In today’s interview, Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Reeves joins Public Discourse editor-at-large Serena Sigillito to discuss Reeves’s latest book, Of Boys and Men.
Serena Sigillito: The subtitle of your new book is Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. I think there’s widespread agreement across the political spectrum that there is a problem with the state of men in our society, but those “why” questions are where you start to get into a lot of disagreements.
Could you give me a sense of how you approach those questions? Why are men struggling, and why does it matter?
Richard Reeves: I started by looking at the trends in various areas, like education, employment, and family. So, for example, why are boys and men struggling in education? There are various fairly straightforward ways in which the education system isn’t working very well for boys and men. It’s similar with the labor market. So that’s category one: questions and answers that are quite straightforward and specific, which you can get empirically.
The second category of “why” questions is harder to get at. These are more about motivation, more about incentives, more about the “why” for individual boys and men. Why get a job? Why finish school? What’s driving agency? I think that the combination of lots of cultural and economic changes has left many boys and men without a very good answer to their own “Why.”
That’s the underlying cause of these other trends we see in things like education, employment, health, and family life, which is this harder-to-identify cultural phenomenon. I refer to it as a male malaise. As I say in the book, for centuries women have had to fight against misogyny without. Now, men are struggling for motivation within.
SS: Your book could be characterized as left-leaning in the way that it praises feminism, focuses on structural problems, and integrates the lenses of race and class as well as gender. But you could also say it’s right-leaning in its straightforward acceptance of the claim that there are real biological differences between men and women and that they ought to be accepted and accommodated by society. You actually spend a whole chapter critiquing the left and another whole chapter critiquing the right.
Could you give a brief overview of the pitfalls you see on both sides of the political spectrum?
RR: Look, I’m John Stuart Mill’s biographer. Whatever else you might think that means about me, what it means is that I strongly believe that when two people disagree about something, it’s never the case that one of them’s right and the other one’s wrong. They always, to quote Mill, “share the truth between them.” I’m a conscientious objector in the culture wars.
In terms of issues with the left, the first is what I call progressive blindness, which is this ideological refusal to accept the fact that there can be gender inequalities that run against boys and men. The second is a tendency to pathologize masculinity, the toxic masculinity problem. A third is a sort of a blank slate-ism on issues around sex and biology, particularly when it comes to boys and men. There’s a pretty stubborn refusal to say that there are any biologically based differences in preferences in psychology between men and women.
SS: And the right?
RR: Well, one part of the right is the flip side on the biology point. There’s an overemphasis on biology.
On most traits, there are overlapping distributions when it comes to differences between men and women. But the left sees two distributions that don’t differ at all, or shouldn’t. Any deviation is suggestive of injustice. The right tends to see distributions that barely overlap, and that leads them to be too deterministic in, say, gender roles.
Let’s take the people–things dimension: women on average are more into people, and men are more into things. That has implications for occupational choice. Unless you did extraordinary social engineering, you won’t have 50 percent of engineers as women and 50 percent of nurses being men. You just won’t. But it’s reasonable to say that 25 percent might be.
My son is an early-years educator, and my sister-in-law is an engineer. I don’t like it when I hear people say, “Well, of course there aren’t men in early-years education. Men’s and women’s brains are different. Women are much more nurturing.” There are twice as many women flying military planes as men teaching kindergarten. And I’m like, “Are you sure that’s explained by biology?” You hear people like Jordan Peterson saying, “Well, only 5 percent of engineers are women, but their brains are different.” I’d say, “Are you sure? Are you sure that they’re that different, Jordan?”
I don’t want people out there thinking women can’t be engineers and men can’t be early-years educators. Sure, there are differences on average, but there’s huge overlap. All I care about is whether he’s got the skills for this job or she’s got the skills for that job.
One thing the right’s done well is to see these problems facing men more clearly than the left has and for longer. But then rather than offer up forward-looking solutions that are compatible with the reality of gender equality, instead there’s been a tendency to send messages about going back. Conservatives invoke a world where men had factory jobs and you could raise a family on one wage. They’re careful not to say whose wage it is, but it’s pretty hard not to read into that a valorization of a certain period of economic history.
I think that’s just crazy. It’s not what most men and women want, and it’s unhelpful in the current situation. But it can make for good politics, because there is such real anguish out there that, channeled skillfully, can produce short-term political gain, especially if mainstream liberal institutions are ignoring the problem.
