The masculinity crisis is serious but most solutions on offer are not
It was a strange experience when everyone started writing about us this year. We’re young men, and the commentariat had discovered that we, or men our age, are having a crisis, a “masculinity crisis.” Books and think-pieces gushed forth, and, to boot, a blockbuster movie featuring an anatomically emasculated Ken. For those of us who have grown up experiencing and witnessing in our friends the pathologies that everyone else had just uncloaked, it was almost surreal.
An odd feature of this crisis of men is that its diagnosticians are mostly women. This is true on the left, as Politico this summer issued a raft of essays in its “Masculinity Issue,” almost all written by women. From the center, Christine Emba offered real insights in her long essay on lost men. Even on the right, the most prominent recent book on masculinity in the Christian world came from Nancy Pearcey. The trend is captured by the title of a New York Times profile of feminist writer Caitlin Moran: “Modern Masculinity Is Broken. She Knows How to Fix It.”
Recent books by Richard Reeves and Senator Josh Hawley bring prominent and welcome male voices to the conversation about masculinity. As men themselves and as fathers of sons, Reeves and Hawley demonstrate deep personal concern for the flourishing of our nation’s boys. They also correctly identify many of the difficulties that attend modern manhood. But in the end, they fall into the characteristic errors of their political camps. In Of Boys and Men, the centrist liberal Reeves seeks to redefine male success for a more feminine world. In Manhood, the conservative Hawley tells men to simply step up and forge a path as heroic individuals.
Of Boys and Men and Other Bygone Beasts
Reeves traces marked declines in male attainment in both school and work. He notes that in 1972 (the year Title IX was passed) men earned roughly 56% of bachelor’s degrees, while as of 2019 they earned only 43%. He also shows that, since 1979, the average pay of an American man with only a high school education has declined 14%, from $1,017 per week to only $881. Men’s labor force participation has likewise dropped, from 96% 50 years ago to 89% today, while fully one third of men with only a high school diploma have now dropped out of the labor force. The costs of economic globalization and automation, Reeves acknowledges, have fallen most heavily on men.
Reeves’s analysis of the crisis is well grounded and persuasive, and, unlike many on the left, he shows admirable sympathy for the plight of modern men. But his remedies are deeply unappealing.
In light of research showing that boys’ brains develop more slowly than girls’, Reeves proposes that young boys go through an extra year of pre-K before entering school. They should be held back a year, in other words, “red shirted.” Ostensibly an accommodation of sex differences, this approach would only entrench our education system’s failure to meet boys where they are. It treats boys as merely handicapped girls, not students with different strengths and different ways of learning.
Compared to girls, young boys have trouble sitting still and being attentive. So, it’s unsurprising that they would struggle in a classroom system that demands and rewards such behaviors. But Reeves simply takes the girl-friendly classroom as his unquestioned model, and then focuses on making boys adapt themselves to it. Unlike many on the left, Reeves admits that “an equitable education system … will be one that recognizes natural sex differences.” But the most he can muster, by way of incorporating those differences into education policy, is straining to make boys more like girls.
Reeves also wants to use $1 billion in federal funding to push over three million men into HEAL (health, education, administration, and literacy) jobs—currently dominated by women. He acknowledges that labor market shifts have harmed men, but in an interview with NPR he dismissed attempts to strengthen male-dominated sectors as “magic wand-ism.” Instead, men should just push into female-dominated sectors. In much the same way that conventional feminism sought to aid women’s advancement in a masculine workplace, Reeves seeks to help boys navigate an increasingly feminine world. Since Reeves admits there are real, natural differences between the sexes, this is deeply unsatisfying. If men and women are naturally different, why should we expect men to flourish in work adapted for women by women?
Reeves acknowledges that economic and cultural shifts have destroyed the foundation of an older model for manhood. But the new role he fashions for men is more likely to depress than inspire them.
Step Up and be a Manhood
Unlike Reeves, Hawley does not think men should become more like women. In his view, the fate of the nation—indeed, the destiny of the whole world—depends on them fulfilling their God-given call to be husbands, fathers, warriors, builders, priests, and kings.
