in: Family, People, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #136: Boys Adrift With Dr. Leonard Sax

During the past 10 years or so, there’s been an uptick in the number of books and newspaper articles about how young men today are floundering. Fewer young men are going to college than in years past, and of those who do go, fewer are graduating. What’s more, there’s a general sense that young men today are simply unmotivated to seek out gainful employment or start families. Meanwhile, girls and young women are surpassing boys and young men in some educational and professional areas.

My guest today on the podcast has spent his career studying how the biological differences between boys and girls and the changes in our culture and society during the past few decades can explain these discrepancies in achievement. His name is Dr. Leonard Sax and he’s the author of several books, including Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge. Today on the podcast, Dr. Sax and I discuss how gender affects the emotional and intellectual development of boys and girls and what parents and schools can do to help them thrive based on their unique attributes. If you’re a parent, you won’t want to miss this episode.

Show Highlights

  • Why gender matters in the emotional and intellectual development of boys and girls
  • How ignoring gender has resulted in boys falling behind in school as well as the decrease in girls taking computer science
  • How schools have changed in the past 30 years in ways that have made them less “boy friendly”
  • What schools and parents can do to help make education more boy friendly
  • Why there’s been a dramatic uptick in the number of boys in America taking ADD medication
  • The detrimental effects of ADD drugs
  • How endocrine disruptors are wreaking havoc on the physical, emotional, and intellectual development of boys and men
  • The unique challenges young girls face in our culture
  • And much more!

 Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge book cover Dr. Leonard Sax.

If you’re a parent, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Sax’s books. I’ve read Boys Adrift and got a lot out of it. Now that I have a daughter, I’ve picked up a copy of Girls on the Edge so I can get some ideas on helping my little girl flourish. You can find out more information about Dr. Sax’s work at his website.

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Available on itunes.

Available on stitcher.

Soundcloud logo.


Google play podcast.

Spotify Logo.

Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.


Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness Podcast”. I’d say in the past 10 years or so there’s been this uptick in the number of articles you see in magazines, websites, newspapers, there’s even books written on this topic, the topic is the fact that young men in America and in other Western countries are floundering. They’re not doing to great. Fewer young men in America are going to college, those that do go to college fewer of them are graduating from college, fewer earning advanced degrees. The earning prospects of men have been declining for the past 20 or 30 years. All the while more women have been going to college, graduating college, earning advanced degrees and their earnings have been going up.

What’s going on here? There’s been lot of theories put out there why that is. My guest today on the podcast has spent his career studying the sex differences, between boys and girls, and how this can affect their flourishing, their development in adolescence, and into young adulthood. His name is Dr. Leonard Sax, he is the author of several books, his first was “Why Gender Matters.”, second, which we’ll be talking a lot about today, is called “Boys Adrift”. Where he takes on and proposes his ideas, backed by research, on why boys are struggling into today’s modern economy. Not just the economy, in their personal lives as well. His third is “Girls on Edge”, where he discusses the challenges that girls face, culturally, educationally, and in the broader economy. Instead of just showing theories and research on why this is happening, what I love about Dr. Sax is, he proposes some solutions on what parents, teachers, mentors, policy makers, can do to create an environment that can allow both boys and girls to flourish.

Really great podcast today, if you are a parent, if you are a teacher, a mentor, you’re going to get a lot out of this. You’re probably going to want to go out and buy these books, check them out. Without further ado we’re going to talk to Dr. Leonard Sax about why gender matters, the development of our young boys and girls.

Brett McKay: Dr. Leonard Sax, welcome to the show.

Leonard Sax: Thank you.

Brett McKay: You have spent your career researching, and investigating, how sex differences between boys and girls can affect their emotional and intellectual development, and have been an advocate to make policy changes to take new research about sex differences into account. In fact, one of your books is called “Why Gender Matters.” A popular idea out there is that gender really doesn’t matter that much, yes there could be some differences, but any differences that exist are negligible. Why does gender matter in the intellectual and emotional development of our children?

