Sep 30 • 1HR 33M

Richard Reeves On Struggling Men And Boys

He has a new book about the complexities of success and failure between the sexes in a rapidly changing society.

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Appears in this episode

Andrew Sullivan
Unafraid conversations about anything

Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at Brookings, where he directs the Boys and Men Project. He’s also been the director of Demos — the London-based political think-tank — an adviser to Nick Clegg in David Cameron’s coalition government, and a Guardian journalist. His latest book is Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. (For more, follow his new substack.) I’m fascinated by the challenges of modernity for the weaker sex (men), and Richard has grappled with the questions more calmly than most.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on how boys are less resilient than girls, and on the racialized sexism against African-American men — pop over to our YouTube page. Other topics we touch on: the cartoonish masculinity of MAGA, the need for male teachers, the huge gains of black women, the gender pay gap(s), the class gaps of marriage, deaths of despair, sex-segregated sports, and the pathologizing of male sexuality.

Our recent episode with Louise Perry on the sexual revolution is now available as a transcript. Check out the listener debate here — it’s the most trafficked post of its kind so far. The debate continues with this listener:

I imagine a book to counter Ms. Perry’s might be entitled Varieties of Sexual Experience. To pick up on the somewhat unclear attachment to evolutionary thought she expressed in the episode, we might remember that Darwin’s great discovery was about variation (and selection), and that without variation the threat of extinction increases. Hence we should not be surprised at the variety of sexual desires and experiences that women are having, and I am suspicious of the belief that the variety just emerged out of nowhere.

Another listener gets into touchy territory:

It was funny to hear the gay man seemingly having a better understanding of some aspects of female sexuality than the woman. She’s great, though, and I agreed with much of what she said. The only thing I want to point out is that Perry seems to be confusing the light-to-moderately-rough practice of “choking” with erotic asphyxiation. In the case of actual erotic asphyxiation, I would agree with all her criticisms, but that’s not what the vast majority of people are doing.

I’m 44, and when my wife died several years ago, I eventually reentered the dating market. There were no dating apps the last time I was single, so it was a brave new world. I do all right in that department, so I got to have a lot of different experiences before I fell in love and settled down again. During that time, I was taught — by women — to “choke.” They would literally grab my hand and move it up to their throat. It would never have occurred to me in a million years to put my hand on a woman’s throat during sex, but it kept happening to me. I definitely remember thinking, “Huh, this is thing now I guess.” 

It, of course, is not actual choking. It’s applying light pressure, or even more just grabbing on to the throat gently as a kind of leverage handle for, uh, thrusting. (I didn’t intend to get this graphic.) It’s the same way you might grab onto their shoulders for stability when entering from behind. It’s just a sex handle. No obstructing airflow, just a light squeeze on the neck in a kind of dominating way (though some women did want more pressure than I was comfortable applying, so I didn’t).

Sometimes I would try it out even if they didn’t literally grab my hand first, and I would always start with a super light touch, no pressure, and ask if they liked it. Some declined, but honestly I would say about 50% wanted it. One woman had never even done it before, but discovered it to be a huge turn on for her and always wanted rougher sex after that. None of these women were abused or had mental health problems (as far as I know).

I don’t know what to make of it. There is definitely some element of a cultural meme, because my entire single life prior to this, zero women ever coaxed me to put a hand on their neck. But as you said so well — and it’s well argued in Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (recommended to me by Dan Savage) — sex is inherently violent, and (almost) always inherently involves some level of domination and submission, and many women find this the hottest thing ever.

I’ve never slept with anyone who ever wanted me to literally choke her, such that they were’t getting enough oxygen. That is dangerous, and I wouldn’t do it any more that I would deck a woman in the jaw if she asked me to.

This next listener dissents over my view that most men are like Randy Marsh:

Another fascinating conversation — thank you! You can be a fantastic listener, often even surprising your talking partner by adding new depth and perspective to their own intellectual points. At other times, though — especially when we come to something near and dear to your heart — you can get stuck in your own head.  

One such time was your insistent questions about what sexual outlets (porn, etc) are available to the 40-something man who is married for 10-15 years, barely has sex, and when he does, it’s boring. You painted this picture as almost an inevitable outcome of a long, monogamous marriage. It is not. 

Another time when I felt your own sexual experience as a gay man clouded your judgment was your insistence that many modern women may, in fact, enjoy violent or semi-violent sex. There is a profound difference between relinquishing control to a man when there is complete trust and an absolute framework of safety and love, versus putting oneself in a position of vulnerability and danger. Most women who are confident and have a healthy sense of self would never choose the latter.  

