A review of What Do Men Want? Masculinity and its Discontents by Nina Power, 192 pages, Penguin paperback (June 2023)
It’s been roughly 14 years since the publication of Nina Power’s critically acclaimed book One Dimensional Woman—a 69-page tract in which the British philosopher explored how the successes of second-wave feminism were fully coopted by neoliberal capitalism. Her follow-up What Do Men Want? (published in 2022 and reprinted last month in paperback) picks up where her previous work left off, and should probably be read against a background of subsequent developments. After nearly a decade-and-a-half of techno-capitalism and corporate media’s adoption of feminist slogans and ideas, distrust between alienated men and women has flourished, and a “war of the sexes” pervades our society and economy.
Power’s new book, however, strikes a very different tone and offers a very different diagnosis to the problems its author identifies. This surely reflects Power’s own ideological transformation. Having fought an onslaught of cancellation attempts by trans activists, she became a senior editor at Compact magazine. One-Dimensional Woman critiqued the nuclear family and explored the different ways in which men and women can be lusty and licentious (chapter titles included “Socialism Must Not Exclude Human Sensual Pleasure from Its Program!”). Her short history of pornography even ventured into bohemian contemplations of infantile sexuality.
Her current stance, on the other hand, reflects Compact’s commitment to defending “community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.” One Dimensional Woman exposed the ignorance of influential philistines and second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon on the subject of art history and the futility of their attempts to ban pornography. What we consider “pornographic,” Power argued then, necessarily depends on the prevailing ideas of the cultural-historical moment. But Power now seems to be more favourably disposed towards the legacy of those pioneering censors, who forged pragmatic alliances with religious conservatives in their common battle against vice.
While Power strives to communicate her ideas in clear and convincing prose, What Do Men Want? is fraught with contradictions and ideological incoherence. Even as she attempts to vindicate some feminists’ repudiation of 1960s sexual liberation, Power also tries to address the damage inflicted on men by cancel culture, without ever attributing any blame to her feminist forerunners. She proclaims feminism’s power to “fix” broken men, but also ruminates on the dangers of sex and the wholesomeness of faith, monogamy, nuclear family, and tradition.
This is from Chapter One:
What has sexual liberation done for (or to) us, men and women alike? As we have seen, sex, like money or good looks, is not fairly distributed. ... In order to get to a kinder, wiser, more enchanted place, we must think carefully and accept our decisions, whether they be for friendship, sex, marriage and/or children, while at the same time acknowledging a certain unknowability, a deep enigma, at the heart of any and all these aspirations.
But we shouldn’t be afraid.
From Chapter 5:
There are plenty of people, beyond frustrated young men on the internet and French novelists, who understand that today sex is a marketplace like everything else, but also that life is unfair. Instead of mourning the absence of something, what about leaving sex behind? Why not dwell in the gentler pleasures of friendship, or take leave of the opposite sex altogether? From incel to volcel (voluntary celibate)…
And from Chapter 6:
In a selfish and immature culture, we stop thinking carefully and reasonably, and our desires push their way to the front, to be met with an endless array of things to satisfy them. Virtues … are passed over and even mocked, as if someone who exhibits these qualities is somehow missing out on all the fun. Why wait to get married before having sex? You can meet someone on an app and hook up tonight!
Fucking is overrated and desire is, apparently, capitalist. So, Power recommends that we move on from sex, unless we are talking about “gender.” We should return to speaking about “sex” instead of “gender,” even though Power, unlike many of her anti-woke colleagues, does not believe that biology produces sex differences in psychology. “This book may be interpreted by some as a conservative analysis of men and women,” Power admits in its conclusion, “and if it is read in this way that cannot be helped.”
The solution to men’s woes, meanwhile, is not to rebel against the depressingly effete, desexualized suburbia promoted by Western technocracies. Instead, we should exorcize the terrible Freudian thanatos/eros complex and stamp out the last embers of the death/lust urges that dominate male behavior. Power criticizes liberal feminists’ invocations of “unhelpful” terms like “toxic masculinity.” But wasn’t “toxic masculinity” simply the hip term invoked by our post-intellectual, psychoanalytically illiterate society for the sex/death instinct in men? Instead, Power quotes bell hooks as she advocates a healthier “new masculinity” focused on child-rearing domesticity, a formula which grates against the Freudian allusions in the book’s title.