Leonard Sax: You certainly have described the political consensus which is that gender doesn’t matter, gender is a social construct, and anyone who says otherwise is either an idiot, a Republican, or both. That’s actually not the reality and it’s not what the data show. For example, give a blank piece of paper and a box of crayons to a child, 4/5/6 years of age … I cite studies in which researchers did exactly that in the United States, another study in England, another in South Africa, another in Japan, another in Thailand; in each study researchers gave young children a blank piece of paper and a box of crayons, asked them to draw whatever they want.

Girls everywhere draw people, pets, flowers, and trees; usually 2, 3, or 4 standing on a horse off a ground, the people have eyes, mouths hair and clothes. The girls use 10 or more crayons, with a predominance of red, orange, yellow, green, beige and brown. Most boys, not all, do something quite different. Most boys are trying to draw a scene of action, at a moment of dynamic change, like a monster eating an alien, or a rocket smashing into a planet. Human figures, if present, are often stick figures lacking eyes, mouths, hair, and clothes. The boys use 6 or fewer crayons with a predominance of black, grey, silver, and blue.

I have personally been in the classroom when the teacher has given a piece of paper, a box of crayons, to all the girls and boys in her classroom and she is praising, commending, Emily, Melissa, Sonia, and Nessa, for their pictures of people, pets, flowers, and trees. Then she comes to Jacob’s picture, Jacob’s trying to draw a car crash at the moment of impact, where one car is being crushed between two others, she says “No Jacob, a car crash? That’s so violent, people are going to get hurt or injured. Jacob I actually don’t see any people at all in your drawing, I can only see cars. Look at what Emily drew.” Emily had drawn a picture of a girl with a little puppy, another girl playing with the puppy. “Why can’t you draw something more like Emily?”. There’s one thing that kids are equally good at, girls and boys of every age, that’s figuring out what the grown ups like. It doesn’t take the boys very long to figure out they’re doing it wrong.

I have visited now more than 380 schools, across the United States and around the world, I was in a 2nd grade classroom in the United States where a teacher said “Free time you can do whatever you want!” Some of the girls were sitting and coloring, one of the boys was running around the room making a buzzing noise. I stopped him, I said “How come you don’t want to sit and draw?”. He said, without hesitation, “Drawing’s for girls!” Drawing is for girls, where did he get that notion? I’m sure the teacher never said, drawing is for girls but she might has well have, she’s unintentionally sending the message that drawing is for girls. The lack of awareness of gender differences has the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes. When you look at who’s taking AP Art History in the Unites States at high school you find that girls greatly outnumber boys, which is ironic because most of the artists they’re studying are men.

It works both ways, ignoring gender differences, pretending that gender doesn’t matter, disadvantages girls as well. In 1987 66% of high school students taking AP Computer Science were boys, 34% were girls. Last year, only 19% of high school students taking AP Computer Science were girls. We’ve gone from 34% in 1987, dropped to 19%. Ignoring gender does not eliminate gender stereotypes, it reinforces gender stereotypes. You end up with what we have in this country, which is girls who think Computer Science for boys and boys who think drawing is for girls. If you do it differently, then you can break down the gender stereotypes.

I can tell you about a Superintendent of 17 elementary schools who insisted that all her teachers learn these strategies. She told us, at the conference I’ve hosted in Houston, that at each of those 17 elementary schools when you say to students “Free time, you can do whatever you want.”, the boys favorite activity now, is drawing. Boys love to draw, girls love to draw, I don’t think there’s any innate difference in how much kids love to draw, but there’s a big difference in what boys want to draw compared to what girls want to draw. If you don’t understand those differences and pretend that they don’t exist, you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes, as we have done in this country.

Brett McKay: Fascinating. I imagine testosterone is the big cause of the difference, of why boys are more action,

Leonard Sax: Testosterone has nothing to do,

Brett McKay:  … oriented.

Leonard Sax: Excuse me, testosterone has nothing to do with the difference. There is no such difference in testosterone levels among 4/5/6/7 years old age children. Children at that age make very little testosterone and there is no such difference between the amount of testosterone in a 5 yo boy compared with a 5 year old girl.

