Plenty, you might say. But I’m talking about a sickness and sadness that is real. Consider: While many women struggle with depression, men are more likely to commit suicide, research shows. And compared with women, men have twice the risk of heart disease, just one of the various ailments that, on the whole, drives them to earlier graves.
Why is this? If the world is so set up to favor men, how is it that vast numbers of them are miserable?
I’ve worked as a couples therapist internationally for decades. In all that time I have focused on relationships—what makes them flourish, what zaps them of their romance. But recently I have felt compelled to turn more attention toward men. From what I’ve seen, the level of shame that men deal with around their identity as a man has made it almost impossible for them to seek and receive the support they need to thrive in their interpersonal relationships. That has grave ramifications for women. Insecure men demean women, sometimes worse. So of course women are frustrated. But just as retribution does not mend a relationship, neither is it a long-term solution to a societal ill. Punishment is warranted in some cases. But a resignation or dismissal from a high-profile job, for example, is not the sole option. It does not always provide complete (or even partial) restitution for victims, nor is it a blanket fix.
We’ve been tempted to zero in on a few bad apples, but that approach is misguided. Centuries of data tell us purges don’t work. The issue is bigger than individuals, and censure alone is not a path forward.
I believe that the lives of women cannot improve, that women cannot thrive, until men free themselves from the constraints of the male code. As my colleague Terry Real says, the patriarchy hurts us all.
Five decades ago feminists like Gloria Steinem articulated a new vision of what womanhood in America could look like. That led women to rethink their identities at work and at home. Yet since that time no similar movement has come for men, who are now as trapped in a gender box as ever. Research shows fathers are more emotional with daughters and physical with sons. And from age four, boys may well begin to sever their emotional connections to others so that they can become self-sufficient, fearless, and competitive.
The norms that define manhood are pernicious. But it need not take millennia to rewrite them. This kind of transformation is possible in just a decade or two. For evidence, look at how the relationship between parents and children has evolved. Most parents I counsel don’t follow the hierarchical model that I experienced as a child; instead they work to create a connection built on genuine closeness and emotion.
So what do men need? (I know, the idea that women have to take action to save men doesn’t feel quite fair. But I’m impatient for progress, so why not hasten the pace of the revolution?) To me, it boils down to three essential factors:
Men need spaces to connect. In America in particular I’ve found there’s a sense that when women gather, it creates collaboration, but when men gather, it leads to violence. Not at all. It depends on the context. I was just in a village in Greece where the men meet at 7:00 A.M. after they fish. These men bond. Perhaps they don’t always discuss their deepest emotions, but each knows the others are there for him. Based on hundreds of men I’ve talked to, very few equivalents exist in America after the Little Leagues of childhood (and boys’ sports aren’t even an ideal framework, given their frequent emphasis on violence and competition). When men do gather, I’ve seen them share their stories. In the workshops I’ve led, where a protected environment is created, men remember the times they’ve felt like less of a man. That in turn helps reduce shame. It makes room for them to be vulnerable, not weak.
We need to promote platonic male-female friendships. How can men learn to respect women if boys never spend time with girls? I’ve seen in my practice how formative those early interactions with the opposite sex can be. When my sons were children, I sent them to Europe each summer because I felt there they could better see that there are many ways to be a boy. They didn’t need to measure their “manhood” by how many women were interested in them, and that allowed them to pursue genuine friendships with girls. Freed from the constant pressure to “perform,” they could be around women without sexualizing or fetishizing them. When women are made alien to men, an unhealthy fixation starts.
We must push for better sex education. Schools are the obvious place to jettison outdated gender roles and to explore issues around consent. But so far that kind of curriculum has been restricted to a class or two in high school. In the Netherlands comprehensive sex education starts at age four, with children learning about consent in terms of wanted or unwanted hugs, for example. The result: Most teens in the Netherlands report that their first sexual experiences were “wanted and fun.” According to one report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in the U.S. a full two-thirds of teens wished they’d waited longer to have sex for the first time. If frank conversations about sex and consent happened earlier, men and women would be better equipped to know both what they want and how to ask for it. That wouldn’t just mean better sex. It would mean better communication overall.
“Me Too” isn’t the end of a conversation. It’s the start of one. Let’s make room for men to be a part of it.
Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a speaker, an author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?
[Rethinking Infidelity: Esther Perel’s TED Talk] (/story/rethinking-infidelity-ted-talk-marriage)