A few months ago, a mixed martial arts fighting star known as War Machine beat up his ex-girlfriend, adult performer Christy Mack. In a statement released on Twitter shortly after the accident, Mack said that War Machine, who legally changed his name from Jonathan Koppenhaver to that of Iron Man’s superhero sidekick, broke into her home in Las Vegas. He reportedly beat up a friend of hers who was also in the residence, and then, turning his fury on Mack, broke 18 bones around her eyes, broke her nose in several places, shattered several of her teeth, fractured her rib, stabbed her repeatedly with a kitchen knife, ruptured her liver with a savage kick to the torso, and attempted to rape her.
The attack was shocking for its brutality, as well as the week-long police manhunt that followed, but it also brought renewed attention to War Machine’s previous stint in the slammer for felony assault. The last time War Machine was in jail, he maintained a prison blog by handwriting letters to a friend, who typed out the missives and posted them online. For people looking at what may have motivated War Machine to do something so heinous—other than the fact hurting other people is literally his job—one post in particular stood out:
The oppression of MEN is worse than oppression of Jews in Nazi germany, worse than the slavery of Blacks in early America … I’m not exaggerating either. Every Jew & every Black man, both in jail and those who have managed to avoid it, will attest to what I have just wrote … Being a MAN is BALLS not brawn!
So don’t think you were too weak or small to be the MAN I’m talking about. So many of you ARE MEN but you got trapped by the oppressor. Every time you fight the urge to tell your wife ‘NO!’ or you tell your son, ‘Don’t punch the bully, go tell instead,’ YOU ARE LETTING THE OPPRESSOR WIN!
Think on it … P.S. Before people cry about me comparing the oppression of MEN to the Holocaust and slavery, let me illustrate a few things. The oppressor has learned from history that dead bodies attract too much attention to what’s going on, or YES, there would be millions of dead MEN! They’d love that quick fix!
In order to be elusive and to have longevity, the oppressor has learned to kill MEN while their bodies remain alive. And with your ‘spirit extinguished’ you’re nothing but a fucking zombie, a shell of a man, waiting to die. And THAT is just as bad as death itself. The animals at the zoo are as good as dead just as we are, the MEN in America.
For the uninitiated, War Machine’s rant seemed like the ravings of someone dealing with serious anger issues lashing out at anything and everything. But to others, the post was a way to connect the MMA star with a school of thought that’s bubbling in dark corners of the Internet for years—the men’s rights movement.
Every many will realize it- sooner than later- MMA Fighter : Men’s Oppression Is ‘Worse Than Slavery’ http://t.co/qNWdc7mEZQ
— Mens Rights Movement (@MensMrm) August 23, 2014
But the real story is far more complicated than that. For their part, many other men’s rights activists decry what War Machine did—with the noted exception of Daryush Valizadeh, better known as Roosh V, one of the most visible and extreme men’s rights activists. As it turns out, War Machine isn’t held up as a spokesman for men’s rights. His complaints about men not being able to be the macho psychopaths nature intended them to be aren’t even really central to the movement’s concerns. But his frustration about a society that appears to be slanted against men: This is a nexus commonality.
At its core, men’s rights is a reaction against feminism, a direct attack on the results of the feminist movement. But in that reaction, the movement is allowing a group of people—largely young, white, single, and heterosexual men—to develop a shared class consciousness, to realize that the anti-feminist opinions they’ve felt afraid to say aloud are shared by others, to find a voice for these opinions outside of the standard Democrat-Republican political structure within which they have never felt entirely comfortable.
Coming together in places like Reddit’s r/MensRights community, the men’s right movement has spent recent years growing into one of the most polarizing forces on the Internet, and increasingly, they’re trying to get organized.
Shut down and shut out
Online anti-feminism is having something of a moment. In May, University of California, Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger left behind a video that reminded many observers of sentiments professed by some in the men’s rights movement. Likewise, the rage-filled joystick jockeys of Gamergate are fighting tooth-and-nail against the introduction of any sort of feminist criticism of video games and its assorted culture.
While arguments against feminism are nothing new—conservative talking heads like Rush Limbaugh have amassed fortunes railing against “feminazis” for decades—these events, though only tangentially related, have brought significant mainstream attention to the specific online men’s rights community. Yet, few seemed to have actually entered these communities and asked organizers who they are and why they do what they do.
