This article was originally published on October 24, 2013, under the title: "A Good Men’s Rights Movement Is Hard to Find."
Only once the production crew taped the microphone on my dress did I have second thoughts. As part of an upcoming 20/20 special, I’d agreed to a sit-down with Paul Elam. Elam is founder and publisher of A Voice For Men (AVFM), one of the main hubs for the burgeoning “men’s rights’ movement.” In a blog post on the organization’s site, he made his feelings clear: “I find you, as a feminist, to be a loathsome, vile piece of human garbage. I find you so pernicious and repugnant that the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection.”
This was not going to be a productive conversation.
With the cameras rolling, I told Elam that it was hard to know how to engage with someone who hates you so much it turns him on. He waved the statement away, saying he’d made it in the heat of conversation (this despite the fact that “Fuck Their Shit Up” is AVFM's official mantra). Elam is good at making excuses: Confronted with his own words, he typically says he has to use “extreme” language to attract attention to his cause. When that fails, he likes to claim that his work is “satire” (to which I can only reply, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "I do not think that means what you think it means").
Elam’s site is one of dozens of blogs and message boards that constitute the “manosphere,” where participants rant, bond, and spew ideas so misogynist they make Silvio Berlusconi look like Gloria Steinem. There are three main constituencies. There are the Pick Up Artists (PUAs), who'll try to sleep with all the women they can, by any means necessary, and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), who claim to have sworn off women altogether. Then there are the Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who are animated by many of the same misogynist beliefs as their manosphere brethren, but draw different conclusions about what men should do in relation to the scourge that is womankind.
David Futrelle, creator of Manboobz, a site that tracks (and mocks) the manosphere, cites the myth of female hypergamy as one of their motivating forces: “It’s the idea that all women are these fickle, opportunistic creatures who are constantly looking to glom onto some ‘high status’ guy, and exploit him for all he’s worth, and that they’ll immediately desert whoever they’re with as soon as they find someone better. The men’s rights people talk about this as a horrible injustice in the world, whereas the PUA’s are like, these evil women are looking for guys with status, so if we can figure out how to fake that successfully we’ll get to have sex with them.”
What makes the MRAs particularly insidious is their canny co-optation of social-justice lingo. While Pick Up Artists are perfectly plain that all they care about is using women for sex, MRAs claim to be a movement for positive change, with the stated aim of getting men recognized as an oppressed class—and women, especially but not exclusively feminists, as men’s oppressors. It's a narrative effective enough to snow the mainstream media: Just this past weekend, The Daily Beast ran a profile of MRAs that painted them as a legitimate movement overshadowed by a few extremists. Trouble is, even the man writer R. Todd Kelly singled out as the great "moderate" hope that other MRAs should emulate—W.F. Price, of the blog "The Spearhead"—is anything but. According to Futrelle, "This is a guy who ... blames the epidemic of rape in the armed forces on women, who celebrated one Mothers Day with a vicious transphobic rant, and who once used the tragic death of a woman who’d just graduated from college to argue that 'after 25, women are just wasting time.' He published posts on why women’s suffrage is a bad idea. Plus, have you met his commenters?"
In some ways, the manosphere is old news. As long as there has been feminism, there has been a misogynist backlash. Warren Farrell, considered by many to be the father of the modern men's rights movement, has been at it since the '80s. But the Internet has proven a powerful accelerant for these discontents: According to Alexa.com, a web analytics service, A Voice For Men's traffic has more than doubled in the past year; the site's U.S. traffic ranks at 10,303 as of this writing (by way of comparison, the Prospect is ranked at 16,142).
The list of grievances for MRAs is long. It includes the elevated rate of suicide for men, educational discrimination against boys, economic and workplace conditions for men, violence against men, false rape reporting, fathers’ rights in custody battles, rates of male imprisonment and prison conditions, and the horrors of war. Many of these issues deserve a thoughtful response and the force of an organized movement for address them. It’s too bad that’s not what men’s rights activists are offering.
