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What Women Want—and Men Need

What Women Want—and Men Need

Men and women enjoy unprecedented freedom when it comes to society’s views on sex and gender—which might be a problem. Two new books explore the challenges facing the sexes today.

Nicole Penn
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It
by Richard V. Reeves (Brookings Instiution Press, 256 pp., $24.99)
Rethinking Sex: A Provocation
by Christine Emba (Sentinel, #220 pp., $22.29)

For all of its ups and downs, a high point of 2022 was the unexpected resurrection of Kate Bush’s magnificent “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” The nearly 40-year-old single topped the Billboard Hot 100 after it was featured repeatedly in the hit show Stranger Things. For a while last summer, it was nearly impossible to escape the sound of Bush’s synth-backed vocals crooning about making “a deal with God” to “swap places” with her male lover.

Bush’s epic lyricism lent itself surprisingly well to a show about an apocalyptic faceoff between ’80s teenagers and hyperdimensional demons, so it’s easy to forget that the song is really about a woman making a spiritual bargain so that she and a man can better understand each other. In this sense, “Running Up That Hill” is an appropriate anthem for our cultural moment. Although we live in an era characterized by unprecedented freedoms for women and men alike, it is also one that poses a unique set of problems for each sex.

Instead of looking to solutions that encourage mutual support, policymakers and commentators have too often erred by either denying that men and women face different challenges or by grounding their diagnoses in outdated stereotypes—all while relations between the sexes appear to be rapidly deteriorating.

A more promising approach is offered in Richard V. Reeves’s Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It and Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, two books that were published against the backdrop of last year’s Kate Bush renaissance.

Although these books differ significantly in tone and scope—Of Boys and Men addresses male malaise in work and education, while Rethinking Sex explores female frustration with modern sexual norms—what they share is a sensitivity to the realities of men’s and women’s distinct experiences without resorting to gendered caricature. Even if both books suffer from the same blind spot, their willingness to prod at some sacred cows just might be what is needed if we are to have better conversations about how to help modern men and women get what they both want and need.

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”—so goes the popular slogan of second-wave feminism. “But a man needs a woman like a fish needs water” is Reeves’s addendum. Reeves is quick to applaud the astonishing advancement in women’s rights over the past century that granted women legal personhood, economic independence, and the sorely needed loosening of social and cultural strictures regarding their roles in society. But Of Boys and Men argues that while women have been riding the waves of feminist freedom, a significant proportion of men are getting caught in the undertow.

Pulling from reams of social survey data, Reeves lays out a compelling picture of how women have rapidly outpaced men in education and the workplace over the past few decades. Women now not only account for almost 40 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects, but they also receive a majority (57 percent) of bachelor’s degrees overall. While it is still true that men are overrepresented in executive roles and certain high-paying jobs, a growing number of males are failing to get a foothold on even the lowest rungs of the professional ladder. Between 1979 and 2019, the gender wage gap narrowed by nearly 20 percent as women’s success in education enabled them to move into white-collar work. However, the class pay gap widened by 12 percent—a shift primarily affecting men, who tend to cluster in unskilled but physically demanding jobs that are threatened by automation and globalization. Reeves points out further that this development has especially impacted Black men, whom white women began out-earning almost 30 years ago.

Although this is certainly an economic problem, what Reeves stresses are the cultural consequences. Men cannot seem to replicate what he calls women’s capacity for “self-complexity,” or the ability to locate their self-worth not just in their jobs, but in their friendships, hobbies, and families. Pointing to alarming research from the Survey Center on American Life, he underlines the fact that men have experienced a fivefold increase in a “friendship deficit” since 1990.

Reeves is right to note that in terms of human history, the dissolution of the male breadwinner model happened in the blink of an eye. As a result, many men are still struggling with a lack of purpose (or “ontological security,” as Reeves puts it) that does not revolve around being the core “provider” of financial support for their household. It doesn’t help that many women are uninterested in marrying men who earn less than they do­—perhaps because they are not confident in men’s capacity to make up the difference by “providing” care to their family.

It is by taking certain biological differences between the sexes seriously that Reeves hopes to help men acclimate to a changing society. Although he establishes that male and female brains are far more alike than they are different in ability, Reeves argues that the modern education system is poorly designed for the young male mind, which matures at a slower pace than that of a young girl. This may account for the difficulty men now face at the university level and the alarming fact that almost a quarter of boys are now diagnosed with some kind of disability.

Reeves’s solution is to “redshirt the boys” by holding them back in school for a year. This may prove too radical for many parents. However, his call to make the same kinds of investments to get men into the fields of health, education, administration, and literacy (or HEAL) that schools and governments have been successfully making to improve women’s entry into STEM should be a no-brainer for policymakers.

In addition to facilitating male participation in the “HEAL”-ing arts, Reeves hopes to alleviate men’s ontological insecurity by reimagining modern fatherhood. Citing the important role fathers play in the teenage years, he advocates for at least six months of paid family leave that fathers can use any time until their child is a legal adult and again emphasizes the importance of getting men into “father-friendly” jobs that give them time to meaningfully connect with their children.

However, it is in discussing marriage that Reeves fundamentally missteps. Coldly characterizing modern marriage as “a commitment device for shared investments of time and money in children,” Reeves discounts the importance of forming men who (in cases of heterosexual unions) can sustain permanent bonds with the mothers of their children, and who are capable of seeing women as lifelong friends and fellow stewards of the small platoons that form society’s foundations. Not only do children thrive in stable households headed by two adults who love each other, data suggests that men may benefit from marriage even more than women do (it should come as little surprise that married men have more friends than unmarried men and that widowers do not long survive their wives).