Brett McKay: Why is the difference there?

Leonard Sax: The sex differences are not related to hormones, they are genetically programmed and they are found across species. For example the sex differences that I talk about are just as evident in chimpanzees and monkeys as they are in our species. Further evidence that the differences are not socially constructed.

Brett McKay: Fascinating. You’ve hit a little bit about how teachers may inadvertently give the message to boys that the way they approach learning, or what they do, is not good. How else have American schools changed in the past the 30 years, that have put boys at a disadvantage?

Leonard Sax: Indeed, that’s the major focus of my book “Boys Adrift”. I recently visited a high school in this country, in the United States, and parents were telling me about their son. High school English, 10th grade, the assignment was to write a story about anything you like. This boy chose to write a story about the battle of Stalingrad, winter of 1942, from the perspective of a Russian soldier. He researched it at considerable length, described the Russian soldier patrolling the street when he was ambushed by a German solider, the Russian soldier fires his rifle at point blank range into the face of the German soldier. Then describes what happens when you fire a military rifle at point blank range in another man’s face. What happens is, the head explodes, a piece of eyeball goes this way, a piece of chin goes that way, some brain matter goes this way. This boy was suspended from school, the parents were told he could not return until the parent’s secured, at their own expense, a professional evaluation and a letter from the professional assuring the school, and the district, that the boy posed no imminent danger to himself or to others.

When the parents shared that story with me, it really struck a chord because I attended public schools in Ohio, K-12. In 1977 our lead teacher for English at our high school invited me and 3 other students to sit for a competition administered by the National Council Teacher’s of English. We were shown into a room, the Procter gave us each a blue book and said “You have 45 minutes, write a story.”

I chose to write a story about East German refugees escaping to West Germany, when I share this story with high school students today I have to explain to them that Germany used to be divided in two and East Germans weren’t allowed to go to West Germany which is news to quite a few of them but anyhow, I imagined East German refugees trying to escape to West Germany crossing a minefield in the middle of the night. One of them steps on a mine which blows off his left leg to the knee, his right leg to the hip. He now has no feet, he’s crawling west, blood pouring out from the stumps where his legs used to be. The East German guards, of course, have heard the noise and turned their flood-lamps to try to find him on the ground and are shooting at him, but missing. I described the bullets popping up little clouds of dust around him, West German guards are calling out encouragement to him but of course they’re not allowed to go out into the minefield. He’s crawling west, bullets going on either side of him, blood pouring out, finally he reaches the border, the West German guards pick him up to take him to hospital, and at that moment he dies, the end.

My own Mom died in September 2008, going through her papers after her death, I found that she had kept the certificate sent to our home address by the National Council Teacher’s of English awarding me their highest honor in creative writing. Boys doing things that boys have always done, writing stories about traumatic amputation, violent death, drawing pictures of soldiers attacking each other with knives, throwing snowballs at each other, used to get you an award, or at least it wouldn’t get you in trouble. Now you can get expelled or suspended for doing things that boys have always done. That’s what I mean when I say that school has become unfriendly to boys.

Brett McKay: The zero tolerance policies, definitely not boy friendly?

Leonard Sax: Zero tolerance polices for violence, meaning that if you bring a GI Joe with a plastic rifle to school you can be suspended. In my book I describe several such cases in which elementary school boys were suspended for bringing a plastic GI Joe toy gun to school. The Principal in each case said “Look, it’s a zero tolerance policy. That means I have no discretion. The policy says that any replica gun, regardless of size, mandates a 911 phone call and immediate suspension. That’s what I have to do, the fact that he’s 5 years old, the gun is so small I have to tape it with Scotch tape to the report, doesn’t matter. That’s what zero tolerance means.”