Case in point: Last month, AVFM and CAFE (the Canadian Association For Equality, an MRA group) held a “historic” rally in Toronto. Attended by a few dozen people, the rally featured speakers airing grievances about violence against men, and men’s unfair treatment in family courts, the workplace, and educational institutions. "Men matter,” the crowd cheered. One speaker, who was quickly ushered away from the mic, called for violent uprising against communism. But what was most notable about the rally was that not a single speaker proposed a solution to any of the problems they identified.
Instead, no matter what the issue is, the response from Men’s Rights Activists is the same: blame, threaten, and harass women, mostly online. (Though there has been a worrying uptick in offline activity, especially in Canada, it still represents a small percentage of what they do. The exception to that are the men who focus on “fathers’ rights” in custody cases, who, as Boston Magazine documented this summer are well organized and have been having real impact on the way family courts function).
Comment threads and message boards serve as the public square for MRAs, a kind of bizarro-world combination of locker room, group therapy, and organizing. Recently, on the Men’s Rights subreddit, one MRA complained of how much he had to pay in child support, and how trapped he felt by the situation. His fellow MRAs helpfully suggested that the solution to his problem was to murder his wife, a tactic many on the subreddit were eager to echo, upvote, and get disturbingly specific about.
Blogs like AVFM and The Spearhead serve as what passes for the “think tanks” for MRAs, developing and promoting the MRA agenda. I’m using that term loosely as the ideas they promote tend to be things like arguing against women having access to college education, accusing feminists of encouraging domestic violence so that we can make money, and calling prominent feminists “child abusers” for promoting feminism.
Indeed, MRAs seem to enjoy spreading disinformation about feminism, framing it essentially as whatever they hate about women. In our conversation, Elam cited only Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanas, two long-dead women who were extremists even in their day. At the same time, this poster from AVFM’s “Victor Zen” seems to think feminists endorse the pop culture idea of a Mars/Venus divide, while in reality we deconstruct it at every opportunity. Many MRAs are enamored of the idea that feminists are desperate to trap them in marriage, because you know how feminists are all about promoting traditional marriage.
And then there are the personal attacks: One of their tactics is to put out a cash bounty for personal information—including home addresses, places of employment, email addresses, and phone numbers—of feminists who upset them. The deluge of hate mail, rape and death threats for those on the receiving end of these witch hunts is hard to describe.
One young woman, who got in a heated argument with a men’s rights activist at a protest in Canada, was subsequently dubbed as “little red frothing fornication mouth” by AVFM and had all of her private contact information published by MRAs. She received hundreds of elaborate threats of violence. One anonymous commenter invited her to “enjoy being anally defiled.” Another gloated: “I would actually cum cutting that bitch’s throat.” Another outspoken feminist told me personally that she had to get the FBI and the state police involved when AVFM targeted her. Authorities found the threats she received so credible that they advised her to leave home for two weeks, taking her husband and young child with her. Increasingly, men's rights activists target women offline as well. Last month, members of the organization Men’s Rights Edmonton hung large “wanted”-style posters of a professor all over the University of Alberta campus, calling her a bigot. Her crime? She was involved in the university’s anti-rape campaign.
I’ve got a tiny taste of this last month. When word spread that I was going to be featured on 20/20, A Voice For Men published a hit piece, calling me a bad feminist (for criticizing Naomi Wolf), accusing me of demonizing male sexuality, and simultaneously suggesting that my bisexuality means I haven’t slept with enough men to have valid opinions about them, that I’m too fat and ugly to get a man to sleep with me, and that I’m a miserable slut who needs to manipulate other women into validating me. The comments thread features someone with the pseudonym Theseus saying “I would love to see a you tube [sic] vid with a heckler in the audience shouting out ‘Hey uh Jackie, I think a dude raping you is the least of your fucking problems’!!” Another commenter promised to do just that. As a survivor of sexual assault, threats like this shake me almost physically. While they never silence me, they always unsettle and exhaust me.
