The Crisis of Masculinity

Credit: Jeshu John from  Designerpics

Credit: Jeshu John from Designerpics

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about why men struggle so much with emotions. I realized that it's a topic I'm surprisingly interested in and fascinated by on an intellectual level. It's not just this topic specifically though; it's also the grander problem of what appears to be a crisis of masculinity in society.

Yesterday I saw a TED Talk by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo (yep, THAT Philip Zimbardo) that focused on one simple, yet existential question: why are our boys and men failing? Granted, this talk was from 2015 so there's a good chance you've seen it already. Nevertheless, in today's short blog post I'll discuss three of the most interesting parts of his 25-minute talk.


Fatherlessness: This ain't no place for no hero

A very worrying aspect of Zimbardo's talk was the increase in boys growing up without a father in their homes. At the time of the talk, a staggering 41% of women with children in America were single mothers. Boys need a strong male figure to look up to in their childhood just like how girls need strong female figures (their mothers) to look up to as they grow up. The absence of this male role model in their family lives means that they're not guided or instructed on this journey of masculinity from a trusted male perspective. This means that they either learn this from their peers, from the media, or from general society. It's easy to see how they could get very distorted perceptions of masculinity if they're learning it from these sources. 


Opting Out

Men that "exit" society either feel like society hates them, and blame their lack of success in life on society screwing them over, or they simply give up out of a lack hope. Although Zimbardo didn't mention it in the talk, I personally think that the financial crisis of 2007/2008 worsened both motivations quite powerfully. Men looked at society and the labor market and generally saw a lack of opportunity, hope, and fulfillment. On the other hand, they probably felt betrayed and angered at society not only for the lack of opportunity, but also for how it generally socially punishes men that cannot provide and/or have their shit together in their lives.

Lady Macbeth to Macbeth: Are you a man?

Macbeth: Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that which might appall the devil.
— Macbeth: Act 3, Scene 4

Stereotypically, men are supposed to be providers, although this viewpoint has evolved into something more nuanced nowadays. Still though, if they fail in this role of provider, society automatically deems them to be a failure as a human being. Given the lack of (fulfilling) job prospects after the crisis, many men (and women, of course) could not secure a decent living for themselves and thus stayed at home with the parents. Society labelled these men as failures because of their inability to live up to their male roles and so, unsurprisingly, some of them became angry at society: "screw em, if society labels me a failure then I'm not going to participate in it. I don't owe them shit!" Whatever the reason, this is all to the detriment of everybody involved.


(Sexual) Education

Ah pornography, the vice of humanity. Zimbardo discusses how men that have withdrawn from society get their sense of "connection" by watching porn. He states that 75% of viewers are men, which likely results in hundreds of millions of guys around the world (based on these numbers).  Look, I'm sure that not every guy that watches porn is some social recluse that lives in the basement of his parents. However, the point is that these men that are angry at society or have given up on it are more likely to turn to something like porn (or other private outlets) to find some kind of connection/outlet that they don't get anymore due to their disconnection from society.

He discusses how excessive viewing of pornography can lead to PIED: Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction (although this has not yet been definitively verified scientifically). Even though watching too much porn has not been definitively proven to have negative physical consequences, it undoubtedly creates some very distorted and poisonous views of how sex actually is. Do we really want guys to think that that nonsense on pornography is how sex really happens? In my opinion, there are also more insidious and dramatic effects at play here: who knows how much of the rape culture and domestic abuse is due to excessive exposure to pornography where the male actors are almost always physically dominating/violating women?

Should I care?

Absolutely. Zimbardo discusses how this crisis of masculinity can lead to pornography addictions, which in turn can lead to all kinds of problems of both sexual-physical and non-sexual nature. More men opting out of actively participating in society also has ramifications for the mating market as they become less viable partners and, obviously, simply interact less with women. If we see more men turn to pornography – something that has unfortunately turned into a form of sex education – only Lord knows the types of distorted views they will have about sex (something that the first episode of the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On discusses quite well).

Men without male role models in their lives will form their perceptions of masculinity from media and general entertainment. Honestly, I will completely give up on humanity if my nephews grow up thinking that celebrities like Lil' Wayne are the quintessential example of masculinity. Yet there is still so much more to this discussion that Zimbardo didn't get to in his TED Talk. For example, I personally wonder if this discussion possibly explains the criminal and anti-social behavior of many male offenders (which could have links to today's crisis of prison inmates). Or what about the link to sexual and domestic abuse; could this possibly be traced to the distorted perceptions that these men have of masculinity? Who knows, but it's clear that you should absolutely care about this issue.



Here's the link to the video. Don't bother reading the comments section of the video, it makes for some terribly depressing reading. Here's also another link to a fascinating article on the 1843magazine that is very closely related to the topic discussed.

Late edit: Though slightly unrelated, a Freakonomics episode discussed the stunning rise in single motherhood from an economic perspective. They posed the theory that the explosion of globalization of the last 20-30 years that resulted in such a sharp decline in traditional "real-men's" manufacturing jobs may have led to the decline in men that are suitable for marriage (i.e. "marriageable men"). An interesting theory, so it's well worth the listen.

See You, Space Cowboy.