Men Strike Out

Glenn M. Ricketts

During a segment of Leo McCarey’s 1945 classic, The Bells of St. Mary’s (Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley, Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict), one of the boys in a big-city parochial school is being dogged by a playground bully. He knows that his tormentor—who’s already beaten him at fisticuffs—is gunning for him. He’s in a quandary: He can’t carry the indelible shame of running away from a fight. He also doesn’t want another beating, but he’s not very good with his dukes and needs help. He gets it—from Sister Benedict, who reads up on boxing and then teaches the kid how to punch. (Readers of a certain age and religious background won’t find the idea of nuns giving boxing lessons improbable.) Everything turns out right. After some workouts with Sister, he meets up with his nemesis during recess and this time takes him out—after which they shake on it and become friends.

Helen Smith, author of Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream—and Why It Matters, wants to teach contemporary men how to punch. They need some coaching, and Smith throws down the gauntlet:

If you are a wimp, this book is not for you. The suggestions I make in this book are difficult, and require sacrifice, and if you, as a male, do not feel up to the challenge, put this book down and go elsewhere. What I am going to describe to you requires a revolution to change the culture, and thus the political climate in this country that allows laws and actions against the male sex that would never be allowed against the female one.

A Knoxville-based forensic psychologist, journalist, and TV producer, Smith draws on a variety of sources—including her clinical practice with male clients over some twenty years—to sketch a grim picture of contemporary American manhood. Men, Smith argues, are under siege, especially younger men. They are bewildered, adrift, and increasingly reclusive, spending their time in online chat rooms or fighting the make-believe wars in video games. In ever-growing numbers, they decline to marry and wind up trapped in dead-end jobs with no prospects. In popular culture, they’re despised as cads or mocked as buffoons. (The latter isn’t exactly new. In the “patriarchal” fifties, I grew up with such endearing klutzes as Ralph Kramden, Dagwood Bumstead, Chester Riley, and Fred Mertz, to name just a few. But note: these guys were lovable, not loathsome—intended to make us laugh, not elicit contempt. And a shining standard of fatherhood could always be found if you tuned in to Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. If you want any such positive depictions now, you’ll have to stick to classic reruns.) In the legal system, especially in marriage and family courts, men are up against skewed laws and hostile judges that seem to presume their guilt a priori while simultaneously absolving women of responsibility in domestic disputes or marital breakups. But as we’ll see, they probably get it worst of all in their educational experience, especially if they decide to attend college, where academic feminists reign supreme.

Men on Strike is not a scholarly book, and obviously wasn’t intended to be. It won’t make much of an impression in academic precincts, except to elicit scoffing or contempt. But that’s fine. The audience I hope the book does reach, in addition to its abject male subjects, includes soccer moms, K–12 teachers, guidance counselors and administrators, talk show hosts, PTA presidents, local library discussion groups, and—God help us—many clergy across the mainstream denominations, who don’t much resemble Sister Benedict. All of these groups contain lots of clueless enablers who think that it’s all simply a question of “fairness,” meant to redress past discrimination against women. But as Smith argues, “fairness” was left in the dust long ago.

Others, of course, have spaded this ground before, as far back as George Gilder’s prescient Sexual Suicide (1973). More recently, we have the efforts of Harvey Mansfield Jr. (Manliness, 2007), Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge (Professing Feminism, 2nd ed., 2003), and Christina Hoff Sommers (The War Against Boys, 2001; 2nd ed., 2013), whom Smith cites extensively. Some reviewers have faulted Smith for relying too heavily on the testimony of her clients or comments culled from her blog, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that. In an interview included in the book, Sommers observes that men, especially young ones, aren’t usually inclined to form support groups, resource centers, or stand in a circle and bare their feelings. I’m not sure what, if any, alternate methodology would be more reliable here. In any case, Smith’s conclusions are amply fortified by a variety of scholarly, clinical, and statistical sources, so Men on Strike is not simply a collection of subjective anecdotes. The book’s concluding chapter provides some concrete suggestions for her male readers, describing how they can fight back.