Another listener gets personal:

Maybe your perception that sexual penetration is “violent” is because you perceive it as violating? But you are only violating my home if I didn’t invite you in. When my husband and I make love, I am inviting him into the sacred space of my body. Also, he doesn’t penetrate me over and over in the way you describe. He enters and he stays. He prefers stimulation at the base of his penis; consistent depth is good. Together we move to give both of us the stimulation we need. It is an intimate cooperative dance, which when done well is as much about collective shared pleasure as individual pleasure.

English has different words for sex. “Love-making” is definitely not the same as “fucking” which is not the same as “rape” which is not the same as “coupling” which is not the same as “hooking up.” (If you want to see some of the differences, watch episode 4 of House of the Dragon.)

Thank you for consistently encouraging open, thoughtful, respectful, honest discussion about anything. I can’t believe I’m writing something so personally intimate to someone I’ve never met in person.

I’m deeply flattered that readers feel able to open up abut their intimate lives in this way. The benefits of anonymity.

Here’s a listener in Perry’s camp regarding porn:

What I find fascinating about the porn issue is that it seems to me that biology, or perhaps physiology and cultural influence, seem to be telling us to use the horniness for your wife early on to produce kids and then later on, when it fades, accept it. Which seems to me to be what normal people used to do.

Which is one of the problems with porn: it’s everywhere and makes men want sex when they otherwise wouldn’t think about it. I know that’s been my experience as I’ve gotten older; I can go for long periods without thinking about sex at all, which feels normal to me, and then I’ll see some porn, usually out of boredom, and it triggers something in me that at its core feels unnatural.

Yep. A truly permissive environment can conjure up horniness. So, of course, can a deeply repressive one. Moderation, as the ancients would advise.

Next up, “a happily married bisexual man with a family”:

One thing I’ve discovered over the decades is that, yes, men do have very different sex drives than women, but our sex drives can also be complicated. It is very easy to say that straight men and gay men by default are non-stop sex machines, but I think some of that perception has been driven by porn culture, masculine bravado, and — for gay men especially — the club culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

My first sexual encounters were in junior high with a close male friend and then subsequently with his sister. High school in the late ‘80s was four years of torture, as I vacillated between both sexes, with brief periods of abstinence as well. It was easier to partner with women than men because coming out at the time wasn’t as socially acceptable in my late ‘80s high school as it was in my mid ‘90s college. It was only when I went to a liberal university that I met “out” gay and bi men, but it was still very closeted in the sense that some close friends only “came out” at the dance clubs.

Being bi was complicated then, as my sex drive ebbed and flowed between sexes and who I wanted to date. I watched straight/gay/trans porn, dabbled in BDSM and other kinks with past partners. But to say it was a non-stop erotic cabaret would be false. 

One thing I realized as I hit my late 20s and early 30s is that I tended towards preferring women for my longer-term partners and males for my one-night stands. I think this stemmed from enjoying the emotional and physical aspects of the two different sexes, but I also discovered over time that my male encounters came in clusters — several random/anonymous hook-ups over a few weeks or months and then nothing for months/years. Meanwhile, I carried on long-term relationships with women and the sex was just as hot, but also very cyclical in the level of desire and frequency. I joked with one gay FWB that my urges for men depended on whether or not there was a full moon out, which he could totally understand.  

When I got married, my bisexual drive fell off dramatically and I subsequently turned to porn to fill that void, because the last thing I wanted to do was bring home an STD to my wife. So while my sex drive has never waned, per se, how I deal with it has changed from the halcyon days of my mid-20s into something different having just turned 50. Do I miss random hot hook-ups and one-nighters? Sure. I sometimes find myself checking out guys on the street but end up using porn to scratch that itch, and I don’t miss it enough to risk the STDs on the rise right now.

One last thought: I think all too often men have a very difficult time talking openly and candidly about their sexual desires/needs with partners in ways that are meaningful — much the same way we have difficulties talking about our feelings, mental health issues, depression, etc. More often than not, we “joke” our way through the topic to defuse the seriousness of the topic, especially with a close partner or friend. I was lucky to have been able to have had a few FWBs (M&F) in my 20s and early 30s who made talking about and exploring our sexual needs healthy and fun.

Here’s Perry on the topic of gay promiscuity:

On the theme of average differences between the sexes, this next reader turns to the infamous Atlantic piece pushing for an end to separate sports leagues:

I have to say, I’m surprised by your ... surprise. The Atlantic article, in my eyes, is simply saying the quiet part out loud. The argument itself — that there is no inherent physical difference between men and women — has quietly been the foundation for a lot of recent arguments and movements by the political left, most notably that of the US Women’s Soccer Team. The last USSF President was ousted for saying that women were physically inferior to men, and all the resulting hostage-taking and negotiations on behalf of the women’s team were operating under the assumption that the quality of play was equal to that of the men’s team. 

I’m a huge soccer fan, and huge USMNT fan. Until recently, I was a USWNT fan. No longer. For years, they attacked the USSF for daring to treat the women and men’s teams differently.