He does agree with Reeves, however, that things aren’t going well. Citing data from social science and experiences from his own life as a father and a law professor, Hawley paints a bleak picture. Men today, he says, are “weak,” “resentful,” “apathetic,” and “dependent on others,” thanks to the pleasure-seeking Epicureanism that has come to define the modern liberal world:
The men of this country face a choice. They can turn off their screens and reclaim responsibility for their lives; they can reject the Epicurean siren song of self-indulgence, that soothing lullaby that is really just a means of keeping men distracted and dependent; they can stop taking handouts; they can find a wife and start a family; they can, in sum, get their character in order and reclaim their independence as men. Or not.
This passage almost makes it sound easy, but in light of the circumstances men face today, Hawley’s admonition comes off like a cheap corporate slogan—Nike’s “Just Do It” comes to mind. Indeed, if the Missouri senator’s enthusiasm inspires anything, it is an obvious question: Why does soft, pleasure-seeking Epicureanism hold so much sway over men today if his brand of biblical masculinity is so compelling? Manhood, like much right-wing literature aimed at boys and men, assumes that most of us simply don’t understand that we should get a job, get married, and have children. Or, if we do understand, cowardice or licentiousness keep us from doing our duty. If we could only help men see their own power and persuade them to do what’s right, the argument goes, then they would be able to “help the world become what it was meant to be.”
This disappointed-father approach utterly fails to address the broad swaths of men who are trying unsuccessfully to find meaningful employment or start a family. And the ever-increasing number of men that have given up on these things altogether will find Hawley’s argument more condescending than convincing. That’s because most men haven’t stopped searching for a wife because they’ve been duped by modern Epicurean liberalism. They’ve stopped searching for a wife because no-fault divorce laws and an unfavorable family court system make marriage a much riskier proposition than it used to be, because the prevalence of porn and prostitution make cheap sex readily available, and because the atrophy of American civic society has dramatically reduced the number of places where men and women who are interested in marriage can meet.
Even if they overcome all those obstacles, the collapse of America’s manufacturing and non-college-educated male job market means that the women they meet are increasingly likely to have more education and higher incomes than they do. Our chattering class (and women searching for husbands) might wish that men weren’t intimidated by this, but they are. And they’re not wrong to be. After all, surveys indicate that highly educated women feel the same way, preferring to date and marry men who earn more than they do.
Hawley’s analysis of the masculinity crisis considers none of these political and material conditions. Policy recommendations for ameliorating those conditions are also absent entirely from his book. That’s a shame. Hawley has admirably used his perch in the Senate to advance the common good on issues such as Big Tech and Big Pharma, but he seems reluctant to treat the issues facing boys and men in the same terms. Rather, Manhood puts the onus on individuals to have faith, be strong, and thus win in life—while playing a deck stacked against them. This allows Hawley to avoid challenging Republic orthodoxy, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
In the end, Hawley—like Reeves—perceives that the older model of masculinity has been hollowed out. But where the latter recommends accepting defeat and adapting to life under the new regime, the former encourages men to heroically resist. However, because Hawley offers no real challenge to our culture’s stunting of masculinity besides individual intransigence, his approach ultimately proves as ineffective as Reeves’ is unattractive.
The Bronze Age Option
Enter the vitalists. Where Reeves and Hawley are weak, they are strong. They reject Reeves’ progressive settlement, wherein men become junior partners in a world increasingly shaped by women’s sensibilities. They also reject Hawley’s conception of manly virtue and self-sacrifice. Instead, they aim at male flourishing for the sake of men themselves.
Vitalism is a neopagan, anti-liberal ideology led by online gurus such as Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) and Raw Egg Nationalist. The “manosphere” influencer Andrew Tate (fresh out of house arrest in Romania for trafficking and rape charges) echoes vitalist motifs. Vitalism runs the gamut of sophistication, from admonitions to eat raw animal testicles to exegeses of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Themes of manly strength, virility, and excellence run through it all.