SS: In general, you’re very, very careful to consider the interplay of nurture and nature. You argue that we have innate biological differences, but those are shaped by culture in profound ways. But on two specific issues, prostitution and transgender identification, you seem to forget about culture and just accept biological differences as determinative of behavior.
Regarding prostitution, you say that we’ve had this with us throughout human history, that men’s sex drives are stronger than women’s, and that therefore we should just give up, decriminalize sex work, and focus on harm reduction. Whereas I would say, okay, the poor will always be with us, too, but that doesn’t mean we stop fighting poverty. This is a deeply harmful practice, and the law is a teacher. We shouldn’t be sending the message that prostitution is acceptable.
On the trans question, you say we shouldn’t worry about transgender ideology because 99 percent of people are cisgender. But the reality seems more complicated, and it seems to be changing. Those numbers aren’t fixed. Sexual desires and gender identity are quite plastic, especially during adolescence and especially for women, and they’re affected by the surrounding culture.
Gallup came out with a poll in February 2022 analyzing sexual orientation and gender identity by generational cohort. They found that 20.8 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBT. That’s compared with 10.5 percent of Millennials, 4.2 percent of Gen X, and 2.6 percent of Baby Boomers. Over 2 percent of Gen Z identifies as trans, and another 1.5 percent say they’re queer, non-binary, or something else. Compare that to the 0.1 percent of Baby Boomers who identify as trans.
You could say that some of that is due to increasing social acceptance, but I have a hard time believing that there’s no social contagion going on here.
RR: No, you’re right. There is. You just have to look at the evidence to see. When it happens to one kid in one school and then it happens to ten other people in the same school . . . that’s culture. That’s a micro-culture at work, isn’t it?
Regarding the Gallup poll, the increases can sound really big, but they’re still very small numbers. And it’s important to note that a huge proportion in the rise of LGBTQ identification is young women identifying as bisexual. As you say, sexual attraction among young women is more plastic. It changes. Fine. That’s a very different thing to being trans or being non-binary. And just identifying as trans is very different to doing something about it. The real concern is when you get into things like hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, or gender-affirming care, whatever you want to call it.
When it comes to that, we get into really small numbers. It’s not to say that there aren’t real issues at stake. I’m just saying, I think it’s important to keep it in perspective. And I do think that it is seen as good politics by some people to really exaggerate how many people this is affecting.
So I guess what I’m not willing to do is share in the moral panic. I do feel quite strongly about making sure that our policies are correct around it. The UK is having a better debate about this than the U.S., honestly, partly because there’s more feminists in the UK that have been willing to have a proper argument about it.
SS: And what about the prostitution question?
RR: There are just really big differences between men and women on sex drive. That’s not a distribution that overlaps anything like as much as other characteristics do. So what do we do about that?
This is where culture comes in. I agree with you that one of the roles of culture is to say, “Okay, well, here’s how you are. What are you going to do about that? When and how is it appropriate and healthy for you to express that drive?” It’s not going to go away. There isn’t a rite of exorcism that will take this stuff out of you. So the question is, where does that energy go? I completely agree that there are healthy and better ways for it to be encouraged, and we should do that. But I think I’m a bit more realistic about it.
A lot of sex workers have made the argument that legalization would just be much safer. And I take those concerns about safety very seriously. I would say it’s a kind of cultural version of realpolitik. If you assume that sex work is going to be with us, like the poor, then the conditions of sex work and the conditions of sex workers themselves become an important policy question. The worst of all worlds, I think, is to continue to just say, “Oh, well, it’ll go away soon,” and not have safe and proper regulations around it.
You referenced the idea of the law as a teacher, and I’m not sure that’s right. Where I come from, in the UK, abortion’s legal, but there’s no sense in that culture that abortion’s a good thing. So I disagree that just by having something be legal means that culturally what you’re doing is embedding a message that it’s good. It might be a necessary evil in some cases.
SS: That relationship between what is legal and what is good leads to my most significant point of contention with your book, which is the role of marriage.
When talking about fatherhood, you cite data to demonstrate that the quality of a child’s relationship with the father is more important than the physical presence of the father in the home. You then argue that one way to cure this modern male malaise is to restore and elevate fatherhood. That all sounds good, as far as it goes. But you then turn around and do the exact opposite thing with women.