When I first reached out to the moderators of the r/MensRights subreddit, I told them I wasn’t interested in writing a hit piece. Those pieces have already been written, and any reader who wishes to decide whether or not the movement is full of terrible misogynists or a group of people with legitimate societal grievances will be able to figure that out for themselves after about 30 seconds of scanning the headlines on subreddit’s front page.
At its core, men’s rights is a reaction against feminism, a direct attack on the results of the feminist movement.
I also wasn’t interested in a full-throated defense of men’s rights. The movement’s core set of beliefs are deeply controversial and extremely problematic. As much as the faux-objectivity of the “view from nowhere” is, in many ways, just as slanted a polemical broadside, there’s a lot of value in simply trying to figure out who these people are and precisely what it is they want.
These types of disclaimers are rarely necessary.
I write about Reddit moderators on a regular basis—even ones, like the volunteers who run r/TripSit, who are exclusively dedicated to promoting activities like tripping your face off on illegal drugs. But the people who run r/MensRights seemed especially likely to be skeptical of someone prying into their personal lives to find out what makes them want to spend a significant portion of their time fostering a community that, while relatively obscure, is almost universally loathed outside of its own small, albeit rapidly growing, circle of adherents.
Reddit’s management has done an absolutely terrible job of dealing with the harassment of its users by trolls. While most of the attention has been paid to the bevy of threats directed at women and people of color, white dudes with controversial views aren’t immune. Moderators of r/MensRights claim to have been doxed, meaning their personal information (real name, address, phone number, etc.) has been posted online, or have had their employers called in attempts to get them fired—although the mods weren’t able to provide direct evidence of this, citing that the incident happened several years ago and that Reddit’s search function is terrible. Most r/MensRights mods keep entirely separate Reddit accounts for their r/MensRights activities. It’s difficult to link their Reddit activity to their personal lives.
Nevertheless, the mods decided to tell me a little bit about themselves. One in particular, going by the handle sillymod, gave the most insight about what would lead someone into men’s rights activism.
“I grew up believing that I was a feminist. My parents divorced when I was young, and my single mother supported and raised two kids,” sillymod wrote in a message. “She had a hard life, and believed both in empowering women and that violence and aggression were male traits (and any woman portraying such traits was a product of the men in their lives). This was understandable, considering the violence towards women she had seen in her lifetime, and the rape she had experienced—such experiences have an obviously drastic effect on people.”
He saw women as vulnerable and delicate, and as a result, he recounted always feeling uncomfortable around them. “I was so afraid to harm women accidentally or contribute to what society was doing to them, that I was very socially awkward around women,” he noted.
At the same time, it was never a view with which he was entirely comfortable. Sillymod took classes in feminist theory in college but felt like he was constantly shot down whenever he raised objections to what he was reading or how he saw his classmates applying what they were learning in the real world. He recalls once being “berated by a feminist” who wanted to start a scholarship program for women in science for insisting that a number of similar scholarship programs already existed and that she could probably make a bigger difference by volunteering at one of those rather starting something new.
Whether or not this advice came unsolicited is almost beside the point. This feeling of being shut down in real-life conversations about women’s issues by calls of sexism is one that came up again and again.
“In college, I replied to someone who wrote that the vast majority of domestic violence was committed by men, and therefore all men must help to stop domestic violence,” recalled MRmod3, another moderator of the r/MensRights subreddit. “I said that was in fact not true, and that men are not responsible for the actions of other men, anymore than women are responsible for other women. … In response, I was called [a] misogynist [who was] writing ‘hate speech.'”
The feeling of being shut down in real-life conversations about women’s issues by calls of sexism is one that came up again and again.
When people like sillymod and MRmod3 first wandered into r/MensRights, they found a place where, even if everyone didn’t hold the exact same views as they did, they could at least strongly criticize a broadly drawn definition of feminism without having their opinions and evidence challenged in a way that made them feel like they were terrible people.
It was also a place where, in many instances, they could read other people opening up about the very same issues they were also dealing with in their own lives.
“The issues that really spoke to me about the men’s rights movement were that people accepted that women could be violent, too; that it wasn’t always men’s fault,” sillymod explained. “My experience with people claiming to be feminists … was that men-on-women violence was men’s fault, men-on-men violence was men’s fault, women-on-women violence was men’s fault, and women-on-men violence was men’s fault. I had internalized that view, due to feminist rhetoric, and it had seriously damaged me.