We now know that zero tolerance policies are not effective, they do not in any way diminish actual school violence. They do substantially increase disciplinary referrals. I think they do something else that’s harder to measure, they send the message to boys that your kind is not welcome here, you like to write stories about combat and WWII that’s not welcome here. The boys are getting the message loud and clear. We’re seeing a disengagement from education among boys in every demographic, White, Black, Latino, affluent, middle-income, low-income, which is without precedent in this country. I can tell you stories from my firsthand experience, of families where both Mom and Dad are professionals, read in their spare time, their daughters read in their spare time, and the son told me he’d “Rather be boiled in oil than read a book in his spare time.”, because his favorite free-time activity is playing Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Halo.

Brett McKay: Wow. How are some of the ways that boys and girls learn different? I think you mentioned in your book that competition is important for boys.

Leonard Sax: Again, the big differences between girls and boys are not cognative but motivational. The big differences between girls and boys are not in what they can do, but in what they want to do. That’s really the key to understanding all the strategies which I’ve observed. Again, I didn’t make up any of these strategies, they’re all strategies I’ve observed in schools that are successful. When you visit a school like Korowa, in Melbourne, Australia where you find that more than 1/2 the girls took AP Physics, which is an astonishing figure, unbelievable but true, you find they teach Physics in a profoundly different way. They don’t teach it the way it’s taught in most other English speaking countries. They don’t begin with kinematics, they begin with the wave particle duality of light. When you find schools where all the boys, or a great majority of the boys, love to write poetry, love to write stories, love Emily Dickinson and Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen, you find that they teach it differently.

Gender does matter. You do need to understand, and learn from the master teachers, how to engage boys in creative writing and poetry, how to engage girls in computer science and physics. When you do that you will find that you will break down gender stereotypes, and you can greatly increase the proportion of boys who want to spend their free time reading Emily Dickinson, and girls who want to spend their free time writing computer code. However, it is unforgivable to speak these things in this country, because in this country what happens at schools of education is determined not by data but by politics and ideology.

Brett McKay: Are single sex classes, or schools, one solution of many that can help break down those gender stereotypes?

Leonard Sax: I used to think so, and actually took a 5 year sabbatical from medical practice, in part, to encourage public schools to offer that option as a choice for parents who wanted it, when teachers have appropriate training. I have pretty much given up on that. The Obama administration appointed an ACLU attorney to govern this domain, and she has decided, on her own without any basis in law or regulation, that such programs should not be allowed in American schools. She has embarked on a witch-hunt, again without any justification in law or regulation, to shut these programs down. It’s very difficult with the Federal Government actively seeking to shut your program down to sustain such a program in the United States.

Brett McKay: Mmm. The things I think I’ve read, it not only benefits boys but also girls because, it’s one of the problems that girls have in classrooms, like Physics or Computer Science is that they have that stereotype in their mind that their girls they can’t do this, then they see the boys raising their hands, jockeying for … Trying to make the answers so they’re less likely to participate. I guess they found in all girls classrooms …

Leonard Sax: That critique had substantial empirical force 30 years ago, but that notion that girls are intimidated because boys are raising their hand really is disconnected from reality today. What’s more common in American schools today is what I call “Hermione Granger Syndrome”, where the girl is waving her hand to answer the teacher’s question and the boys are sitting on their hands not answering. That’s much more common, nevertheless, despite the fact that girls today are not intimidated by boys …

Look, I have met with students in hundreds of schools across the United States. For example, I would sit in a middle school, where they had the regular Honor Roll, which is basically for kids who show up, and then the Principal’s Honor Roll which is for the kids who are doing really well. There were 22 kids on the Principal’s Honor Roll at this particular school, in the United States, 19 girls and 3 boys. I asked the boys, “Can you explain to me why the Principal’s Honor Roll,” which all the kids understood was the superior honor roll, “Why does the Principal’s Honor Roll have 19 girls and 3 boys?”. Many boys answered, they all said the same thing, “Girls are smarter.” They’re not joking, American boys now believe that girls are smarter than boys.

Which is weird for me because I’m a middle aged man, meaning that I grew up in the United States in an era when boys outnumbered the girls on the Honor Roll. When those earning honors at high school graduation from the Valedictorian to the winner of Honors in English, to the Editor … I was the Editor of our high school newspaper. That’s very rare today, to find a boy at a non selective public school editing the high school newspaper. He might be editing the sports page, but across the United States today when you look at who’s editing the newspaper, the yearbook, the poetry review, girls greatly outnumber boys. This has gone on for so long now that when you ask boys “Why is this so?” They answer “Girls are smarter than boys.”