In the past, we had this vision of the role of the husband and father that centered on financial provision and physical protection. With children, you said, “Okay, maybe they don’t need that anymore, but they still need something else.” But with women you say, “Okay, they don’t need that anymore. Women can provide for themselves, and therefore, women just don’t need men at all anymore.” So it sort of seems like the gist of your argument is, “We can just move on from marriage, accepting that feminism and the sexual revolution are here to stay in their totality. It’s not like we can say there are good parts and bad parts. We have to just accept them wholesale and then do what we can about the consequences.”
I contrast that with the vision that Erika Bachiochi sets out in her book on Mary Wollstonecraft: a feminism that rejects this ideal of unbridled autonomy and sees rights as being linked to duties. She’s totally on board with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom you both cite, in terms of looking at individuals’ unique capacities, nondiscrimination law, encouraging men to be caregivers, and all of these things. But her book elevates a vision of marriage and domestic life as something that should be bringing both men and women to greater virtue. They need each other, and their children need them, and that’s a good thing. It’s an interdependence model.
Whereas your book says, “Okay, well, we’ve accepted this idea of autonomy. Women are autonomous now. Don’t even try to get men and women back together. Instead, we should create a workaround so that men can just have a relationship straight with their children, and cut out the mother as middleman.” And I think that’s a mistake.
RR: I’m having versions of this argument with quite a few people right now, but you just put it better than most. Very sharply, actually. I’ve been having a debate with Ian Rowe that Brad Wilcox is putting together on precisely this issue. I would describe my approach as kind of fatherhood first and I would describe their approach as marriage first, leading to more fatherhood. Right?
RR: So there’s a couple of things going on here. One is to, I think, confuse two different roles which can go together, but in my view no longer necessarily do: the role of the spouse and the role of the parent.
There was a real simplicity and strength to what we would call a traditional family. People knew roughly what the roles were going to be. There was some specialization. Those marriages tended to be quite stable, which was good for kids. Both parents were in the home, which meant kids could reasonably have good relationships with both parents. Great. Slight problem, though: they were massively economically unequal and to some extent predicated on a division of economic power, which in my view was to the detriment of women. This is where probably we agree it is a good thing for women to have more economic power.
Now, there are some people who would say, “No, actually it’s not a good thing,” because this is what happens if women get economic power. They start becoming journalists and Harvard professors and think tankers and stuff. If they start doing that, economically, they don’t need to be married, which was the point of the women’s movement. So if they don’t need economically to be married, well, maybe they won’t be.
As a social scientist, my basic view is the future of marriage, if it has one, is as a co-parenting contract. I think that’s what’s driving most upper-middle-class marriages. I’ll put it really unromantically just to provoke you. Marriage has become, for many people, a joint venture for the purposes of human capital formation in their children.
I’ve always said that in order to understand American marriage, we have to answer the following question. Why is it that the women with the most economic power of any group of women in the history of the world, i.e. college-educated American women, are getting and staying married? What’s going on there? Because that is not what Gloria Steinem said was going to happen. It’s the opposite of what Gloria Steinem said was going to happen. So the fact that it’s gone completely against the expectations of the women’s movement—that all these college-educated women, including very liberal women, are getting and staying married—that’s really important. We know they’re not doing it because they economically have to. So why are they doing it? My answer is because they want to raise their kids together.
SS: To me, this is a social justice issue. We have all of this nice-sounding rhetoric coming from the highly educated upper classes based on the tenets of sexual revolution—that we can uncouple sex and childbearing, that women should be totally independent, all these sorts of things. But the people who are hurt the most by the breakdown of the family over the past half century have been those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. I think devaluing marriage further is just doubling down on that inequality instead of solving that problem.
RR: I don’t think it’s devaluing marriage to say you can be a good parent even if you’re not married. I do agree that it’s much easier to be a good parent if you are married or at least co-resident, and if you planned to have the kids together.
I think what’s happening is I think I’m largely describing the world and you think I’m prescribing it. The main reason why I think we have to accept a decoupling of parenting from marriage is because it’s already happened. I see no reasonable prospect of those trends being reversed. We are where we are. Given where we are, to say that you have to be married to be a good parent just sends a hugely negative message to so many people.
SS: I think this gets back to some of our earlier disagreement about the nature and purpose of law, and connects to a lot of contemporary debates on the American right about procedural liberalism and whether there is such a thing as neutrality in law. You get a lot of the post-liberals critiquing this façade of John-Stuart-Mill-style—
RR: Don’t get me started, but yes.
