‘Of Boys and Men’

I first came across Richard Reeves’ writing on boys and men last year, via Bari Weiss’ excellent Honestly podcast, and then suddenly he seemed to be popping up everywhere, on media sites and all over social media, discussing his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. I decided to get hold of a copy and find out why the book was attracting so much attention.

Richard Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, but he describes himself as a ‘transplanted Brit’. Before moving to the States, he was director of the think-tank Demos, then director of strategy for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during his tenure as deputy prime minister. In an earlier phase of his career, Reeves was a journalist on The Guardian and The Observer. However, Of Boys and Men is a very American book, not just in the sense that most of its research evidence and many of its policy examples are drawn from the U.S. context, but also because it exemplifies a certain kind of American popular academic text, one that tends to assault the reader with a fusillard of statistics, interspersed with folksy anecdotes from personal experience, and culminating in compelling policy prescriptions, all delivered with a breathless sense of urgency, giving the impression that this is the most important issue of the moment. 

Having said that, I believe that Reeves’ book is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the state of boys and men. It sets out very clearly some of the key ways in which boys and men are currently struggling in many western societies, in terms of education, employment, their roles in relation to women and children, and in their general emotional wellbeing. And I think the underlying ambition of the book – to demonstrate that, in the author’s words, ‘one can be both passionate about women’s rights and at the same time compassionate towards vulnerable boys and men’ – is a worthy one, and I’m completely behind his quest to develop what he calls ‘a positive vision of masculinity for a post-feminist world’. Reeves is to be applauded, too, for challenging the tendency to overlook the impact of biological differences on male and female experiences, for example in relation to education. I also think that some of his policy prescriptions are certainly worth considering, such as his suggestion that boys should start school a year later than girls, as well as his support for a more direct role for fathers in the care of children, and his general encouragement for more men to enter the caring professions. 

Richard Reeves (via Twitter)

Reeves is very much a man of the centre-left and his own ideological assumptions occasionally show through: annoyingly, especially for those on the Eurosceptic Left, he lumps Brexit together with the election of Donald Trump as examples of right-wing populism supposedly fuelled by white male anger. He also dismisses conservative – and sex-realist feminist – fears about the rise of radical gender identity ideology, on the grounds that it only affects a few people, because ‘at least 99% [of the population] are cis’ (his use of that term perhaps betraying his own bias). However, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is surely to miss the point: it’s not the numbers involved that are the main concern, so much as the impact of the ideology, and the disproportionate influence of a small activist class, in threatening the hard-won rights of women. 

However, these quibbles aside, one of the things I like about Reeves’ book is his willingness to be equally critical of progressives and conservatives when it comes to attitudes towards, and policies affecting, men and boys. In fact, reading his chapters on ‘progressive blindness’ and right-wing dreams of ‘turning the clock back’, reminded me (if I may make an immodest comparison) of my own analysis of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of both progressive and conservative thinking, in my recent book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Identities and Experiences (if you’ll forgive the shameless plug).

In his critique of leftist myopia, Reeves takes issue with, among other things, the use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’, arguing that ‘masculinity is not a pathology’ and that suggesting that it is can have a negative effect on the self-perceptions of boys and young men. But I think that here Reeves falls into the error committed by certain sections of the popular press: that is, assuming that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ implies that masculinity as such is ‘toxic’. That’s not the sense in which I understand the term, which is rather that certain kinds of masculinity are decidedly negative in their impact, not only on women, but on men themselves. I remember, at a conference in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, listening to two male ex-offenders performing a rap poem with the title ‘Toxic Masculinity’, which blamed the form of masculine identity in which they had been raised – centred on violence and misogyny – for landing them in prison. They weren’t criticising or rejecting masculinity as such, far from it, but rather a certain twisted and harmful form of male identity.

Noah Schultz and Stephen Fowler performing their poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, September 2018 (author’s photo)

I’ve written elsewhere, with my co-researchers, about how some of the marginalised young men we interviewed for our studies were enabled to exchange the ‘reckless’ masculinity that had got them into various kinds of trouble, for a ‘responsible’ masculinity that helped them to move forward with their lives, the transformation often helped by becoming fathers, or by the intervention of support workers who had themselves walked the same path. What we need here, and what I feel Reeves’ book lacks, is Raewyn Connell’s sense – which has been so influential in academic studies of men and masculinity but hasn’t perhaps filtered out enough into the wider culture – that masculinities are plural and diverse. So, it’s perfectly possible and legitimate to hold that some kinds of masculinity are harmful, without suggesting that masculinity is ‘toxic’ per se.

There’s perhaps a connection between this problem and the tangle I believe Reeves gets into in his critique of what he sees as ‘individualist’ explanations of problems faced by men, together with his insistence that what is needed is a structural explanation and response. But the instances he gives of supposedly individualist explanations don’t quite work. He offers the following examples: 

If men are depressed, it’s because they won’t express their feelings. If they get sick, it is because they won’t go to the doctor. If they fail at school, it is because they lack commitment. If they die early, it is because they drink and smoke too much and eat the wrong things. For those on the political Left, then, victim-blaming is permitted when it comes to men.

