These are confusing times for boys and men. On the one hand, they stand accused of unjustly possessing all kinds of power – social, political, physical and economic. The ‘patriarchy’ is often invoked as a sweeping shorthand to describe the apparently ineradicable oppression of women by men. On the other hand, as Richard Reeves demonstrates in great detail in this book, boys and men are losing out at scale almost everywhere: in school, in the workplace, in the family. Men are dying early, frequently of suicide or drug overdoses, their wages are declining or stagnating, and many are missing out on family life. They do comparatively badly at – or simply drop out of – school and they are not going to university or college in nearly the same numbers as their female counterparts. These asymmetries are compounded in some cases by class, race and ineffective policies. In his epilogue, Reeves, a Brit now living in America who was formerly director of the Demos thinktank and now works at the Brookings Institution, reveals that whenever he described this book project to others, he found that ‘many people are really worried about boys and men, including the ones in their own life’.
The great strength of Reeves’s book, apart from his extensive use of contemporary data, is the way he treats the multiple difficulties facing boys and men as problems in their own right. The question of how sexual differences play out is often enmeshed with our personal experiences and political commitments. We don’t see ‘men’ or ‘boys’; we see ‘my obnoxious male boss’ or ‘the boyfriend that treated me poorly’ and generalise from there. Furthermore, where the Left generally lays blame for many societal problems at the feet of men, the Right often seeks to valorise men in unhelpful ways.
Reeves is careful to seek a reasonable path between a ‘progressive’ Left that pathologises normal male behaviour as ‘toxic’, runs away from biological difference and fears treating men with compassion in case this detracts from women’s struggles, and a Right that overemphasises the importance of differences between men