SS: I’m not going full post-liberal on you, but I do think of Robby George or Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who said that you can’t have a naked public square. We are instantiating certain moral commitments within our laws, whether we admit it or not.
It’s crystal clear in the social science that the intact biological family is the best place for kids. So it seems problematic to be just throwing up our hands and saying this decoupling of marriage and parenthood is inevitable. You’re saying that your work is purely descriptive. I think it’s impossible to be purely descriptive in law, and that you’re bound to be nudging people one way or another.
This conversation also reminds me of the book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. You were talking earlier about the stronger sexual urges in men versus women. I think that, as a culture, we haven’t fully understood and unpacked the consequences of the stronger nurturing urges in women. I think the physical bodies of women put the lie to the myths of radical autonomy. As humans, we want people to be dependent on us, and we want to depend on others. You see that playing out with the young women profiled in that book: low-income single women who purposely get pregnant even though they know the dad isn’t going to stick around. They still want to be mothers. They see motherhood as such an important source of identity and love and purpose for their life. They have that inscribed in their bodies in a way that, as you say, men don’t.
If we want men to be good fathers, we as a culture have to give them a script and a role, something productive and positive for them to be doing instead of engaging in those harmful behaviors. So sure, maybe it’s an unrealistic ideal for a large portion of the population. But I still think we need to hold up a vision of men as good, faithful husbands and good parents. And we can have that even in the absence of the 1950s economic model, which was a relic of a very particular point in time. In many other eras, when we had more home-based industries, there wasn’t this strict hierarchical economic dependence of women on their husbands.
RR: That’s right. It was the industrial revolution and then everything that happened after that. So I certainly agree with that.
I think the disagreement between us is both bigger and smaller than it seems.
A mistake conservatives make is to say, “You see? These upper-class liberals have got traditional marriages, they should preach what they’re practicing.” I say to that two things. Number one is no, they’re not traditional marriages. You’re looking at it from the outside. You need to look at them from the inside. From the inside, I think it’s mostly about parenting. The upper middle class are modeling a new form of marriage, which I call the high investment parenting model. Parenting is the glue of marriage in a way that it was less so in the past. If that’s true, the way to have more marriage is to strengthen parenting and, in particular, to strengthen fathering, because mothering does kind of come with the territory. So what I’m trying to do is elevate, promote, and celebrate fatherhood so that dads feel like they matter, period. They always matter.
Let’s say we could freeze marriage rates where they currently are. Given that 40 percent of kids are born outside marriage, what message do I want to send to the dads of those kids? I want to send the message, “You really matter, even though you’re not married to the mom. You have a responsibility to raise that kid, even though you’re not married to the mom.” I’m afraid that all conservatives want to say is, “Sorry, mate, you screwed that one up. You’re supposed to be married to her.” I don’t think that’s a very empowering message. I don’t think that will help them to become a better father.
Last thing: there are no interventions that I know of that are successfully promoting marriage. More conservative social scientists than I have said that. From a public policy point of view—and I agree that there’s no such thing as a naked public square—the moral message I want to send is the importance of responsible and engaged fatherhood. I want to underpin it in policy. I think I’ve got more actionable stuff I can do around that: around paid leave, around child support, around fatherhood intervention programs, etc. I think I’ve got stuff I can do on that. “Get married”: well, there ain’t much you can do about. The only successful marriage promotion policy I’ve ever seen was career academies, which was a high school intervention that significantly increased both earnings and marriage rates among men. So the only pro-marriage programs I’ve seen ever work are the ones that weren’t aiming to increase marriage. They were aiming to increase the economic prospects of men.
SS: I’m wary about taking intensive parenting as a model for marriage. I think this raises deeper questions about contraception and the way that technology changed the sexual marketplace and altered family formation.
Upper-middle-class couples now wait to enter into marriage until they want to embark on this intensive project of having their 2.1 or 1.9 kids—this ever-shrinking number of children. That feeds more into a highly individualized contractual model of what it means to be a family and what it means to have fulfillment and purpose in your life. Encouraging that model seems like it will continue to feed the problem of men being so utterly adrift.
Contrast that to a more organic yet transcendent vision of love and marriage, one that demands that you pledge yourself to one another for life. Children arise naturally from your love for each other. They might not all be perfectly planned, and there might be more of them than you expected. There’s a sense of richness and fullness in that vision, versus this intensively cultivated, parenting-centered vision of marriage, where you carefully plan to conceive only as many kids as you can afford to enroll in the best piano lessons and travel soccer leagues.
