As the recent furor over “drag queen story hour” in public libraries goes to show, many people—mainly, many older people who themselves grew up in a less cumulatively fractured time—have found the proliferating of “gender identities” to be the most baffling phenomenon of the day. Stories about gender barrel nonstop through the news cycle and popular culture. The drive to construct identities independent of all limitations, including chromosomal constraint, has become as unexceptional to many as an Internet connection, and unavoidable to anyone else on the grid.
The increased expression of ambiguous sexuality reflects a deeper metamorphosis that has been under way since the 1960s, of which today’s obsession with gender identity is but a part. There is a gravitation toward an androgynous mean, which I believe has been forced upon us by the sexual revolution’s reconfiguring of the human ecosystem.
Androgyny appears to offer competitive advantages in a world redesigned by the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens since the 1960s. Androgyny, including its instantiations of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity, has emerged in this new world as an adaptive way of augmenting one’s substitute clan. It operates, in effect, as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.
Like today’s other identitarian groups, the new virtual gender communities offer what in-person communities used to: connections, an audience, a sympathetic ear, and a relational answer to the question Who am I? in an age when real live and literal human relations have become more riven and problematic than ever before.
Consider a few facts about the ubiquity of ignoring la différence. Following the sexual revolution of the 1960s, sex differences in strength and endurance have been increasingly ignored or minimized, and standards for physical fitness altered, in venues where physical strength matters. These include the armed forces and police and fire departments. As one consequence among many, for the first time in American history, young American women stand a chance of being drafted into combat positions.
There is also the explosion of gender ambiguity and fluidity in popular culture, beginning, though not only, in the United States. MTV, following the new ideological regimen, in 2017 moved to “gender-neutral” awards for acting (i.e., no more separate awards for “actors” and “actresses”). Other vetting boards in the performing arts and related circles are following suit.
Then comes fashion. Denim jeans became the first sartorial plumage signifying the interchangeability of the sexes. In the 1990s, a handful of designers including Helmut Lang, Giorgio Armani, and Pierre Cardin pioneered what was called “unisex” clothing. Today, it is hard to name a major designer who hasn’t reinforced the trend and gone further.
Androgyny is also front and center in popular music—and has been, for a while now. Once, David Bowie was a lone, mildly sexually ambiguous figure on the rock scene. Today, stars who flirt with gender bending are assured not only of fan love but also of competing on a field that gets more crowded by the day.
Androgyny’s rewriting of popular culture isn’t an expression of European or American sexual exceptionalism. In Japan, designers such as Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo Takada render versions of the same androgynous cool seen in Europe and the United States. As with fashion, the pop-music trend is just as pronounced on the other side of the planet.
Androgyny is a staple of Korean and Japanese popular genres, from K-pop and J-pop to anime and manga. In society after society, it is androgyny that is most visible across the genres of fashion, music, and other byways of pop culture.
In short, an increase in androgynous expression is now to be found around the world—specifically, in societies transformed by the postrevolutionary remaking of primordial ties. Plainly, something unprecedented is happening to humanity across the planet, something so hitherto unknown, and operating with such power, that it demands more than passing explanation.
Here’s one thesis: The new androgyny is not incidental to the collapse of family and community. To the contrary, the new androgyny is being driven by the collapse of family and community.
I am arguing here for a new interpretation of the scene, according to which transgender bathrooms and related controversies are manifestations of a bigger and more abiding story: the ways in which post-1960s changes have increased pressure to gravitate away from the traditionally masculine and feminine and toward a more ambiguous, androgynous mean.
Economists say that to subsidize something is to ensure more of it. And this is essentially what the sexual revolution has done: It has inadvertently subsidized androgyny by raising the penalties for traditional masculinity and femininity. Let us count some ways.
Begin with simple arithmetic. The sexual revolution reduced the number of men who could be counted on to serve as protectors from time to time, and in several ways. Broken homes put father figures at arm’s length, at times severing that parental bond for good. The ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator, making it harder for many women to tell the difference. Simultaneously, the decline of the family has reduced the number of men offering affection and companionship of a nonsexual nature—fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and so on.
In such a world of reduced primordial ties, the incentives for women to act more “male”—say, via the coarsened language and belligerent demeanor now commonplace in public demonstrations and elsewhere—makes sense as an adaptation. It amounts to protective coloration in the new ecosystem. If men cannot, or will not, be found to help protect women (and children), to whom does that task fall? The answer would seem to be, a woman—a woman who’s being more like a man, that is.
Another way in which the revolution would appear to have increased the incentives for women to act like men is more occult: The shrinkage of the family has reduced the number of fathers who have sons. Statistically, men—with some interesting exceptions that we’ll get to—desire sons. This does not mean that daughters go unloved, but it is to note an interesting fact. Postrevolutionary man, deprived of the likelihood of a son by contraception, abortion, and other practices, might logically if unconsciously respond by pressuring daughters to behave more like sons.
Such pressure might explain some of the impetus behind the well-known rise in girls’ participation in the most combative of sports, including ice hockey, football, soccer, and other contact games. None of this list is intended to dispute the beauty of female athletics, or the manifest good of physical fitness. It is to note instead that women and girls are more vulnerable to injury in contact sports than are men and boys, for several reasons including higher estrogen levels, a wider pelvis, narrower space within the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and a higher likelihood of inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake. So what does it tell us that it is now socially acceptable for them to assume higher physical risks than they did before, with a commensurately higher likelihood of injury?
It tells us that society has “decided,” again, that there is some kind of enhanced value to women’s behaving more like men.
I put the word “decided” in quotation marks for good reason. Nowhere and at no time have the parents and coaches of the world sat down and taken a vote, thereby agreeing as a matter of policy that the time had come to put women and girls at increased physical risk. To the contrary, authorities like parents and coaches have responded instead to social cues and collective pressure—meaning the radically altered incentive system in an ecosystem of smaller families, fewer communal ties, and the rest of the post-1960s record.
