Why (Some) Men Still Have It All
Working-class men may be doomed, but the ones who run the world are doing just fine.
There is a chapter in The End of Men, Hanna Rosin’s compelling, provocative, but occasionally misleading new book, about what she calls the “new wave of female violence.” In it, she charts how women, in keeping with their increasing social prominence, are becoming more aggressive and even homicidal, and less likely to be victimized. It’s an example, she suggests, of her book’s broader subject—the way changing gender dynamics are remaking us in ways that once seemed inconceivable, upending the sexual hierarchy that’s prevailed for almost all of recorded human history.
Rosin opens the chapter with the story of Larissa Schuster, who ran a successful biochemical lab while her milquetoast husband, a registered nurse whom acquaintances described as “meek,” “timid,” and “accommodating,” took charge of their two children. At least he did until she murdered him by stuffing him in a barrel of acid, apparently because she was disgusted by his passivity but didn’t want to pay him alimony in the event of a divorce.
Women like Schuster, writes Rosin, “raise the broader unsettling possibility that, with the turnover in modern gender roles, the escalation from competitiveness to aggression to violence that we are used to in men has started showing up in women as well.” Later, she cites figures that appear to demonstrate that women have caught up to men as perpetrators of domestic violence. “Since the United States passed mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence in the late 1990s, arrest rates for women have skyrocketed, and in some states reached 50 percent or more of all arrests,” she writes.
In a rhetorical trick that Rosin uses throughout her book, she nods at feminists who argue that these figures are misleading, but suggests they’re in denial, mired in outdated assumptions about gender and power. “Our attachment to the notion of women as vulnerable runs deeper than politics, of course,” she writes. “It’s hard to fathom that women’s circumstance could shift something so fundamental as raw, physical power.” Rosin is a smart and skillful writer, and she constructs her arguments tightly enough that every time I doubted them, I wondered whether I was being blinkered by ideology.
Yet a bit of research shows that while the number of women killed by their partners fell between 1976 and 2005, killings of men by wives and girlfriends declined much more. “[T]he number of black males killed by intimates dropped by 83 percent, white males by 61 percent, black females by 52 percent, and white females by 6 percent,” according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. It may be that women are now less likely to kill their partners because female empowerment has made it easier for them to get out of abusive relationships without resorting to homicide. Still, these numbers do not suggest that Schuster represents much of anything except a ghoulishly interesting anomaly.
Similarly, the arguments against Rosin’s reading of the domestic violence statistics aren’t as easily dismissed as she implies. In some cases, mandatory arrest laws lead police to detain both members of a couple when they can’t figure out who is at fault in an altercation. Because of such laws, people aren’t just being booked for punching, kicking, or stabbing a partner—they’re also being arrested for less severe infractions like shoving or throwing things. It’s still overwhelmingly women who are the victims of the most serious acts of domestic violence. According to the National Institute of Justice, a review of domestic violence research found that “more than 90 percent of ‘systematic, persistent, and injurious’ violence is perpetrated by men.”
It’s not Rosin’s responsibility to drag her readers deep into the methodological weeds on every point she makes. But a book heralding the incipient end of patriarchy has significant policy implications. So-called men’s rights activists, for example, have long argued that domestic-violence law is an outdated feminist boondoggle, and will likely be delighted to see Rosin helping them to make their case. More broadly, one of the biggest obstacles women face in fighting sex discrimination is the insistence that it’s no longer a problem, and that, if anything, men are now the ones who are oppressed. Thus it’s frustrating how frequently The End of Men, which has important, fascinating things to say about rapidly changing gender roles, elides or downplays the very real ways male power remains entrenched.
The End of Men grew out of a 2010 Atlantic article of the same name, which argued, often convincingly, that men are floundering in our post-industrial economy while many women are thriving. The book expands this premise, describing what Rosin sees as an epochal transformation in the sexual order. Her reporting, she writes, showed her that we had “reached the end of two hundred thousand years of human history and the beginning of a new era, and there was no going back. Once I opened my eyes to that possibility, I realized that the evidence was everywhere, and it was only centuries of habit and history that prevented everyone from seeing it.”
This passage suggests why Rosin’s writing is at once so scintillating and, at moments, so maddening. A senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder of DoubleX, Slate’s women’s blog, she comes across as a liberal feminist who prides herself on her lack of dogma and openness to findings that challenge progressive assumptions. Of course, those are things to be proud of, and they’re why most of what she writes is worth reading. But a love of the counterintuitive can, at times, become its own sort of orthodoxy. Sometimes the dull conventional wisdom—men are more likely to abuse their wives than vice versa—is true.
The problem with The End of Men is that it pushes its high-concept premise beyond a point that the evidence supports. That’s not to say that Rosin’s deeply reported stories of sex roles in flux aren’t absorbing. The book ranges all over the country and beyond and is rich with beautifully rendered, idiosyncratic characters. In a chapter celebrating the liberating potential of the college hook-up culture, Rosin visits alpha-girl, Ivy League MBA students who recoil from commitment. Describing what she calls seesaw marriages—couples who trade off earning and child care responsibilities—she profiles a Pittsburgh family in which the wife, a lawyer, works 80 hours a week while her husband watches their toddler (though he refuses to do even half the housework). In a compelling final chapter, she ventures to South Korea, where the mores of what has long been a rigidly male-dominated society are being challenged by an ascendant class of professional women.
