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Episode Summary

One of the biggest social changes since the 1960s has been the empowerment of women to make personal choices, to control who they date, whether they’re married, and when or if they have children.

While society and popular culture aimed at women seem to have embraced many of these changes, the unfortunate reality is that popular culture aimed at men has not kept pace. Instead of encouraging adaptation and teaching new social and professional skills, cultural influencers who aim for the male media market have mostly been offering the same old advice—which simply doesn’t work in a world in which divorce is common and dating apps have made things easier but also more complicated.

Male friendship has also declined. A 2021 study from the Survey Center on American Life found that 15 of male respondents said they had no close friends. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic played an important role in this, but there are other factors as well, such as pop culture that encourages men to avoid new friendships or discussing their feelings. As a result, many men have not been able to resolve these struggles. So-called “deaths of despair,” such as drug or alcohol overdoses and deliberate suicides are much higher among men than women.

Further compounding the negative situation has been the proliferation of “men’s rights” activists and other far-right political actors such as the “incel” movement who have been radicalizing millions of young men to blame others for their problems, instead of learning from mistakes or improving their outlook.

Is there a crisis of masculinity in America? In this episode, we’re featuring Brandon Bradford, he’s a political consultant who also serves as a men’s support group leader in his spare time.


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Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: We’re happy to have you here today. Thanks for being here, Brandon.

BRANDON BRADFORD: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, before we get to into the topic here, just tell us a little bit about some of these men’s support groups that you’re involved with and then we’ll get into it.

BRADFORD: For the vast majority of them, I [00:04:00] think on the smaller side, there’s six or seven of us. On the larger side, there’s 35 to 40.

We always have two or three new guys in. And then two or three new guys, they either move out of the area just because it’s the Bay Area and people are constantly moving. We focus a lot on current insecurities, stability, lifestyle stability, trying to build some community, and kind of adjust the focus away from blaming women for why people have this chronic loneliness about them.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, so, and yeah, you mentioned loneliness, is that a common thing that people are concerned about that you’ve spoken with?

BRADFORD: I think that’s the consistent underlying factor is loneliness. It’s loneliness and insecurity, and blaming a thousand other things for it.

There’s, you’ll see a lot in like men’s rights activist groups of a presumed ownership of their, they’re deserving of women’s bodies, they’re deserving of sex, they’re deserving, and they’re not getting it because of X, Y, Z. Generally, women, women, feminism are something of the sort. And it’s, you know, readjusting that narrative about how they treat women, how they treat men, how they look at themselves.

Very often these are just projected insecurities that they don’t like themselves, and so they don’t understand why anyone else would like themselves and looking to tear down folks.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. So I mean, would you say that boys are not really equipped to develop new friendships compared to women?

BRADFORD: I think unfortunately, the idea of the, the stoic man doing things on his own, off on his own, not being able to build a community, has built a generation of men who didn’t build, and didn’t develop, and didn’t prioritize the social skills to, to build a community of people he can talk to.

And we’re unfortunately, our, our father’s, fathers uh, put a lot of that burden on the women in their lives. Luckily, I think this newish generation is way better. The, the kids are all right and put a lot of [00:06:00] focus on both male friends and mental health and taking care of each other and building that community.

But there’s this, I think, This gap of men that are between, I would say 29 to 60, who are just, were in that hard generation of just dumb ways, traditional ways to look at both men and society who are unequipped. And then just looking for an outlet.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well I think some of that, you know, there were structures that were, their societal structures that were there for them, that they kind of just sort of assumed would always be there or just took for granted.

So for a lot of people, the way that they met friends and other people was through churches or was through veterans organizations like the VFW or things like that.

But of course for people after them, like, those are not really things that are relevant to them. Yeah. Because either they’re not religious or, and certainly not serving, having served in a foreign war.

BRADFORD: Yeah. There, there’s a lot of there’s so much value in shared communal space in the compounding effects it has in a positive society.

Same way how, you know, one of the best parts about New York’s train system is that everyone has to ride it. And you end up interacting with a little bit of everyone. And if you’re not from there, that may be something scary. But if you’re from there, it’s New York’s lifeblood.

Similarly, communal spaces offer support systems that we need. Church groups are great for that. School fraternities. It’s one of the reasons why going to college is important for a lot of people, because it allows you to add to a community and a larger group of people that you are probably never, you would never meet without that type of big social influx.

And similarly, the military did that for a lot of people. That’s why, that’s why a lot of cops hang out together. You just need some type of fraternity or group of friends that, that forces that communal space on a regularity for you. One reason’s, Jiujitsu is so popular, outside of the feel of it and the constant push through and struggle, is that it allows [00:08:00] groups of people to just hang out. A lot of guys didn’t have a lot of other guys to hang out with and they were just doing that on a regular basis and using it and the dopamine that comes from doing it.

And so I think you’re right in terms of, I think those communal structures were different because our jobs were different, and our lifestyles were different and all that’s adjusted, and men need to adjust, too.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And in terms of that adjustment, I mean, one of the other big cultural pressures on men, I think, that is really harmful to that adjustment process is that the idea of close male friendship is often framed in homophobic terms and like–

BRADFORD: Oh all the time.