The 1970’s analysis that girls are intimidated by boys in the classroom really is not valid today. And yet, girls remain underrepresented in Computer Science, Physics, Electrical Engineering, not because they’re intimidated by boys but because teachers have no idea how to teach those subjects to girls. You have to teach the content differently. It’s not about relationships, it’s not about making it pink, again my book “Girls on the Edge”, focuses on how do you teach this content in a way that works for girls. Not based on theory, or MRI scans, but based on what actually works in the classroom to engage and motivate girls in Computer Science, Physics, and Electrical Engineering. It’s pretty well established now but seldom used, because again the notion, merely stating the proposition, that the best way to teach Computer Science to girls is different from the best way to teach Computer Science to boys is politically unacceptable. Even if it is empirically very clear. Again, what is taught in schools of education is not based on data, or empirical research, it’s based on what is politically correct.

Brett McKay: Interesting. In “Boys Adrift” you talk about the uptick in ADHD diagnoses, why is that happening? Why is there more and more boys on ADHD medication?

Leonard Sax: Right. It’s really dramatic too, because in 1979, we have a good paper published in a science magazine showing that, about 1% of American kids have been diagnosed with ADD. In 2013 the CDC published data showing that 20% of high school boys in this country have been diagnosed and treated for ADHD, which is astonishing. A boy in the United States is about 14 times more likely than a boy in England to be treated for ADD.

I encountered this myself, again in my own practice, parents were stationed in England for 4 years, Dad’s a civilian contractor to the United States Air Force, he was working in England for 4 years, their son was 4 when they went over, 8 years old when they returned. Average student, but within weeks of returning to public school in Pennsylvania, Mom told me other parents and teachers were saying “You know, your son’s not an outstanding student why don’t you have him evaluated? Maybe he would benefit from being on medication?”. Mom was like “It was creepy. It was like everyone was on the payroll of the drug companies.”, these are her words. Why in the United States and not elsewhere?

A kid in the United States, as I said, is much more likely to be on medication for ADD. Kid in the United States is 40 times more likely to be treated for Bi-Polar disorder, 93% more likely to be on anti-psychotic medications like Risperdal or Zyprexa as compared to a kid in Italy. Why?

There’s a couple things going on here. One is the tendency in the United States to regard medication as a first resort rather than a last resort. Kids misbehave in all countries, I have visited schools in Australia, England, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, in Scotland, and I can tell you that kids misbehave in all country. If a kid in Scotland is running around and throwing things, teacher will say “It’s quite enough of that nonsense. I expect you to sit still and be quiet.” Which is what a teacher in this country might have said 30 years ago, but today a teacher in this country will say to parents “Your child might benefit from evaluation. He might benefit from medication. Have you thought of having him evaluated?”. The parents will take him to the doctor, and in this country, the board certified child psychiatrist will say “Well, let’s try Adderall and see if it helps, or Vyvanse.”

There’s been an explosion in the prescribing of medication, I explore the reasons in my book “Boys Adrift.” In my forthcoming book, “The Collapse of Parenting”, which was initially titled “The Collapse of American Parenting. Why most kids would be better off raised outside the United States.”, but non celebrity authors don’t get to chose their titles, and so that title was changed. The title of the book coming out in December is “The Collapse of Parenting. The 3 things you must do in order for your child to become a fulfilled adult.”

Brett McKay: Are there any detrimental effects of prescribing ADD medication to children who might not need it?

Leonard Sax: Yes. There’s detrimental effects regardless of whether the child needs it or not.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Leonard Sax: I’m talking now about the stimulant medications, Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Focalin, Daytrana, and the most popular one Vyvanse. Sounds like a bunch of different medications but it’s actually just two, amphetamine and methylphenidate. Adderall and Vyvanse, the most popular medications, are amphetamines, they’re speed. These medications damage the motivational center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, I have 14 good studies which I site showing that these medications, even in low doses, can damage the motivational center of the brain.

