The Rights of Men

Meet the internet army fighting 
the scourge of feminism


Nicholas Underhill

Future Perfect
Issue 1, Winter 2014
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On the 24th of May 2014, a gunman in a BMW drove around the University of California, Santa Barbara, firing at random before he stopped at a sorority house. His goal: to “slaughter” as many “spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut[s]” as he could. When he wasn’t able to gain access to their building, he shot three girls standing outside. In a video posted on Youtube, filmed in his BMW 24 hours earlier, he seethed at the fact that no girls were interested in him: “It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me.”

This tirade might sound like the ramblings behind Another School Massacre, but to anyone aware of the men’s rights movement this type of language is eerily familiar. “You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true Alpha Male.”

Invoking the idea of (in)justice to characterise his lack of luck with women, as well as a reference to the ‘Alpha Male’, suggests the perpetrator (a known Reddit user) was well acquainted with the Men’s Rights Movement. He also subscribed to various pick up artists (PUAs) on YouTube associated with the notorious subreddit The Red Pill.

In The Matrix, Neo was given the choice between a blue and red pill. He could take the blue and continue to live an illusory, fabricated existence, or take the red and awake into hostile, painful reality. The Red Pill, a thriving community of 45,000, is a subreddit of pickup artists who trade tips on how to upgrade from “beta” men (“bluepillers”) to “alpha” men (“redpillers”), all in an attempt to assert their masculinity and sleep with as many women as possible. Members base their philosophy on the belief that women are inherently both hypergamous (only interested in finding a partner of higher status) and vacuous.

While the supposedly alpha “redpillers” are trying to get lucky, there’s a much more insidious group of men’s rights activists (MRAs) who are waging a war for equality on behalf of men. They veil their own hostility and anger towards women, and in particular feminism, behind a façade of so-called “positive change”, while successfully leveraging social justice lexicon (adding an extra dose of outrage and vitriol) to lend the appearance of credibility.

The massacre at Santa Barbara does fall at the extreme end of an already extreme movement, yet it is relevant because the perpetrator’s tirade disturbingly reflects the Men’s Rights ethos. His 141-page manifesto, My Twisted World, is deeply misogynistic and, like The Red Pill, objectifies and sexualises women. He borrows language of conflict, and writes that he will “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to”.

A Canadian branch of men’s rights activists, for example, hijacked a successful advertising campaign designed to stop men having sex with women too drunk to give consent. Promoted online and around Edmonton and Vancouver, the original campaign challenged men to end their role in sexual assault: “Just because she’s drunk, doesn’t mean she wants to fuck. Don’t be that guy.” The campaign was credited for a steep decline in date rape the following year.

The local men’s rights group argued the posters vilified men and left them open to accusations of false rape. In response, they inverted the message: “Just because you regret a one night stand, doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual. Don’t be that girl.” This counter-campaign quickly spread online through the MRA network. A Voice for Men, one of the most popular online men’s rights portals, appropriated the slogans and created their own versions urging women not to “Be That Lying Feminist”, “Be That Princess” or “Be That Bitch”.

Engaging with users online has been foundational to the growth of the men’s movement, and both A Voice for Men and The Red Pill have a considerable presence on the rapidly expanding online community Reddit. For the uninitiated, Reddit organises links (videos, image macro memes, articles, among others) and comments based on a system of user upvotes and downvotes. It is the self-proclaimed “Front Page of the Internet” and was recently touted as the world’s second fastest growing social networking platform (behind Instagram). Anyone can start their own community for discussing and content sharing—which is known as a subreddit.

These platforms have been at the forefront of the men’s rights movement, operating as a sort of digital water cooler around which men tell their stories, usually about an ex-wife or partner or their experience navigating the justice system, give dubious advice and lament the media’s bias against men (in one of the more extreme cases of dubious advice, men’s rights Redditors suggested a man “end” his ex-wife whom he believed was cheating him out of welfare payments).

Despite their aggressiveness towards women, something in the men’s movement has struck a chord. There’s no denying the movement’s influence—memberships, donations and web traffic are all on the rise—and it’s not uncommon to see posts, often about alleged false rape, a big issue within the online communities, receive the thousands of upvotes and comments needed to reach the front page of Reddit (similar to a ‘most popular’ or ‘most read’ on other websites). A Voice for Men is growing similarly quickly, with more than half a million hits a month and traffic almost doubling year on year.

A cursory glance of these websites would indicate that much of this traffic is being driven by men seeking help—particularly those trying to wade through custody law, appeal rape accusations or deal with domestic violence. The men’s rights virtual communities have become magnets for despondent, angry or scared men, acting as the last refuge for the ostracised and forgotten.

