First things first: I am a feminist. I bet you just read the article title again, didn’t you? Before I lay down some science to support the idea that America’s men are becoming physically, mentally and emotionally softer, along with some not-so-scientific opinions about why and how we can change this trend, I want to dispel any thoughts of this being a misogynistic manifesto. I’m not challenging the idea of equal opportunities for all here.
What I am challenging — vociferously and without apology — is the notion that America’s men are progressing in a way that is positive for men, women and society as a whole. They simply and unambiguously are not. America’s men are, in the name of “progress” and “evolution,” systematically being groomed to be weaker, more submissive, intellectual and, well, mushy. While much of the rest of the world (particularly parts of the world like China and Russia, which are already challenging us on economic, scientific, political and military stages) is toughening up, American men are being told the way they sit is offensive. See the problem here?
Being a Man Isn’t Toxic
We have all heard about the evils of masculinity and, to be honest, men in general. The narrative has become that masculinity — “toxic” (insert eye-roll emoji here) or otherwise — is the source of much of our nation’s ills. Many believe that limiting masculine influences is the answer to every significant societal problem, from mass shootings to sexual predation to war. In the minds of many of the masses, these problems would go away if men would just be less manly. Not only is this a preposterous notion, but the exact opposite is true. I am here to show you why.
Let’s start with a simple one: Testosterone levels. According to a 2007 study conducted by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, T levels have dropped about 1 percent per year (17 percent from 1987 to 2004!) since the 1980s. Additional studies have shown double-digit declines over just three or four decades, going as far back as the early 1900s.
Low testosterone levels in men often cause fatigue, increased body fat, hair loss, mood swings, reduced muscle mass, reduced bone density, insomnia, decreased sex drive and more, all of which may contribute to low self-esteem, poor work performance, relationship woes, depression and on and on and on. All of the symptoms and side effects of declining testosterone levels are contributing to an overall deterioration of the physical and emotional health of men, which is manifesting in how they look, how they feel, how they work, how they love and how they express themselves.
Why the Drop?
If we can agree that these declines are happening (because, in the immortal words of “Breaking Bad’s” Jesse Pinkman, “Science, bitches!”), and that these declines are detrimental to the health of boys and men, then let’s address the “why.”
While there is no singular factor, and actual causes are up for debate, I am not above speculation and hypothesis. For starters, we don’t lift heavy shit anymore (something proven to increase T levels). Jobs that require manual labor have been significantly reduced in recent decades, in some cases by necessity, and in other cases because trades have been painted as somehow “lesser” endeavors. This trend has landed men behind desks or in cars, where the heaviest thing they regularly lift is a smartphone.
Furthermore, there’s a trend of telling men that it is OK to be pear shaped, soft and pudgy means men. In turn, they are less likely to lift heavy shit recreationally. Instead, they spend time playing video games or watching “This Is Us.”
In males’ formative years, one contributing factor along similar lines may be the decline in the participation of contact sports. Do you know that the Boy Scouts of America once offered a Master-at-Arms badge? The Scouts used to offer activities such as single stick, quarter staff, fencing, boxing, wrestling, ju-jitsu and gymnastics. Boy Scouts could earn the badge by achieving proficiency in two of these.
Fast forward 100 years or so. A study conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association from 2009 to 2014 concluded that participation in youth wrestling fell 42 percent. Youth tackle football fell 18 percent. All contact sports experienced an overall decline of 11.6 percent during this time; that’s 42 percent more than the decrease in non-contact sports. In other words, parents no longer encourage boys to compete physically with other boys; this is ushering in generations of men who lack a competitive edge, a desire to win and, likely, the testosterone levels to aid in both.
Men in America are also taking on roles more traditionally dominated by women within the family structure. These closer relationships, especially with marriage and fatherhood, have been causally linked to lower T levels; this means that even more attention must be given to activities and endeavors that promote testosterone production.
Next, the overall concept of “too many masculine influences” is one that we can take head on, right now. According to statistica.com, from 1970 to 2017, there has been an increase in single-mother homes of 328 percent. Additionally, menteach.org notes that male teachers at the elementary and middle-school levels make up less than 20 percent of school faculties around the country. Meanwhile, more than half of all teachers in China are male. Why does this matter? Well, if the problem is too many men, too much masculinity, too much machismo, too much competitiveness, too much aggressiveness and too much testosterone poisoning America’s boys, why do so many boys have so few male influences?
Shall I go on? Let’s. Mass shootings are a problem in America. Since the causes for these shootings are up for debate — though most seem to focus on “toxic masculinity” — there are some truths that are not debatable. While there has been an increase in these unfortunate events, gun ownership in American households is down from 47 percent in 1973 to 31 percent in 2010, according to NORC at the University of Chicago. In addition, NORC notes that the gender gap in gun ownership was +40.2 percent in 1980 and fell to 23.4 percent in 2014. Another very telling statistic shows participation in hunting fell by half from 1977 to 2014.
