The fragile dynamic between the sexes has always been somewhat fraught. Thirty years ago, American relationship counsellor John Gray seemed to hit both a nerve and a gold mine when he managed to shift more than 15 million copies of his bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Since then, things appear to have got even more complicated, with incels (involuntary celibates), #MeToo, easy-access pornography and revenge politics prompting some to question the gravitational forces driving the entire solar system. What on earth is going on? English writer and philosopher Nina Power thinks she knows. Chasms have opened up in society because the battle between the sexes has become a zero-sum game, she maintains.

In What Do Men Want? Masculinity and its discontents, Power, 43, attempts to paper over the cracks and engineer bridges over the canyons. The book is practically guaranteed to make everyone uncomfortable.

Parts will enrage feminists who want men to take responsibility for what they see as the many and varied crimes of the male specimens of our species. Other sections will frustrate men who see themselves as individuals rather than members of a tribe that collectively commits most human violence.

Perhaps unity in discomfort is what is required to make all of us look up from our phones, stop tweeting #NotAllMen (whether in seriousness or sarcasm), and shuffle towards the middle ground. Or maybe Power will just enrage some people even more.

Her previous book, One Dimensional Woman, takes aim at consumerism and argues that the relentless drive towards accumulating more stuff has imprisoned women, rather than freeing them. Her latest turns her sights back on women, and particularly feminists who argue that men are the source of all the evil in the world.

In a conversation that traverses many taboos, I ask her why she would even want to delve into such a toxic topic. "There seems to be a kind of crisis in the way men and women are relating to one another;' she says. "And whenever there are these kinds of black-and-white generalisations about groups, something is up. It needs diagnosing:'

After the Culture Wars

One point of view, she says, is that the so-called "culture wars" are in part a historical reckoning with forms of male behaviour that are no longer going to be tolerated.

"And perhaps there is something historically inevitable about it. But I wanted to think about what would come after that in terms of a reconciliation, or how we might work through this problem, because it seems to me that you can't stop with the diagnosis."

The way she sees it, demonising men, or generalising about men, will not solve the problem - it will actually make it worse. "This idea of the zero-sum game, in the sense that our entire culture seems to operate on this principle of 'lack' - as in, if one group advances, another group loses - is extremely detrimental. It creates resentment."

Therefore, she believes, it is up to women to "be the bigger man". "These spirals of resentment just go on, and we're part of a cultural moment in which resentment has been highly tapped and manipulated."

Dark Desire

Power, who has quit university lecturing in philosophy to teach adult education in London, rose to prominence among the first wave of left-wing bloggers in the UK in the early 2000s. Her interests extend to art and film and her articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Spectator and the Telegraph.

She was caught up in controversy in 2020 over the "People of Colour" exhibition of flags by Auckland gallery Mercy Pictures, which included swastikas. She wrote the exhibition text.

She admits she can be "kind of annoying", but also describes herself as "insanely reasonable".

She is unimpressed by the way the "toxic masculinity" concept has been embraced by Western culture right up to government departments. She does not deny there are negative masculine traits. But there is no need, she argues, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"If you say to a group of people 'You're bad and you will always be bad, it's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's Sociology 101."

There are particular virtues that used to be tied to masculinity, like the abstract urge to protect, that we seem to have forgotten about, she argues. "I wanted to think about different ways of manifesting strength, not by enacting it, not by being violent, but by being judicious and knowing when to deploy strength. These are classical ideas."

Power's take on porn - that it is harmful - is classic, too, if out of vogue with the liberal establishment. She is also sympathetic towards modern masculinist movements such as NoFap, the crudely named internet-based support network of men who want to stop using pornography.

NoFap should be encouraged, she says. "When you read the accounts of the men who have been addicted to porn, they talk about how it changes the whole way they see the world - they can only see it in this pornographic way. It's extremely detrimental to normal human relations. I have come to quite a critical position on porn - [although] I defend free expression and experimental work."

Our modern uncritical approach to desire is partly to blame for the poisoning of young men with harmful pornography, she argues.

