As research for this post, I asked 8 members of Congress if they had read Josh Hawley’s new book, Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs. None had, although one said they had read a review and one said, his chief of staff gave him a copy that had been passed out at his church. That member said he opened it and started reading on a plane and couldn’t get passed Hawley, the Tucker Carlson of the Senate, comparing himself to Biblical Adam, put it down and left it on the plane. The book is creepy and if everyone in Missouri were to read it, Hawley will lose his seat in a landslide next year.
Melissa Deckman is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and an expert on the intersection of gender, religion and politics said in an interview last week that after she read Manhood, she was “really struck by the patriarchal view of how society should be. And this is something that is endemic, I think, to the Christian right… [W]hat I found in the book was really a lot of conversations about returning to a time when men put on their bootstraps: work harder and double down on individual responsibility as a way to solve the problems that are really largely structural. He paints this picture of going back several decades to the 1950s, where people can be farmers and kind of live off the land, or he uses the example of his uncle who has a small business pouring concrete. What struck me is that there are many people on the political left who would say we need, in fact, to invest more in having trade schools, we need to invest more in education that gets people ready for these pretty well-paying blue-collar jobs. But I don’t see the Republican Party having actual policy proposals that would have government spending toward, for example, increasing vocational/technical education, I don’t see increasing the spending at community colleges to address the shortages in industries that we actually need.”
Hawley is a big talker when it comes to populism. But he’s an elitist born and bred, so he never actually accomplishes anything that’s going to actually help anyone. This morning, writing for PunchBowl, Andrew Desiderio and Brendan Pedersen noted that “Elizabeth Warren has often stood alone on Capitol Hill as she’s pushed for more aggressive reforms of the U.S. financial system. Lately, though, one of Congress’ staunchest progressives has taken part in some of the Senate’s oddest pairings. Warren has been teaming up with some of the most conservative Republicans on what might otherwise be partisan battles over banking policy. Whether it’s efforts to claw back executives’ pay from failed banks or calling for the creation of an independent watchdog for the Federal Reserve, nearly all of Warren’s banking reform priorities have captured a rare ideological overlap between the two parties’ left and right flanks.”
They began their report with a look at Warren’s approach to banker clawbacks. The original version of her bill was a joint effort that included Hawley, which “helped bring several Senate Banking Republicans on board. ‘I don’t want to speak for her,’ Hawley said of Warren. ‘She might not agree with this, but I think Sen. Warren is a populist. And listen— banking is her area of expertise as a law professor. Holding these people accountable, holding these big corporations accountable, is important,’ Hawley added. ‘And we agree on that.’ The clawback effort was ultimately a mixed success. Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) teamed up with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) to introduce the RECOUP Act— another clawback bill that proposed narrower penalties than the Warren-Hawley bill while also introducing broader reforms, such as fresh bank board governance standards. The Brown-Scott package cleared the Senate Banking Committee by a huge bipartisan margin. Nine of the panel’s 11 Republicans voted in favor of the measure. Warren backed the RECOUP Act during the committee’s markup last week, calling it a ‘reasonable compromise… This is a very significant improvement over current law, where the CEOs keep it all,’ she said. Hawley, meanwhile, said he was ‘disappointed’ the panel didn’t take up his and Warren’s bill. ‘I’m afraid they’re watering it down,’ Hawley added.” Typical Hawley, talking (some of) the talk but running away when it actually comes to getting anything done.
The ex-Marine and actual populist running for the Senate seat Sir Manhood is sitting in now, is Lucas Kunce, the candidate endorsed by Blue America-- help him beat Hawley-- and I called him today to ask him about this. He told me that "Hawley is a fraud and a faker. In one breath he'll say he's fighting for workers but in the next he'll champion anti-worker 'right to work' scams in Missouri. He'll say he wants to crack down on big railroad tycoons while taking money from those same big railroad corporations. He'll write an entire book on manhood only to show us that his definition of manhood is running away like a coward. Missourians deserve a real warrior for working people, and I'm ready to serve."