Vitalists exhort young men to pursue this excellence. They advance historical examples of it such as Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, and archetypal examples such as “the knight, the sailor … the adventurer and pirate.” They also provide action steps like workout videos, meat-only diets, 14-day fasting regimens, tips for boosting testosterone (cue the animal testicles), wrestling tutorials, and more. Their mix of the concrete and the lofty—“start lifting and worshiping beauty”—has proven refreshing for many shiftless young men. BAP commands a following in the millions.
This might sound ridiculous, but rather than dismissing vitalism, we should ask why it’s been so much more compelling to young men than what respectable writers like Reeves and Hawley have to offer.
First, neither Reeves nor Hawley has much of a vision of men working together to change the culture that is keeping them down. By contrast, the vitalists call men not only to greatness but to brotherhood. In his popular book The Way of Men, Jack Donovan asserts that male fulfillment lies in being “a man among men,” uniting in “tribal gangs” for a common purpose. In Bronze Age Mindset, BAP foretells that an “order of knights of the spirit” will undermine and overthrow the “great slave project” that is modern society. He celebrates “barbaric piratical brotherhoods” who will “wipe away this corrupt civilization, even as they did at the end of the Bronze Age.”
You get the idea. Men are meant to work together to direct their aggressive impulses toward a common project, while turning their backs on an enervating hive society that hates them and suppresses their nature. It’s easy to see the appeal of this message for young men today, given that official culture has deemed masculinity “toxic” and that, in recent decades, men’s status has rapidly diminished compared to women’s. Who wouldn’t want to join some variation of the pirate crew, the warband, the Viking raiding party?
Second, both Reeves and Hawley treat masculinity as a mere abstraction, separate from the reality of being a man. Reeves turns the masculinity crisis into a bloodless economic problem solved with marginal policy changes that will help men become more like women. Hawley, for his part, extracts a masculine ideal from the Bible and tells men to conform to it by sheer willpower. Each proffers a model—traditionally masculine in Hawley’s case, new and unisexual in Reeves’—as a sort of outfit that modern men can easily measure and then put on.
Vitalists reject this “man suit” approach. Their ideal of masculinity, insofar as they have one, is built on the experience of being a man. They don’t bother building theories of masculinity, and they mock discussion of a “masculinity crisis.” Indeed, they see the very medium of discourse as decadent.
Sure, some vitalists have written manifestos, but their preferred medium is the meme—symbols, images, and icons of men doing manly if not godlike things. BAP and Raw Egg Nationalist regularly tweet pictures of airbrushed young bodybuilders, vitalist heroes such as Japanese nationalist poet Yukio Mishima, and nude classical statues.
Again, this seems ridiculous, but vitalists shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Their success suggests that they understand something about men that mainstream observers miss: that men are mimetic beings. They learn the most important things—such as how to be men—through imitation, by following examples. That’s why their bodybuilder memes, and the communities they convene online, have greater impact than a dozen think-pieces like this one.
The Cult of the Chosen Few
Still, the promise of vitalism is an empty one. Vitalists offer mimesis and theosis, but the wrong kinds. As appealing as they are, the online sugar high they offer can never match the solid food of real imitation that happens between fathers and sons, mentors and protégés, and more mutually between brothers and among friends. Indeed, the cheap substitute worsens the starvation, leading young men to forego the world of real men for a shiny simulation of godlike “masculinity,” to revel in AI-generated muscles while their own muscles atrophy.
Even on its own terms, vitalism doesn’t address the problems of most men today. Rather, in Nietzschean fashion, vitalism celebrates a few Übermenschen at the expense of the morass of “bugmen” (BAP’s term), the mean and small-souled genetic chaff. The eugenic strain from 20th-century fascist movements remains strong in vitalism: The bugmen and other warders of the Longhouse (our “matriarchal” society) ought to be trampled by the great ones; the lesser animals are food for the predators. The vitalist world is no country for average men.
Here vitalism bizarrely dovetails with a certain kind of liberalism, specifically the libertarian cult of the entrepreneur. It doesn’t promise a good life for most men. Instead, it says a few men might make it really big, become billionaires or vitalist demigods. BAP prophesies that a Caesar-like “man of great charisma” will arise, and enticingly remarks that “such a man might be among you.” You might be the great one! But more likely you will be one of his slaves or victims.