Again, I describe such a boy in my own practice, rolls out of bed late every day, Mom got frustrated with him one day and confronted him, says “What the story here? You wake up late every day, you work a few hours a week at the coffee shop, you’re 27 years old! You don’t have a life, you don’t even have a girlfriend for goodness sake.” He laughed, he said “Well I used to have a girlfriend, when she found out I only work a few hours a week at Starbucks she dumped me.” He’s fine, Mom is pulling her hair out, she insisted he come talk to me. He’s fine with that, he’s known me since he was a kid. He was on Ritalin from 9 years of age to 17 years of age, prescribed by a different doctor. That’s the end result, when you damage the motivational center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, you get a boy who looks fine, feels fine, perfectly content, he’s got no drive. He’s got no drive, he’s perfectly content with his 55″ flat screen, his online pornography, and his video games.

Brett McKay: What should parents do when teachers, counselors, or other parents say “Hey, maybe you should go get your son checked out”? That’s a lot of social pressure.

Leonard Sax: Yes, it is. I absolutely agree. A parent in the United States is under a lot of pressure, if your child is not performing at a high level you will start to hear those whispers. As this parent who returned from England described them, from other parents saying “You should have your son evaluated.” I really fought with the publisher to include formal guidelines in my book “Boys Adrift” so that parents can decide on their own, “Does my child meet criteria for ADD?”. The publisher really challenged me, and these are the exact words that the publisher said to me when “Boys Adrift” was in production, “Are you suggesting,” the publisher said, “That a parent after reading your book is competent to question the judgement of a board certified psychiatrist?” And I said “Yes.”

I said “Not only that, a parent must question the judgement of board certified psychiatrist because psychiatrists in the United States prescribe medication for just about every kid who walks in the door.” The moment you make that appointment it is very likely that the doctor will hand you a prescription at the end of the appointment. You must be the advocate for your child, you must question the doctor’s diagnosis and the doctor’s treatment, because, again, in this country medication is the first resort. Outside of North America medication is the last resort. The result is that we are experimenting on kids in a way which has no precedent.

I was doing this talk at Grace Church School in Manhattan, and a father stood up and challenged me. He said “Doctor Sax, I just don’t find this believable.” He said “Millions of kids are taking these medications and you’re suggesting that these medications damage the motivational center of the brain. I’m sorry Doctor Sax, I just can’t buy that. If there was any truth to what you’re saying … ” And I interrupted him, I said “If there was any truth to what I’m saying you’d have heard this before from a more authoritative source than Leonard Sax a family doctor. You’d have heard this from someone like Dr. Joseph Biederman, Chief of Research in Pediatric Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.” Of course, Dad didn’t know where I was going with this, I said “You know the same thought occurred to Senator Charles Grassley, United States Senate Judiciary Committee who summoned Dr. Biederman to the United States Senate and said “Dr Biederman, you’ve really been pushing Adderall hard. You have said that if a doctor prescribes Adderall for a child and the parent does not promptly fill and administer that medication, Dr. Biederman, you’ve said that parent should be considered for charges of criminal child neglect. Dr. Biederman, are you by any change taking money from the drug companies that you’ve never publicly disclosed?”.

Turns out he was, more than 1.6 million according to his count, that count was never independently verified. Which is fine, he didn’t break any law, a doctor can accept as much money as he wants to from the drug companies and he’s not breaking any law in the United States but his action was unethical. He should have told us that he was taking this money. That he was functioning, essentially, as a paid spokesperson for the drug companies. He’s still director of Pediatric Psychiatry Research at Harvard, despite all the articles in the New York Times, documenting how he took all this money. It’s not just Dr. Biederman, Senator Grassley in his investigation had many of the leading lights of American Psychiatry come in. The most chilling line of testimony, he asked one of these psychiatrists who had accepted millions of dollars and not disclosed it, “Why didn’t you disclose it?”, the psychiatrist said “Because it’s standard practice.” It’s standard practice, those were his exact words. That’s very troubling, when the leaders of child psychiatry say that it’s standard practice to accept millions of dollars from drug companies and not tell us about it. That’s really troubling.