In her review for the Washington Post, Becca Rothfeld reminded her readers that “For practically as long as men have existed, they have been in crisis. Everything, it seems, threatens them with obsolescence. As far back as the 1660s, King Charles II warned English men that a new beverage called coffee would destroy their virility, and in the early 1900s, opponents of coeducation worried that feather beds, dancing and even reading might emasculate little boys… Hawley toes the same wavering line in Manhood, in which he posits that masculinity is, at once, a biological endowment and a personal achievement. The book has many of the same tics as its forebears: It includes the usual eulogies for physical labor (romanticized as working with your hands), the standard invocations of legends from the ‘ancient Near East’ purported to confirm manhood’s universality, the familiar hagiographic celebrations of Teddy Roosevelt and the obligatory assurances that ‘men’ are called to be ‘warriors,’ this time on the cultural battlefield.
Manhood sees itself as a tragedy, not a farce. American men, it proclaims, are in dire straits. They are not working, getting married or raising children. Instead, they are taking drugs, feeling sorry for themselves and watching pornography on their phones. Hawley’s tone is alternately sympathetic and scolding as he suggests that men have become aimless and irresponsible, a development that will surely prove catastrophic for the country. “No menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood,” he writes, because “self-government” succeeds only when citizens cultivate “strength of character.” Women, it is implied, do not have enough of this precious resource to keep the country running.
Like a campaign speech, Manhood is an adventure in impressionistic and impassioned disorganization. Chapter breaks may as well be accidental; most passages could be reshuffled into any section without any loss of coherence. Hawley identifies six roles that men should occupy— husband, father, warrior, builder, priest, king— but never manages to distinguish them clearly from one another. Men in each guise are supposed to do hackneyed and abstract things, like “endure.” We are treated almost at random to tirades about the “chattering classes” and, quaintly, the French Revolution, which is characterized not as an assault on monarchy but as a “campaign of wholesale atheism.”
Insofar as it is possible to impose an organizational principle onto Manhood, the book takes up four distinct projects, though not in any particular order. The first is halfhearted biblical exegesis. The second is wholehearted self-promotion. Hawley is keen to cast himself as a man of the people by neglecting to name his elite alma maters (Stanford and Yale Law School), name-dropping the less-demonized university where he says he taught many floundering young men (the University of Missouri School of Law), reminiscing about his participation in organized sports (football) and selectively remembering the parts of his childhood that he spent on his grandparents’ farm (where he went only during vacations). He is effusive about his grandfather, a farmer, and his uncle, who started a concrete-pouring business, but is comparatively silent about his father, whose profession (banker) he conveniently neglects to mention.
…A ready-made role certainly provides the illusion of certainty, but is it a sustainable, or even worthwhile, illusion? And can it compensate for all that we lose when we encounter one another not as singularities but as avatars of social tendencies? What Hawley says about porn is true of the entire system of gender: “Relationships are risky. They are difficult. Porn, by contrast, is cheap and easy. It’s safe.” Individuality is risky; self-help about masculinity is safe. What we need is not the armor of manhood, the ideal of the warrior or builder or priest, but the courage to face each other in all our glorious particularity, without teachers or templates.
Back to Manhood-- early yesterday The Nation published an essay, Men Overboard— Why The Right Can Never Outgrow The Masculinity Crisis—by Anthony Conwright that ignored Hawley and what was basically a campaign-cum-Bible-study book. He began with one of the prophets of aggrieved maleness, Ben Shapiro: “The destruction of men in the West is the great story of the last 40 years… The patriarchy was so clever that they somehow convinced women that sexual liberation was the most wonderful thing for women. But as it turns out, it actually backfired and it ended up destroying men.” Conwright noted that “This familiar lament rests on a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Shapiro and [Piers] Morgan sternly agreed that there’s no real social foundation for the struggles and emotional dislocations of individuals (certainly if those individuals happened to be trans or feminist). Yet somehow the widespread social expectation of trans acceptance is a social scourge that threatens the foundations of patriarchal civilization. ‘I think that’s setting up a predicate for a broader ideological shift which is any problems you experience in your life are through no volition of your own or any action of your own,’ Shapiro said, ‘You’re not responsible for your own actions. Society at large is responsible for your actions.’”
