The Boy Crisis: a book review

Boys are falling behind in 63 developed nations.

I got a copy of The Boy Crisis at the library, but a tenth of the way into it I decided to buy a copy. It’s that kind of book.

Warren Farrell and John Gray document the toll that father deprivation has taken on our children—especially boys.

A former board member of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, Farrell was ostracized from the feminist movement when he began promoting evidence that fathers play a unique and essential role that mothers can’t replicate.

Rather than the simple narrative of the patriarchy benefiting men at women’s expense, Farrell claims that the men who ruled societies in centuries past exploited men too, but in a different way: men were beasts of burden and cannon fodder.

Until recently society focused on survival needs. People today often fail to understand how disease, famine, and warfare meant that even a couple hundred years ago every day was a struggle for life. Men were disposable as providers and protectors because women, via pregnancy, are the key to maintaining a population. Women were disposable in the service of childbirth, but that was a biological reality that our ancestors could do little about.

Twentieth century science, technology, and capitalism changed all that. Obesity is now the problem in developed countries, not starvation. Contraception gives women reproductive choices, and death in childbirth and infant morality are rare relative to the past.

The movement for women’s equality and freedom from traditional gender roles was a natural outcome of technological and economic progress. And feminism has been a resounding success. Women today earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees. And women are almost half of medical school graduates and more than half of law school graduates. Further, domestic violence against women and sexual assault have plummeted in the past quarter century.

Farrell and Gray say that empowering girls is important. But “let’s not throw out the boy with the bathwater.” High rates of divorce and society’s treatment of fathers as second class parents has created father deprivation for millions of children.

Farrell and Gray focus on father deprivation as the leading cause of the boy crisis because it’s the single largest indicator of male maladjustment. In appendix B they list 55 factors that are far more common for fatherless boys. These include reduced life expectancy, being more likely to commit suicide or commit a mass shooting, being more likely to join a gang (or even ISIS), becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, ending up in prison, dropping out of school, facing unemployment, and being victimized by a sexual predator.

Dads make a unique contribution to children’s well-being, including boundary enforcement, improved social skills, healthy risk taking, improved emotional resilience, and more.

But too often dad is valued mainly as a wallet. We’ve accepted the claim that career men are privileged. Yet, women have options—work full-time, work part-time, or stay home with the kids—while men’s option are work full-time, or work full-time, or work full-time. And many men give up their passions for high earning but soul crushing careers. Historically, mom made “a sacrifice of her career.” But even today dad often makes “sacrifices in his career.”

We’ve ignored challenges that boys and men face in other ways, and this can have a huge impact. Males commit suicide almost four times more often than females. Yet, Farrell and Gray point out that the media often focus only on girls and women. And social worker Tom Golden claims that the National Association for Social Workers studies only female suicide because there’s no funding to study male suicide. In addition, white males—especially if they’re from higher income families—are especially at risk. Why? High expectations for them to prove themselves.

Females attempt suicide more often, but a cry for help shows they think someone will listen. But if you don’t believe anyone will listen you don’t attempt suicide, you commit suicide. The authors point out that Lois Lane is only interested in Clark Kent after she finds out he’s Superman. He must prove his strength first to earn the privilege of showing his vulnerability.

Farrell and Gray warn us, however, that “boys who hurt, hurt us.” They claim most mass shooters come from father deprived families. And almost 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. But while Obamacare provides for free well-woman checkups (which include mental health screening), no such benefit exists for men. In fact, there are seven U.S. government agencies focusing on women’s health but zero for men. Yet, addressing the male suicide crisis won’t only save male lives—it’ll save the lives of others.

Though “toxic masculinity” is a popular topic, the term “hyper-masculinity” is a better description. Reading The Boy Crisis I realized that father deprivation is a significant cause of hyper-masculinity due to the lack of a mature male role model who can teach boundaries to a young man who is too eager to prove himself.

In an age where women don’t need men to earn a living (but still value a man’s ability to provide), and where the warrior role is no longer as valued as it was, young men face a crisis of purpose. And being involved fathers—or a positive role model if a man doesn’t have children—can become that purpose.

This is a particular challenge for divorced or unmarried dads. The authors say there are four essentials when dealing with this:

  • Equal time for each parent.
  • No bad-mouthing.
  • Parents living within 20 minutes of each other.
  • Counseling as co-parents.

They detail research showing how this benefits mom as well.