“The whole time, the secret I was hiding, was that an adult woman in a position of authority had sexually molested me as a child, repeatedly—and my experience with feminism had taught me to believe that it was either my fault, or the fault of the men in society,” he continued. “Thus, I hated men. Within the common feminist view, it seems, women aren’t responsible for their own actions, their actions were a byproduct of a patriarchal society.”
Sillymod knows that viewpoints are complex. “Feminists don’t all believe in the same thing, and neither do all anti-feminists nor men’s rights activists,” he wrote.
Even still, looking at the type of posts that tend to float to the top of the front page of r/MensRights, it’s possible to get a general idea of the type of things that men’s rights activists tend to care about. Of the page’s top 23 stories on Oct. 24:
- 4 posts about the relationship between men’s rights and feminism (or just the ideology of feminism in general)
- 1 post about men’s disadvantages in child custody
- 7 posts about how sexual/domestic assault claims against men are often fake or don’t take into account women who rape men
- 1 post about giving men paternity leave after having kids
- 2 posts decrying women advocating violence or sexual violence against men (one of them is a YouTube video made by teenagers over a year ago with only 6,000 views)
- 6 posts about unequal treatment of women/men in criminal justice system and violence against men
- 2 posts about the negative effect of women in the workplace or arguing against the existence of a wage gap between men and women
- 1 post just straight up making fun of feminism
- 2 posts encouraging men’s rights activists to get involved in politics
A survey of visitors to the subreddit conducted last year shows the the issues raised in these posts are largely consistent with what people in the subreddit generally care about.
There may be individual issues that come up again and again, but the core complaint uniting them is a criticism of using gender as a way to organize the world. By and large, men’s rights activists argue that by looking at things through a feminist lens, it flattens everything else—race, class, education, sexual orientation—therefore ignoring the ways that individual men are oppressed.
That critique ignores the burgeoning field of intersectionality, the study of how all of the aforementioned categories work together with gender to reinforce patterns of discrimination (although the topic has come up a number of times on the subreddit). But attacks on a gendered view of the world aren’t all that surprising from people whom such a view puts on the defensive.
“People in power abuse that power for their own benefit, but that doesn’t apply to all men,” wrote sillymod. “The hierarchical system we have has men in positions of power but that does not necessarily confer all such privileges to men as a whole—men have born [sic] a huge burden of responsibility in society, and did so without the same protections that are offered to women.”
The men behind the movement
The men’s rights movement wasn’t born online, but inside the pseudonymous confines of online spaces like Reddit and the MRA hub A Voice for Men, it was able to thrive.
The modern men’s rights movement first arose in the early 1970s as a reaction against the growth of feminism among men who felt like the expansion of rights to, and cultural attitudes toward, women has swung the pendulum to the point where men, as a gender, were put at a collective disadvantage. Groups like the Men’s Rights Association and the National Coalition for Men have been operating for decades but never managed to make much of an impact on the greater culture at large.
The men’s rights community on Reddit was created in 2008 and, over the years, has swelled to include nearly 100,000 subscribers.
Judging by an admittedly less-than-scientific, self-reported demographic survey r/MensRights, 75 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34; 89 percent are male; 85 percent are white; 81 percent are heterosexual; 70 percent are single; 91 percent don’t have children.
By and large, men’s rights activists argue that by looking at things through a feminist lens, it flattens everything else.
These demographics imply that the vast majority of regular contributors to the community have a lot of characteristics that would put them either in the majority or, at the very least, in a position of power. In the U.S., it’s typically frowned upon to explicitly express solidarity with others along the lines of those specifically empowered characteristics. White people usually don’t go around espousing a doctrine of white rights, just as straight people don’t hold straight pride parades. As the dominant groups in society, outwardly advocating or celebrating those dominant traits can function as a way of enshrining discrimination against racial and sexual minorities.
That’s not to say that the interests of white people or straight people or even men are never implicitly advanced over those of minorities or homosexuals—or explicitly, if you happen to live in Ferguson, Mo. Being overwhelmingly made up of heterosexual white people, the Republican Party necessarily advances the interests of those groups; however, lumping men’s rights activists in with mainline, or even Tea Party, Republicans would likely be a mistake.
In that same survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents on r/MensRights labeled themselves as “irreligious.”