I think the Atlantic article is completely justified, and perhaps the best thing that could have happened. Now they must defend the (delusional) assumption they’ve been operating under, or abandon it.

Good on the Atlantic for publishing a followup piece yesterday, “There’s Good Reason for Sports to Be Separated by Sex.”


From a helpful Dishhead in Finland:

I can’t be the first one to offer you this, but on the off-chance I am, I restored and cleaned up the audio of your wonderful talk with Hitchens from 2006 that you posted last week. I’m an audio engineer and video game music composer by profession and figured this was a rare opportunity to support the Dishcast with something I know how to do. You can download it here (a direct HTTP download to the lossless audio FLAC file). Thanks for everything you do!

This next listener, like me, was largely out of commission last week:

I just spent the week recovering from a concussion, which permits talking but forbids thinking too deeply. What a delight to welcome my brain back into the frame with Hitch!

Another fan of the episode:

Sorry about your voice. Drinking too much tea, I expect.

You were obviously more correct than Christopher Hitchens about the state of the Republican (American Taliban?) Party. What he seemed to overlook is that a minority can impose their will over the majority, as it does in totalitarian or in sectarian-run countries. That small group of devoted evangelicals, appalled at the appearance of a Black Man in the White House, for two terms, got to work and elected their new Savior: a modern variation on the Jesus theme, perhaps.

I don’t think Hitchens saw the coming of that new savior in the guise of a modern-day Cyrus, the sinner who saves the devoted and creates the theocracy they crave.  And the takeover of the Supreme Court now allows it to move toward regulating morality — at first through the proxy of the States, but as soon as the Republicans can gin up a federal law, or a court case, the Theocratic Wing of the Court will pounce.

On the other hand, the threat Hitchens saw posed by radical Islamists, the need to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan, flew into the winds. His view of history, however, is a counter to that held by the left — for example, those who write opinion pieces for the Consortium News. And now we have Russia ascendant. Perhaps the millennialists will have their armageddon at last.

That’s certainly what Rod Dreher is hoping for. This next listener defends Hitch after hearing a Dishcast clip with Jim Holt:

Christopher made it clear WHY he opposed the first gulf war and supported the second gulf war: he actually visited Iraq after the first one specifically Kurdistan, and realized that the Iraqi government was a worse threat to free peoples compared to the US government. It is not a “logically impossible position” to change your mind once you have educated yourself about a situation.

Another listener “just subscribed and now I’m catching up on things in the Dishcast archive,” especially the Holt episode:

His offhand comments about Gödel and Einstein were far too casually pop-sci:

  1. Gödel himself did not think that the incompleteness theorems cast any doubt on the truth or certainty of mathematics. He was a full-bore mathematical Platonist. As he told the mathematician Hao Wang, “I don’t consider my work a ‘facet of the intellectual atmosphere of the early twentieth century,’ but rather the opposite.”

  2. The theory of (special) relativity is misnamed — at least if that name is thought to suggest a thoroughgoing relativism. What it actually does is replace one idea of invariance with another. Galilean invariance, which postulates that all (inertial) observers agree on their measurements of time and distance, is replaced by Lorentz Invariance, which postulates that observers will agree when measuring something called a “space-time interval” (a measurement involving both time and distance).

FWIW, you can read my take on Gödel in a review of a recent biography of him published in The New Criterion. And, in passing, my take on special relativity in a review, also in TNC, of James Gleick’s book Time Travel: A History.

Dish readers often intimidate me with the depth of their knowledge. It’s a relief as well, of course. Because they don’t let anything slip.

A guest recommendation for the pod:

I would very much like to hear you interview Carl Trueman, author of Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. I think you would very much enjoy his work.

Others have urged me to read it. I will. A few more suggestions:

Glad you’re back. Just curious if there’s any update on getting Victor Davis Hanson or Heather Mac Donald on the podcast anytime soon? I appreciate the intellectual rigor when you are talking to people like Rufo or Anton, as it helps our understanding of the Right today. (The Filkins interview was great, though I wish he had gotten into some of the changes over at the NYT and his magazine.)

Thanks as always for your recommendations and other pod commentary — keep them coming: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Lastly, a reader serves up a Face Of The Week:

The Pet Shop Boys were at Merriweather Post Pavilion last week along with New Order and Paul Oakenfold. Assuming you weren’t there, I thought you would appreciate this shot of Neil:

He looks great. I have to say it depresses me that the PSBs have to tour alongside New Order and Paul Oakenfold in the US. No offense to either of the latter (of whom I’m also a big fan), but this would never happen outside the US. The PSBs are among the greatest pop duos in history. Sharing a billing is unconscionable.

Also sad to say I missed this tour. Got lost in the transition from Ptown to DC. Voice almost back to normal now though.