That pretty much could have been lifted straight out of Hawley book as well. But, Conwright wasn’t letting them get away with it: “Concealed within such laments is a telling concession: that as ideal-types of individualist success, men literally cannot afford to acknowledge forms of social value that exist outside themselves. This core tension perhaps explains what seems on the surface to be an unsustainable rhetoric of rudderless male victimization, one that seizes on feminists and trans people as antagonists— and alibis— of first resort. A totalized vision of heroic libertarian success ultimately must rest on an equally sweeping theory of individual failure. That’s the zero-sum logic of capitalist competition, and it courses through the otherwise incoherent and self-contradictory precepts of the new right-wing masculinism. Any broader tour through contemporary speculation about why American men are demoralized reinforces this classic narrative of victimization: Men are hard-pressed to adapt to misguided and overzealous efforts to grant more social, economic, and political power to women. Many of these accounts are well-intentioned— which is why it’s all the more striking to note how regularly they land on the mores of gender equality as the explanation of first resort for male rage and despondency. In an interview with NPR, Richard Reeves, author of the 2022 book, Of Boys and Men, laid out this story of male displacement at the hands of higher-earning women: “In 1979, only 13 percent of women earned more than the average man” Reeves said. “Now, 40 percent of women earn more than the average man. Forty percent of U.S. households have a female breadwinner, quadruple the number a few decades ago. It’s very hard for our ideas of fatherhood, motherhood, masculinity, femininity, family life to adapt as quickly as the fundamental economics have changed.” [Again, straight out of Hawley’s nonsense.]
The same understanding of men as stubborn late-adapting members of the service and information economies occurs in debates over gun violence— a very male-coded social ill. One week after a 19-year-old American man murdered 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the New York Times published an op-ed by comedian, author, and parent Michael Ian Black, titled “The Boys Are Not All Right.” Black explained that boys suffer great anxiety as a result of the rigidity of gender roles— particularly in contrast with the broader, more fluid terms of gender belonging on offer for girls. “The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America,” Black writes, “Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone”— while boys are generally left to try harder to be what they’ve traditionally been expected to be.
The accounts offered by Reeves and Black both highlight what’s seen as a critical tension: with women encroaching on traditionally male-driven spheres of self-assertion and economic power, men are increasingly at a loss to preserve an already embattled sense of gender identity. As Black writes, “It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man’— we no longer even know what that means.” This gets at a central unresolved dilemma in the conservative maleness debate, the basic adaptation gap at the root of all the others: women may have the freedom to be anything, but men have yet to address one of the most traditional threats to maleness under capitalism: how not to be a woman. And this is the core trouble with the identity of capital-M Men: It ultimately rests on the negation of female identity.
In the view of manhood as non-womanhood, men are required to establish their identity by being anti-woman. Men must vigilantly face down the amorphous and ever-growing threat of feminization— a specter haunting virtually every facet of contemporary American life. This is why masculinist thinkers so adamantly insist that the dominant strain of today’s gender discourse imperils maleness and exacerbates male grievance. But if a man’s gender identity is not such a static, zero-sum proposition, then the alleged crisis in masculinity starts to look quite different, and so do its solutions.
Instead of retrofitting the core dictates of masculinity to fit the times, maybe American boys can adopt a more gender-fluid basis for their identity, and finally relinquish the need to measure their behavior and cultural expectations against an ideal-type vision of what it means to be a capital-M Man. Unloosening the grip of such notions can at long last induce men to relinquish the typically doomed American male quest to live up to fictitious notions of masculinity. The social construction of the idealized Man as a “tough,” “independent,” bastion of strength and heroic self-assertion creates a host of damaging distortions in how men face real-life challenges.
Consider the realm of health care [and keep in mind Hawley’s virulently anti-healthcare record]. Despite the subsidies and benefits that the Affordable Care Act affords to Americans in need of health care, men are more likely than women to disapprove of the law, chiefly on the grounds that it jeopardizes core notions of self-reliance and independence at the heart of the American masculinist myth. Research has also demonstrated that perceptions of manhood negatively correlate to men’s reliance on preventive health care services. One 2011 study showed that men between the ages of 18 and 64 who don’t have either ongoing serious health issues or a spouse encouraging them to access health care will typically bypass it; they are more apt to lack a regular health provider or schedule an annual physical exam. These men embody masculine beliefs by going to work sick and pushing through pain, hewing to the myth that such risky behaviors are simply what real men are expected to do. This renders the performance of manliness a deadly form of masochism— one that sanctions senseless, self-imposed suffering for the sake of showing that it can be endured. Men need suffering to endure to prove they can endure suffering.