On Reddit, a man asks for help after his ex-wife takes their children on holidays and never comes back. Another, seemingly in panic, asks what to do after being accused of raping a girl. Another titled “Help me. No. Just hear me. Please” is the account of a man on the receiving end of domestic violence. Many talk about the lack of support: “I reached out for help, my wife beat the crap out of me, she was abusing me physically, emotionally, sexually, and financially. There was no hotline, shelter, support group, or victim advocates.” He finishes his story with a sobering reminder of the rates of male suicide: “Men my age, mid 40s, commit suicide 10 [times] more than women of the same age. Maybe they reached out for help and there was none.” (While research does suggest men commit suicide at much higher rates than women, the commenter’s claim that men in their 40s are 10 times more likely than women of the same age to commit suicide could not be verified). For each of these examples, there are countless more—and in each case the writer turned to the MRA community, in many cases because they felt like they had nowhere else to go.

It would be easy dismiss the men’s rights movement as a niche haunt for the desperate and angry. Yet MRA philosophy has traction with a much broader audience. It’s hard to know if its constant campaigning has filtered down through popular culture or whether there’s just a feminism fatigue, but many otherwise ordinary, reasonable men and women would agree that “political correctness has gone too far”, fostering a quieter, more insidious contingent of supporters than the more visible and vitriolic commenters whose nights are spent trolling news websites. 

There’s no doubt that as these stories suggest, there are an array of men’s issues that do need attention and support. As a society, we often joke about the rape of men in prison and you’re more likely to get a smirk than support as a male victim of domestic violence. (The Human Rights Watch estimated that in 2010 at least 140,000 inmates were raped in prison (between 2–4% of those incarcerated). Similarly, suicide rates are significantly higher for men, as are rates of male homelessness and male imprisonment. These are real issues and deserve considered thoughtful responses from the government and general public.

The problem, however, is that the men’s rights movement, at least in its current form, isn’t offering any solutions. And while a very small number of these men’s rights groups are actually attempting to help men—usually campaigning for fathers’ rights and child custody—the rest don’t offer any ongoing support or credible alternative for the men they are supposed to represent.

Similarly, the entire movement—from commenters on blogs to self appointed “leaders”—is undermined by overt aggression and a vitriolic anger. The movement courts controversy, and it would appear that in terms of generating exposure, the strategy has paid off. The mainstream media have published a spate of long-form features across respected publications like The Guardian, The New York Times, Slate and The Daily Beast—the movement was even satirised on Saturday Night Live.

But according to journalist R. Tod Kelly, who wrote an extensive essay on the movement called ‘The Masculine Mystique’, this explosion in attention has damaged the movement’s effectiveness. “You can actually make an argument that [MRAs] were having more success from a public policy standpoint before they exploded as an internet phenomena,” he tells me via email. “Most of this was at a state and local level, involving things like child support caps. While victories were done pretty far off the mainstream radar, they were still making slight progress, and this seems to have largely halted over the last several years.”

This lack of ‘mainstream’ success has a lot to do with the fact that MRAs have become defined by their ever more radical attacks on women and feminists. In one case, A Voice for Men proposed changing the name of the month October, “in the name of equality and fairness” (of course), to “Bash a Violent Bitch Month”. While the writer on A Voice for Men clearly stated the post was satire, what’s not so clear is whether the website’s readers got the “joke”.

One particularly blunt commenter spoke of a “gender war” in which “women, ALL WOMEN! are the enemies, there is no compromising”. In his colourful rant he also manages to give a call out to those “faggots” with their “biologically backward, queer-ass culture”. What’s perhaps most alarming, however, is that this is not just one bad comment cherry picked from a sea of others that are well-argued and rational. This extreme level of aggression and resentment is everywhere; it’s imbued in the culture of the men’s rights movement.

Anita Sarkeesian experienced the combined force of MRAs first hand. Sarkeesian, a prominent feminist, tried to crowdsource funding for a web series about the role of women in video games. Despite reaching her target of $6,000 within hours, the disturbed MRA hive swarmed and she received, in the words of Slate’s Amanda Marcotte, “an avalanche of misogynist abuse”. She was sent death threats and graphic images of video characters raping her. She was photoshopped onto pornographic pictures. The frenzy piqued when a young Canadian gamer went to the trouble of developing an interactive online game called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian”, where users could repeatedly click a portrait of Sarkeesian until bruises, cuts and black eyes appeared on her face. Toronto journalist Stephanie Guthrie dug through Twitter to find the developer of the game, Bendilin Spurr, and made his identity public, hoping that the Twitter community would join her in condemnation. When launched, the game bore this description: “[Sarkeesian] claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.” Guthrie’s unmasking of the young man who wrote this backfired. She too received a torrent of death threats. Sarkeesian later wrote that “in far too many online and gaming spaces, sexist behavior is still unfortunately considered normal, acceptable or expected.” Her treatment online, and more broadly the treatment of outspoken women across gaming culture, was par for the course.