RR: My unromantic idea about a joint venture for the human capital formation in a pre-agreed number of children is the antithesis of what you’re talking about.
SS: This is where you’re saying: we’re both disagreeing less and more than it might initially seem.
RR: Right. And I think that yours is the right model of marriage. Obviously, I’m not saying I agree with everything you’ve just said, but this idea that it’s not just a contract . . . it’s just, I don’t know what that means for other people. This is the liberal in me coming out. I’m wary about presuming to know what it means for other people.
You see the rise of so-called gray divorce now. That’s evidence of this model of marriage that I’ve been talking about, which is exactly the opposite of the one that you were just advocating. They say, “Okay, job done now.” It’s literally a dissolvable contract. The joint venture starts, then it dissolves. I agree that that’s just a horrifically gradgrind, unappealing view of the institution, and in fact, of life and love. But it might also be true that that’s what’s driving a lot of what’s going on.
Look, here’s the difference. I don’t think it’s our job to be prescriptive at all. A proper libertarian would say, “We set the rules of the game, and then whatever you want.” Mill is mischaracterized by post-liberals as being in this camp, because they haven’t actually read Mill. “Yeah, anything goes. As long as you don’t hurt anybody else, be yourself, be radically autonomous. Ignore traditions.” It’s just a whole bunch of made-up bulls**t about Mill, frankly.
That would be a self-respecting liberal position. Then a very strongly prescriptive or paternalistic vision would be to say, “No, no, here’s how you’re going to live. This is how to live.” The middle ground, where most of us probably are, is that we are careful what we’re prescriptive about, and we’re careful about how universal we assume these lessons are. We do not presume that what works even for the majority works for everybody. That’s, in the end, what makes us liberal pluralists. It isn’t that we don’t strongly believe in traditions and covenants and all of that, in our own lives and faith traditions. We celebrate all of that. But we’re just very, very, very cautious about prescribing a formula.
The question is, what’s the role of the state in particular? Should it wield coercive power in promoting a particular formula for the good?
SS: To give the postliberals some credit, I do think that there is a difference in the philosophical anthropology of the default liberalism of our public sphere today, and a richer, teleological vision. That second vision sees human beings as having an intrinsic sense of purpose not only physically, in terms of bearing children and so on, but also spiritually; we are called to a vision of self-sacrifice and binding ourselves to one another. It’s that sort of heroism that I think could be the antidote to the malaise of the modern male.
With the liberal pluralists, I would say that we shouldn’t be imposing that life script on everyone via state coercive power. But, as we’ve talked about, nothing is really neutral. So, if the law is going to be tilted in one way or another, it should be tilted in favor of marriage. There’s also a really deep need for churches, schools, and organizations in the civil sphere to provide a vision that’s more ennobling for men.
RR: I agree with that. I think promoting an other-centered life of service and sacrifice is absolutely central to any good moral tradition. I have this long quote in the book from Margaret Mead, who said, “Every known human society has rested on the learned nurturing behavior of men. This behavior, being learned, is rather fragile and can disappear quite quickly under circumstances that no longer teach effectively.” The reason I know that by heart is because I’m like, “Wow, I think every single word of that is true.” The learned nurturing behavior of men: why is it important? Because it’s learned.
Men have to learn how to do this. They have to be taught. Masculinity is more socially constructed than femininity. The script is more important. It has to be nurturing, and not in the same way as mothers, but by being similarly other-centered. Creating a surplus, caring for others, sacrificing for others, giving for others. A friend of mine growing up went to a Christian summer camp. Their motto was “For the other fellow.” And they still quote that to each other. And I know him and his friends quite well, and they still say, “For the other fellow.” And that seems beautiful.
So the question then is, what are we going to build that script around? That sense of being needed, giving, other-centered?
My answer to that is fatherhood.
The moral norm around engaged, responsible parenting is incredibly strong. So I’m taking that and elevating it, but not insisting that it takes place within marriage. If I get more dads more actively involved in their kids’ lives, it might lead to more marriage. But even if it doesn’t, I think it’s a good thing, independent of marriage. That’s why I land so heavily on fatherhood. You can only put one thumb on the scale, and that’s where I’m putting it.