Perhaps, a better analogy would be a conductor’s podium that allows women to set boundaries and the framework for more personal interactions. The freedom and even safety of women depend on men’s yielding a certain deference that is based on a clear-eyed appreciation of the differences between the sexes. We want our daughters to have the same opportunities as our sons, but that is not possible unless women are first treated with the respect that only comes from recognizing the differences between the sexes. Our present lack of civility can be explained by a general failure of our society to recognize women’s dignity. This is caused by many factors, including the denial of sex differences, the failure to adequately socialize boys, the objectification of women’s bodies, and advances in modern birth control that have freed women to behave more like men. All these things have also made it harder to form monogamous long-term relationships, because the traditions and restraints that had previously enhanced the position of women have been undermined.
The competitive nature of men means that they are not easily raised to become gentlemen. However, recognizing differences between the sexes does not mean inappropriate behavior should be excused because “boys will be boys.” Societies rightly suppress the more brutish behavior of men through various traditions and rules, such as laws against polygamy and laws requiring alimony and child support.
The End of Men?
Unfortunately, a society’s best efforts to harmonize relations between men and women can be disrupted when there is an imbalance in the ratio of men to women. When men heavily outnumber women, women are able to demand fidelity and commitment from the fathers of their children. But when men are faced with a surplus of women, men become more promiscuous and less willing to commit to monogamous relationships. This phenomenon also occurs when the percentage of “marriageable men” is reduced by incarceration and the lack of good jobs. Unimaginable to previous generations, women in 2019 held more payroll jobs. However, it is not just a lack of good jobs that is limiting men. The numbers of prime-age men not looking for work before the pandemic struck was at Great Depression levels despite low unemployment. This lack of motivation is popularly known as “failure to launch,” which was the title of a 2006 movie. As we lose jobs that men have done in the past without higher education, an ever-larger share of families no longer includes fathers.
When one considers the decline in male employment levels, their lesser levels of education compared to women, and the increasing frequency of boys diagnosed with ADHD, it becomes reasonable to make the same conclusions Hanna Rosin made in an essay for The Atlantic titled “The End of Men.” Rosin writes that men are genetically wired to compete aggressively for scarce resources, which makes them less suited for the post-industrial economy, because social intelligence, open communication, and the ability to sit still are characteristics more common to females.
The difficulty that men, especially poor men, have finding a meaningful place in society has made poor communities more likely to experience crime, drug abuse, and broken families. Increasingly, men are on disability insurance or are uninterested in seeking work. They no longer buy into social norms and regress toward more destructive or immature behavior. Powerful men have always had more freedom to act outside the bounds of social norms, but now far more men no longer have a reason to be obligated by social expectations and norms. Government and nonprofits respond to the failure of men by giving assistance to poor women raising children without fathers, further isolating poor men.
A Return to Modesty
There may be many ways to be masculine and feminine, but, as a society, we have expended so much energy exploring the options that our gender-related identities lack their natural confidence. Given our genetic differences, it is unlikely that teaching men to be more like women is all that is needed.
Over thirty years ago, Allan Bloom in his surprisingly popular book, The Closing of the American Mind, was skeptical of our ability to make men more sensitive and nurturing to better fit modern society. He compared traditional social order to a Gothic cathedral in which our more barbaric drives are sublimated to a higher cause:
The old moral order, however imperfect it may have been, at least moved toward the virtues by way of the passions. If men were self-concerned, that order tried to expand the scope of self-concern to include others, rather than commanding men to cease being concerned with themselves. To attempt the latter is both tyrannical and ineffective. A true political or social order requires the soul to be like a Gothic cathedral, with selfish stresses and strains helping to hold it up. Abstract moralism condemns certain keystones, removes them, and then blames both the nature of the stones and the structure when it collapses.
Bloom suggested that a return to modesty could diminish the hook-up culture that objectifies women and minimizes their civilizing capacity. Modesty, he wrote, “is a voice constantly repeating that a man and a woman have a work to do together that is far different from that found in the marketplace, and of a far greater importance.” The modern emphasis on words like “commitment,” “authenticity,” and “bonding,” according to Bloom, signifies the absence of real motives for moral dedication. They are hollow words tossed about because the tradition that made life authentic is dying.
However, the civility we have lost can be renewed. It is still possible to respect the differences between the sexes while preserving the opportunities of women. A good start would be to regain some of the lost innocence of adolescence by allowing local communities to regulate the way internet providers offer access to pornography. There are also occasions when the sexes should be separated to promote civility, such as in public bathrooms and in university dorms. Perhaps separating the sexes in middle school or high school would delay sexual relations and enhance the status of women. There is some evidence that it would help both sexes. Even more important for healthy relations between the sexes is the ability of men to contribute to society in a way that is publicly valued. Young men do not possess the natural dignity that was once bestowed upon women, and they must earn their place in society or fight for it. Military service has traditionally offered men a sense of being valued, and apprenticeships are another way to find a place for men with less patience for the classroom.
There is much that can be done once the differences between the sexes are appreciated. It is time we stop talking down to boys as if they were dim-witted girls and offer them opportunities to build character and provide meaning to their lives.