What Do Men Want? by Nina Power
All meat diets, semen retention regimes and goon caves — the perennial question “are men ok?” is not an unreasonable one, with the latest book by Nina Power seeking to empathetically understand the current state of masculinity. In What Do Men Want? (a cheeky play on Freud’s infamous phrase “What does a woman want?”), Power seeks to carve out a new path in the relationship between men and women — one where neither side is stripped of its distinct humanity.
Power has certainly come a long way since she published her critically acclaimed, but utterly conventional, 2009 feminist treatise One Dimensional Woman (a similarly gender flipped play on Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man).
Like most female writers with something interesting to say, Power has been subject to persistent harassment for challenging progressive orthodoxy. In more recent writing she has drawn upon such diverse intellectual influences as the theologian Ivan Illich, theorist of transgression Georges Bataille and various pagan writings on nature and love. Her work has been labelled “reactionary” and “transphobic” by an institutionalised left, resulting in her deplatforming at arts and cultural events, and shunning from leftist publications. Likely because of this, Power doesn’t mince words in her new book.
“Men and woman exist” opens What Do Men Want?. “Occasionally, we even like each other.”
What follows is a series of very congenial but devastating shots at contemporary gender politics.
First to go is the recent obsession with disembodied “queer” analysis of what it means to be a man or woman, in favour of grounding the discussion in the binary sexes and their relations to one another.
The old-fashioned role of the Patriarch has been dead for a generation
“I think we need to return to thinking about men and women in terms of ‘sex’ rather than ‘gender’,” writes Power, “where the latter is a stand-in for how people like to be perceived by others.”
We are a sexually dimorphic species, and most of humanity (myself blissfully excluded) are saddled with heterosexual desire. That men and women differ, and that they mostly do get along, seems completely lost in our age of gender hot takes.
Power criticises how online activism ignores the complexity of male lives, frequently appearing like a sex swapped parody of the ole’ ball and chain jokes of the 1950s where “take my wife please!” becomes “yes all men”.
The hot takes are meant to be feminist in some vague sense, but increasingly come off as empty ressentiment, incapable of envisioning friendly, loving and mutually edifying relations between the sexes.
“Most men are, like most women, a mixture of good and bad, but they are not, as a rule, irredeemable,” Power notes.
Indeed, if there is ever to be a reconciliation between men and women, it may require considering the interests, needs and desires of good men, rather than a laser focus on the bad.
What then, do men want?
When Power asked her male friends this incredibly leading question, the responses ranged from “To be left alone” to “Pussy” to “Beer”. However, the real answer seems to be: something to do.
Power writes, “It is hard to imagine how the role [of men] today could be any more evacuated of meaning or status.”
The old-fashioned role of the Patriarch has been dead for at least one full generation now, and we haven’t really found an adequate replacement. The result is that men are adrift in a state of nihilism. In pop culture men seem to play the role of the “horny jester” to the self-serious goals of feminine social change. But men aren’t just interested in sex and frivolity; they also want a life of meaning.
The consequences of this listlessness are all too evident. Men are vastly overrepresented in statistics on suicide, unemployment, drug overdoses and crime.
Most men aren’t violent, but they are far more violent than women. Women are sometimes the target of this violence, but far more often men take out their pent-up aggression and sadism on other men. Often, we are told to blame these pathologies on “toxic masculinity” — that men need to be liberated from their preferences and to embrace the feminine ideals of tenderness, openness and sociability.
This solution sees sex difference as an irrelevancy, merely a reified founding myth of hegemonic masculinity, perfectly capable of tinkering. For Power, this approach is exceedingly cruel, failing to accept men as embodied creatures with a distinct way of experiencing the world:
“To describe masculinity as ‘toxic’ is to suggest that not only have men been poisoned, but that they are extending their poison to the rest of society.”
This recent call to feminise men also didn’t occur in a vacuum.
There has been a significant decline in the needs for physical labour in Western countries since the turn of the century. Our increasingly service-oriented, tech-mediated economy requires very different temperaments, often drawing on the feminine virtues of empathic communication.
For Power, these broader structural changes have meant “certain kinds of behaviour come to be rewarded over others”.
Whilst we can’t turn back the clock, this re-evaluation of the role of men in society should be done in a manner which respects the dignity of men as different from woman.
Liberal individualism stigmatises any lessons on how to live from people who came before
“We would do well to revisit old values and virtues — honour, loyalty, courage,” argues Power.
An appeal to masculine virtues is certainly counter-cultural, given the current trend of multiplicities of gender, where everyone expresses their unique identity, or individual patchwork of preferences and tastes.
It may sound, as Power confesses, “anti-modern, regressive, restrictive, oppressive”.
However, this is the trap of liberal individualism — it tells you “you’re free, enjoy!” but stigmatises any lessons on how to live from people who came before.
“In our age, the kind of ‘freedom’ offered by a hedonistic capitalism has tried to turn us all into something less than human,” notes Power. “We are commodities of a kind, person-sized objects that sell themselves whilst simultaneously accumulating things.”
Humans, despite all the messages we’ve been told, enjoy performing a social role — finding a place in something higher than themselves. In sexual politics, this means men need to find new avenues for meaning whilst learning to joyfully relate to the radically Other (women).
Boys, as Power documents, are increasingly attracted to initiatory rituals and guidance on becoming men. A booming subculture on the internet is known as the “manosphere” seeking to cater and sell all kinds of masculine rituals to boys searching for answers. The motivations of these manosphere influencers often aren’t sincere, driven more by the commercial incentive to sell workout supplements and pick up guides than to help men find meaning.
“Separating out genuinely living well from fads, consumerist junk and ideological ticks is not easy,” writes Power.
The manosphere also often reflects a rather juvenile view of masculinity — grown men playing dress up as Spartans, or self-declared libertines sharing “naughty” tales of sexual conquests. This does however point to a potential avenue for passing on male virtue, not by shaming young men for their desires, but by providing guidance from men who have found their way.
“I’m personally convinced that if men could see themselves more often as part of a class of human beings called ‘men’, there would be much more success in getting men to help other men,” writes Power.
What Do Men Want? is a refreshing take on sexual politics, but not without some flaws.
The book often gets bogged down in minor, sometimes very trivial, features of masculinity. I’ve seen the best female minds of my generation destroyed by think pieces about manspreading and incel forums.
Power also never provides much detail of what a renewed set of masculine traditions could look like in the 21st century. I imagine this is deliberate. This isn’t a self-help book; Power is crafting a peace treaty between the sexes and putting forward new terms for negotiation.
The underlying message of What Do Men Want? is that men can be better, but first we need to see them as something other than the enemy.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe