Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream — and Why It Matters, by Helen Smith (Encounter, 176 pp., $23.99)
Something fundamental has changed about American society, and it’s weakening our nation, both economically and culturally.
Analysts have worked to identify potential causes, and have come up with many suspects: the growth in government dependency; the explosion in the share of children raised by single parents; the increase in casual sex; the declining birthrate; the increasingly self-centered, even nihilistic, culture; a static, ineffective public education system; and the labyrinth of government regulations and taxes that strangles entrepreneurship and discourages hard work.
But there’s another factor that many overlook, one that’s driving many of these other symptoms. American culture, as expressed through its laws, media, and educational system, has become hostile to men and boys. As a result, a growing number of men are opting out of — though “shrugging off” may be the more apt term — some of their traditional roles. They are less likely to be pursuing marriage, fatherhood, education, and even economic success than in days past, and as a result, the country is being drained of necessary resources and talent.
This is the case Helen Smith makes in her new book, Men on Strike. Of course, other works — from conservative Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys to liberal Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women — have lamented the sorry state of the American male. Yet Smith, a Knoxville-based psychologist specializing in men’s issues, takes a distinctly different tack: She looks beyond the evidence that men are in decline to the reasons for that decline.
Instead of blaming men and ridiculing the lifestyle of those who have “failed to launch,” Smith explores the idea that men may be making a purposeful, even rational, choice in rejecting a society that already has rejected them.
Smith draws heavily from the actual experiences of men, using their stories and comments to illustrate the disaffection, anger, and sorrow that many feel. The anecdotes she provides — the voices of the men themselves — are powerful. As Smith notes, experts often call men poor communicators, but she’s found that “men often know their minds very well, but they are reluctant to communicate in interpersonal and political settings for fear of coming across weak or, worse, being accused of being sexist or misogynistic. Or sometimes, they are communicating, it’s just that no one is listening.”
Smith lets us listen, and walks the reader through some of the ways men’s rights have been constricted. One notable chapter is devoted to the “decline of male space.” She effectively illustrates the limitations on how men are allowed to live and interact, concluding that “our culture has steadily made it almost obscene for men to congregate on their own together.”
The facts back this assessment. Fraternal organizations — such as the Elks club or the Freemasons — have dwindled; countless university-level male sports have fallen victim to mandated “equality”; male-only clubs essentially have been outlawed as discriminatory; and while fraternities remain on college campuses, they are publicly demonized, or, as Smith puts it: “Look at how colleges treat fraternity guys; they are all looked at with suspicion and treated like they are one step away from gang-raping the next girl who walks by their frat house.”
Men’s existence is curtailed not solely in the public sphere, but also often in their own homes. While women control the main living space in most houses, men and their interests and hobbies are often relegated to the basement, to what commonly is referred to as a “man cave.” While the practice of forcing men to take refuge in a corner of their own homes is snickered at, Smith makes a compelling case that this is a demeaning, and telling, trend.
This is just one reason Smith identifies to explain why fewer men are racing to the altar. More fundamentally, as she highlights, our public policies and a family-law bias toward women also make marriage radically less attractive to men.
Smith highlights eyepopping statistics on paternity fraud, such as studies suggesting that around 3.5 percent of men actually have no biological relation to the child they believe is theirs. And even when paternity is disproven, a man may still be on the hook for 18 years of financial support for someone else’s offspring. The double standard is unmistakable. Smith tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who had sex with a 34-year-old woman: “The woman got pregnant and, although in the state of California a minor under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex, the court saw fit to force Nathaniel to pay child support to the woman who committed statutory rape against him.”
How did we get to this point? Among other causes, Smith points to a feminist movement that went from fighting for equality for women to advocating laws to privilege women at men’s expense. She characterizes men who collude in perpetuating this system as “White Knights” who instinctively support policies purporting to protect the “weaker sex,” and as “Uncle Tims” — her play on the iconic “Uncle Tom” character — who for their own gain embrace the noxious notion that men are inherently flawed and need to be constrained.
Also setting Smith’s book apart from other treatments of the plight of men is her advice on how they can, as individuals and as a gender group, work to restore a more balanced society. She calls for men to organize a men’s movement to advance specific policy changes, such as laws to protect men from obligations to pay support for children who are not biologically theirs. She encourages individuals to be proactive in their relationships, to call women out for denigrating men, and to reject a media culture that casts virtually all men as either Homer Simpson or Jack the Ripper. Finally, she concedes it might make sense for some men to “go Galt” — a reference to Ayn Rand’s classic novel, Atlas Shrugged, in which the best and brightest of society withdraw from the world — by opting out of societal institutions that mistreat them.
At times I found myself wishing Smith had more time for a deeper dive into various issues. In the education arena, for instance, she focuses primarily on how young men are failed by colleges and denied basic due-process rights when facing sexual-harassment charges. She also could have lingered on biases in K–12 education and highlighted efforts to apply Title IX (the de facto quota system used to justify eliminating men’s sports programs) to university academic departments, but only to those few disciplines in which men outnumber women.
In the area of child support, Smith focuses on shocking abuses, such as forcing men to support other men’s children. She might have further explored other unfair aspects of this system, such as how noncustodial fathers have little say over how the resources they provide for children are used, their lack of recourse when visitation or other rights are denied them, and the pressure placed on men to maximize income over everything else.
But these are really just the minor quibbles of a policy junkie, and each could fill a complete book. Men on Strike is a compelling work that may succeed in launching a much-needed conversation about the treatment of men in America. As Smith observes, often conversations about the state of men are considered necessary solely because men’s problems spill over to affect women, children, and society more broadly. The men themselves are just an afterthought.
Because I work at a women’s organization, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to guard against this ever-present feminist premise. But we do need to resist it — because the interests of the sexes are not naturally in conflict, and women need men to thrive. The growing perception that what’s bad for men is good for women is nothing but a recipe for societal decline and mutual misery. And even if men’s problems didn’t have repercussions for women, basic concepts of justice and fairness would dictate the urgent need to end systematic discrimination against and mistreatment of them. Our sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, and male friends deserve the same chances and respect that women demand for themselves.
– Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum and a co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women.