We need a shift in the way we think about the male role, the authors advocate. The hero sacrifices himself to take of others. Today’s man needs the “health intelligence” to know that he must take care of himself in order to take care of others—”healed people heal people.”

 

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Men’s Silence

Silent doesn’t mean taciturn. A man might talk endlessly, constantly interrupting others. But all he does is tell jokes and talk about sports and politics. No one really knows what’s going on inside him.

Men’s silence is often socially enforced. The call to “man up” and the meme “I bathe in male tears” discourage men from showing their vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why Mad Men‘s Don Draper tries so hard to avoid dealing with his troubled childhood. An ad exec, Don is the archetype of strong and silent. Changing his name from Dick Whitman is symbolic of his inner disconnection, and Mad Men is a chronicle of the external consequences.

Don is a hard man to like. He’s a womanizer and alcoholic who leaves a trail of broken relationships. Raised an unloved orphan, his first sexual experience as a boy with an older woman would have been called statutory rape if it had happened to a girl at the hands of a man. How did this contribute to his future womanizing? Could it be that he’s not so much a chauvinist as he is a man struggling with the power women have over him?

Don doesn’t think to ask these questions, and even if he did he might be told to quit his whining. He’d be shoved back into silence.

In Invisible Men, Michael Addis describes three types of silence: Personal silence is a lack of self-awareness. Private silence is when you know how you feel but choose to keep it to yourself. And public silence is when you try to open up to others but are shot down, often in subtle ways.

Don’s silence is internal and lacking self-awareness. In the final season he takes off without saying a word to anyone. Winding up at a hippie retreat in California, he’s initially resistant to all the touchy-feely stuff but ends up calling his coworker Peggy on the verge of tears, struggling to reevaluate his life. Then in group therapy a man talks about his feelings of invisibility. Shocking everyone, Don hugs the man.

Most men must struggle with the double bind of being told that showing vulnerability is a weakness, and then being blamed for their silence. And there’s often a misguided assumption that men are silent on purpose, to punish their partners.

What does Don do with his new found self-awareness? The final episode ends with the famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial. Does the ad show that Don opens up to others about his need to be valued as a person? Or upon returning to the ad world, does Don bury his emotions again? That’s for you to decide.

Addis notes that people will communicate under the right circumstances, and men are no exception. He writes that masculinity can be viewed as a “transaction between a person and his environment” (his emphasis). That is, fulfilling social expectations to avoid rejection. As such, anger, aggression, posturing, arrogance, and silence can be masks for the deeper issue, such as fear, sadness, anxiety, rejection, and social isolation.

A recent study with men and video games found that men who bully women online often do so because of competition within the male hierarchy (though sexism is also an obvious factor too).

Specifically, women are more attracted to high-status men, and a man’s place in the male hierarchy is heavily influenced by his desirability to women. But low-status men who are outperformed by women fear that they become even less desirable to women, thus pushing these men further down the male hierarchy.

Loss of status is hard for men to deal with because men are already more likely to be socially isolated than women. However, the study doesn’t address why high-status males bully low-status males. Likely it’s enforcement of their higher status in the hierarchy. The same is true for high-status women and girls who bully those of lower status.

It’s true that raising emotionally aware boys could improve things. Teaching empathy is also critical. But empathy for men and boys is just as critical.

The larger issue is societal acceptance and encouragement of men opening up. This means a shift in male culture to something less hierarchical and toward offering support to other men rather than expecting men to resolve their issues independently and silently.

Psychology for Men

Writing for the Telegraph, Martin Daubney asks, “Why isn’t there more of a focus on male psychology?” Severe mental health problems are more likely to affect men, and more common issues such as depression occur equally in men despite men being underdiagnosed.

Men have a reputation for not opening up. But people will open up when they feel safe doing so. This means taking men seriously, not minimizing their concerns, and not blaming them.

Sitting down and talking might not always be the best strategy. I know a psychologist who told me that the best conversations he’s had with his dad was when they were playing golf. An activity can be a powerful tool for men. Especially when we don’t push a man to start talking right away, instead letting him take his time, and allowing for the ebb and flow of conversation with silences and interludes of more superficial and even humorous talk.

And sometimes only men can connect with other men. The idea of male only support groups may be met with resistance in some circles, however. But Daubney quotes Martin Seager from Men’s Minds Matter:

…in single-sex groups men can be very blokey one minute, then talk about something incredibly painful the next. It really worked. Men are very worried about shame and embarrassment, and there are rules about masculinity that need to be honoured, not belittled.

