What do conservatives owe liberal thinkers who start to espouse conservative positions, decades after conservatives first did so? The charitable answer is, of course, to welcome them with open arms. “I told you so” is rarely a good look. But what should be done when those same liberal thinkers continue to claim that they are not really conservatives and then misrepresent conservatives because, well, what would their friends think?
In his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, the Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves adopts many of the arguments that the right has been making for decades to explain why, more than a half-century after the sexual revolution, men, and not women, seem to be struggling. But in attempting to maintain his liberal bona fides, Reeves simultaneously rips off the right while condescending to, belittling, and insulting those who saw long ago what he sees now. And he gives the same shabby treatment to those who are first seeing it now but might nonetheless vote differently from him.
The picture for males in America, he rightly notes, is bleak: “The gender gap in college degrees awarded is wider today than it was in the early 1970s, but in the opposite direction. The wages of most men are lower today than they were in 1979, while women’s wages have risen across the board. One in five fathers are not living with their children. Men account for two out of three ‘deaths of despair,’ either from suicide or an overdose.”
How we got to this point is a complicated story involving both cultural and economic forces. Reeves is willing to buy explanations offered from almost every corner of the ideological map. From the loss of manufacturing jobs to the War Against Drugs, the overincarceration of black men, the sexual revolution, the decline of marriage, no-fault divorce, child-custody laws, Reeves argues that life in recent years has been less fair to the less fair sex.
But, he must quickly assure us, we are not to lump him in with those conservatives who would “go so far as to say that there is a feminist-inspired ‘war on men’ or ‘war on boys.’” He doesn’t like such language because it “validates and fuels a sense of victimhood.” Talking that way allows “attitudes on gender issues [to] float free of the facts.”
The War on Boys was, of course, the title of Christina Hoff Sommers’s 2000 book, which said pretty much what Reeves says, only decades earlier. And it was chock-full of facts; more, perhaps, than Reeves’s book. The War on Boys is quoted nowhere in Of Boys and Men, and giving Sommers short shrift in a volume that follows in a direct line from hers is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.
Sommers not only detailed these trends before anyone else was noticing them, but she exposed the shoddy feminist scholarship, most notably by Carol Gilligan and her many popularizers in the press, that led the public and our country’s entire K–12 and higher educational systems to focus on the ways in which girls were underperforming. As Sommers wrote at the time, “despite the errors, the campaign to persuade the public that girls were being diminished personally and academically was a spectacular success.”
If Reeves has such a hard time im-agining that there could have been a deliberate campaign by feminist scholars and activists to purposefully ignore the problems of boys in order to give girls a leg up, he should go back and read the words of Diane Ravitch, who told the New York Times Magazine back in 1998 about a 1992 report from the American Association of University Women: “That AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story twenty years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral…. There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys.” (Lord knows whether Ravitch would claim these words today, given that she now heatedly argues against everything she once believed.)
Still, Reeves deserves some credit. It’s harder to write the book he wrote today than it was 20 years ago because back in the day, you weren’t immediately excoriated for describing and observing the differences between men and women. And it’s a sign of how absurd the national conversation has become that simply accepting these facts as a basis for a serious discussion of the relative social positions of men and women now constitutes an act of intellectual bravery. Scott Yenor, a professor at Boise State whose book on the family I reviewed in these pages in February 2021, was recently the subject of a Title IX investigation—an obvious act of retaliation for what his university’s administration sees as his retrograde views.
Reeves notes without reservation that “sex differences in biology shape not only our bodies, including our brains, but also our psychology. We are not blank slates…. Men are typically more aggressive, take more risks, and have a higher sex drive than girls and women.” He adds that the expression of these traits is shaped by culture. “I’m pretty sure that I would be more physically aggressive if I had been born in Sparta a couple thousand years ago,” he writes. “There’s just not that much use [for] it at the Brookings Institution.”