Part of the problem lies in the way that Reeves minimizes the destructive effects of certain types of antisocial male behavior in his attempt to rein in progressives’ eagerness to blame men’s problems on “toxic masculinity.” He edges toward a kind of naturalistic fallacy in his discussion of the male sexual drive that becomes apparent when he handwaves away an incident at his son’s affluent high school–widely reported in the news–where it was discovered that a group of boys had created a list ranking the girls in their grade according to their attractiveness. While the media’s rush to publicly litigate this situation as another example of “toxic masculinity” may have been overblown and counterproductive, it doesn’t take away from the fact that these boys’ actions were not just puerile, but profoundly damaging. In ranking their classmates, they objectified and dehumanized them, corroding ground within which healthy relationships might otherwise flourish. It is possible to critique men without pathologizing them–but then again, there may not be an easy policy solution for what is fundamentally a problem of virtue.

Virtue is very much on Emba’s mind in Rethinking Sex. Although her posture is devoid of any of the usual histrionic pearl-clutching that can accompany critiques of the Sexual Revolution and its aftermath, Emba’s probing questions on modern attitudes toward sex belie a pointed assault on a sexual ethic centered on consent by unveiling the paradox at its center. If sex has no intrinsic meaning beyond two consenting parties, why has it become subject to increasingly legalistic preoccupations over equality, privilege, and power? “How do we accord sex a privileged position in our lives,” she asks, “without either putting it on a pedestal as the ultimate expression of agency…or walling it off as something purely holy and ineffable?”

In addition to introducing economic circumstances that immobilized men by the “ontological insecurity” noted by Reeves, modernity has facilitated new social norms that have left women reeling under what Georgetown law professor Robin West has called “hedonic dysphoria.” While she doesn’t argue that “good” sex can only exist within the bounds of marriage or committed relationships, Emba nevertheless posits that a social structure that makes consent the sole rather than the minimum requirement of an ethical sexual encounter all too frequently places women (particularly those in heterosexual couplings) in uncomfortable or downright abusive situations.

Reeves deals in figures, but Emba amasses stories. What emerges out of her many interviews with young women over the course of her book is not a well-defined picture of self-assured liberation, but a murky morass of pain, self-abnegation, and self-doubt. The space between sexual assault and mutually loving and respectful intimacy still accords too much opportunity to “consent” to fairly appalling treatment at the hands of men. This includes choking or other extreme behaviors popularized by widespread pornography, or the unfortunate expectation that sex is something women “owe” those who take an interest in them.

Emba doesn’t pretend that it’s possible to resolve this tension by reverting to pre-1960s sexual mores, laced as they were with their own flavor of misogyny, and she contends that the consent model is as problematic for men as it is for women. Like Reeves, however, she isn’t afraid to argue that women generally have different needs in this arena than men.

Rethinking Sex focuses on women because in Emba’s view, women have continued to draw the short end under modernity’s sexual regime on account of their vulnerability to sexual assault, the intractably asymmetrical consequences of pregnancy, and the ease with which female pleasure is deprioritized in casual encounters. Although some women might never be troubled by “hedonic dysphoria,” there is a reason the #MeToo movement erupted with such ferocity five years ago, releasing a wave of pent-up rage and despair against a consent-based system whose limits had fomented “a problem that has no name.”

Emba asserts that it is “important to define sex, which cuts so clearly to the heart of the human person, in a way that is corrigible and not overly exclusionary, given how often traditions around sexuality and gender have been used to disadvantage and disempower.” Unfortunately, she spends so much time dancing around the edges of her “provocation” that she never really gets down to the business of reaching a conclusive definition of what an ethical approach to sex looks like. The closest she gets is by pulling on a combination of Aristotle and Aquinas to advocate for the practice of “willing the good of the other” by “imagining ourselves in the other’s stead and considering what they might feel about the encounter, not just in the moment but in the days to come.” This kind of “radical empathy” requires a careful evaluation of another’s personal qualities, individual preferences, and particular context to determine whether it is right to move forward with an intimate encounter.

The problem with this approach is that it requires much more time than the chronology of the average hookup would allow. That’s fine with Emba, who loses her trepidation when acknowledging that her formula might result in even less sex than men and women are currently having. What’s strange is her unwillingness to come out and name what she is getting at, which is something that is both as old as time and as radical as modernity. Because what Emba really wants is for men and women to become friends with one another, even if friendship is a word that gets inexplicably short shrift in her book.

Friendship is in many ways at the heart of what has enabled the evolution of the egalitarian relationships between men and women that modernity rightly prizes. In the United States in particular, friendship between the sexes was historically understood as indispensable to cementing the bonds between citizens at the inception of the early Republic. Friendship was also foundational to the companionate model of marriage that emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in advancing the acceptability of women’s equal moral dignity in the home laid the groundwork for the pursuit of female equality at the ballot box.

Even if the term is treated flippantly today, friendship properly understood is a relationship that imposes real obligations between two people. The mutual concern and sacrifice that friendship demands would help mitigate the trends worrying Reeves and Emba by filling the ontological void haunting men and soothing the hedonic dysphoria plaguing women today. If men and women are to take each other’s struggles seriously, they will need to draw on a framework that encourages the sexes to view each other as friends rather than as competitors who must be dominated in either the economic or sexual marketplace.

Kate Bush’s entreaties aside, it shouldn’t take “a deal with God” to redevelop a social and civic language of friendship to help men and women really hear each other, and thereby better shoulder each other’s burdens.

Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Edgar Degas, "Petites filles spartiates provoquant des garçons" [Young Spartans Exercising], 1860, National Gallery, London. (Wikiart)