He continues,

If men are alone in a room they are tremendously good at supporting each other; they’re like soldiers in combat that really care for each other. So we realised that a men’s group is a really powerful space.

A focus on toxic masculinity, however, may only make things worse. Seager says,

Men don’t need to ‘man up’ and they don’t need to ‘woman up’ – be more like women. We need to allow men to be men and honour that, on their terms – and that comes from 30 years’ experience in clinical practice.

Psychology for men must start with what men need rather than a critique of masculinity, lists of how men need to change, or an analysis of how men’s communication styles are wrong.

Men & Suicide

In the United States 77% of people who commit suicide are men. In every country (except China) men are more likely to die by their own hands.

Why?

June is men’s health month, and mental health is as important as physical health. So let’s take a look at men, depression, and suicide.

Some answers are facile. Men are more likely to use extreme methods, such as a gun, while women are more likely to swallow pills. But using a more fatal method simply shows a greater desire to die. It doesn’t explain why men are more likely to feel that way.

On the other hand, women report more suicidal thoughts than men do. But is it possible that men have as many (or more) suicidal thoughts but don’t report it?

Men aren’t supposed to need help. Recently I had to put air in my tires, but I couldn’t get the cap off one tire stem. I asked a fellow traveler if she had pliers. She grabbed a pair from her trunk and removed the cap. I thanked her, but her irritation with me was evident.

No big deal. But what if I needed help with something far bigger – with my emotional life disintegrating to the point where I felt suicidal?

There’s a reason men don’t ask for help.

Solid data on suicide attempts are hard to come by, but anecdotally women are more likely to attempt suicide. However, those attempting suicide often don’t want to die and instead are communicating their need for help. A cry for help means the person believes someone may actually help them.

But no one attempts suicide with a gun – they really want to die. Are men less likely to believe anyone will help them, leaving a final exit as the only perceived option?

Depression plays a large role in suicide, and here too we find a gender difference. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. But if women suffer from depression more than men, why do men commit suicide at such higher rates?

Perhaps mental health professionals don’t recognize depression in men because there are differences in the way men and women experience depression. This is not a new idea: the evidence that men suffer from depression at similar rates as women goes back more than a quarter century

Psychiatry’s manual of mental disorders, the DSM-5, lists symptoms of depression such as fatigue, loss of interest in fun stuff, feelings of guilt, sleeping too much or too little, and of course suicidal thoughts. But depressed men are more likely than depressed women to be more aggressive, to engage in risky behaviors, and abuse substances.

One problem is that there’s a shortage of men in the mental health field, and a consequence is treatment more geared toward women than men. Alternative approaches such as ManTherapy, which uses humor to engage men, have yet to catch on.

Though teen suicide is a big concern, middle age suicide is often overlooked. Alice G. Walton writes in Forbes that “there’s still a lot of pressure on men to fill out the masculine husband role, whatever socioeconomic class one is in, and the reality is that today this classic role may be somewhat unrealistic.” Somewhat?

Poor and divorced men are especially vulnerable for suicide because they have experienced a loss of the primary male role, which is to serve as a resource for women and children (specifically, to provide and protect). Divorced women don’t face a similar loss of the traditional female role (caring for children) because mothers are far more likely than fathers to get custody of the children. But most of all, women have greater social networks and social supports than men.

Let’s recap: Men experience depression as often as women but are less likely to be diagnosed. Women attempt suicide more because they believe their cry for help will be heeded. Men are much less likely to believe anyone will help, and men are more likely to be shamed for asking for help. Men are more socially isolated than women. And job losses and divorce have a far more negative impact on men because traditional gender role expectations are more rigid for men.

It’s not just about what men need to do differently. That men must take action is a 1950s ethos which no longer serves men’s interest. Were it more socially acceptable for men to ask for help, men would do so. But this isn’t just about men’s view of the male gender role: women must also change their perceptions (see Heather Gray’s Are We Really Ready For Emotionally Intelligent Men?).

Further, we must raise awareness that suicide is a gendered issue. This requires rowing against the zero sum current which says that any focus on men’s issues comes at the detriment of women’s issues. Mental health professionals, and especially substance abuse counselors, must be educated on how to spot depression and suicide risk in men. Finally, mental health treatment should consider unorthodox approaches such as the humor of ManTherapy to reach men who might otherwise avoid therapy.