Who is Struggling More (Men or Women) is the Wrong Question

In my last post I mentioned a conversation I had with a speaker at a recent theology of marriage conference. I have since learned that he is a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which may explain why our conversation was like two trains passing each other in the night.[1]

Anyway, this man joined my table during lunch, asking what we would have said if we had been part of the panel discussion that had just completed. Since the topic was one of my interests – gender differences – I jumped in and said I don’t believe the difference between men and women is a matter of leading and following, as had been implied by the panel. Ruling authority is granted to all human beings equally in Genesis, and since leadership and authority go hand in hand, it does not seem that there is any basis for claiming men were created to lead and women were created to follow.

I added that in my experience Christian women need to hear this because they are questioning their place in the church, the home, and even the heart of God, due to the teaching that theirs is a role of subservience while men’s is one of authority.

My dialogue partner understood me to be asserting that there are no differences between men and women, something I neither said nor meant. He also immediately challenged the idea that Christian women are struggling in any way, stating that “women are fine.” It’s men who are having a hard time; in today’s world men are disrespected at every turn and women are doing better than them in virtually every way. My mistake, he explained, is that I am behind the times.

It is true that men in America are not doing as well as in previous generations, at least by some measures. Boys now drop out of school more often than girls (7 percent of boys vs. 5 percent of girls), reversing the pattern that had held for generations.[2] And although male high school graduates are attending college at higher rates than ever, girls are heading off to university at even greater rates, resulting in women comprising about 57 percent of college students.[3]

American men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, are also working less than their predecessors. Historically, close to 95 percent of this demographic has been in the workforce, yet currently that number stands at less than 87 percent. Though the 2019 unemployment rate was only 3.7 percent, that number only counts those who are actively looking for work. This means that 9-10 percent of men in their prime working years have either given up seeking employment or are no working for other reasons, including being disabled. This downward trend started in 1975 when, for the first time since 1948 (the first year for which we have data) the labor participation rate of men 25 to 54 dropped below 90 percent.[4]

In addition, although women play video games almost as much as men (only about an hour and a half less per week for regular gamers), men are three times as likely to become addicted.[5] Men are also more likely to experience substance abuse disorders, with 11.5 percent of males but only 6.4 percent of females over 12 suffering from addictions.[6]

And though in a recent study 73 percent of women and 98 percent of men admitted to using porn in the previous six months, a full 80 percent of men but only 26 percent of women acknowledged looking at porn during the prior week. Also, men report both “higher frequency of use” and “higher perceived lack of control.” In other words, male porn users self-report as addicted more often than women do.[7]

It seems that men are likewise at a loss to understand what it means to be a man in a world where women are doing just about everything men do, including serving as soldiers in war and leading (a few) Fortune 500 companies. Men may be denounced for behaving in typically masculine ways, yet they also face criticism if they don’t “man up.”

Recently Sociology professor Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University asked one of his classes two questions. The first was, “What does it mean to be a good man?” After an awkward pause filled with puzzled looks, a few students cautiously ventured things like “caring,” “honest,” and “putting others’ needs first.” Professor Kimmel then asked, “What does it mean to be a real man?” The responses were immediate: “take charge,” “be authoritative,” “take risks,” and “suppressing any kind of weakness.” Kimmel’s believes we have no cohesive concept of masculinity when “a good man” and “a real man” are two very different things.[8]

In my last post I noted that some wives are struggling with husbands who are not as engaged at home as they would like them to be. Apparently these guys would rather play Xbox or watch ESPN than help their wives with the kids and household chores. Christian psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman wrote a whole book to meet this need, entitled Have a New Husband by Friday: How to Change His Attitude, Behavior and Communication in 5 Days. In the experience of another expert, this lack of initiative among men is a “growing trend.”[9]

So from confusion about what it means to be a man, to a lessened engagement in the workforce and the home, to a propensity toward addiction, it does appear that many men in America are struggling.

The question I have for my CBMW partner, though, is whether turning this matter into a zero-sum game is the point. Is it really necessary to pit men against women, taking sides about “who is struggling more”? Or can we acknowledge the issues both face and work together – as a team – to solve the problems?

It may be true that men are beaten down by current cultural trends, but they are not demoralized by the church. This is the difference. There is no church teaching that makes a man feel like less than a woman. There is nothing that happens on Sunday that causes his self-esteem to plummet, just because he is a man. There is no verse in the Bible that makes a man believe being male is a bad thing or that feels like a kick to his masculine gut.

Yet women face all of these, to varying degrees, depending on their particular church subculture. As I have interacted with young Christian women over the past 15 years I keep hearing the same questions: Is there anything good about being a woman – that is, a Christian woman? What is my place in the church? In the home? Does my voice matter? Does the end-all and be-all of my identity consist in submitting to and affirming a man’s leadership over my life?