But Reeves is still trying to walk a fine line down the middle of this debate, in part to show that he cares about the fate of girls, too. He agrees that the wage gap between the genders virtually disappears when we hold constant for women and men the fields they enter, the jobs they do, the amount of time they spend on the job, and the seniority of the position they hold. He notes, though, that “women may earn less because they occupy fewer senior positions, but that fact itself may be the result of institutional sexism.” Maybe. Or it may be the result of women’s choosing to stay home with children more of the time.
Like almost every commentator on these issues, Reeves argues that women shoulder an unfair amount of the child care (even when they are married and living with the father of their children) and that the solution to this problem is more government-funded child care and paternity leave. The idea that structural sexism is not to blame and that government may not offer the best solution to this situation—these are rarely considered in this debate.
But back to the men. Reeves accepts without qualification that the particular reason black men have suffered more than white men is racism. Black men are more likely to be in prison for drug-related crimes even though white people use drugs more, he writes—while offering no account of what the crimes for which these men are being punished actually are. Almost no one is in prison for simple drug possession. But when it comes to selling drugs and the commission of drug-related violent offenses that are pleaded down to less violent ones, there is in fact a big racial disparity.
When it comes to employment, Reeves also blames racism for black men having worse prospects. He marvels that “Ban the Box” legislation, which prevents employers from asking about criminal backgrounds, doesn’t improve matters. In fact, studies show that such legislation actually hurts potential employees because when employers can’t check criminal backgrounds, they assume the worst.
But when it comes to all men, Reeves also fails to seriously entertain some of the best research on why they are not working. It wasn’t only the sexual revolution that gave women the choice to become single mothers. It was also government programs that served to make men’s role as provider obsolete. And today government programs continue to allow millions of able-bodied men to remain unemployed.
When it comes to solutions to the man crisis, Reeves finds himself frustrated that so many different initiatives—from college scholarships to tutoring to mentoring—seem to have a positive impact on girls but almost no impact on boys. But he never stops to wonder whether the new government programs he supports (like spending a billion dollars to get more men into professions that are considered traditionally female) will solve the problem. So far public funding to solve the male crisis does not seem to have worked, to put it mildly.
Reeves is most interesting when it comes to the solutions he does propose—at least one in particular. What if boys started kindergarten a year later than girls? Not because of the differences in their behavior when they are young (though Reeves is right to point out that boys who start later are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD) but because of differences when they reach adolescence. The gap between the maturity of teenage boys and girls is a serious problem for educators, and giving boys a little more time to grow up could be useful.
So, of course, could investment in more vocational and technical education, which Reeves also recommends. Getting more men into the health and education professions would also be a good thing for their economic prospects. And it’s not ideal that boys don’t have male role models in the classroom or that men make up most of the substance abusers while women make up most of the substance-abuse counselors.
When it comes to family, Reeves suggests that we, as a society, should try to create a father-child bond independent of whether the father lives with or has a relationship with the mother. How, exactly, are we supposed to do this? To be sure, anything that can be done to encourage fatherly involvement would be a positive. Giving fathers credit for spending time with their kids in lieu of some child support might be worth trying.
The problem of how to re-create the role that men played in families and communities before the sexual revolution and before out-of-wedlock childbearing became the norm is not an easy one to solve. And I don’t know any conservatives who think it is. Reeves is right to recognize (as many of his colleagues do not) that the loss of the man’s role in the family has played an enormous part in this crisis. But his claims that conservatives want to keep women barefoot and pregnant or deny them recently available career opportunities are sheer caricature. Even Senator Josh Hawley, whom Reeves cites repeatedly as someone who wants to “restore traditional gender roles and relationships,” is married to a high-powered lawyer arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court. Exactly what does Reeves think conservatives have in mind?
It is not easy to be a centrist these days, particularly on issues as heated as gender roles. But neither is it all that easy to be a conservative, watching as centrists adopt your side’s ideas while throwing their originators under the bus.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.