Your local child psychiatrist isn’t getting anything, I assure you. I’ve given these talks to psychiatrists and they are incensed that their leaders have sold out. That the leaders of child psychiatry in the United States at Harvard, at Emory, at the National Institute of Mental Health, have accepted millions from the drug companies, never disclosed it, and made these pronouncements without telling us that they were functioning as paid spokesman, and they were all men, for the drug companies.

Brett McKay: Wow, that’s incredible.

Leonard Sax: You don’t have that anywhere outside of North America.

Brett McKay: It’s unique to the United States. One factor that you talk about in “Boys Adrift”, that I didn’t really know much about until I read about it, we’re seeing how it’s affecting boys, and I think it’s even affecting girls as well, is this endocrine disruptors.

Leonard Sax: Endocrine disruptors ?

Brett McKay: Endocrine disruptors. What are those and how do they effect the physical, mental, and emotional health of boys and girls?

Leonard Sax: And girls, absolutely. That’s focus not only of my book “Boys Adrift”, but also my book “Girls on the Edge.” So, when I give this talk to parents I’ll look around for someone who has a clear plastic water bottle and I’ll hold it up. I’ll say this bottle is made out of polyethylene terephthalate and it was probably shipped in a truck. Inside a truck the temperature can get very warm, inside a closed truck on a sunny day, even if the ambient temperature is not warm the temperature in the truck can easily rise to 120/140 degrees Fahrenheit. When that happens, toxins such as diethylhexyl phthalate, and antimony, will leak out of the plastic and into the water. They’re odorless, they’re tasteless, but they work in your body like a female hormone, like estrogen. The irony is that these people think they’re really healthy by drinking bottled water and they’re consuming these endocrine disruptors, substances that work in the human body the way that female hormones do.

The effects are different on boys compared with girls. In teenage boys you drop testosterone levels, teenage boys need testosterone for motivation among other things, I document and explain that point in “Boys Adrift”. The effect in girls is to accelerate the onset of puberty, in the United States more than 1/2 of girls have now begun the process of puberty before 10 years of age. Puberty accelerated for both boys and girls throughout much of the 20th century, in the last 30 years the age of onset of puberty has not changed for boys, it’s stayed around 12 years of age, but it has continued to accelerate, really without pause, in girls; so that, as I said, more than 1/2 of American girls have now begun puberty prior to 10 years of age. That’s really harmful for lots of reasons, for girls and for boys.

I was sitting in a 7th grade classroom where there was a 13 year old boy sitting next to a 13 y ear old girl, the 13 year old girl could easily have passed for a 16 year old girl. The process of puberty was complete. The 13 year old boy could easily have passed for a 9 year old boy, the process of puberty had not yet begun. There’s always been a sex difference in the age of onset of puberty, but 30 years ago it was a matter of months, now it’s a matter of years. Again, talking about boys, you look at men at University in the United States, according to recent studies 1 in 3 college age men now report difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection. A college age man today has a testosterone level comparable to what would have been seen in a 50 year old man 2 generations back. This has big consequences, one of which is the decline of courtship, you find quite a few men, I’ve spoken to them personally, who would rather masturbate over pornography then pursue, date, and be intimate with a young woman. That is now common in the United States, it would have been considered pathological as recently as 20 years ago.

Brett McKay: I see. What can people, or parents, do to avoid, or mitigate, the effects of these disruptors?

Leonard Sax: It’s actually very easy to protect your child from endocrine disruptors. Don’t ever cook anything in plastic, don’t buy anything that’s shipped room temperature in plastic. It’s fine to buy juice in plastic if it was shipped refrigerated and it’s stored refrigerated in the grocery store. Plastic is a source of many of these endocrine disruptors. Cosmetics, likewise, many of the shampoos and lotions that children, especially girls, use are very high in these endocrine disruptors. Manufacturers in the United States are not required to disclose that. Again, I provide very detailed guidelines in my book “Girls on Edge” and also for boys in “Boys Adrift”.