Since the 60s, she says, the move towards a consumerist society has promoted the idea that desire is good, and that all desires need exploring. "It's a very infantile way of understanding one's own wants or needs -or confusing wants with needs."

The problem, she believes, is that it ignores the negative aspects of desire. "It has turned into something like a prison. Somehow, the sexual revolution or sexual liberation has become this kind of tyranny of lust. It's actually a very easy way of controlling people. The use and overuse of pornography creates a kind of shame spiral that is very inhibiting. It actually stops [users] from interacting in a normal or useful pro-social way."

According to Power, it is not just individuals who have been poisoned by hedonism. Our institutions, which are obsessed with our sex, sexing and identity, are broken as well, she believes. As an example, she cites the LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall in the UK, which has become mired in a fierce public debate over transgender politics.

"Things like Stonewall have been totally captured on many of these issues and we're only now seeing major institutions like the BBC and the police trying to break with Stonewall. It's almost like if you withhold your sexual being, you're somehow at odds with the liberal order: that if you are either celibate or monogamous, and you're a traditionalist - I mean, most people do actually still want to be monogamous, or relatively monogamous; that hasn't really changed -there's something wrong with you or there's something kind of suspicious."

Structure from Chaos

This is perhaps not where you would expect to go in a book about what men want. Maybe it should be called What Men Need, instead. "The title is like a joke," Power says, "because Freud very famously says, 'What do women want?' And he doesn't know how to answer the question."

Controversial Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has shown what some men want is discipline and an authority figure. If his book sales are any guide, then sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll are all very well, but some-times a lad just wants to be told to tidy his room and take responsibility.

Peterson is so popular because he is giving structure to a world that is actually quite chaotic, Power says.

"We live in a culture that seems to think children know best, which is obviously a disaster. This horizontal kind of liberal culture has eroded all forms of positive hierarchy. There's no respect for your parents or your elders or anyone telling you what to do; everyone's become a sort of baby anarchist."

The reason some people find Peterson so appealing is because it ties them to something like tradition and the idea of archetypes, says Power. "It's not really surprising that Peterson would appeal particularly to men in the absence of very many good father figures."

Power's relationship with her own father was a key motivator for writing the book. It bothered her that the negative discourse about men neglected the many good qualities she witnessed in the men in her own life.

"Even where women have had a bad experience with their partner, there are men in their life they love and respect. So we can draw on our own lives rather than just buy into these abstract structural claims.

"Unless we want to end up in a resentment void, we have to acknowledge that it's possible for men to be good, which... seems to be impossible [in] the discourse around toxic masculinity. The idea that all masculinity, and therefore all men, is bad, doesn't allow room for the possibility of men to be good."

But does anyone really think this? A review in the Guardian noted that Power's viewpoint might appear "refreshing" after many years of men feeling like they could do nothing right. But it also questioned the entire premise of the book.

"There may indeed be some pockets of misandry here and there, but they hardly amount to a societal 'war ... against men'," wrote literary critic Houman Barekat. Ultimately, he argued, Power was railing against "a largely imagined enemy".

It's possible Power has been heavily influenced by an issue that is particularly sensitive in the UK — that of male violence. That most men are not violent does not discount the fact that most violence is perpetrated by men. This includes violence against other men and self-harm. Power would like to see more men speak up on the issue.

Women have complained for years of being treated as a homogenous group, she notes. Surely men feel the same way?

What if men thought of themselves as part of a class that included men who were doing things they thought reprehensible, which they wanted to stop, she asks. Would that change the way in which they took responsibility?

Her thinking is partly inspired by the UK murder of Sarah Everard by a policeman. "It was absolutely horrific. [Officer Wayne Couzens'] male colleagues knew this guy was f—ed up. They knew he was engaging in not only illegal behaviour, but that there was something wrong, and there could have been a way to prevent him from progressing to the level where he felt he could go out and murder some random woman [after] invoking legislation falsely."

The question of how far responsibility should extend is one Power toys with in the book, and she is not averse to exploring the idea of vigilantism.

"It points to a very complicated discussion about whether the state takes responsibility or whether we take responsibility for each other. The world might be a better place if men ganged up and beat the s*** out of men they knew were behaving badly, even though that would be illegal.