Power then time-travels to a fantastical version of classical antiquity, which enables her to insist that we have misunderstood ancient conceptions of eros and beauty. For the Greeks, we discover, virility meant so much more than “an erection”—it was about self-denial. It is valuable to acknowledge the ways in which politically correct scholarship has warped our remembrance of ancient eroticism, and Power should be applauded for taking that brave first step.
But the suggestion that the ancients had a less carnal culture of sex and eroticism is silly and easily refuted. Fragments of Hippocrates’s medical texts diagnose a rare and baffling “fear of flute-girls”—an aversion to the talented prostitutes who made music and slept with Greek men at crowded banquets. The poet and pre-Socratic philosopher Aristophanes invented hundreds of comical code-words for genitalia. A few lines from his play Lysistrata should be enough to disabuse us (and Power) of any arrogance about our modern lack of inhibition:
LAMPITO: By the twin gods, it’s hard
for women to sleep all by themselves
without a throbbing cock. But we must try.
We’ve got to have a peace.
LYSISTRATA: Oh, you’re a true friend!
The only real woman in this bunch...
LYSISTRATA: O Aphrodite born on Cyprus
and, you, sweet passionate Eros, breathe
sexual longing on our breasts and thighs
and fill our men with tortuous desire
and make their pricks erect. If so, I think
we’ll win ourselves a name among the Greeks
as those who brought an end to warfare.
None of that holds a phallus-candle to Catullus’s idea of Roman virility. This is from Poem XVI:
I will ass- and face-fuck you both, Faggot Aurelius and buttfucked Furius,
You who think me a sissy
Because of my delicate verses.
For the sacred poet ought to be chaste himself, this is not necessary for his verses;
Verses which then have wit and charm,
If they are delicate and not at all chaste
And when they can incite an itch,
And I don’t speak for boys,
but for those hairy old men who can’t get their pricks up.
What Do Men Want? argues that the sexual revolution was ultimately traumatic and that it is responsible for modern sexual misery in the West. This secular version of the Fall undermines what could otherwise have been a more original thesis, and admits further self-defeating contradictions into Power’s arguments. She ignores how fear of “excessive” freedom awakened a puritanical mania in American progressives, who repented by ushering in a new “sex bureaucracy” to regulate consenting adults’ intimacy and speech.
Power prefers to blame new technology, transgender ideology, and a vaguely defined moral crisis for contemporary disarray. She rightly laments the needless deterioration of 21st-century relations between the sexes. But unlike the One Dimensional Woman, this Power is less willing to acknowledge that her fellow feminist activists’ historic conquest of the mainstream may have contributed to fomenting these cultural trends since at least the 1990s.
No diagnosis of modern males’ problems would be complete without mentioning the rise of Jordan Peterson. Power claims Peterson’s popularity exploded because he promised young men a deftly structured exit from emotional havoc. But if that were true, wouldn’t every other self-help author have as ubiquitous a name? Had Power listened more closely to men, she might have understood the ultimate source of Peterson’s celebrity is not his guruistic prose so much as his visibility while debating the liberal feminism of media talking-heads like Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.
In places, Power retraces the path taken by Angela Nagle’s far more daring Kill All Normies (Zero Books, 2017), which explored the bizarre subcultures of frustrated Very Online Men. But Power’s book is less political than Nagle’s, and at times, What Do Men Want? reads like self-help lit—some chapters address men who might be so put off by the media’s invective about “toxic masculinity” that they seek refuge among the Pied Pipers of “incel” culture. So, she offers to be their suicide hotline: “But there is so much to live for: life is very surprising. It is worth sticking around just to see what might happen, if nothing else. And you never know who can help you when you’re down: that too is sometimes amazing.”
For men, what are the alternatives to patronising advice along the lines of Peterson’s “don’t be a man-child” or Power’s “empathic” moral exhortations to forswear the torments of sex? Wouldn’t the allure of the new phallic cults be better abated by the emergence of male novelists with worldly experience, whose texts could speak, with fewer pontifical directives, to today’s dangerously isolated younger men—our generation’s Camus? Apparently not. When tackling the toxic masculinity of Camus, Power draws upon clichés of feminist literary criticism towards such male bohemian outsiders:
We are presented with thinking men who, when they act, act unbearably. … We have become accustomed to imagining that the man who thinks, thinks alone. … If this same culture promotes the idea that the reward for being this kind of man is a woman, we must ask ourselves what happens to and for those men for whom there is no woman or for whom women are not enough.
Camus would not get past the contemporary gatekeeping of 21st-century publishers. The disappointing conventionality of What Do Men Want?—the first book by the otherwise-unconventional Nina Power to pass through a major publishing house—confirms it.