Open Book

Rethinking the Imperatives of Gender

Has society become toxic to both genders?

Magazine Issue
July/August 2008
Rethinking the Imperatives of Gender

The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap
Susan Pinker
Scribner’s. 340 pp. ISBN: 0-743-28470-7

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men
Leonard Sax
Basic Books. 267 pp. ISBN: 0-465-07209-7 and 0-465-07209-5


Susan Pinker, author of The Sexual Paradox, is a developmental psychologist, therapist, and newspaper columnist. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, she read and was influenced by the founding authors of modern-day feminism—Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer—and was emboldened by their central argument: biology isn’t destiny. As a teenager, she never imagined she couldn’t do anything she wanted to.

But over the years, she became aware of a basic, unquestioned assumption em­bedded in the feminist literature—an assumption that many women were finding increasingly problematic. “Men had it made,” she writes. “They were the standards, the ones to be emulated. Only when women dumped their female personae and took men’s roles, would they be truly equal.”

In The Sexual Paradox, Pinker ex­plores the fact that, despite increasing opportunities, many women have decided that they want different things from what men want. According to her, only about 25 to 30 percent of women are as driven and competitive as men. She cites research that indicates that women care more about social connection than men and want their jobs and careers to be more meaningful.

At the heart of her book are stories of capable women leaving stressful top jobs for careers that allow more time for family and human contact. She makes clear that women don’t choose to opt out of killer careers because they lack the talent and brains to take them to the top, detailing many research studies demonstrating that. “In twenty-six of the thirty OECD countries, any overall male advantage in math and science has become so slim as to be insignificant,” is one example.

Although women clearly have the ability to do what men do, Pinker cites more studies and stories dem­on­strating that a good percentage of them don’t want the prize, even if they can get it. We meet Elaine, author of the op-ed piece “My Class Ceiling Is Self-Imposed.” She was short-listed to become a CEO, but decided that she wouldn’t cart her family around for the company, as men often do. Like many other women, she didn’t want a career defined by overwork and disrupted family time.

Of course, the argument that women are genetically different from men has been used for generations to justify a system that’s kept women down by denying them an education, a vote, access to capital, and career advancement. For many women, the social playing field still hasn’t been leveled. Working women often can’t find adequate child care. National standards for maternity leave or guarantees of job security don’t exist. Women are expected to follow and support their husbands’ professions, but not the other way around. So an ambitious woman reading that women are “creating their own glass ceilings” may find such a statement hard to take.

Despite her investigation of the roots of “difference feminism” and the dilemmas of women today, Pinker claims that The Sexual Paradox was inspired not so much by the question of why so many women opt out of their superstar careers, but by why so many boys she was seeing in her therapy practice were so troubled.

Most of her young clients were aggressive, driven, often tormented boys. Many of them had either dyslexia or some form of autism. Pinker cites statistics showing that boys are 10 times likelier than girls to have Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, often found among those in specialized technical and computer fields. Boys comprise two-thirds of high school dropouts. According to Pinker, men are the more fragile sex: testosterone engenders not only more competitiveness, but more biological frailty, more inclination to stress, more chronic disease.

Following these maladjusted, confused boys into adulthood, Pinker found an unexpected twist: many who might have been expected to fail went on to triumph if given a chance to find their niche. Take Andrew, a severely dyslexic kid, for whom school was torture; he found his place as a top chef in the kitchen of a leading restaurant, working insane hours and tossing pots and pans around with testosterone-infused abandon. Other former clients became inventive businessmen or science-oriented entrepreneurs. Such “extreme men” are the ones who drive businesses (and perhaps their colleagues) crazy. Unlike women, they don’t worry about balancing their lives: they appear to be perfectly happy to be obsessed workaholics.

An extensive literature on gender differences exists. Pinker focuses on research that argues that males, overall, exhibit extreme variability more than women do, writing, “So there are more very stupid men and more very smart ones, more extremely lazy ones and more willing to kill themselves with work.” She quotes the maverick feminist and social critic Camille Paglia, who snappily sums it up: “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”

In short, the real subject of The Sexual Paradox is two “extreme groups”: fragile boys, who later succeed, and gifted, hard-working girls, who also succeed, but opt out of becoming the superstars they have the capacity to become. Another feminist writer might challenge our expectations more, but that isn’t Pinker’s task. By her admission, her subjects are a slim sample: brilliant, talented girls who decide not to be CEOs or academic hotshots and unhappy males in therapy. She doesn’t bother dealing with other fragile boys and men, those who disproportionately commit acts of violence and wind up in prison or on the streets.