Among other specifics, Smith urges college men to stop allowing women to monopolize campus discussions of sex, relationships, gender, and sexual misconduct. Their voices need to be heard, and right now they simply are not. College men can also demand some space of their own: If there’s a women’s center on campus—and where isn’t there?—then they can demand one for men as well. They can protest the ubiquitous negative depictions of males and manhood, whether in textbooks, on popular TV shows, etc. Of course, it’s not going to be easy to buck trends with several decades of momentum and institutional support behind them, and men who do so should see themselves as an “army of Davids.” But they can at least get started. Continued silence equals surrender.

Although, as noted, Smith ranges over a variety of venues, including marriage statistics, suicide rates, divorce laws, and family courts, I think that educational institutions, especially colleges and universities, are the center of it all. Especially striking are the dramatically declining enrollment figures among boys, which have left a steep and still-growing imbalance between the sexes. (It’s so pronounced at the University of Vermont, Burlington, that undergrads have wryly dubbed it “Girlington.”) Why should this be? Smith believes that college-age men are simply acting rationally and have calculated that college is not the place where they want to be. To borrow a phrase, they face a “hostile environment.” You could certainly get that impression without needing to look too closely. Standard features on many campuses, community colleges included, can consist of a women’s studies program, a women’s center, a women’s crisis center, a committee on gender equity, a robust celebration of Women’s History Month, and a Title IX compliance office that abolishes male athletic programs if “gender parity” can’t be achieved with female teams, even if the girls indicate no interest in playing ball.

Feminist themes aren’t confined to women’s studies, either. Take any number of courses in the social sciences or humanities and you’ll encounter an array of offerings devoted to women, women, women, and women, often in minutely arcane specialty fields derived from the instructor’s dissertation. But if you’re looking for military history or a straight-up Shakespeare course that doesn’t focus on the commodification of women, good luck. There is the occasional course that purports to focus on men, except that it’s usually taught by a male feminist—“Uncle Tims,” as Smith puts it—who touts the fact that he doesn’t like football, fraternities, marines, or anything else associated with traditional notions of masculinity.

But when you encounter the school’s sexual misconduct (a.k.a. harassment, assault, etc.) policy, you may conclude that the maleness you acquired by birth automatically places you in a suspect class. I don’t minimize real cases of rape or sexual assault. I have a wife and daughters and harbor some very strong and primitive protective urges on that subject. But I also have sons who as freshmen might have to endure mandatory orientation sessions featuring the likes of “She Fears You,” which see them as potential rapists. Unfortunately, that’s no exaggeration. As Smith and others argue (see Daphne Patai’s 1998 Heterophobia for a chilling description of the Sexual Harassment Industry in higher education), current campus policies can’t seem to distinguish between Mr. Rogers and Jack the Ripper. They’re both men, right? And the campus enforcement machinery gets massive backup from the federal government. Under new mandatory guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, campus tribunals for adjudicating sexual harassment charges must now apply a much lower threshold of proof that almost requires a guilty verdict. If that doesn’t work, the accuser actually has the option to appeal the acquittal and initiate a re-prosecution.

Undoubtedly, there are other reasons that men choose not to attend college these days, such as ever increasing costs in the face of diminishing returns on their investment. But it’s easy to see that, as Smith concludes, they don’t find college campuses very hospitable and have simply opted out.

All of this, needless to say, stands in stark contrast to the ubiquitous perception of women as victims that saturates the academy, the media, popular culture, and the metabolism of everyday life. A couple of years ago, I marveled to read the valedictory address given at a local high school by a very talented young woman who was bound for one of the Ivies with lots of scholarship support in hand. In addition, the top six academic achievers were also girls, as were all but one of the class officers. Quite a display of Girl Power, you’d think. But what was the valedictorian’s theme? Women as victims who faced huge obstacles everywhere in contemporary America: the wage gap, underrepresentation in corporate leadership positions, STEM fields, etc. She and her classmates, she concluded, had their work cut out for them. I guess the school’s Gender Justice Project really scored.

Sister Benedict, pray for us.

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