SHEFFIELD: Just as for instance, the Lord of the Rings movies where they had the two main hobbit characters, Frodo and Sam, so much of the commentary about that relationship was, oh, they’re gay for each other and–

BRADFORD: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Like, they were not gay by any stretch of the imagination. They were just close friends. Yeah.

BRADFORD: Yeah. Well, a hundred percent. And like, I, I, luckily I’ve got older brothers, and surrogate older brothers, and have grown up with groups of male friends, and I’ve got several good groups of male friends if I ever needed anything.

But I know quite a few guys who have maybe one male friend, who have zero friends that are women. So it’s not surprising. And they don’t interact in any type of space, like no space in their lives and their routines is going to naturally change that. They’d have to go out of their way, and it’s already a couple of humps in their comfort zone.

And so, like, expecting people to naturally dive out of it is, I think, unrealistic. But we can set better standards for how we as a society frame our interactions and the things we push, I think, will be more important.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I mean, no, in the groups that, that you’ve been in, like how common have people express that idea that, oh, talking about your feelings with other men is gay. How much have [00:10:00] you seen that?

BRADFORD: There’s always I mean, if you’re already at that group, you’ve made a step , but there’s always some underlying homophobia around some of the just being emotional. Or if it’s not homophobia, it’s just framing, communicating in certain ways, it’s automatically feminine.

And they haven’t gotten through those humps themselves. And so they’re both denigrating themselves, and denigrating the people around them. They can’t talk about it even though they feel it, and they shit on themselves all the time constantly for feeling some way. And they can’t, they can’t get to the point where they accept it with themselves, nevertheless communicate with us.

And it’s breaking down those barriers of like, Hey, how do you feel in this situation? Not, how are you reacting? Not, not that you’re angry about the situation. Like what are you angry about? Why are you reacting this way? Why can’t you communicate to someone. Before you’re flipping your top off you know, three months down the road.

Why is it why is it such a big hump for you to be vulnerable? And a lot of it focuses around just they, they’ve already filtered those feelings, those types of interactions as feminine, and they’re not feminine. And, and that is that. And so it’s, it’s just really, really old antiquated views of the world and frameworks that they’re filtering the world through that are harming them.

And that’s one of the biggest things that we communicate, is that these structures aren’t, yeah, they’re bad for society in general, but they’re also bad for men that we’re not creating both emotionally vulnerable is important, but also just like there’s no solid foundation to build anything from.

Yeah. And they can, they end up not being fluid at all for any type of big change in their lives or any type of type of new person or new growth. These guys, a lot of the times, especially around loneliness and loneliness with women, I’m like, you’re not ready to date anybody, FYI. You’re, you’re chronically lonely, but you’re sitting a lot of times hoping a woman will come life to help you fix all the things that you’re ignoring when you need to work on that on yourself and then try to build a partnership. [00:12:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I guess the, the idea that they, you know, a, a lot of women have come to accept the idea that they don’t necessarily need a man. Straight women have accepted that. Whereas straight men also should accept that as well. That, you know, you need to have yourself to be able to support yourself emotionally.

BRADFORD: Yes.

SHEFFIELD: And not just not outsource that to someone else. Because I mean, there have been some studies out there that have shown that in a lot married couple relationships that the wife is basically responsible for managing the outside the family relationships. And the men just sort of out you know, offload it onto them.

BRADFORD: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: And as a result, they derive less satisfaction from that. Because again, if you’re hanging out with just your wife’s friends, that’s not as satisfying because they’re not your friends. You–

BRADFORD: Yes.

SHEFFIELD: –meet them and you don’t have as much in common with them because you,

BRADFORD: And you probably don’t confide in them.

Like when you’re struggling with something, when you’re struggling to communicate, when you’re struggling, everything waxes and wanes and maybe you’re just having a couple of bad weeks.

I think you build friends as a group, as a couple, but maybe you need to talk about your wife and your inability to communicate something, or her inability to see you and hear you in the right way. And you’re struggling how to communicate that to her. And it’s good to have a friend’s ear to bounce that off of. I think it’s invaluable.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and then at the same time, as we’ve kind of touched on, but not in depth here, is that you do have this proliferation of right wing political actors really flooding into this space.

Because if you look at the way that fascist politics works, it’s all about atomized individuals who are resentful of the society that they live in.

BRADFORD: The entire brand is to be affable, approachable, charismatic in their terms, charismatic. I don’t find them charismatic, but regular, everyday guys talking to them, talking about their [00:14:00] problems and then selling them bigotry as the solution for it every time.

They do it for economics, they do it for wealth disparity, they do it for men’s rights and chronic loneliness. It’s women, it’s feminism, it’s whatever they decide “woke” means. This day, it’s woke politics are doing this, this, and this. And that’s why you as a man can’t get all of these things that are making you deeply insecure.

And oddly enough, they never have solutions for that crippling loneliness. They just have more fuel for that hate spiral.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, and I guess the other thing that they do kind of is, especially people like Jordan Peterson who target a lot of vulnerable men, is that they construct personal heroic narratives to them and say ‘If you can do these things to yourself, then you will by definition win.’ You’ll become worthy is one of their phrases.

