Let’s look at men by numbers: The vast majority of CEOs are men (in fact, it was only this past April that women CEOs finally outnumbered CEOs named John.); 93% of world leaders are men; 87% of billionaires are men; 84% of all Pulitzer Prizes awarded in the last 100 years went to men. And if we’re painting by numbers, it’s easy to step back and assume that men—especially those privileged across race, class, and ability—are doing well. But this is only part of the picture.
In 2017, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy penned an essay for the Harvard Business Review, where he named loneliness a growing health epidemic. This loneliness was so dire, Dr. Murthy argued, it could shorten a lifespan by as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This wasn’t the first time loneliness had been framed as a public health issue. The New Republic, for instance, published “The Lethality of Loneliness” back in 2013, and the article began adding new colors to the canvas of men: loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.
Only six months later, Billy Baker’s Boston Globe article went viral, titled, “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Age Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness.” Since then, the men’s loneliness epidemic has become a touchstone for understanding how, and to what extent, men are struggling.
On all levels of the loneliness epidemic, women are right there, charting the course.
But lately, much of the conversation around men’s loneliness has been spearheaded by women. Last February, in an op-ed for The New York Times, Magdalene J. Taylor explored loneliness vis-à-vis somewhat historic rates of sexlessness in men under 30. The article encouraged men to screw their way out of isolation (a prospect I imagine is exhausting for the many women pursued as a result). Then in July, a Washington Post op-ed by Christine Emba bravely charted generations of lost men and offered a map out of the wilderness that anyone from incel, to manfluencer, to quietly isolated, to well-intentioned young man could resonate with. On all levels of the loneliness epidemic—from wide-angle societal critiques, impassioned recommendations for pickleball, and life-kits teaching men how to make friends—women are right there, charting the course.
Certainly, there are public appeals made by men. The Boston Globe columnist Billy Baker went on to write a book about men’s loneliness and friendships, President Biden addressed mental health publicly in July of this year, and Dr. Murthy has continued his work on the subject, releasing an advisory this May (though both President Biden and Dr. Murthy tend to address loneliness in general rather than gendered terms).
But no matter who wrote what, the implicit takeaway is clear: Everyone should care! Women should care! No man left behind! But caring is a tricky word for many women, as it brims with gendered expectations of labor, open availability, and mental load. For many women—especially those who are sexually and romantically involved with men—the burden of investing in men and their problems often blurs the line between care and caretaking.
And while men’s loneliness certainly requires intervention, the real question is who, exactly, is expected to carry the load of care?
Care doesn’t mean fixing.
“Women have enough problems of their own to deal with. They don’t also have to be responsible for men’s problems,” says Richard V. Reeves, author of the recent book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
Reeves is more or less the authority on the state of boys and men in the United States, and recently announced the launch of the American Institute for Boys and Men, which he hopes will be the first research-based, nonideological organization vested in improving the lives of men. But when addressing my suspicions—that women are too often tasked with the emotional rescue of men, rather than invited into mutual solidarity—Reeves thinks it isn’t so simple. On the one hand, he agrees that men are often emotionally dependent on women, a dynamic that arose in part from the “patriarchal economic structures [that] held women down economically, but propped men up emotionally.” And now, as women gain greater economic independence, “a lot of men are falling emotionally,” says Reeves. But it gets more complicated when considering how institutions neglect men and create a vacuum women are left to fill.
Take the Office on Women’s Health—a small but indicative example of a larger whole. The office was established in 1991 within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And as there is no equivalent office for men, resources that should be aimed at men end up re-oriented toward women (like this article tasking women with talking about men’s mental health). The result? The lack of institutional resources for men, by convenience, is outsourced to women.
Even aside from the institutional shortcomings, there’s a cultural hesitancy to publicly address men’s needs. “A lot of men, particularly men who might be in a position to lead in organizations on this, are very reluctant to publicly voice concerns for men. And the reason for that is because they’re afraid,” says Reeves. “A guy talking about the problems with guys is going to be looked at with suspicion. Especially by women, right?” Here, I recognize myself, and remember the criticism aimed at former President Obama in 2014 when he launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative for at-risk boys.
Part of the issue, certainly, is that there’s a conflation between the data-driven reality of the lives of many men—who account for 75% of “deaths of despair”—and a culture that often writes off men’s gendered issues as just another tantrum of toxic masculinity. Even in queer communities, it’s hard to avoid obtuse, generalized critiques of masculinity even in nonmen. This environment makes it challenging to persuade men to take up the mantle of men’s issues, says Reeves, because many men feel the association is dangerous. Ironically, this creates another vacuum for women to fill because, as Reeves says, it generally feels more permissible for women to talk about men and gender on the public stage.
However, when it comes to women in positions of authority, the responsibility may feel a bit more earned. Reeves clarifies that institutions like the White House Gender Policy Council should take up the cause of men—and as for women’s groups and advocacy networks? “I am asking them not to oppose the cause of men, not to criticize those who are in good faith trying to address it, not to make it so risky for them that people won’t,” says Reeves. “I do think there’s a role for a kind of studied neutrality on the part of women.”
Of course, men are not a monolith—some really are well-intentioned, while others seek to capitalize off of men’s loneliness. Still, I believe people should have a stake in the well-being, dignity, and happiness of others. But care doesn’t mean fixing, and women (even journalists) don’t have an inherent responsibility to raise the alarm or save the day.
Sara Youngblood Gregory is a lesbian journalist and author of The Polyamory Workbook. Sara is a former staff writer for POPSUGAR and was the 2023 News and Narrative Fellow for TransLash Media. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vice, Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Bustle, DAME, Cosmo, Jezebel, and many others. Most recently, they were the recipient of the 2023 Curve and NLGJA Award for Emerging Journalists. Get in touch at saragregory.org.