Men Are Toast. No They’re Not. Discuss.

Our culture’s gender war isn’t doing anybody any good.

A female student reported a sign of a harassing nature. Upon further investigation, it was determined the communication was not to be directed in a harassing manner.

—Swarthmore College campus police blotter, 9/21/13

The paperback version of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Woman came out this month, with a new epilogue, adapted for an article on Slate, that muses further on the peculiar role-reversal the author sees the genders currently undergoing. Rosin has accumulated a host of evidence to support her view that males have become obsolete–from the dearth of men on college campuses to the explosion in female-headed single-parent households. Yet when she appears at book events, she says, there’s an inevitable moment when a woman in the audience starts sniping about “the patriarchy.”

Rosin isn’t buying it.

In her epilogue, she writes about her own “Slaughter moment”—a reference to Anne Marie Slaughter’s notorious “Women still can’t have it all” piece in the Atlantic—which came after she decided to cut her work week to four days following the birth of her daughter:

I tried to figure out who, in the series of events that led up to that decision, had played the role of the patriarch. My husband? He couldn’t care less how many days I work. My employer? Relatively benevolent and supportive–willing to let me work four days or five, willing to let me leave early. … I wanted to stay home … and I also wanted to work like a fiend. It was … a combination of my personal choices, the realities of a deadline-driven newsroom, and the lack of a broader infrastructure to support working parents.

In other words: not the patriarchy.

But this broadminded willingness to blame a number of factors–even, God forbid, herself–is, Rosin is finding, anathema to many women today, in particular those who belong to “the college, professional class.” These are the women who demand “trigger warnings” on blog postings that deal with sexual assault or harassment, who insist that “strident” is a sexist word, and who go looking for “signs of a harassing nature” on their campuses. “This strain of feminism,” Rosin writes, “assumes an exquisite vulnerability”–in fact, the same sort of vulnerability that once led females to be pegged (is that a sexist term?) as “hysterics” prone to attacks of the vapors and similar gender-specific maladies. “Maybe now,” Rosen writes, “we pay such close attention to words like ‘strident’ because they are all we have, the only way to access the outrage of darker days,” when the women’s movement fought real enemies, not ghosts. And she wonders why it is that “the closer women get to real power, the more they cling to the idea that they are powerless.”

I’ve wondered the same thing. So have a lot of angry, intellectually unattractive males–the members of the “Manosphere” who troll blogs and pounce on the women they call “feminazis.” You know the type: These guys insist that rape statistics are overblown, blame women for ruining football by whining about concussions, and berate those fat, worthless bitches who divorced them and took all their dough. They’re the flip side, in their keep-’em-barefoot-and-pregnant Neanderthalism, to overzealous women who see the leaden hand of the patriarchy everywhere.

Warren Farrell, writing last week for Minding the Campus, bemoaned the way he’s been cast by “rigid campus feminism” as “a hate-soaked advocate of rape,” among other things, for publicly pointing out that while there’s plenty of handwringing over the dearth of women entering the STEM professions–plus support programs, aid and scholarships to encourage them to do so–there’s no corresponding hue and cry over the lack of men entering the social sciences, or their failure to go to college at all nowadays.

Farrell is as polarizing as Rosin–maybe more so. But the questions he raises do seem worth asking. I wrote a few years back about how young men seem to be foundering in America today, a story that still generates irate (and heartrending) comments online. In a post on New York magazine’s The Cut headlined “What Does Manhood Mean in 2013?,” Ann Friedman countered Rosin by arguing that “patriarchy” isn’t just “concrete systems that ensure only men have access to the upper echelons of power; it also encompasses our ingrained cultural understanding of what men should be. … ” The current male confusion “is a good thing: It means we’re working past the outmoded definition,” Friedman writes:

They’re uneasy about living in such a mixed-up, muddled-up, post-gender world, but don’t want to go back to the rigid roles of the past? Welcome to where women have been since second-wave feminism! It’s confusing out here.

It’s only natural, my women’s-studies-major daughter tells me, for women, who were for so long oppressed, to occasionally go overboard now that they’re in positions of power–are college presidents and deans of students and department heads. That’s as true on campuses as in any nation where a coup brings in a new regime.

But here’s where I start to get lost.

I don’t know what that Swarthmore College student saw on a sign in Clothier Field that she reported to be “of a harassing nature.” I do know that Swarthmore right now is caught in a maelstrom of accusations and counteraccusations about sexual harassment and assault that has bred suspicion and paranoia. It’s a situation reminiscent of that at Oberlin College this past spring, when distribution of racist, anti-gay and anti-Jewish flyers led to a student reporting a hooded KKK figure on campus. That sighting has since been discounted, and the “hate crimes” turned out to be a prank perpetrated by two students. “I’m doing it as a joke,” one of them told police, “to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.” Ha-ha.

Feminism–the rigid form, at least–sometimes seems to be courting similar jokesters: 70 cents on the dollar! Four out of five victims surveyed! But what if men really are embroiled in a struggle to redefine themselves, to figure out what constitutes masculinity? “America,” Friedman writes, “is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood.” It’s the male stereotype that’s dead. Men live on, and we have to live with them–be their mothers, daughters, co-workers, wives.

So maybe we should cut them a break–should be bigger and better than men have often been to us as we struggle in the throes of our own redefinition. We could start by putting an end to what Rosin calls the “bean-counting and monitoring–an outdated compulsion to keep your guard up, because sexism lurks everywhere.” At its heart, this is the same mind-set that’s paralyzing the country politically: If you’re not with me, you’re against me. No one benefits from–or can long withstand–such hypervigilance.

A Boston College study released last week showed a startling truth: Despite their considerable achievements, young women at that respected institution are graduating with lower self-esteem than they had when they matriculated. To correct this problem, women at the college have–of course–created an empowerment program that aims “to help girls turn their self-doubt into self-love” through weekly meetings where women wall themselves off in a “safe space.” You know what might help more? Less ossification of the lines between the sexes, less blaming of one gender for the other’s woes, more sympathy for guys as they, too, grapple with new gender roles, and a longer institutional memory of how hard it’s been for women to get where they are today.