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By Rev. Allie McDougall

As the third decade of the 21st century unfolds, I have become increasingly concerned about what is happening with men, particularly young men, and boys.

This is not a new issue for the church: our history reflects a consistent concern for the inconsistent presence and role of men in churches that has been tied to several contextual shifts. The Enlightenment, industrial revolutions, world wars, and now, the rise of secularism as a viable alternative to the Christian faith have all played a part in drawing men from our pews. However, what is currently brewing and taking root with rising generations is far more insidious, reactionary, and threatening to our social fabric. The attention of the Church is required.

Counterreactions to the feminist movement popped up almost immediately after the first wave gained traction in the 1840s and have been present with every subsequent wave since. Reactions to and criticism of feminist progress have intensified with thanks to the Internet, and several new avenues of criticism have emerged across the ideological spectrum.

These critical lenses are, at least in part, concerned with addressing the crisis of masculinity: and there is indeed a crisis!

Men are overrepresented in statistics related to mental illness, suicidality, deaths of despair, homelessness, and substance addiction. Boys are struggling in learning environments both behaviourally and academically. The average age of first-time exposure to pornography is 11. These are symptoms of an existential and spiritual emergency.

The “manosphere” is the most extreme contemporary expression of anti-feminism drawing widespread appeal amongst young men. This term refers to a collection of blogs, YouTube channels, social media forums, and more recently TikTok accounts where men’s issues are centred, largely premised on the belief that the feminist movement is to blame for the current crisis of masculinity.

The manosphere is at least in part interested in addressing these very troubling issues, but other corners of this amorphous and shifting digital world are directly responsible for the further radicalization of male gender norms.

Certain manosphere platforms are not merely critiquing feminism and its perceived consequences, but have been shown to promote misogyny, violence against women, reclamation of social patriarchy, and sexual assault. For example, pimp and alleged rapist Andrew Tate’s virulently misogynistic social media rhetoric remains exceedingly popular with teen boys.

Manosphere discourse has also overlapped with white supremacist and alt-right movements, generating and spreading hate toward other vulnerable groups. Several public acts of violence and terror, including the 2018 Toronto van attack and mass shootings in the United States, have been directly inspired by this rhetoric by the free admission of the perpetrators. The ubiquity of smartphones and internet access means that these ideas are more accessible and shareable than ever before.

The manosphere is not the only corner of the internet in which boys and men are finding a platform for the issues that impact them, but it does appear to be the ideological endpoint when men’s issues are positioned in opposition to the cause of feminism.

The aforementioned concerns are pervasive and legitimate, yet most of the discussion around them appears to lie with a narrow subset of reactionary social conservatism.

The most popular public intellectual of this variety would be Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has taken an “anti-woke” stance and promotes a Nietzschean “strong man” style of masculinity involving a commitment to personal responsibility and traditional gender roles. This is sometimes packaged with the language of cultural Christianity. Other influential male role models include podcast host Joe Rogan, tech billionaire Elon Musk, and political commentator Ben Shapiro.

From the darkest corners of the manosphere to the myriad self-help TikTok and Instagram accounts targeting men and boys, the popular ideal of masculinity depends on rehashing old power claims, repackaging unhealthy gender tropes, and appealing to male anger. This is most certainly a recipe for disaster and the reinforcement of the issues troubling boys and men.

So, how should the Church respond?

The Church can only point to the person of Jesus Christ, who exemplifies the best of what men are capable of, who can offer a viable alternative to the toxicity of the modern male ideal through the embodiment of God’s pure and non-forceful love.

The Church can model male leadership, lay and clerical, that is compassionate, kind, self-giving, loving to all of God’s people, and egalitarian in spirit and practice. We can be intentional in our engagement with the young men in our parishes and create opportunities for deeper discipleship and formation into Christlikeness.

Above all we can and must pray that the Holy Spirit will break through the many voices and temptations being hurled at boys and men to generate true health and wholeness.

Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate at St. Paul’s and St. Stephen's, Stratford.