Anecdotal evidence confirms the trend. Consider the perennial commentary sprung from soccer fields, baseball fields, hockey rinks, and basketball courts across the country about the behavior of some parents—in particular, fathers yelling themselves hoarse at their girls for not being stronger or faster or more aggressive…for not being more like boys.
Sports are only one of the more visible arenas where the renorming of women toward men has become routine. Today’s women are continually given the message that they must perform like men—that men are the standard by which women should be measured. It is a pernicious comparison for several reasons, one of them described by Ashley McGuire in her 2017 book Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female. She observes that women who cannot, or do not, compete on male terms—sexually, athletically, professionally, or otherwise—are then trapped in the paradigm of being “failed men.” A successful woman these days is most often one who behaves most like a man, in the workplace and elsewhere; and what might be called a “beta woman” is one who does not.
These are just some of the unforeseen outcomes of a cultural incentive system that has increased the rewards for women to behave in stereotypically male ways and reduced the social approbation for those who would persist in traditional female ways—marrying, raising a family of size, devoting time and talent to what used to be called domestic arts, volunteering, and otherwise contributing to the world apart from the paid marketplace.
In sum, from popular culture to sports, from schooling to the home, women who “lean in” toward the masculine are substantially more likely to be rewarded in the postrevolutionary order than women who do not. This fact alone amounts to a powerful engine driving the new androgyny and increasing the allure of sexual ambiguity.
For a different set of reasons, there is increased pressure on men in a postrevolutionary age not to act like men, and to lean in toward the potentially more rewarding feminine side instead.
In 1999, the biological anthropologist Lionel Tiger published a book called The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women. He argued that contemporary feminism and legalized abortion rendered men less effective and less necessary than ever before. In a world where men have little legal or social say in the important matters of fatherhood and marriage, Tiger suggested, a great many might get the notion: Why bother? The years since then seem to have vindicated his thesis in full, with “Peter Pan syndrome,” video-gaming boys downstairs, “failure to launch,” and other pop manifestations of the phenomenon he described. These forms of male retreat, too, have parallels elsewhere in the world, including in the hikikomori of Japan (boys who refuse to leave the basement or join society) and the related “new hermits” of Korea.
At the same time, these developments have illuminated another key point. Traditional masculinity is not only unwanted by many people in a postrevolutionary world where women now control (if they want to) the literal means of (re)production. Masculinity and men are also objects of new denigration, as the popular phrase “toxic masculinity,” among other signposts, reveals. The same stigmatization is also inadvertently responsible in part for the global embrace of Jordan B. Peterson’s work by young men, especially; as psychologists would say, his affirmative writing gives them “permission” to be masculine at a time when masculinity is deemed déclassé and worse by nouveau tastemakers.
The animosity toward masculinity doesn’t spring from nowhere. Masculinity is in part taught—and as Tupac Shakur so plaintively pointed out in “Papa’z Song” (1994), in an age when half of children don’t have fathers, who will teach it? This brings us to another pressing (albeit resolutely unattended) phenomenon that increases the penalty for masculinity: the psychologically untenable situation in which many boys are caught, post-revolution.
Many children today are born to unmarried women; and whether or not their parents ever married, many will not grow up with their biological father present in the home. That much is familiar sociology.
But these same homes are not only missing a male adult. They are also, often enough, homes in which the absent male parent is openly resented—in which the mother is regarded (understandably so) as a heroic figure for doing as one human what ought to be the work of two. Unavoidably, in many such families, the notion that men are unreliable is not an abstract feminist prejudice but a fact of life.
What kind of message is received, however unconsciously, by the male children growing up in such homes? It is the lesson that men are bad.
How could those domestic atmospherics do anything but complicate a young man’s effort to answer the question Who am I? Hillary Clinton and other self-described feminists are fond of invoking the slogan “The future is feminine.” The social reality is that this is no mere campaign message or clever conceit in a Michel Houellebecq novel. Many boys must now adapt to a human habitat in which their very DNA is problematic from birth onward. What are they to conclude, except for the converse of Henry Higgins’s lament in My Fair Lady—that it would be better for a man to be more like a woman?
One final bit of evidence for the claim that men enjoy less social value today appeared in 2016, via a “lifestyle article” in the New York Times. It unveiled what once would have been a surprising thought: that today’s forward-looking, nontraditional fathers—including Andrew Reiner, the author of the Times piece—would, if they had their druthers, pick daughters over sons. “Some men, like me, fear becoming fathers to sons,” Reiner explained, adding evidence from blogs and websites showing that he was not alone. In addition, he cited the data that well-off white parents who use preimplantation genetic diagnosis select for females 70 percent of the time and that adoptive parents prefer girls over boys by at least a third. In the case of same-sex couples, he reported, that preference is even stronger.
At a minimum, attitudes toward the male human animal are changing at an unforeseen clip, especially in circles that are all-in for sexual correctness. These changes are dictated in part by ever more alienated women, reacting to ever more distant men, and in part by anxious men who are learning the social lesson that the feminine is to be feared.
It defies logic to maintain that the ongoing impassioned flight to collective identities is independent of such major alterations in the atmosphere. And it subverts common sense itself to maintain that the explosion of gender identities is unrelated to the radically altered sexual ecosystem that has enveloped most of our species since the 1960s.
Just as there are new advantages for women in adapting to the new environment by appearing more masculine, so are there new social advantages for men to become less so. Applied collectively, ironically enough, androgyny spells the end of the species. But applied individually, it seems to enhance social survivability, as it offers both men and women new camouflage for a new age—and with it, ways of answering Who am I? that are different and more torn than they used to be.