But this brand of heroism also must rely on some bedrock tropes of victimization. So in spite of their allegiance to such mock stoicism, grievance-minded men still rush to indict women as the ultimate cause of their woes. Even when they don’t directly blame their declining fortunes on women, they resort to the broader claim that their own beleaguered condition disproves the persistence of patriarchy. Hence alt-right para-intellectual Jordan Peterson, for example, dismissed the notion of a “male-dominated patriarchy” in a 2018 interview with British GQ: “In what sense is our society male-dominated? A huge proportion who are seriously disaffected are men. Most people in prison are men. Most people who are on the street are men. Most victims of violent crime are men. Most people who commit suicide are men. Most people who die in wars are men.”
Peterson’s misleading tour of the male misery index pointedly avoids addressing just what drives so many men to embrace violence— including violence against themselves. If you unpack Peterson’s glib reference to suicide rates, for example, you quickly discover that men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide while women are three times more likely to attempt suicide. This disparity tracks gender roles that respectively sanction violence as self-assertion and private suffering as the psychic price of caregiving. And the difference grow starker when you examine the means of suicide: Among the 48,152 American suicides logged in 2021, 26,328 involved self-inflicted gunshots; in that group, 22,936 of those incidents— roughly 87 percent— were male suicides. The data shows armed men are not only a threat to themselves but also a threat to society at large, as men are disproportionately perpetrators of violent crime. According to FBI data, 694,050 violent crimes were committed in 2021. Approximately 50 percent of the victims of violent crimes were men— yet men made up 76 percent of violent-crime offenders. (This data also shows that violent men disproportionately victimize women, another demographic trend that completely undercuts Peterson’s claim that men are disproportionately on the receiving end of violent crime and not typically perpetrators of it.)
Here again, the direct connection between rigid canons of masculine conduct and threats to the well-being of men is all too plain. With firearms representing such a disproportionate threat to men seeking to harm either one another or themselves, basic mandates of self-preservation would seem to mandate robust male support for reasonable curbs on gun ownership. Yet of course the opposite is true: According to Gallup, American men are roughly twice as likely as American women to own a gun (44 percent versus 22 percent), and 62 percent of women feel gun laws should be made stricter, in comparison with 51 percent of men. Polls also show that the gender divide on gun safety transcends political affiliation: Half of Republican women favor an assault weapons ban and only one-quarter of Republican men.
In a 2020 essay for The Gender Policy Report, Craig Rood writes that narratives of “protection” as a fundamental attribute of male identity contribute directly to gun violence. Rood cites a 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center finding that 67 percent of gun owners said “protection” was the reason for owning firearms; by contrast, a 1999 poll disclosed that just 26 percent of gun owners said they owned guns for that reason. “Men have been taught to assume the role of protector,” Rood writes, “and they have been taught that guns are the best means of ensuring protection against ‘them’: ‘bad’ people entering our homes, communities, or country.”
Even a cursory glimpse of America’s history demonstrates the problem with typecasting men as “protectors.” Enslaved Black males were not seen as “men,” since white supremacy and enslavement foreclosed their ability to protect their wives and children from rape and the auction block. Does this mean, in the reasoning of today’s masculinist right, that enslaved Black males were not men? In reality, both white and Black maleness remain steeped in the legacy of violent male impunity. As Frantz Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks, “The disaster of the man of color lies in the fact that he was enslaved. The disaster and the inhumanity of the white man lie in the fact that somewhere he has killed man. And even today they subsist, to organize this dehumanization rationally.”
Some critics have sought to overcome the deep-seated distempers of male identity by proposing a dramatic upgrade in gender expectations for men, advancing a model of masculinity both strong and sensitive, assertive and collaborative, dominant and yielding. But this vision largely remains a pipe dream, since the ideals of male identity are so deeply anchored in binary opposition to female ones: If the ideal man is strong, the ideal woman is docile. Where the ideal man is aggressive, the ideal woman demurs.
The limitations of this prescriptive brand of male reform are, ironically enough, much like Peterson’s litany of male grievance: long on rhetoric, short on actual lived experience. To take just one example, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang confidently proposed an end-run around blocked male pathology when published his own “The Boys Are Not Alright” op-ed for the Washington Post in 2022. “We must stop defining masculinity as necessarily toxic and start promoting positive masculinity,” Yang writes. “Strong, healthy, fulfilled men are more likely to treat women well.” Well, sure; strong, healthy, fulfilled people are probably going to treat their partners well.
