The evergreen argument of nature-vs.-nurture persists, this time regarding masculinity.
“We need to be clearer about gender confusion,” writes Gutmann (Anthropology/Brown Univ.; Fixing Men: Sex, Birth Control, and AIDS in Mexico, 2007, etc.) at the beginning, “better at distinguishing anxieties and limitations from expectations and choices, more determined than ever to untangle the fairy tales about men from the bodies and souls of real live men.” To demonstrate the complexity of gender and the wide variability of human maleness across cultures, he cites the Muxe’, a sort of “third gender” in Mexico; the ritualized homosexuality among the Sambia of New Guinea, where young boys must swallow the semen of older men in order to become adult males; and hijras in India, who “are people born anatomically male” but “achieve spiritual purity by sacrificing their sex organs to a Hindu goddess.” As the author convincingly argues, assessing maleness means looking beyond biology, since biology alone cannot explain these variabilities. “Biological extremism about men and boys is nonsense,” he writes. Throughout, Gutmann stresses that the expression “boys will be boys” gives males a free pass to engage in bad behavior. The real-world consequences of such thinking, writes the author, include the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the 2018 confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Such examples, appealing to some and anathema to others, do give the book a certain air of timeliness but may ultimately serve to date it. Gutmann’s scope is impressive, as he also sheds light on contemporary Chinese gender negotiations in the section about “Blind Date Corner” in Shanghai; reveals some regional differences in male attitudes toward vasectomies; and tackles prevailing myths about the role of testosterone and its relation to violence.
A smooth read that will give readers of either gender much to ponder—and to argue about.