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They're less fertile, more weight-obsessed and 'non-essential to parenting'. No wonder men are confused about modern masculinity.

If recent research is anything to go by, 21st century man is in a desperate muddle.

In June, men discovered that their libidos are in freefall, prompting a 40 per cent increase in males seeking counselling for impotence problems. Their existential angst worsened in July, when British men discovered that they have the most unequal paternity rights in Europe. According to Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, fathers in the UK are seen as 'not essential for parenting'. The same month saw the publication of a medical study that proved the quality of men's sperm declines to such an extent after they hit 45 that the chances of a partner's miscarriage are doubled.

It's not only their internal biology; men are also succumbing to the traditionally female preoccupation of looking good on the outside, too. Sales of male beauty products have leapt 30 per cent over the past decade. Almost 20 per cent more men are having plastic surgery than ever before while, last year, researchers from Harvard discovered that a quarter of anorexia and bulimia sufferers is male. During the fashion shows, male models had their own equivalent of the size-zero debate. 'Male models look chicken-chested, hollow-cheeked and undernourished' noted the New York Times.

Every week, it seems as if there are new surveys and studies tripping over themselves to paint the grimmest possible picture of modern masculinity. They tell us that men are more neurotic and less fulfilled than ever before; that they are objectified rather than revered; that they are expected to be more in touch with their emotions and yet are criticised for it. Men appear to be confused about what they are and unsure about who they are meant to be. So with more of them feeling disenfranchised, disillusioned and disempowered, is it feasible to think of men as the new oppressed minority? Might men, in fact, be the new women? And, if so, who is to blame for making them feel marginalised?

In the UK, men account for 75 per cent of all suicides. They are twice as likely to die from the 10 most common cancers that affect both sexes and, typically, develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women. Although there is a national screening programme in place for cervical and breast cancer, there is no equivalent for men, in spite of prostate cancer claiming 6.7 per cent more deaths for men than cervical cancer in women.

While women still earn on average 12 per cent less than men and are severely under-represented in top-level corporate roles, men in full-time employment work an average of 41.9 hours a week, compared to women's 37.6 hours. According to the American men's-rights author Warren Farrell, there might be a glass ceiling for women, but there is also what he calls 'a glass cellar' for men. 'What I mean by that is men are both at the top of the economy scale and at the bottom. Of the 25 professions ranked the lowest [in the US], 24 of them are 85-100 per cent male. That's things like roofer, welder, garbage collector, sewer maintenance - jobs with very little security, little pay and few people want them.'

Farrell says that women generally prefer a more flexible work-life balance and that implies 40-hour weeks 'at most'. Often, mothers are able to work fewer hours only because they are financially supported by their male partners. This, he claims, is the real definition of power. 'I define power as "control over one's life". A balanced life is far superior to the male definition of power: earning money someone else spends while he dies sooner.'

It would be easy to dismiss these arguments as anti-feminist but there are some commentators who think this could be a fundamental misreading of the movement's original goal: equality for both sexes, rather than the dominance of one at the cost of the other. Rosie Boycott, who co-founded the feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1971, points out that their first editorial insisted liberation should be for men as well as women. 'It is as much of a trap for a man aged 18-65 to feel solely financially responsible for 2.2 children and his wife, to be entitled to two weeks' holiday a year and to work nine to five, as it is for a woman to be responsible for all the childcare and housework,' she says. 'Men don't feel comfortable admitting that they're taking time off work to take their daughter to the dentist. We need a bigger critical mass of people to make that happen.'

But much of this remains a resolutely middle-class problem. At the lowest end of the economic scale, women are still attempting to shrug off the yoke of oppression and inequality. Meanwhile for many men, their loss of status in the home and the workplace is twinned with a loss of confidence in themselves. Neil Oliver, the television historian who has just published Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys, says that there is a conspicuous dearth of positive male role models. 'I grew up hearing tales of Ernest Shackleton and watching films like Zulu,' he says. 'The world in which I was a little boy was one of clearly defined roles for men and women and we don't have that any more, so men are struggling to readjust. Manly men have been hunted to near extinction in Britain and the concept of manliness has been outmoded. Yet the urge to be a man is a primal thing and still exists in boys today.'

In the classroom, too, boys are at risk of losing out on male role models. According to government figures for 2006, the ratio of newly qualified female to male teachers under the age of 25 was approaching seven to one. The introduction of coursework and modular exams is believed to play to traditionally female strengths - girls tend to be more methodical while boys tend to follow high-risk strategies such as cramming the night before an exam.

Some critics argue that this creeping 'feminisation' has led to girls outperforming boys on almost every level: they use more words, speak more fluently in longer sentences and with fewer mistakes. By the age of 11, some 76 per cent of boys have attained government-set literacy standards, compared to 85 per cent of girls. At GCSE level, 66.8 per cent of girls achieved A-C grades in 2007, compared to 59.7 per cent of boys (in real terms, this means they trail behind their female counterparts by nine years).

Do these statistics have any bearing on the everyday experiences of ordinary men? 'I don't know if I feel oppressed, but there's a sense in which women can talk about us with impunity,' says a 32-year-old male lawyer from London, who does not wish to give his name in case his female colleagues start pelting him with rotten tomatoes. 'I've been in the office on several occasions where sweeping generalisations have been made about the general crapness of men: "Oh, all men are useless, no wonder he couldn't get the job done in time" - that sort of thing. I don't take it all that seriously - at least, not yet - but I know that I wouldn't get away with saying the same things about women.'

For a long time, it wasn't particularly fashionable to stand up for men. Warren Farrell, the daddy of the so-called 'masculinist' movement, has been making his arguments since the late 1970s and frequently attracts outrage. His books - Why Men Earn More and his latest, Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? - seek to redress what he sees as an endemic sociocultural bias against his gender.

