From pick-up artists to incels … a journey through the ‘manosphere’ explores the radicalisation of misogynist men. From Guardian Steven Poole Wednesday 2nd September 2020
A woman at a protest march against violence toward women in Tel Aviv in June 2020. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA
Some men have for years been trying to deny women the right to their own safe spaces. In the 1970s, the anti-feminist “men’s rights” movement was born, including one US group called the National Coalition for Men. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, explains, this body has “repeatedly entered lawsuits against women-only spaces – alleging discrimination on the part of sports teams, networking events, and groups seeking to increase women’s participation in business and technology … It has also filed court cases seeking to force the defunding of women’s domestic violence shelters, unless they admit men.”
The pitiful irony here, as Bates shows, is that “men’s rights” groups splintered from the original, pro-feminist “men’s liberation” movement, which sought to free men themselves from harmful social expectations of masculinity. As one activist put it: “Our enemy isn’t women – it’s the role we are forced to play.” Nearly 50 years later, this still sounds like it might be worth a try, especially in a modern culture formed around such ossified, regressive stereotypes that it can seem society has become much more sexist even since the 1990s.
For this brilliantly fierce and eye-opening book, Bates has descended into the vast underworld sewage system of online misogyny, and brought back a persuasive and alarming thesis. But first she guides the reader through the various hellish circles of what she terms the “manosphere”.
First there is MGTOW, for “Men Going Their Own Way” – their own way being, hopefully, nowhere near women, who are all liars and cheats. Men Going Their Own Way like to hang out with other men going the same way on forums or YouTube, where they happily converse for hours and pages about exactly the thing they are supposedly pledged to avoid. In one of her many surgically sardonic asides, Bates comments that MGTOW, like most of the other anti-feminist groups out there, possesses “the special quality of being a group supposedly exclusively devoted to men, whose near-total focus is women”.
Also focused on women is the world of “Pick-Up Artists”, most famously documented in Neil Strauss’s The Game. PUAs profit from workshops teaching shy men how to insult women to get their attention and try their luck. Such tactics are predicated on the idea that women are just Pavlovian reflex machines, without agency or choice. In this way, aspiring PUAs are very like “incels”: men who think of themselves as “involuntarily celibate” because women won’t sleep with them. Both groups, Bates points out, essentially think of women as slot machines for sex. “The difference is that incels regard the machines as rigged,” she writes, while aspiring PUAs hope “to learn the exact secret combination of buttons to push and levers to pull, in order to trick the machine into paying out every time.”
It is tempting to dismiss the sites of the manosphere as mere sad little cesspools, but what Bates’s patient, thorough approach reveals is much worse. They are a breeding ground for what she rightly calls the “radicalisation” of young men online. Many incels worship the mass murderer Elliot Roger, whom they call “the perfect gentleman” for going on a woman-killing spree in revenge for sexual rejection in 2014. Memes such as “feminism is cancer” have become edgy currency among teenage boys Bates meets in UK schools.
Laura Bates. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
And this stuff filters upwards through friendly media and middlemen such as far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, so that men at the top can speak in code to their supporters. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed for the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual assault, Donald Trump said he supported “men and justice”, a clear dogwhistle to the misogynist demographic that believe they are victims of a vast feminist conspiracy. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, called David Cameron a “girly swot”, implying that women are to be despised for learning, and wrote of the “hot totty” at a Labour party conference. As Bates shows, moreover, sexism and anti-immigrant rhetoric often go hand in hand, via the conspiracy theory that foreigners challenge the rightful supremacy of the white male.
Damaging male behaviour has for a while been called “toxic masculinity”, but the problem with accusing people like Johnson of toxic masculinity is that what they will choose to hear is a) that they are very masculine (jolly good!), and b) that masculinity itself is fundamentally poisonous (which proves that the speaker must be a crazed man-hater).
Bates agrees that the phrase is problematic, but, as she wryly asks towards the end of her book, why should she and her sisters have to do all the work of detoxifying language, and men themselves? Perhaps we men who don’t hate women can make a small start by replacing talk of “toxic masculinity” with something more appropriate to Johnson, Trump, and their acolytes – perhaps, say, “pathetic man-babyism”?
#MenWhoHateWomen #ExtremismWeIgnore @LauraBates