We interviewed Dr. Helen Smith on her new book, Men On Strike, and her views on the challenges men face as they navigate American societal, cultural, educational institutions.
VM: You argue that various aspects of our social and economic structure have become so hostile to men that they have “gone Galt” and are opting out of college, marriage, employment and other social markers of adulthood. Can you elaborate on that?
HS: Men are going on strike. By that I mean that men are responding rationally to what’s going on economically, culturally, and at colleges. The rewards for men are a lot less than they used to be, and the costs are a lot higher, so they’re opting out.
The average man is taught not to complain or talk to anyone about [these problems]. Or even think of himself as a victim…So many are remaining silent because they’re afraid of being kicked out of a major relationship or a job. They’re afraid of repercussions. They don’t want to stir up trouble. And that sounds a lot like how women used to feel in the 1950s.
VM: Women presumably still want to get married, have families, and so forth, yet you argue that they also have unfair expectations of men’s roles within marriage. How does this conflict play out in the home?
HS: Women are so used to special privilege. They don’t think of it that way because all their lives they’ve only been told, “you go girl!” A recent Pew study found that the share of women, 18-34, for whom having a successful marriage was one of the most important things rose from 28 to 37 percent since 1997. But for men the opposite occurred. That disparity is coming from the perception on men’s part that, there is what women say they want, but really all they want is the kind of marriage that works for them.
And the legal aspects for men are so dangerous. If a man chooses the wrong partner, society comes down on him. He is the problem. And the stakes are a lot higher for men because if they’re going to get divorced, they have nowhere to turn. Society thinks it’s their fault.
VM: Your book talks a lot about the problem of “kangaroo courts” on college campuses—quasi-judicial bodies to deal with sexual assault, harassment cases, and the like, but with few or none of the due process protections we demand of our criminal justice system. One of the most troubling things about these courts is that neither students nor parents seem to be aware of how these systems work until their children get ensnared by them, as happened to feminist attorney and author Judith Grossman. Should parents be concerned? What should they do?
HS: One of the biggest problems that parents and students have is that they wait for something to happen. They stick their head in the sand, and if it happens they deal with it as it comes. Parents think, “My child won’t have a problem with it because only a pervert would be accused of something like that.” But innocent people get caught in the crosshairs. Instead, parents and students need to pressure schools. They should start a discussion to bring to the forefront what’s going on. They shouldn’t let colleges keep it under wraps. They really could make a change. But right now nobody does anything, or knows about what’s going on. They think it won’t happen to them. But no man is safe.
VM: Your book brings up an intriguing idea about the need to create “male space.” We’ve noticed that varying criticisms of men—whether they are defined as brutes, defective women, or victims—often share a common thread: They note the isolation felt by contemporary men. Can you elaborate on this?
HS: Men are more isolated, and we don’t like the things men do when they get together. We don’t like that they want certain spaces for themselves. At the same time people are always talking about how alienated men are, but we are reinforcing the alienation that men feel because we don’t want to hear what men have to say. Male space is not important and not allowed to exist in our society the way it used to be.
There used to be a lot of men-only groups, but this is now seen as a political issue and [these kinds of groups] have been ostracized. In New York, for example, men only groups are not [permitted], but we have plenty of women’s groups that are allowed. And men feel like they can’t really do anything. The law forbids it in many cases, but you do see women-only gyms and groups in colleges, or women’s centers. Every college campus has a women’s center! There are two men’s centers in the entire country.
VM: What would you say to academics who claim there’s no such problem on college campuses?
HS: I recommend for them to go into their faculty center, [advocate for a men’s group], and if they can come out unscathed, with tenure intact, I’ll eat my words.
VM: Your book talks about how men (and women) absorb certain messages about their gender from society. Where do they get these messages from?
HS: They look at cartoons and shows on television that are about bumbling dads who don’t know what they’re doing. J.R. Macnamara, who wrote Media and Male Identity, found that the majority of images of men on television and in the media are negative (a recent Huggies commercial, which caused an uproar, is a good example of this). And you wonder how that has to affect young boys. Society plays to the strengths of girls and against the strength of boys. Competitiveness in schools is seen as a negative, but cooperativeness tends to be seen as positive.
And many classrooms across the country convey the message to boys that they will “grow up and rape a girl.” By the time a boy gets through with high school he’s heard so many negative things about men. And colleges are filled with the same. Boys react. They think, “I’ll just become what they say I am. They said I was a criminal and that’s what I am.” When you tell boys they’re perverts, good for nothing, or that they can’t succeed, then I think they do start to believe it. They do opt out of things because—who wants to spend all these hours of college listening to this stuff, feeling like an outsider?
VM: What kinds of messages should we be teaching boys about masculinity?
HS: I don’t purport to tell anybody how to act as a gender. We should value those things that we term masculine just as we value those things that we term feminine.
VM: As you mention, women today get many positive message about themselves from society, and they also know that they have a role that only they can provide: childbirth and motherhood. You argue that there are also certain things that only men can provide. What are those things?
HS: They can be good fathers. A mother can’t be a dad to a boy. Boys and men tend to be more aggressive, and men can teach the boundaries of such aggression. They can teach boys how to sublimate those feelings into something positive. Doing away with the role of fathers and saying they’re not important is a mistake.
Without two parents, children will be okay, but they won’t learn the full realm of what it is to be both masculine and feminine.
VM: Do you think there’s a chance we’ll self-correct? It’s really only in the last century that women had the education and autonomy to enter the conversation. But the conversation is at an early stage and as a society we’re only at the beginning of figuring out how men and women fit together. Is it possible that these are just growing pains?
HS: You’d think they might just be growing pains. But Christina Hoff Sommers and Warren Farrell wrote their books 10-20 years ago and men’s rights have gotten worse since then. There are more legal and cultural forces denigrating men today than there ever were before. If people don’t stand up, women are just going to be asked to pick up the slack. There will be some men who will always be at the top; that’s just sort of a given. But I think a certain void will develop, and there won’t be any men left to fill it. Society will stagnate, culturally and economically.
This book is not a research study, but a treatise, a call to action. It is pitched to men, and I hope that men will read it and come to understand what they’ve been feeling. But I also hope that it will help women to understand what the men in their lives are going through.
This issue is not about left or right. I think that each side comes at it differently, but both left and right need to realize that masculinity is a human trait that is a force for good in the world. To call it evil all the time is to denigrate people and take away their humanity.