Had Yang ended his corrective at “we must stop defining masculinity,” he would have come closer to the point. Instead, of engaging with the core question of whether masculinity is necessarily toxic, Yang ends up endorsing a vision of “positive” masculinity that occupies the same level of idealized abstraction that traditional masculinity does. What does “strong” mean in this context— and who are the gatekeepers who define just what virtues make up “positive masculinity”?
Like many such pronouncements, Yang’s argument supposes that male identity is effectively served up at a cultural condiment bar. Wounded and hostile men can simply order up different core elements of their identities, now that the undifferentiated forces of gender affiliation are granting permission for them to cry, to go to therapy, and have feelings.
In lieu of adopting Yang’s model of masculinity as a glorified college elective, many young men gravitate toward Shapiro and Peterson’s masculinist politics of all-purpose cultural affront. The high-profile community of online “incels” (short for “involuntary celibate”) take the grievance litany to its logical extreme, and hold women to blame for all of their struggles and failures. They are thus hermetically insulated from ever having to acknowledge that their sexism might correlate with their sexless lives, so they blame women for being alternately prudish and promiscuous. In her 2018 New Yorker essay “The Rage of the Incels,” Jia Tolentino cites one poster to an Incel message board insisting, “Women are the ultimate cause of our suffering,” while noting that this sentiment can double as a license to kill: “Incels dream of beheading the sluts who wear short shorts but don’t want to be groped by strangers.”
The vast range of harms sanctioned by the unyielding logic of masculinity as a defining cultural force should prompt some serious reckoning with how and why male expression takes on such militant and eliminationist contours. Perhaps instead of waging across-the-board culture wars against gay, female, and trans identity, we could disarm some of the raging energy of unreconciled maleness with a reinvented masculinity that transcends its longtime binary rejection of putative femininity. This original sin of masculinist identity all too readily translates into the violent repudiation of women— including trans women.
It’s admittedly hard to envision such a thing in a culture-war discourse so heavily invested in the idea of imperiled maleness, but a good place to start might be a frank acknowledgment of how much of this peril is self-imposed among gender-anxious men. Indeed, pace Reeves and Yang, boys and men in America are not all right— not because women are outearning them or outperforming them in some mythic sphere of gender fluidity. No, American boys and men are suffering because an American culture that outlines how to perform manliness following a solitary, stoic script of violent self-assertion is ruinous. If men relieve themselves from shackles of masochism and chauvinism anchored in this gendered ideology, they might learn that the most crucial role we could play in society is to free ourselves from this fundamentally unrewarding and self-harming image of ourselves. We can start by envisioning the crisis of masculinity as less a gendered one— inherently antagonistic to the economic and social empowerment of women— and more as a fundamental malady of capitalist economic competition and the libertarian American culture that underwrites it.
After all, if men view themselves as the cornerstone of American culture and success, wouldn’t that mean American society has a vested interest in cooperation instead of reinforcing the predatory logic of financial competition? If men are genuinely vital to the rearing of children, we should also affirm that role by lessening the financial burdens and economic anxieties that come with the “protective” role of breadwinner, and opening up full access to basic supports such as health care and family leave. If we put our collective money where our rhetoric of gender equity is, we can help ensure men will have material incentives to spend time at home with children.
The challenge to all current partisans in today’s gender conflicts is to grasp how much gender fluidity shapes all our identities. Once this basic truth sinks in at a deeper level, men might at last be ready to meet the challenge posed long ago by Simone de Beauvoir: to understand women not as the opposite sex but as the neighboring one. If men can move past the hoary and delusive notion that being like a women is an existential threat to their own gender identity, they can embrace the corollary truth that the liberation of women, and gay and nonbinary people, is part and parcel of the liberation of men from the many unacknowledged ravages of their own gender identity.