But this is to run together a number of very different kinds of things. To say that men find it difficult to express their feelings, or tend to be reluctant to visit a doctor, is not to blame individual men. When academics make these claims, based on their empirical research, they – we – are not blaming or stigmatizing individual men. Rather, the argument is that these inhibitions arise precisely out of deep-rooted structural causes – i.e. the dominance of conventional social expectations around ‘being a man’ with which some groups of men are still imbued. As for the third example cited here by Reeves – that boys’ educational failure is due to their laziness– that’s a very different kind of thing and not something one hears much in debates around why boys are falling behind in school. Nor does one often come across the argument that men have poorer health outcomes because of individual lifestyle choices, unless these are the result of the loneliness and depression which, some would argue, are themselves the result of social expectations around masculinity which leave many men bereft of real friendships.

Despite the space devoted in the book to education and employment, Reeves finally puts most emphasis, in his search for a way forward for men, on a new role for fathers: ‘a reinvention of fatherhood based on a more direct relationship to children is the answer’. I’m completely behind Reeves’ vision here, but I think he makes a couple of missteps in arguing for it. Firstly, I believe he underestimates the extent to which fatherhood has changed in the past few decades, and I think he strikes too negative a note in saying that ‘fatherhood remains stuck in the past’. Perhaps he does this for effect, but I don’t think it reflects the enormous changes that have taken place, if only or mainly at the level of ideas. A key finding of my own research around fatherhood, going back to the early 2000s, is that, certainly at the rhetorical level, and at least in the UK, the ideal of the ‘good father’ has changed dramatically, and that both men and women now assume that a good dad will be closely involved in the day-to-day care of his children. Conversely, a man who doesn’t pull his weight with the children, and around the home generally, is now widely thought of as a ‘bad’ or inadequate father. 

The second misstep that I believe Reeves makes in his argument for a closer involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is a more significant one. Reeves accepts the feminist critique of traditional marriage, with its inbuilt inequality, and argues that one of the major gains of feminism has been lessening women’s dependence on men and increasing their personal autonomy.  Although he believes that, traditionally, marriage had the advantage of binding ‘men to women, and thereby to children’, he argues that in an age of gender equality, reviving marriage as an aspiration for the majority of the population is ‘an unrealistic expectation’. He continues: ‘Rather than looking in the rearview mirror, we need to establish a new basis for fatherhood, one that embraces the huge progress we have made towards gender equality’. However, disappointingly, he assumes that equality can and should be built on the autonomy and independence of the sexes, rather than on the basis of more equal relationships between them. Although Reeves’ policy suggestions for encouraging greater father involvement – such as non-transferable paternity leave and father-friendly workplaces – are admirable, I find something rather depressing about his statement that ‘these policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads’. But surely all the evidence points to a committed, stable relationship between a mother and a father being good, not only for children – but for the wellbeing of the parents too, and especially mothers. Rather than seeing men’s presence as necessarily a constraint on autonomy, it’s possible to see it as creating a partnership – especially around caring for children – which actually facilitates women’s greater equality – and wellbeing. 

Serena Sigillito (via thepublicdiscourse.com)

This criticism of Reeves’ argument has been set out much more coherently in a fascinating dialogue between him and Serena Sigillito, editor of the new online journal Fairer Disputations, which I wrote about in this post. I’d recommend reading the whole of their conversation, but here’s an extract from Sigillito’s critique, focusing on precisely this issue of the relationship between fathers, mothers and children, which incidentally references Erika Bachiochi’s excellent recent book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I wrote about in an earlier post:

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 any more, 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 any more.” 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...

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.

I tend to agree.


I was interested to read this review of Reeves’ book, by Nicole Penn in American Enterprise. Its two key criticisms of Reeves’ book are remarkably similar to my own. Similar to my own argument that Reeves misunderstands the term ‘toxic masculinity’ as pathologising masculinity per se, Penn contends that ‘Reeves minimizes the destructive effects of certain types of antisocial male behavior in his attempt to rein in progressives’ eagerness to blame men’s problems on “toxic masculinity.”’ She believes, as I do, that ‘it is possible to critique men without pathologizing them’. In taking issue with Reeves’ rejection of marriage, Penn uses language that is reminiscent of my own review. Where I suggested that Reeves had made a ‘misstep’ in this part of his argument, Penn writes that ‘Reeves fundamentally missteps’ in discussing marriage. Needless to say, I agree with her critique, as expressed here:

Coldly characterizing modern marriage as ‘a commitment device for shared investments of time and money in children,’ Reeves discounts the importance of forming men who (in cases of heterosexual unions) can sustain permanent bonds with the mothers of their children, and who are capable of seeing women as lifelong friends and fellow stewards of the small platoons that form society’s foundations.


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