As I’m writing this today I have received a lengthy email from a millennial wife and mother. Her struggle with what it means to be a Christian woman epitomizes the feedback I have gotten from many others. I have her permission to quote her anonymously, so I will do so here. I find her final comment especially telling.

Even as a kid, I have felt like something has been off with the way men and women function in the church. And this is from someone who grew up as a homeschooler going to a small conservative church. I didn’t know any differently. But as I’ve gotten older and I have heard stories about the men and women in our church and marriages, things are making more sense.

If I had continued in that atmosphere, I do not believe I would have ever wanted to get married. In my mind, I do not necessarily see the beauty in women being created for the sole purpose to serve a man in marriage. Now as a disclaimer, I love my husband and do my best to honor and respect him. As a Christian, I do believe we are called to serve one another.…

I want to have a peace about these topics and verses. I want to know the whys. I want certain things to be the case, but not just because I want it to be so because it makes me feel better. Something doesn’t seem right and I want to come to the right conclusion on this. It has been tormenting me for too long and I’m tired of secretly being ashamed to be a woman.[10]

Men may be struggling in society but women are struggling in the church. When women feel tormented by Scripture and are secretly ashamed of being women, something is not right. Influential leaders like the CBMW council member need to acknowledge this and try to imagine what it feels like for a woman to read those kick-a-girl-in-the-gut Bible passages. If we can’t see the challenges both sides face, we lose sight of our common humanity and our opportunity to support one another.

Each Christian has his or her own assignment from God. Mine seems to be to help Christian women understand that it is good to be a woman, from comprehending our fundamental humanity and sameness with men to grasping the beautiful ways we differ from them. I have received criticism from both sides on this – from some because I stress the functional equality of women with men and from others because I try to articulate where the differences lie. And yet I find that these are the very questions many people wonder about.

The old stereotypes and Christian assumptions about masculinity and femininity simply no longer hold water. They have been proven at best insufficient and at worst incorrect and harmful in so many ways. So it’s not surprising that many are asking what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. The starting point for this discussion, however, must always be our common humanity and equality, without which we get lost in all sorts of unhelpful ideas about the essence of manhood and womanhood.

Since this is how I understand my purpose, of necessity I highlight the ways Bible passages that seem to denigrate women have been misinterpreted. I am not a man and not an expert on manhood, so I do not consider myself qualified to discuss masculinity in the way that I talk about womanhood. I do hope, though, that I have managed to encourage women without ever dismissing the needs or concerns of men, for I believe those are also very real.

Ultimately I think focusing on “who is struggling more” is the wrong question. It achieves nothing but pit men and women against each other, fueling the bitter battle of the sexes. Instead we ought to put our efforts into helping women and men work together as partners, encouraging and lifting one another in every way we can.

It’s time to change the conversation.

[1] I want to mention that he seemed like a very nice man and I enjoyed talking with him. His wife also spoke at the conference and by all appearances they are very happily married.

[2] View high school dropout rates here. Also, throughout this article I use the term “American” to refer to the people of the United States. I do this because it is a common designation and simpler than saying “in the United States,” though I recognize that America consists of two continents with many countries and that it is technically incorrect and ethnocentric for people from the U.S. to co-opt this term. This is not meant as any disrespect to the people of the many other countries of North and South America.

[3] See data and graphs for college attendance rates over time here and here along with the Pew report “Women’s college enrollment gains leave men behind.”

[4] See the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics. For an analysis of why this has happened see Derek Thompson’s article “The Missing Men” for The Atlantic and the latest Pew Research report.

[5]For stats on online gaming by men and women see “The State of Online Gaming – 2019.” For differences in how male and female brains are impacted see “Video Games Stimulate Men’s Brains More thanWomen’s.” Sorry for how this page displays. You will need to scroll down the page until you find the title and start reading there.

[6] “The Differences in Addiction Between Men and Women” at The Addiction Center’s website and Harvard Health’s “Addiction in Women”.

[7] Grant Hilary Brenner MD, “When is Porn Use a Problem?” Psychology Today.

[8] Katherine Schulten, “What Does it Mean to be ‘a Real Man’?”, New York Times, September 10, 2015. Dr. Kimmel is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook.

[9] See Dr. Slattery’s 01/30/2020 blog post “Helping Your Husband Grow UP” at: https://www.authenticintimacy.com/resources/17321/helping-your-husband-grow-up?source=blog; and “My Husband Won’t Grow Up” dated 06/20/2016: https://www.authenticintimacy.com/resources/2986/my-husband-wont-grow-up.

[10] I have read of men who feel ashamed to be a man, especially if they are white men, since it seems as though the world’s ills are being pinned on them. This is not a good thing either; neither women nor men should feel ashamed about being what God has created them to be.

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