Some six decades ago, teachers actually taught gun safety in school classrooms. Kids had rifles in the back windows of their trucks while parked in campus parking lots. Therefore, while the prevalence of firearms and participation in activities involving firearms has declined, violence involving firearms has not. Yet the hue and cry of many is to further restrict guns, access and education.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when 71 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old males in this country cannot qualify to enter the United States Army as a private.” That’s a quote from the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, lamenting the woes of the U.S. military trying (and failing) to fill ranks with men who cannot meet the most basic of physical fitness requirements. It is estimated that the American military spends more than $1.5 billion annually treating obesity related health conditions and filling positions left open due to troops that were too out of shape to perform their duties. Almost three-quarters of American men are considered overweight or obese.
That’s not a typo. Almost 75 percent of the men in America are at least minimally overweight. “Approximately one-third of American men (32 percent) … were obese in 2013 compared with about four percent of Chinese and Indian adults,” according to William Heisel of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. There are about 700 million men living in China, and approximately 28 million of them are obese. There are just over 150 million men living in the US, and almost 50 million of them are obese. I think Mattis is right to be concerned, don’t you?
All right, what have we learned so far? Testosterone levels in American men continue to decline. Male role models at formative years continue to decline. Gun ownership, gun education and activities involving guns continue to decline. Male fitness levels continue to decline. All of this adds up to a decline in masculinity in American men.
While girls and women are (rightfully) encouraged to take on the world, lift weights, take up wrestling or MMA, ask for raises, demand a “seat at the table,” hone their competitive edges and generally stand tall, boys and men are told sit down, shut up, give others a turn and take an Adderall. Words like “mansplain,” “manspread,” “manlogic,” “manterrupting” and “manbaby” have seeped into popular culture and, in some cases, even into dictionaries.
What should a boy or young man think? What is the message he is receiving? Simply being a man has become offensive to some people. While “masculinity” has become something to eradicate in the minds of many, the all-out assault on “being manly” is actually what has been the biggest catalyst for many of the problems that society faces. It is not that men are too manly; men aren’t manly enough.
The De-Masculinization of the American Man
At no time in the history of mankind (can you still say “mankind”?) has it been more acceptable to be “whatever you want to be.”
Societies as a whole have become incredibly tolerant of people struggling with their identities. However, when it comes to being the archetypal male figure, great efforts are being taken to shame, demean, accuse and cast out those who are simply doing what is natural to them. Simply put, this has to stop.
The de-masculinization of American men starts during childhood. While boys are built to roughhouse, take things apart (tear them up), run around, climb, be a bit crude and be fucking loud, at every turn they are disciplined for these very things. In many cases, they are even medicated. Conflicts happen on social media, in texts or on video games instead of face to face. Interpersonal skills are non-existent or misguided, since what comes naturally is deemed “bad” and, therefore, stifled by boys. They are coddled and bubble wrapped. They are not allowed to figure things out for themselves, to fail and to persevere. The result of this often manifests itself in destructive and devastating ways.
While innate behaviors are being culled left and right, perhaps the worst part is the outlets that have been developed over time, which allow boys and men to express themselves, are also being vilified. People label football, wrestling, MMA, boxing, shooting and hunting as too violent or too dangerous. These activities are not conduits to violence; they are quite the opposite.
In my experience, people immersed in hard and sometimes risky physical activities have a much greater appreciation for the decisions they make. They understand the consequences of throwing a punch, hitting a takedown or firing a gun. Why? They have performed these in controlled and positive environments, not simulated them on video games where “reset” is an option. They value and respect their lives and the lives of others, because they understand life’s tenuous nature.
Without these activities, without an upbringing which is challenging and daunting and encouraging of self-expression, boys and men are left to believe the way they feel is not only wrong, but also harmful to society. Common sense should tell us all that sooner or later, in individuals and, ultimately, in society, the results will be overwhelmingly negative. (We are already experiencing this, but the problem is that the cause has been misdiagnosed.)
Being a Man Today
When I was first asked to write this article, I was a little hesitant. I did not want people to think it was somehow a swipe at women. I also did not want people to think I was giving assholes a pass. After a few minutes of thought, though, I realized I’m not responsible for how people feel. I’m only responsible for what I write.
So, I will end with this: Assholes exist. That has nothing to do with gender or gender traits. Women are awesome, and I want them to have the same opportunities as men. However, men are also awesome, and there isn’t a fucking thing wrong with acknowledging that. If we continue to stamp out masculine traits, if we continue to make one gender the enemy, if we continue to raise boys to be something other than what they are, then we do so at our own peril. The rest of the world is watching and waiting, and if they ever want to try us, we will wish we hadn’t banned dodge ball because it made Billy too fucking aggressive.
Want more on this topic? Read my feature entitled “How Toxic Masculinity Became a Thing and Why It Needs to F*ck Off.”