These targeted hate campaigns are common enough that they’re a risk I and everyone else have to contemplate when we consider speaking out against the men's rights groups or simply sharing a feminist opinion online. Making it terrifying to speak out discourages women from doing so, limiting our ability to participate fully in the digital public square. It’s not hyperbole to say that this kind of terror campaign prevents women from participating in our democracy on equal footing with men.
And make no mistake: anti-woman hate is the defining feature of the MRAs, and the examples above are the rule, not the exception. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a storied civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, told 20/20: "The Manosphere is an underworld of so-called men's rights groups and individuals on the Internet, which is just fraught with really hard-line anti-woman misogyny.” A Voice For Men makes no excuses for their hatred of women, from posts ranting about women who are “begging to be raped” to treatises about how fat women want to be sexually violated because it would mean we are desired. Warren Farrell, the aforementioned “father” of the modern MRAs—he openly called date rape “exciting” and said that incest can be a good thing—has recently signed on as a regular AVFM contributor. For over a year, AVFM hosted in their “activism” section a call to firebomb courthouses written by a man who actually lit himself on fire in front of one. Paul Elam himself wrote an infamous post in which he vowed that, should he ever be called to serve on the jury for a rape trial, he would vote to acquit even if he believed the defendant was guilty.
As bad as Men's Rights Activists are for women (and, really, for our collective humanity), they’re also doing harm to the causes they claim to care about. When an AVFM contributor in Australia called a hotline posing as a man being beaten by his wife and needing a shelter for himself and his son, he claims he was denied help. But if you listen to the recording (or read the transcript), you can clearly hear the counselor on the other line offer multiple forms of assistance, including a free hotel for himself and his son, a direct connection to a police officer specializing in domestic violence, and more. Far from their tagline “compassion for men and boys,” this incident reveals that MRAs are happy to abandon men and boys to real danger when it suits their hate campaign against women.
Every man who visits a men's rights site concerned about male victims of rape is a man who’ll be told that women are the problem and will be offered no practical solutions, a man who won’t be connected with direct services for survivors if he needs them, a man who still doesn’t know about Just Detention International, which works to end prison rape, or Service Women’s Action Network, which is taking the lead to end sexual violence in the U.S. military for both men and women. Every man who comes to them concerned about the high rates of on-the-job fatalities for men is a man taught to blame women but who is never encouraged to support or join unions. Every man who comes to them concerned about the male suicide rate is a man who won’t be encouraged to help out with the life-saving work The Samaritans do every day.
It’s hardly the End of Men these days (really, Hannah Rosin, get a grip). But as Ann Friedman (no relation, alas) writes in New York magazine, “America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood … [E]ven the most ideologically progressive men are just now starting to talk about how to break with masculine stereotypes and still hang onto a sense of gender identity.” It’s the very real pain caused by these systemic problems and cultural anxieties that Men's Rights Activists are all-too-eager to exploit.
Of course, you’ll find women (and, gasp!, even feminists) in leadership in most of the institutions actually working to make life safer for men. It’s feminists who fought a long and recently successful battle to ensure that male victims are included in the FBI’s definition of rape. Some feminists are working to integrate the military so that the burden of war doesn’t just fall on men, and some are working against the militarism that not only enables rape in the armed forces, but underpins the narrow, confining cultural ideas about masculinity that make so many men feel trapped. Feminists have ensured that, through the Violence Against Women Act that MRAs oppose, the overall rate of intimate partner violence in the U.S. declined 64 percent between 1994 and 2010, and that decline is distributed evenly between male and female victims.
It’s hard to know what to do about MRAs beyond taking every possible opportunity to expose them as the hatemongers they are. But I think that the above list of feminist victories for men provides a clue. When she interviewed me for the 20/20 segment, Elizabeth Vargas asked me if I wanted to curtail MRA’s right to free speech, noting that even Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has the right to protest. I agreed with her then as I do now, and I advocate the same response that’s been so successful against the WBC: rather than try to stop them, we make a peaceful human chain to blunt their hate and counter it with love. In the case of MRAs, we can do that by continuing to work to improve the lives of both men and women, and to end all forms of gender oppression. There’s nothing like the truth to expose a lie.