Here’s is a chart showing a breakdown of respondents’ party affiliation:
For his part, sillymod is a pro-choice atheist and insists that conflating men’s rights with traditional conservatism misses the point—even though there are some areas of agreement, like an insistence that the wage gap between male and female workers isn’t real.
“The Republican party is not the party of the men’s rights movement. The Republican party is the party of traditionalists. We are not traditionalists,” he insisted. “We are very much trying to become politically active, but that is difficult to do when we are being accused of misogyny for things like wanting male victims of domestic violence to not be arrested simply because they have a larger stature.”
War Machine’s arguments that men are systematically oppressed may be in line with the overall tenor of the beliefs of men’s rights activists, but all of the mods of r/MensRights categorically repudiated everything the former MMA fighter did.
The problem for the movement is that it desperately wants to shed its image as woman-hating rape-apologists. It’s easy for outsiders to conflate politically minded misogyny with a movement arguing that society’s unwillingness to take sexual assault against men seriously or the tendency of courts to side with mothers over fathers in child custody hearings has the same root cause—the scourge of an all-encompassing feminism.
It doesn’t help that some, under the banner of the men’s rights movement, have launched ugly, mean-spirited personal attacks at the people with whom they disagree. A feminist blogger was forced into hiding in April of last year after receiving harassment for criticizing and disrupting a men’s rights conference being held at the University of Toronto, and an innocent woman was barraged with harassment that same month after being mistaken for a pseudonymous Georgetown admissions offer who wrote that she had rejected applicants who were “dripping with white male privelege [sic].”
When people like War Machine or the hordes of Gamergate yell about how feminists are destroying the world, the fight to move the men’s right movement into a place where talking about it offline is just as easy as talking about it online gets just a little more difficult.
“We are very much trying to become politically active, but that is difficult to do when we are being accused of misogyny.”
Other communities affiliated with the men’s rights movement add roadblocks as well. For example: a movement called the Red Pill, which takes a men’s rights mindset and is used as a basis for pick-up artists. The mods of r/MensRights seem to view the Red Pill with at least partial disdain. “I find that some parts are useful, such as the insistence on physical and mental improvement for men,” wrote nicemod of the Red Pill subreddit. “Other parts I reject, like the manipulation and denunciation of women. I believe that men can better themselves without dragging women down.”
“At the very least, in that sense, it (the subreddit) seems to me to be discriminatory or at least prejudicial towards women,” sillymod agreed. “It seems to have become just another pick-up artist subreddit, where people discuss pseudoscience about inter-gender relations.”
That’s why exchanges like this one, about the gradually evolving tenor of discussions on A Voice for Men, are relatively common:
A better hero might be someone like Karen DeCrow, a former president of the National Organization for Women who, before her death earlier this year, became a prominent men’s rights activist—insisting that a forceful argument in favor of the rights of men was the only way for feminism to thrive. DeCrow’s ever-growing ideological split with her former colleagues at the nation’s foremost women’s rights organizations was controversial, but she’s a far more palatable face than one that nearly beat his ex-girlfriend to death.
“We have been working for gender equality for a short time, given the span of human history,” DeCrow wrote in the introduction to the book Why Men Earn More, which argued that the male-female pay gap is the result of decisions made by individual workers rather than any sort of systematic discrimination—a common men’s rights trope. “Eventually, it will even up,” DeCrow added. “I am very hopeful.”
Despite the protestations of men’s rights activists that what they’re really after is equality or a return to a level playing field, it’s hard not to view their efforts as fundamentally self-serving.
Setting aside the oft-professed goals of both feminism and the men’s rights movement, cultural and political power is often a zero-sum game. Feminism was an explicit effort alternately on the part of (and on the behalf of) women to gain power in society starting from a place that was comparatively unequal to men. That often involved taking power that had been previously held by men and redistributing it.
In a grand sense, this redistribution was an unequivocal good. But it also made some men realize they had lost power as a result of their gender and decide to organize themselves along those very gender lines. It was, for many of them, I’m sure, the first time they thought of themselves as a something other than normal. They felt pushed out of a cultural center they didn’t even know existed—and it made them angry.
Angry enough to pull a War Machine? Hopefully not. But angry enough to reach out to each other and build a community that, while easily inviting charges of sexism, proved to be a real emotional resource for people looking for safe harbor from the hurt of divorce, abuse, or the alienation of being left behind in a changing world?
Yes, precisely angry enough for that.