Writing for the Financial Times last week, Sarah Neville reported that “since the late 1930s, sperm counts around the world appear to have dropped significantly. While the decline was initially observed in western countries, there is evidence of the same phenomenon in the developing world, and it seems to be accelerating. [Shanna] Swan, a Berkeley-trained statistician-turned-epidemiologist, believes she knows why. For more than two decades she has devoted her life to studying the effects of ‘endocrine disrupting’ chemicals (EDCs), which can interfere with the body’s natural hormones. These include pesticides, bisphenols, which harden plastic so it can be used in food storage containers and baby bottles, and phthalates, which soften plastic for use in packaging and products such as garden hoses. In recent years, traces of EDCs have been found in breast milk, placental tissue, urine, blood and seminal fluid.”
In other words, “the innocuous products in your kitchen cupboard, bathroom cabinet or garden shed may be lowering sperm counts. They could also affect the reproductive systems of your unborn children. The implications of EDCs for human health don’t stop there: they can disrupt thyroid function, trigger cancer and obesity… [E]xposure to EDCs in utero can inflict harm on a developing foetus.” This manifests in ano-genital distance (AGD), the span from the anus to the base of the penis, also known as “the taint,” “the gooch” and “the grundle.”
Neville noted that if Swan’s hypothesis is correct, “we need to overhaul how we cook, eat, produce and package consumer goods, and rethink industrial processes. Even if average sperm counts have fallen, the reasons why are still disputed by scientists… But a dramatic increase in surrogacies and the use of assisted reproduction are omens for her.” Much of her early work was done at the University of Missouri, where “she set out to examine whether sperm quality varied in different environments… Male participants in a semi-rural Missouri area were found to have half as many moving sperm [a known factor in make infertility] as those in the urban centres.” She hypothesized that some aspect of modern agriculture, particularly pesticides, might be affecting semen quality. Her hypothesis was correct.
“Legislators [like Senator Manhood] have failed to act sufficiently even now, Swan believes. ‘To this day, we have very inadequate restrictions on the kinds of pesticides that can be used and the crops they can be used on.’ The ability of industry to resist tighter regulation, whether through obfuscation or lobbying, would be a constant frustration for her in the years that have followed.’”
In 2011, Swan and a team of andrologists, statisticians, epidemiologists and a reference librarian, began conducting the most complete search of the literature on falling sperm count to date. A total of 185 studies were examined in detail, using meta-analysis methods not available to the Danish academics 30 years before. The conclusion was deeply unsettling. Sperm count appeared to have declined 52 per cent in 38 years, or something over 1 per cent a year.
When the study was published in 2017, it made “big, big news,” she recalled, eventually leading her to publish Count Down, a book aimed at a general audience. It might have felt like a triumph, but Swan’s battle to persuade regulators, legislators and industry has advanced at glacial speed.
The plastics era that began in the early 20th century delivered seemingly endless convenience, affordability and hygiene. Amid the bonanza of baby bottles, toys, food containers, medical devices and disposable cutlery, manufacturers propagated a new narrative: that synthetic polymers were not only safe but essential to a good life.
“Plastics: an important part of your healthy diet”, read a 1990s ad sponsored by the now-defunct American Plastics Council. “You could think of them as the sixth basic food group.”
Ironically, humans have ended up ingesting plastic, as particles and vapour. Chemicals from plastics leach out of containers into food, particularly when heated. Bottle-fed babies are swallowing millions of microplastic particles a day, a 2020 study showed, the health impacts unknown. An ingredient that was used in Teflon, PFOA, has been linked to cancer, ulcerative colitis and birth deformities. (DuPont, Teflon’s manufacturer, was found to have known about the health risks for decades, but only ceased production of PFOA in 2013.)
We can all take steps to reduce the dangers of phthalates and other chemicals in our lives, she believes. She tries to buy unwrapped, organic fruit and vegetables, and her water is always filtered. She recommends using stainless steel or glass water bottles and microwaving food in glass or ceramic containers— never plastic.
But the situation is too serious to be ameliorated by individual choice alone, she warned. “This is not something we can buy our way out of as consumers,” she said. We need plastic from materials that are not hormonally active, like a fork made from potatoes Swan recently saw. Although its production carried too high a carbon footprint to be sustainable, “I trust brilliant chemists and scientists who were able to give us the [Covid-19] vaccine in a short time, for example, to put their minds to this,” she said.
One difficulty in calculating the impact of chemicals on reproduction is that a host of other factors are affecting worldwide fertility rates. Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, believes the ultra-processed, high-fat western diet is the primary source of exposure to BPA and some phthalates.