BRADFORD: They do a lot of really, really basic life advice that is just good structural things. You should make up your bed. And then they pair it with axioms centered around hate: ‘You should make your bed every day. You should do this every day. You should you should be, you should meditate and breathe a little bit more. And also remember to hate women.’

It’s pairing really, really fundamental, habit-forming things that do make you feel better, that are important. And they’re not saying anything new. They’re just copy pasting pretty much every basic life advice book. And then infusing all of that advice with their very nonsensical takes on culture wars.

None of the arguments are good, but they’re mantra, and they repeat them over and over and over, a thousand different ways. And that’s the point.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I mean, the other thing though is that a lot of right wing politics in devolves, sort of, to personal worthiness.

So in other words, if you are poor, it’s because you’re lazy. It’s not because you came from bad circumstances, or you live in a area where you don’t have opportunity, or whatever. It’s because there’s something wrong [00:16:00] with you. And in some cases, there might be things you can do to improve your personal circumstances, and there always is something you can do.

But at the same time, saying that there is no systemic issues that you might be faced with, it creates this delusion, this idea that, and you kind of see this with the incel movement.

BRADFORD: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Where involuntary celibate men, where they claim that they deserve to date women who they regard as exceptionally attractive, but they themselves are not in any position to be interesting to that type of woman.

BRADFORD: There’s a huge conflation of possibility and probability, and they intertwined with platitudes around independence, which cool, no one’s saying that independence and what they believe is personal responsibility, so that you can work your way from the ground up, that all it takes is one example of someone doing it.

They’re like, ‘Hey, it’s possible. Why don’t you guys do it?’ As opposed saying, it’s very, very improbable for it to be a standard for someone to have to climb up a mountain just to get their basics.

And how that intertwines into incel and a lot of incel logic is: ‘I was born ugly. Society should do something or subsidized surgeries for my face. I’m five six. I’m five seven. No woman’s going to like a guy that’s under six feet.’

Do they interact with women? No. Do they believe women when they tell them otherwise? Absolutely not.

They assume they’ve already gotten women down. The weirdest thing and the most unsurprising thing about interacting with incels, is that they believe they know women better than women know themselves. And they think women are lying when they say that personal is important.

They think women are lying when they care less about height. Just because some women definitely care about height doesn’t mean all women do. And so the interactions, especially with societal structures and what they think is systemic, is that they think they’re just born cursed and no woman is ever going to love them.

And [00:18:00] it’s unsurprising because it’s basically how they feel about themselves. They hate themselves, so they can’t see it why anyone else wouldn’t.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And to go back to what you were saying about the idea of possibility and probability, this idea that because it is possible for some people to go from rags to riches or it is possible for some people to have a lot of success in dating, they make their followers feel like that they’re horrible and worthless if they can’t attain that.

But the reality is most people, the vast, vast majority of people are not going to become a billionaire.

BRADFORD: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: The vast, vast majority of people are not going to be dating cover models.

BRADFORD: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Male or female. That’s just not going to happen. And so, you need to not beat yourself up over that if it doesn’t happen for you.

BRADFORD: Yes. And also it’s, it’s such a wild thing how often that specific type of guy will completely just, certain types of women to them are invisible and they just, they don’t exist to them. They don’t see them as both attractive or non attractive women, because they’ve only got such a very narrow typecast of what they think attractive is.

And it’s painfully ironic that that’s the only thing they see when there are women around them, that a lot of the times they’ve already just written off, because they only like one Barbie doll type girl. And they’re like, well, I’m not Ken, so I’ll never get her. And I’m like, well, there’s a lot wrong with that, but sure.

But it’s often not less about looks and more about lifestyle, and you don’t get along with anything or do anything she does. You’re entirely different worlds together. The bigger problem is that you can’t have a regular conversation about anything interesting. Probably start there.

SHEFFIELD: Not just with a woman, but even with a man. Like, you have an issue with that too. This has nothing to do with women, in fact.

BRADFORD: So a lot of the times, early on there was ‘Hey I wanna work on some things, Brandon.’

I’m like, ‘all right, cool. What do you wanna work on tonight?’

‘How do I seduce women?’

[00:20:00] I’m like, oh, all of them, just like that. They think it’s a bag of tricks, like do this, get this back. And everything is incentive based in terms of if I do these three things, girls will sleep with me.

And it’s weird to watch them break down that again, starting to think of women as full on people instead of just, I guess, reactionary brains attached to vaginas. It’s very, very strange. But a lot of our, a lot of our first general habits are after we’re talking about themselves, is like, we’re going to go out and we’re going to make friends with dudes.

The guys that all girls like generally all guys like too, because they’re affable and they’re not worried about, you know, sleeping with every woman they meet.

So let’s go and see if you can go make, go try and make friends with people that you just meet out and about, instead of just hyper-focusing on one girl most of the time. And then if that girl is not interested in you, spiraling for another six months and saying that you hate women.

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