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What Do Men Want?

“Daddy, why is it that guys look into their Kleenex after they sneeze and girls don’t?” Because, I explained to my precocious daughter (she was then 8 or 9), men consider it an accomplishment. Be glad we don’t display it to others, or put it under glass at the Venice Bienniale. It’s the sort of thing my late wife would have said, and since she’s not here I feel obliged to keep up both ends of the male-female dialectic.

Or maybe I just need a testosterone refill. According to a new study (“Longitudinal Evidence That Fatherhood Decreases Testosterone in Human Males”), child interaction suppresses testosterone.

It’s typical of the culture’s current befuddlement over male identity that the newspapers don’t know whether to present this as good news or bad. On the one hand, testosterone is virility. Men with higher testosterone levels, the stories point out, are likelier to mate. Being an involved dad makes you a little bit of a sissy. No wonder Norman Mailer wasn’t interested! On the other hand, testosterone is a toxic chemical. Too much of it can give you prostate cancer or a heart attack, or make you overuse your car horn. “Screw you,” Jonathan Franzen can tell Katie Roiphe, who famously bemoaned the passing of literature’s tumescent and multi-wived male generation. “Oprah Winfrey made me a millionaire!”

Testosterone may explain why, as Hanna Rosin put it last year in the Atlantic (“The End of Men”) “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men,” as evidenced by women’s superior performance in much of the workforce and their disproportionately high representation in colleges and grad schools. Maybe we need a federal program to get 13 year-old males to father children so they can acquire and maintain the social skills necessary to propel them through school and the modern office environment. On the other hand, without an excess of testosterone men might face expulsion from the upper reaches of corporate and political power, where aggression and obnoxious self-regard prevail.

Maybe we could have a dial placed on our foreheads. Turn it up when you want us to take you to bed or to argue with the contractor. Turn it down when you want us to change a diaper or sit through the ballet.