Diet, stress, obesity, social factors and a trend to start families later in life are all important contributing factors, Swan acknowledges, but that doesn’t mean that EDCs are not playing a substantial role. Nowhere has the resistance to her field of research been stronger or more consistent than from the chemicals industry, which would suffer a huge financial hit from tougher regulation of its products.
From the 1990s onwards, an array of articles by scientists have cast doubt on Swan and her colleagues’ findings. While some of the questions raised are credible— abstinence rates in sperm counting, for instance, can influence the results, and were not reliably accounted for in some early studies— others are less so. Swan was one of the scientists ridiculed as “endocrine disrupter cry babies” by JunkScience.com, a website run by a climate change denier and former tobacco industry advocate Steve Milloy. (Swan and her colleagues inscribed the epithet on T-shirts as a badge of pride.)
The “manufacture of doubt” is a playbook long used by industries resisting regulation, from tobacco to fossil fuels, according to David Michaels, a former regulator who ran the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration under Barack Obama. Now a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, he told me that research carried out by seemingly independent scientists has often been used to convince regulators, legislators and even the public that there is no consensus about the harms caused by a particular chemical or product.
Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin, who has led work for the Endocrine Society on EDCs, said that among clinical practitioners in the field there is wide acceptance that chemical exposures in early life can play a part in the development of disease. “I think there was controversy some time ago,” she told me. “And I think there was an effort to keep the controversy alive by the chemical industry. But I don’t think it’s a controversial field any more. There is just too much knowledge at this point.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Swan was an expert witness in a series of court cases about DES, an endocrine-disrupting drug widely prescribed until the 1970s to lower the risk of miscarriages. It went on to cause devastating cancers in the daughters of some of the women who had taken it. One night, after honing her arguments for the following day’s court appearance, she threw some of her notes into a hotel waste basket. The next day, while being quizzed by the counsel for a pharmaceutical company, she saw her discarded notes in front of him. “And the only way he could get those was to rifle through the garbage in my hotel room,” she told me. “Just think about what that takes.” She recalls, with a touch of satisfaction, discovering that the opposing legal team referred to her as “that bitch from California.”
…The chemicals she has been able to link most directly to reproductive health are phthalates and pesticides, where she and others have found convincing evidence of a causal link between reproductive disorders and the “triazine” category of herbicides. Other researchers, she says, have found equally incontrovertible evidence of harm to reproductive health from other classes of EDCs such as the bisphenols.
“When we began this work, we were in the medical and scientific wilderness because no one believed us,” Myers, who wrote the 1996 best-seller, told me. “And then gradually we built up the science.” But the regulatory climate remains heavily weighted towards industry. Some companies have proudly declared their plastic bottles and baby products “BPA free”, referring to Bisphenol-A, a chemical that can seep into food and beverages and, some researchers believe, harm human health— only for it later to emerge that the substituted product amounted to “slightly tweaked molecules,” Swan said.
Some nights Swan lies awake worrying. “The alarm I feel is a global alarm,” she said. “I feel it equally for human and non-human species.” She and her fellow campaigners have notched some successes. In 2008, for example, children’s toys and childcare items containing more than 0.1 per cent of three types of phthalates were permanently banned in the US. This year, the European Food Safety Authority recommended lowering the “tolerable daily intake” for BPA by a factor of about 20,000. (The European Medicines Agency is opposing the change.) In April, G7 climate, energy and environment ministers issued a communiqué committing to “actively preventing chemical pollution, or . . . minimising its associated risks, including when caused by releases of endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Swan characterised this as a “very, very big” moment in her long-running battle to wake up governments and regulators to the dangers from EDCs. As I spent time with her, I sensed that what keeps her going, above all else, is a lifetime habit of curiosity.
Now based in San Francisco, she continues to pursue research breakthroughs in her field. While studying maths in her youth, she won an award after conceiving the notion that logic need not be binary, with true or false the only options, and developing a system of “three value” logic. She resists the security of the status quo, and while she revels in collaboration, she has also stayed true to the independent little girl, determined to navigate the world on her own terms, that found sanctuary in Juxey’s House. Her overriding preoccupation remains how to alert a still largely oblivious world to the threat from EDCs. “You and I, and everyone on this planet, are really serving as guinea pigs,” she says. “And nobody asked us.”
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