"Can men police themselves to the extent that men who are engaging in horrific behaviour towards women and children are pre-emptively stopped from doing so? I'm really interested in how we've abdicated that cost/consequence responsibility to the state. Is [self-policing] a more effective way to deter, or is it more animalistic?"

Rise in Male Suicides

An even darker issue is the topic of why the suicide rate is twice as high for men as for women. In Western society, rates are increasing, indicating something must be wrong with society as a whole, says Power.

"When men commit suicide, there are usually multiple reasons, but a lot of it does point to a lack of meaning, generated from the absence of a social role. It's like saying, `I don't know where I belong in the world, nobody seems to need me... there's nothing I can contribute to this society' That's how all of us get our meaning, male and female, whether it's in relation to a family, to a job or to the broader social whole. Society is clearly failing men in this regard, and it's bad for us that men feel bad; it's bad for everybody."

Some feminists will undoubtedly feel that Power makes too many excuses for what they see as bad behaviour. She really does expect a lot from women — perhaps too much.

Many will also struggle with her analysis of male privilege. Being British, she is acutely aware of class issues, and expresses exasperation at narratives that ignore socio-economic issues.

"The point about class is that it totally destroys the argument about male privilege. How privileged is a man who can't get a job, who's addicted to opioids, who dies at, like, 26? The privilege discourse covers over the class discourse.

"Class is much more foundational and fundamental in Britain. We have the destruction of industry, which destroyed all of those jobs for men. Now, you have loads of towns where none of the men work and they're on drugs and die young. It's destruction of social role. It's destruction of self-respect, of respecting the community.

"We've clearly seen a massive steer away from class discussion on the left [of politics], and I think that's deliberate."

'Fluidity Fad'

The even bigger picture, she believes, is a blinkered view of where people fit into society. She points to academia and corporate culture as two of the main culprits in dividing people up into sometimes imaginary demographics, distracting us from what we have in common.

In many cases, corporates are cynically embracing socially liberal issues, only because they feel they have to, not because it makes a difference, she says.

"Pushing LGBTQ stuff is not actually beneficial for ordinary gay men and women. It's actually reductive. It's obviously nothing to do with the reality of people's lives. It's a 'bolt-on ideology that can be used to divide the workforce:' She jests: "I think we should shut down all the universities until we can work out what the hell is going on."

Power cites debate in the US about interpretation of anti-sexual-discrimination laws allegedly advantaging transgender athletes. "I mean, why is this stuff that was, like, fringe theory the policy of the US government?"

On gender identity, she is firmly on the side of those who believe that society is going through a 'fluidity fad'. "If we deny the reality of sex, which is what's happening all over the place in law and institutions, then in a way, we don't know who we are.

We all either have a male or female body. There are men and there are women, boys and girls, but what we want to do is get rid of the gendered expectations that are placed upon sex. We seem to have forgotten that that was the way in which gender was being viewed by the second-wave feminists. And now, gender is supposed to be some ineffable Catholic soul thing. It's bollocks.

"We have a sexed body. It is absolutely vital that in law and social and political life, and philosophically and existentially, we recognise this is true. And things do follow from it. To pretend that there is this other thing called 'identity' that's more important than reality is a kind of chaos, and it's dangerous, and it's having extremely negative effects on how we collectively conceive of reality."

Brave or bunkum? Although she pleads for the sexes to mend fences, Power certainly can't be accused of sitting on one. Unsurprisingly, her frankness has resulted in protests outside events she has spoken at and online harassment. But she won't ever claim to be a victim.

"I'm very adamant that women are not victims. If you say that men are always evil, then it's like, 'Oh, women are always victims: But this places women in an absolutely infantile position; that they're basically like children or animals. They're sort of pure innocents who aren't driven by language and don't have the capacity to lie. It's important that we do, because this is what makes us more rational agents: choice:'

What Do Men Want: Masculinity and its discontents, by Nina Power (Penguin, $48 HB)

By Ani O'Brien
Published in New Zealand Listener