There is another parallel here with familiar versions of libertarianism. Vitalists are pagan, in that they reject the Biblical idea of a transcendent God in favor of immanent divinity. To be a god in this sense is not to create life but to feed on it. Like Ayn Rand and her acolytes, whose heroic model is the robber baron insatiably gobbling up all his puny competitors, many vitalists idolize Elon Musk: entrepreneur, corporate raider, and father of at least ten children with three different women.
In other words, just as the American Dream has devolved into a casino-style economic lottery, BAP’s vitalist fantasia of “four thousand hungry wolves rampaging on streets of these hive cities” translates practically into the squalid scams and pimping rackets of Andrew Tate. Both license men to be predators, or parasites, whose goal is to consume as much as they can at the expense of other men (and women).
Acknowledging the similarities between vitalism and our current regime’s consumption-based economy and culture can also show us why mainstream attempts to address the masculinity crisis play right into the vitalists’ hands. Reeves and much of the left either ignore or denigrate the specific ambitions of men—and thus alienate them with their implicit suggestion that they are just faulty women. Hawley and much of the right deny the power of cultural and economic forces—and thus abandon young men to resist those forces on their own. Is it any wonder that more and more young men, alienated and alone, are joining a movement that says they should rule?
Collective Production Over Individual Consumption
It doesn’t have to be this way. It is easier to criticize than to make suggestions, of course, and there’s no book or perfect policy that will “fix” the masculinity crisis. But the expanding discourse around men and boys would certainly benefit from a shift in focus—away from the behavior of men and boys themselves and toward the economic and cultural causes underlying that behavior. In other words, we should move from Of Boys and Men and Manhood toward something like Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change, which—despite its flaws—enlists the same disillusioned men whom the vitalists are courting in a project to structurally change our social and economic order.
In practice, this requires ambitious but concrete policies that would turn our economy and culture away from consumption and toward creation. Economically, it would entail shifting our priorities from simply maximizing GDP to building a healthy labor market, as American Compass has sketched out under the name “productive pluralism.”
If the possibility of broader-based prosperity and increased social stability aren’t enough to convince you that we need new economic priorities, maybe the threat of Mad Max-style biker gangs roving the countryside will change your mind.Or, to put it more modestly, policymakers should evaluate economic policies based on how they will affect not only GDP, but also the rates of suicide, workforce participation, and marriage among the nation’s young men.
Transforming our consumptive economy into a productive one would go a long way toward helping men, but it won’t be enough on its own. The masculinity crisis is ultimately about the character and hearts of men in a liberal society. Merely changing economic incentives—while important—will not address the deeper spiritual crisis that hangs over us. Neither will any number of articles about masculinity or motivational books containing rules for life or blueprints for manhood.
What policymakers can do, however, is help create the space necessary for male character formation to take place. It’s not much discussed in the context of public policy, but the disappearance of exclusively male spaces is a real concern. From the school to the workplace to the bar to the barbershop to the gym, once-common male spaces have become exceedingly rare.
Take the college campus. Many colleges founded as all-male institutions are now overwhelmingly female. One of us, for example, attended Furman University, originally an all-male school, where women now make up an astounding 63% of the student body.
Like many small liberal arts schools, especially in the South, Furman’s campus once had a large presence of exclusively male fraternities. Although these organizations were far from perfect, they played a central role in the social life of the university, for young men especially. But they were increasingly harried and regulated by administrators who view male spaces as inherently suspect, if not pathological. In 2019, the university eliminated fraternity houses altogether. Not only did this leave many young men on campus homeless, it also encouraged them to view themselves as a rogue element. With the fraternities thus marginalized, social life at Furman became less dynamic, while the male organizations that didn’t make themselves subservient to the campus gender regime became increasingly toxic and dangerous.
This dynamic—the gradual pathologization, regulation, and elimination of male spaces leading to less dynamism and more destructive behaviors—is happening across the country: in elementary schools, in churches, and in sports, and not just in blue states. For instance, the middle school one of us attended in Birmingham, Alabama, offered a popular student club called “Men Striving for Success” that taught service and leadership. Because it didn’t include girls, though, some parents protested, and, of course, the school gave in. Now re-formed as co-ed, the group is called—no kidding—“Trendsetters.”