Unlike Pinker’s narrowly focused examination of gender differences, Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift is more a manifesto, a cry to all of us to notice what’s happening to our sons. Troubled, rebellious boys are an old story in our society, but the boys who fill the pages of Sax’s book don’t seem particularly rebellious, nor do they suffer from angst—they just sit in their parents’ homes and play computer games. Most of them come from the middle and upper-middle classes. Well into their twenties and even thirties, they inhabit their boyhood bedrooms and live in a state of perpetual adolescence. They now have a trendy name, after the successful 2006 movie starring Matthew McConaughey: the “failure to launch generation.”

How many of them are out there? We don’t quite know, but here are two figures that pack some wallop. First the social marker: “a third of men ages 22-34 are still living at home with their parents—a hundred percent increase in the past twenty years.” Next, a biological marker: these boys have a sperm count half as high as their grandfathers’, and their bones are considerably more brittle.

Why are more and more boys unable to get started in life? Sax, a family doctor who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a compelling speaker on the lecture circuit, gives five reasons for the crisis among them:

  • Teaching Methods: Girls develop up to two years earlier, but boys are expected to sit still and learn to read and write along with them; their hyperkinetic energy has no outlet in the current classroom structure.

  • Video Games: Boys formerly played outside, but now they’re plugged into their addicting, indoor gaming consoles.

  • Prescription Drugs: AD/HD medication “may be causing irreversible damage to the motivational centers in boys’ brains” and showing up years later, even after they’ve come off the meds.

  • Endocrine Disruptors: Environ­mental estrogens from plastic bottles and food linings may be lowering boys’ testosterone levels and disrupting their endocrine systems.

  • Devaluation of Masculinity: Boys no longer have any real models for what it means to be a man. Jim Anderson, the idealized paterfamilias of the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best, has been replaced by dopey Homer Simpson.

Sax doesn’t just sound the alarm bell; he offers solutions: start boys later at school (Finns start children at 7 rather than 5); create schools that accommodate more rambunctious boys, or even better, teach boys and girls separately; cut back drastically on video games; throw out plastic bottles; and build a new, masculinity-affirming culture.

It’s possible we could go on a big, national “detox” program, throwing away our plastic bottles and curbing meds and computer games, but building a new masculine identity may be tougher. In fact, it’s such a huge issue that addressing it is almost beyond the scope of any short book.

Sax’s proposed model for contemporary masculinity is an unknown civil war hero, Joshua Chamberlain, a scholar and modest gentleman-warrior, who cared deeply for his troops. His intent by referring to Chamberlain isn’t to uphold martial values, but promote humane, traditional ones, like the “core” values taught in a Connecticut boys’ school he visited. Those principles are the sort enshrined on libraries and prep school walls: “scholarship, integrity, civility, tolerance, altruism, sportsmanship, responsibility, and self-discipline.”

Now you can argue that our culture is plenty masculine-affirming. After all, for every Homer Simpson young boys see on TV, they play with an assortment of GI Joes and super-action heroes, but Sax sees this as the wrong sort of affirmation.

The reason why boys are having trouble today is more complicated than a short book can adequately describe. Sax knows that girls have their problems, from eating disorders to feverish, adolescent identity issues. What’s worse is that girls must live in a toxic, hypersexed culture. However, as he points out, their problems are the subject of somebody else’s book.

The book’s brevity and lack of detail may reflect the fact that he’s less an authority than a modern Paul Revere, warning us that not only is the enemy coming, but they’re already taking over our children’s minds and bodies. If Sax is right and the failure-to-launch crisis is rooted in rich and middle-class families, it may be likely that something can be done about it. After all, those are the parents with money and political clout. Helping the boys now being maimed by toxic meds and plastics, unresponsive schools, and a whirling, electronic, infantilizing culture will benefit the children of all classes. According to Sax, that’s a trickle-down effect our society can sorely use.


Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.