One of the book’s most heartbreaking sections takes us to Alexander City, Alabama, whose economy once revolved around the Russell Corporation, an athletic wear manufacturer. After it was sold to Berkshire Hathaway and production was outsourced to Central and South America, local men who had prided themselves on providing middle-class lives for their families were left flailing. Writes Rosin, “The townspeople referred to the ex-Russell men as three types: the ‘transients,’ who drove as far as an hour to Montgomery for work and never made it home for dinner; the ‘domestics,’ who idled at the house during the day, looking for work; and the ‘gophers,’ who drove their wives to and from work, spending the hours in between hunting or fishing.”
Since Rosin often weaves personal narrative into her writing, I hope it’s not untoward if I do the same. As I was finishing The End of Men, I discovered that my first child is going to be a boy. In many ways, my reaction confirms Rosin’s thesis. I immediately started worrying about the behavioral problems boys today are constantly being diagnosed with, and about the fact that boys, as Rosin documents, do worse than girls in school. That’s especially frightening given the ever-escalating importance of education in avoiding chronic economic insecurity.
More abstractly, I realized that when I picture youthful dynamism, spunk, and audacity, I picture a girl. In pop culture, as Rosin points out, daring young heroines have eclipsed heroes. Harry Potter is old news. Now we have Katniss Everdeen. It doesn’t surprise me that, as Rosin writes in her introduction, at some assisted-reproduction clinics that offer sex-selection through sperm sorting, there are significantly more requests for girls than for boys.
“Just before middle school, parents start to think of their boys as facing a choice of two roads: trouble or success,” she writes. “The responsible ones recognize that they can’t change the way the world is heading, but they can put a boy in an environment that doesn’t make him feel like a failure, and give him enough tools at least to keep up.” It’s almost as if my son will be starting out in life with a handicap. At least, I reassured myself, he might benefit from affirmative action: As Rosin documents, many private colleges, unbound by Title IX, have started quietly giving preferential treatment to boys in order to maintain some sort of gender balance in their student bodies.
Outside the educated upper middle class, meanwhile, prospects for boys and men are even more precarious. In one of the book’s most searing scenes, at a mandatory fathering class for men who have failed to pay child support, the social worker in charge voices the anguish of his reluctant students. “ ‘What is our role?’ ” Rosin quotes him asking. “ ‘Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.’ He writes on the board: $85,000. ‘This is her salary.’ Then: $12,000. ‘This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?’ ”
Elements of The End of Men echo Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The two books have very different political orientations, but both describe working-class cultures upended by men’s economic emasculation, and both discuss the way marriage is increasingly the preserve of meritocratic elites. Rosin’s book is far more insightful than Murray’s about these trends, since she understands that they’re largely the result of seismic economic shifts and not, as Murray would have it, simply due to the sexual revolution and general moral decay.
But there’s one way that Murray’s book is inadvertently useful in understanding our current gender relations, which are more contradictory than Rosin allows. Coming Apart places a lot of emphasis on the cultural bifurcation between the upper class and the rest of the country. Even as Murray casts a cranky glance at the newfangled pleasures and pieties of contemporary elites—their environmentalism, wine connoisseurship, and NPR listening habits—he shows that their domestic relationships are models of traditionalism, with low divorce rates and comparatively few out-of-wedlock children.
This idea of divergence—of two different cultures with entirely different trend lines—is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about gender roles. Because the fact is, while working-class men are in crisis, patriarchy, like the traditional family, endures at the most elite levels of American life. Boys may have a harder time in school than girls, but that’s not entirely new—women have been earning more college degrees than men since 1982. Once men make it through the educational gauntlet, however, they make more money and ascend more quickly to positions of power than their female peers, and that shows few signs of changing. It’s a bit premature to declare the end of men in a country that is still almost entirely ruled by them.
Some numbers: Women make up just 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 15 percent of equity partners at major law firms, and 16.8 percent of Congress. And there’s no clear evidence that hordes of younger women are preparing to crash the gates of power. State politics is where most national politicians get their start, but less than a quarter of statewide elected officials are women. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s endlessly discussed Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” pointed out how few women are in the pipeline for leadership jobs in government. “The line of high-level women appointees in the Obama Administration is one woman deep,” she wrote. “Virtually all of us who have stepped down have been succeeded by men; searches for women to succeed men in similar positions come up empty. Just about every woman who could plausibly be tapped is already in government.”
Meanwhile, couples like the one Rosin profiles in Pittsburgh are extremely rare, as she acknowledges. According to the U.S. census, there were 176,000 stay-at-home fathers in 2011, compared to five million stay-at-home mothers. This is unlikely to change very much as long as men earn more money than women, which they still largely do. “Controlling for hours, occupation, parenthood, and other factors normally associated with pay, college-educated women still earn less than their male peers earn,” says a 2007 study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Immediately after graduation, women make 5 percent less than men with identical qualifications; within ten years, they’re making 12 percent less.
Rosin, of course, acknowledges that great disparities between men and women remain, but she believes they’re fated to disappear. “Mention the lack of women at the top of corporate America in certain circles and you will likely get a healthy dose of feminist rage,” she writes, before implying, a few paragraphs later, that such rage is misplaced. “[M]ore important than all the data points is the outlook. You can see the current setup as evidence that the top will forever remain in a male iron grip, or you can see it for what it truly is: the last gasp of a vanishing age.”
I certainly don’t want to argue that gender inequality is permanent. Rosin’s book, though, overstates the speed and inevitability of transformation. At one point she writes, “About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast as women come to dominate law and medical schools.” Rising fast? According to the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), the percentage of first-year female associates at the country’s biggest, most prestigious law firms actually fell very slightly in 2011, going to 47 percent from 48 percent in previous years.
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