The elimination of all-male environments like these matters because interacting with other boys or men—not reading books—is how most boys build character and learn to respect authority. Until these spaces are restored, the masculinity crisis will only get worse.
To restore these spaces, policymakers must do several things. First, Title IX needs to be revised. All-male spaces will remain embattled, if not legally unviable, until that happens.
Secondly, they should seed the creation of new exclusively male spaces, starting with all-boys public schools and all-male universities. As of 2017, there were only 283 single-gender public schools in the country (170 of which were dedicated to serving boys). These schools were overwhelmingly concentrated in a few states, with Texas, Florida, New York, and Missouri accounting for 112 of them.
That’s partially because single-sex public education is easy to challenge under Title IX. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) found this out the hard way in 2015, when its “Empowering Males of Color” initiative established Ron Brown High School as a public school for boys only and was promptly met with a lawsuit from the ACLU. Despite this legal challenge, Ron Brown, which requires all students to wear a blazer and tie and sports “The Monarchs” as its school mascot, proved enormously popular. After its first year, only five of its 102 students left, and long waitlists began to form.
Critics of single-sex education often point out that studies have “found few remarkable differences between single-sex and coed schooling.” Reeves himself dismisses it as imparting “[not] much benefit.” What these critics don’t consider, however, is the opportunity for masculine character development and community that makes all-boys schools popular and essential to addressing our current predicament. Starting more all-boys schools and making them available to more communities represents a golden opportunity for lawmakers.
Education policymakers could also push for a more boy-friendly approach within existing schools. Such an approach might employ more kinesthetic learning (championed by platforms like Walkabouts), which incorporates physical activity into learning, making the student an active participant. Teaching biography again would also be especially helpful to young boys, inspiring them to greatness by giving them tangible, historical examples to follow.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, policymakers can play a role in combating the forces that disconnect men from their communities, their families, and from each other. One of the most powerful such forces is, of course, the loss of solid jobs for men without college degrees. Another is the rise of the gig economy, which robs these same men (at a higher ratethan women) of predictability, community, and agency in their work. Another is divorce and custody law that treats men as mere economic providers rather than as husbands and fathers. And perhaps the least discussed such force, relative to its pernicious effect, is the almost entirely unregulated pornography industry. Surveys suggest that roughly half of American men watch porn every month, while study after study shows that porn makes men less professionally ambitious, less interested in marriage, and more socially isolated. Banning pornography might not solve the masculinity crisis on its own, but it would be another tool for motivating men to re-engage with society, with women, and with one another.
The Brotherhood, The Mission, and The Home
There is no silver bullet for solving the masculinity crisis. Indeed, the term itself is a byproduct of a culture that demands more and more of men while offering them less and less in return. Under such circumstances, mainstream commentators have struggled to articulate compelling solutions, instead attempting to help men adapt to these belittling circumstances (Reeves) or putting the onus on individual men to step up on their own and overcome the massive structural forces arrayed against them (Hawley).
This increased attention to the problem is welcome, but these half-measures and calls to stoic self-sacrifice have only fueled the antinomian movement we’re calling vitalism. Mainstream commentators dismiss this movement, and yet, as liberal modernity begins to collapse, it’s thriving. Its appeal is real. Unlike more respectable alternatives, it offers a bracing mix of idealism and practicality. Its commitment to brotherhood addresses men’s hunger for community, and its insistence on basing thought in experience affirms men in their real lives.
For all its appeal, however, vitalism’s focus on the raw and the real is as unsustainable as the abstract modern liberalism it rejects. Both philosophies share a consumptive mindset, and success in each system is allotted to a chosen few. They are two sides of the same coin.
Those seeking to alleviate the masculinity crisis should move in a different direction. By creating an economy based on production rather than consumption and a culture that offers men spaces where they can grow as men, policymakers can navigate between the monstrous Scylla of vitalism and the ever-draining Charybdis of liberalism and offer men the chance to have what they have always yearned for: a brotherhood, a mission, and a home to return to.