In almost all respects, he believes that men are now the weaker sex: 'The problem with feminism is that it saw man as the enemy. When only one sex wins, both sexes lose.'

On a superficial level, Farrell's insistence that men are scrabbling around in the dark searching for their lost masculinity like a mislaid dumbbell seems ill-conceived and borderline offensive. However, over the last few months, several books have been written reiterating Farrell's belief that men are disgruntled with their lot and must fight back against a Western culture that worships womanhood while demeaning masculinity. Apparently, men are stymied by biology as well - human genetics experts estimate that man will be extinct within 125,000 years owing to their declining sperm count and the mutation of the Y chromosome.

So - although women hold only 17 per cent of parliamentary positions across the globe, despite there being only 10 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and ignoring the fact that it is still illegal for a woman to drive a car in Saudi Arabia - it seems that, sometimes, it is harder to be a man.

Just ask Guy Garcia, author of the forthcoming The Decline of Men, an upbeat look at how the American male is 'tuning out, giving up and flipping off his future'. There is, says Garcia, 'a social predisposition to treat men as unworthy parents, betrayers and incorrigible philanderers'. Or there's Michael Gilbert, whose 2007 study, The Disposable Male, does pretty much what it says on the tin. 'Motherhood is immutable,' Gilbert writes. 'Paternity is the social construct. Amazingly, we have been doing everything we can to deconstruct it.'

Nor is it just men who have taken up the cudgel. This year saw the publication of Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care by Kathleen Parker, a pithy stateside newspaper columnist who prides herself on her Coulter-esque capacity to say the unsayable. 'I think men are confused because they are receiving conflicting and often confusing messages from women and culture,' she explains. 'We want them to be providers and protectors - except when we don't. We want them to count our contractions and share baby's midnight feedings, but then we want them out of the picture when we tire of them.'

Parker reserves much of her ire for 'the highly lucrative boy-bashing industry' that views sexual discrimination against men as a form of shared hilarity. So while you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan 'Boys Are Stupid - Throw Rocks At Them', to claim the same about women would be viewed as an incitement to violence. Discrimination against men increasingly seems socially acceptable. 'When Susan Pinker, the highly regarded psychologist and journalist published her recent book, The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes, she received an email from a colleague asking her to give a comment 'on the difference between men and women's brains - or rather, men's lack of brains!'

'It was a joke no one would make about women,' Pinker tells me. 'When you said you were writing a piece on men, I was just floored because my experience has been that no one cares a whit about men. I think there is a double standard. Because women have been discriminated against for so long there is a hyper-sensitivity about making jokes about them that doesn't exist for men. They are assumed to be fair game because they're on top. There's a notion that it's acceptable for women to treat men as dolts. It's a form of female bonding, as if it's known that men are a bit useless.'

Of course, lots of men are relatively happy with the status quo, but does this make it desirable or just? There is still a novelty factor attached to the notion of a full-time father and a mother who goes out to work: in many ways, the man who wishes to be a stay-at-home dad can be likened to the woman who wanted to be a surgeon in the 1950s. They both face a similar barrage of sexist assumptions.

'There is a culture of motherhood, a sanctity about it, that is quite strong in the UK,' argues Duncan Fisher, chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute. 'There's a gratuitous exclusion of men and the impression is given that you're left looking over the mother's shoulder. Midwifery services are described as "one-to-one care". After the birth, each mother is given a free magazine called Mum Plus One. If a woman goes to a job office, she is asked "Are you a mother? Let's see what kind of job you want to do," whereas no one would ask a man if he was a father.

'The guy is just not factored in. That's OK if you're a well-resourced middle-class man who can assert himself. But that's why so many teenage fathers drift away: there's no expectation that they should be included.'

Yet research shows that children with supportive fathers have lower instances of substance abuse, higher self-esteem and higher educational achievement.

Nor is this cheerful presumption of man's uselessness limited to fatherhood. The Advertising Standards Bureau reports a steady increase each year in the number of complaints about the way men are portrayed on television as 'buffoons' or 'idiots'. A 2007 advertisement for MFI kitchens depicted a woman slapping her husband in a dispute about leaving the toilet seat up. 'If a man belittles a woman, it could become a lawsuit,' says Farrell. 'If women belittle men, it's a Hallmark card.'

Tad Safran, a Los Angeles-based scriptwriter and journalist, discovered this to his cost last year when he wrote a scathing piece in a national newspaper about British women's 'unkempt' appearance. 'The hate mail I got was insane,' he says now. 'I was called "Sexist of the Year". Maybe I deserved it, but certainly that wouldn't have happened to the same extent if it had been written about men.' As if to prove his point, a few months later, another British broadsheet published a feature entitled 'Are Men Boring?' Both articles were based on ludicrous generalisations but no one labelled the female journalist sexist.

Does any of this really matter when men occupy an almost unquestioned position of primacy in nearly all walks of life? Are they getting their boxer shorts in a twist about trivialities? And is it patronising to assume that the nagging disaffection felt by primarily middle-class men in the Western hemisphere is shared by men the world over?

Maybe. But, according to experts like Susan Pinker, there is a necessary truth here too: that perhaps our harmless chatter among female friends occasionally carries a deeper significance than we might like to think; that for all the sperm banks and Rampant Rabbit vibrators on offer, men still have a role to play that can complement women rather than limiting them. We might, she argues, end up demeaning our own gender: 'It does us a disservice to gloss over the fact that our husbands, sons, brothers or fathers are all unique individuals. I've never believed in this Mars/Venus division: we're all just people.'