The Essence of Masculinity | Institute for Family Studies

Editor’s Note: This week, the Family Studies blog is publishing a series of short essays addressing the meaning and purpose of healthy masculinity in today’s world. We asked contributors to consider the following questions as they explored this topic: what is healthy masculinity, can it exist in our culture today, what threatens it, and what should we be teaching young men about it? We’ve heard from Aaron M. Renn and Leonard Sax and Delano Squires. To wrap up our series, Patrick Fagan offers his perspective on the core components of healthy masculinity.

All living things live in such a way as to ensure the survival and prosperity of their species. This holds for plants, animals, and men. In our time, mankind not only threatens the survival of many other species but now even its own. All nations are either heading towards or already are significantly below replacement fertility rates. And in the OECD, member countries that have attempted to reverse this decline have no success to report. This a masculinity/femininity problem because it is a “complementarity of the sexes” problem.

No matter which way you look at it (theologically, philosophically, biologically, evolutionary, or in social science), the division of mankind into male and female is present for producing children. Both sexes can do an infinite number of other things, but they rarely need to be male or female to do them, and most of these things they can do alone. But they need their difference and their union to produce a baby. We are male and female primarily (even solely) to have and to raise children.

“The child” is thus the ultimate measure of good masculinity (or good femininity). He is totally dependent on both for his existence and is ‘a priori’ dependent on their complementary action (intercourse). After birth, both mother and child are dependent on the father to provide the setting in which both thrive most. In other words, the most fundamental aspect of masculinity is first fathering, then providing food, shelter, and protection for both mother and child.  

When fathers are systemically absent (as many U.S. fathers are in one way or another—either because of a nonmarital birth followed eventually by separation, or because of divorce), neither mother nor child systemically thrive compared to the mother and children who have a husband and biological father present in the family.  

The capacity for sustaining marriage is not the only aspect of positive masculinity, but I contend that nature makes it the central societal-survival element.

In the outcomes at the core of the six basic institutions of all societies (family, church, school, marketplace, government, and healthcare) both mother and child do best when the biological father is present. For example:

Thus, the core measure of masculinity—the male’s complementary relationship to the female and the child—is whether a man can sustain an intact marriage. If he does, both the mother and the child thrive most in society, no matter which way the data is sliced. If he is not capable of sustaining marriage with the mother of his child, he is ‘toxic’ to her and to his child.

This capacity for sustaining marriage is not the only aspect of positive masculinity, but I contend that nature makes it the central societal-survival element. Evolutionary biology makes it so, and witness is borne to this in the sociology of intergenerational transmission of flourishing for both young women and young men. 

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D., from Dublin, Ireland, is Director of MARRI at the Catholic University of America, and publisher of Faith and Family Findings. He has been a teacher, family therapist, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Family and Community Policy at HHS for President George H. Bush, and a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

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