According to Christina Hoff Sommers's new book, The War Against Boys, 35 percent of college-age men in 1998 confessed that they had read nothing for pleasure in the previous twelve months. Browsing through the current selection of men's magazines, I can begin to see why. Something truly difficult has been happening to the genre recently: It's been getting even dumber. The most successful, Maxim, sets the pace. Its cover features the slogan "Sex, Sports, Beer, Gadgets, Clothes, Fitness," in descending order of importance. The June issue features a primer on penis size ("How It's Really Hangin'"), a moronic guide to becoming a millionaire ("Rule #4: Ditch Your Loser Friends"), page after page of scantily dressed babes, and what at first looks like an actual piece of reportage until you read the subhead: "In a sleepy town in New Mexico, David Parker Ray and his family abducted women and held them captive inside his specially equipped trailer. Was it a twisted sex game or something far worse?" The reward for this dreck, according to The New York Times, is the fattest ad revenue of any self-styled "men's magazine" in America—$7.7 million a year—for a journal that's only a couple of years old.
Of course, if you want erudition, you can always peruse another new entrant into the market, FHM ("For Him Magazine"), whose feature article in the July issue is titled "A Lifetime of Sex." "At the age of 75 you'll have had sex 5,472 times with 22 women," the subhead reads. "Here's how you'll get there." With competition like this, it's no surprise that even Esquire led a recent cover with "153 Things a Man Should Know About Sex" or that GQ, easily the class act of the bunch, showcases "Eye-Candy Thandie" Newton, the lithe female star of M:I-2.
These days, it's extremely hard to be a man vaguely connected to a brain. The state of men's magazines is only the half of it. Two generations of full-blooded feminism have ended with round-the-clock wrestling channels, Shanghai Noon, and Tom Cruise following Stanley Kubrick with John Woo. Even homosexual men, who once might have constituted some cultural firewall against unbridled testosterone, are now bulging with steroids, living in the gym, and starting rugby leagues. The notion of the "gentleman," or indeed any notion of masculinity attached to gentility, has almost vanished from the cultural air. What happened, one wonders, and why?
I guess you could start by observing that many areas of life that were once "gentlemanly" have simply been opened to women and thus effectively demasculinized. A college education, for one thing, along with all the journals, books, and conversations that go along with it, is now thoroughly—and rightly—integrated. Education is no longer a function of becoming a man but a function of becoming a nongendered citizen. There are whole swaths of public life—business, politics, sports, and so forth—that once inculcated a form of refined masculinity but are now unsexed. Even military schools and seminaries, once the ultimate male bastions, have thrown open their doors to women.
I'm not going to quibble with this. Why should I? Greater opportunity for women is probably the most significant gain for human freedom in the last century. But with this gain has come a somewhat unexpected problem: How do we restore a sense of masculinity that is vaguely civilized? Take their exclusive vocations away, remove their institutions, de-gender their clubs and schools and workplaces, and you leave men with more than a little cultural bewilderment. The only things left that are predominantly male—sex with women, beer, gadgets, sex with women, cars, beer, and more gadgets, to judge from men's magazines—tend to be, shall we say, lacking in elevation.
A certain type of feminism is, I think, part of the problem. By denying any deep biological or psychological difference between the sexes, some influential feminists refuse to countenance any special treatment for men and boys. They see even the ethic of the gentleman as sexist and regard the excrescences of the current male pop culture as a function of willful hostility to women rather than the clumsy attempt to find something—anything—that men still have in common. So, while women are allowed an autonomous culture and seem to have little problem making it civilized, men are left to their own devices, with increasingly worrying results.
Take a look at education. American boys are now far behind girls in high school. As Sommers points out in her book, the Department of Education reports that "the gap in reading proficiency between males and females is roughly equivalent to about one and a half years of schooling." The gender gap in American colleges is now ten percentage points—55 percent of students are women and 45 percent are men—and growing fast. Yet any attempts to address this problem with single-sex classes or schools for boys, for example, meet with ferocious opposition and more often than not get struck down in the courts. The more extreme examples of this ideology come in the ludicrous attempts to police gender stereotypes as early as kindergarten, even when those "stereotypes" conform to the way little boys and little girls have naturally interacted, or not interacted, for millennia.
You can understand how we got here, of course. For far too long, girls and women were second-class citizens, marginalized, frustrated, punished, and denied the possibility of advancement. But a visit to any American college campus today will show how far we have come from those pernicious days. Instead, we are arguably at the beginning of a different crisis—a crisis of the American male. Until we find a way for men to chart a course that is not dependent on the subjugation of women and yet is unmistakably their own, that crisis will continue. This means not denying or condemning male difference but harnessing it, guiding it, and moralizing it. There's a cultural hunger for this, I think. It helped fuel the presidential candidacy of Arizona Senator John McCain, for example, inasmuch as he epitomized an unapologetic masculinity based on sacrifice and duty rather than machismo and narcissism. Call it the reinvention of the gentleman—for an era when gender is not an excuse for oppression but when its natural basis is not denied, either.
Mercifully, this needn't involve some Robert Bly-like men's movement, let alone a self-conscious masculinity constantly talking to and about itself. Men simply need to be able to do more things together—preferably things of a somewhat more elevated nature than throwing or kicking or hitting a ball. There are many small ways this could happen: a revival of single-sex colleges and schools, the re-establishment in the culture of all-male clubs, the extension of big-brother programs, and so on. But, more generally, a decent amount could be accomplished simply by stopping the intolerance of such things that now passes for civilized consensus among American elites. I'm not sure if there's a political coalition capable of this, and I fear male cultural decline may be too advanced to be swiftly reversed. But I do know it's worth our making an effort. And that even greater sales of Maxim will be the consequence if we don't.