Brett McKay: Fascinating. I know a lot of our listeners, they’re the parents of sons, they’re also the parents of daughters, you mentioned one of the challenges facing girls is the way that we teach, for example Physics or Computer Science, just isn’t what motivates them or gets them interested, what are some other challenges facing young girls in America today?

Leonard Sax: Well I think the sexualization of girlhood is a big one. That’s the opening chapter of my book “Girls on Edge”, I begin the book with Halloween. With, again, a family from my own medical practice. Mom was trying to persuade her daughter to wear the Bavarian Dirndl outfit that she had worn for Halloween when she was 10 years old and the girl said “No. I’ve already picked out my outfit.” This was a few years back, she had chosen a PussyCat Dolls outfit which consisted of a brassiere top, hot pants, fish net lingerie, and stiletto heels, which was on sale at Walmart! If you imagine walking into Sears 30 years ago, saying “Hey I’d like to buy an outfit for my 9 year old girl that consists of a brassiere top, hot pants, fish net lingerie, and stiletto heels” they’d probably call the police, they’d probably arrest you because you’re obviously a pedophile. Today this is sold at Walmart and all the other major outlets, and here’s what’s scary, it’s what all the cool 9 year old girls are wearing.

When Mom said “Well you know if you don’t want to dress up in my outfit, look there’s a bunch of grapes you can could dress up like a bunch of grapes?” And her daughter said, “Mom only the fat girls dress like that!”. The cool girls, going back now to my own voice, the cool girls all dress in this provocative and revealing stuff, that’s what you wear if you’re a cool girl and you’re 9 years old in the United States. This is really harmful, because presenting yourself as a sexual object when you’re 9 or 10 year old girl, before you have a sexual agenda, we now have good research on this, it dislocates your sexual frame of reference.

Sexuality becomes a performance, a show, that you put on for boys. One consequence of this is an explosion in the proportion of girls who identify as lesbian or bisexual. 50 years ago the best numbers were between 1-2% of American women identified as lesbian or bisexual, right now, depending on which study you look at, between 15-24% of young women and teenage girls identify as lesbian or bisexual. That’s a factor of 10 increase, a 10 fold increase in 50 years.When you look at men, what proportion of men identify as gay or bisexual? Hasn’t changed in 50 years, stayed rock solid at 3-4%. Why is that? Why has this exploded for girls and really not changed at all for boys? That’s, again, the focus of the opening chapters of “Girls on Edge”, but one reason is the sexualization of girlhood.

The way in which the society, popular culture, including the Disney Channel, now pushes girls to present themselves sexually at 8/9 years of age in a way that would have been unthinkable and considered perverse a generation ago. Middle school has trickled down into 3rd grade, I’ve had 8 year old girls who’s Mom told me that she’s refusing to go to school because the boys say she has a muffin top. Meaning, that you have to wear midriff to be a cool girl at 8 years of age and she has a little roll of baby fat over her belt line and that’s what the kids call a muffin top, it’s an insult, so she doesn’t want to go to school. She is judging herself based on whether or not the boys think she’s cute at 8 years of age, that’s really harmful.

Brett McKay: I’m sure that leads to further problems with body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia, later one.

Leonard Sax: Yep, of course. Yep.

Brett McKay: Dr. Sax, this has been a really fascinating discussion. We didn’t get to everything we could talk about because there’s so much. Where can people learn more about you and your work?

Leonard Sax: Thank you. I just hired a professional web designer to bring my website into the 21st century. It’s where you can see all the presentations I’m doing, send me an email, I do try to answer every one if I possibly can.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Dr. Sax, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Leonard Sax: Thanks again!

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Dr. Leonard Sax, he’s the author of the book “Why Gender Matters.”, “Boys Adrift”, “Girls on Edge”, you can find those all on, go pick them up if you want, find out more information about his work at; that’s

Related Posts