Stills from the flash game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian

Stills from the flash game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian

Organised resistance to feminism has had a surprisingly long history—the idea of “men’s rights” appeared more than 100 years ago in an 1886 edition of Putnam Magazine. One of the first groups, the League of Men’s Rights, was actually founded with the goal of “combating all excesses of women’s emancipation”. But just as the feminist agenda actually started making progress, so did men’s rights groups start to gain momentum.

The modern men’s rights movement was born in the last 40 years after a split between members who came to believe their goals paralleled the feminist movement’s, and those that still believed feminism unjustly discriminated against them. As we entered the age of the internet, disaffected men looking for a supportive community and somewhere to vent found other men’s activists online.

These men and women, however, are now defined by their the anti-feminist stance. According to Dr Michael Flood, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong, MRAs believe men are being pushed out of the labour market, schools and universities, are not respected as fathers (by women and the law) and are seen by most women as nothing more than an ATM.

Men are subject to discrimination in health and government policy, boys are marginalised in a “feminised” schooling system and misandry is rife in popular culture. According to some activists, feminism has largely achieved its goals and women today have more choices and freedom than they did 50 years ago, while men are still stuck in traditional masculine roles.

While there may be some validity in these claims, it is hard to understand the belief that men do not exercise greater power and privilege over women. In fact, Flood argues that MRAs “ignore men’s dominance of powerful institutions and positions (institutional power), men’s power in relationships (interpersonal power), and cultural support for traditional masculine ideals and attitudes and men’s dominance of cultural production (cultural power).”

The only time that men’s rights activists do recognise patriarchal privilege is when they claim that what power they do wield is more burdensome than beneficial. The usual examples include men being sent off to war, men killed in factories, and the fact that men are still the primary breadwinners. What isn’t discussed, however, is that these are examples of man’s powerlessness at the hands of other men—not women or feminists. Men send men to war. Men have traditionally only hired men as labourers. Men want men to remain breadwinners at the traditional ‘head of the family’.

The mental gymnastics required to argue patriarchy doesn’t exist and then rattle off statistics complaining that men are the primary income earners or are sent to die in war is as impressive as it is senseless. And this highlights a crucial problem with the men’s rights movement: it lacks self-reflection and critical analysis. It’s operating in an air-tight echo chamber. Rather than exposing their online communities to different views and ideas, the closed communities reinforce extreme attitudes and spurious “facts” as users read and reread self-fulfilling arguments and discussion. The upvote/downvote system of Reddit notoriously enables this streamlining effect—controversial and unpopular comments are downvoted to oblivion while populist comments are seen first.

This echo chamber is perhaps best illustrated in an exchange between one of the movement’s most articulate leaders, Karen Straughan (yes, a woman), and an audience member at a public forum in Canada earlier this year. The exchange, which journalist Tod Kelly labelled one of the most “interesting microcosms of the MRM [he] has seen”, starts with a question about the “feminisation of the workforce”. The audience member suggests that high-paying, prestigious white collar jobs might soon be filled by women because the formal office environment doesn’t allow men to be men. They would never, he continues, be able to hang centrefolds of pinup girls. Surprisingly, Straughan agrees, arguing that men crave an environment in which they can relax and not worry about offending women. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar is the ultimate symbol of a man’s domain—one in which modern sensibilities around sexism and equality don’t exist. While some men might resent a more gender balanced workplace and choose different careers because of it, Straughan’s suggestion that men won’t work in these higher paying white collar jobs seems a little farfetched—particularly as she uses unsourced statistics and assumptions

Kelly stresses how important it is to understand this echo chamber. Not only are these seemingly counterintuitive arguments made regularly but people are listening intently.

“Some might find this funny in a kind of Onion-esque way, and they might have a point. But if we’re speaking about the long-term viability of the movement, I would argue this exchange is really important. The disconnect from reality is so palpable that I’m not sure it can be overcome at this point,” Kelly writes.

If the goal of the men’s rights movement has been to get media attention, they certainly have succeeded (this article is proof of that). What they need to decide from here on is how they will use this growing exposure. It might only take a few reasoned, moderate voices to whip up the growing men’s rights grassroots to enact real change—but as Kelly suggests, the movement might already be too far gone. Rather than the viciousness and vitriol, this is the real tragedy of the movement. The issues they claim to care about, particularly men’s suicide and homelessness, should be discussed among politicians and the community. It would seem, however, that the men’s rights activists are so hell-bent on destroying feminists that they’ve forgotten what they’re doing there in the first place.

In fact, they should take some of their own counsel. Kelly finishes with a quote from another MRA leader dishing out choice advice for feminists: “You are losing control of the narrative, and the vicious, sadistic and amoral character of your movement is increasingly and glaringly obvious. You might just want to check yourselves in a mirror, dummies.”