Our culture's trashing of boys and men is having toxic consequences

For a long time, the internet and social media have been bloated with memes, even articles, that denigrate men and most forms of traditional masculinity. Many of the people behind these posts insist that they are simply snarky barbs aimed at people with the most “privilege” who can’t take a joke.

If there was ever any doubt about the veracity of or honesty behind such a statement, a growing trend appears to pull back the veil.

Recently, the online magazine Slate ran an eye-opening story revealing that many young couples are using in vitro fertilization to ensure they conceive daughters instead of sons. In other countries, IVF is legal only as a screening measure to detect the likelihood for genetic diseases. Not in the U.S., where IVF clinics have mushroomed in number over the past two decades because prospective parents want freedom of choice.  

In one American study, white parents picked a female embryo 70 percent of the time. A 2010 study showed that American adoptive parents were 30 percent more likely to prefer girls than boys, and were willing to pay an additional $16,000 to ensure they got a girl. 

One 31-year-old woman interviewed for that piece, who works in human resources (an industry dedicated to equity and parity) said, “When I think about having a child that’s a boy, it’s almost a repulsion, like, Oh my God, no.”

Such disturbing sentiments are widespread in the U.S. and are part of a growing trend in Western cultures — popularly called Gender Disappointment. An Australian psychologist who specializes in antenatal and postnatal care conducted a Facebook survey and found that Gender Disappointment is most common in women, who unabashedly want daughters, not sons. One woman posted on a mothers’ chat board that the “vast majority” of women on “every social media (Facebook, Instagram) site or general website (Netmums, Mumsnet, Reddit)” voice this gender bias. “There are websites like ingender and genderdreaming just dedicated to Gender disappointment…some of them are straight out Boy bashing or anti boy posts.”

This invites the question: What exactly is it about having boys that seems so repellent? Many of the women in the Slate article, even mothers of boys, pointed to that sweeping, damning and vague label “toxic masculinity.” They spoke to girls’ “limitless potential” versus that of boys. Girls move out of the house earlier, achieve greater academic success, are more likely to attend and graduate from college, find jobs more readily than male peers and have higher emotional IQ.

One woman insisted that boys are “less caring toward their parents.” This woman craves a ‘“close friendship”’ with her future child that ‘“seemed possible only with a female child.”’  

It isn’t just women. Another interviewee echoed the sentiments of many younger men when she said her husband values characteristics ‘“more [stereotypically] associated with girls,”’ such as “empathy, social skills, and kindness.”

This invites the question: If these skills are so important — and they are, as schools, workplaces and relationships increasingly demand them — why can’t we simply teach them to boys?  

Such gender bias is emblematic of the selective empathy trend in which people proffer tolerance, compassion and context only for those they deem worthy. Though unintentional, this was what Rachel, who works in spaces that empower girls and women, was speaking to after reading my book.

“I had no idea so many men struggle deep down and have these anguished inner lives,” she said. “Many of us have this belief that men’s privilege insulates them from the struggles the rest of us have.”

I absolutely appreciated her sincerity and thoughtful admission. And the lack of empathy that belies many girls’ and women’s perception of boys and men is problematic. It’s maladaptive and robs males — one-half of the population — of their humanity and very real struggles.

Part of the reason this dearth of empathy exists is that too many men have abdicated their responsibilities. The men who are wounded by this brand of toxic messaging don’t speak up because they are afraid of the backlash, especially of being “canceled” or widely attacked on social media. They fear being labeled (unfairly) as extremist “Men’s Rights” apologists.

And the men who do speak up rarely do so in a productive way. Too often they shrug and pretend not to care, and instead take their grievances to the online “manosphere’s” dark corners, where they exact revenge among a receptive, misogynistic audience.   

It’s also time that women did some soul searching — that they stop and reconsider their prevailing, limiting perceptions about men and masculinity. Their own personal experiences with men don’t apply across the board, and such wanton attacks on and wholesale dismissal of boys and men only perpetuate and normalize a reactivity that’s uncritical and self-pitying.

A more productive social media post might feature a montage of boys and men with this caption: “Yes, you need to level up…you also deserve empathy and compassion along the way.” It’s not catchy, but it moves the conversation forward in a way we need it to go.

Andrew Reiner is a senior lecturer at Towson University and the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.”

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