“It’s a very scary time for young men in America.” So said US President Donald Trump back in October as he came to the defence of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court Justice accused by a number of women of sexual misconduct.
Trump was referring specifically to the post-#MeToo environment in which, he said, men were presumed guilty until proven innocent. His comments, however, echoed a murmur that is getting louder in some quarters: that the human rights of men and boys are under assault. The western world, these voices assert, is becoming increasingly anti-male, coerced by a vicious cabal of radical feminists into making men apologise for being the second-class citizens that they/we clearly are.
The answer, according to one group of activists, is to put men’s rights first – to redress the female bias they claim plagues the family courts system; that leads millions of children to grow up fatherless; to ask why, compared to women, fewer men go to university but more are the victims of violent crime; to combat a whole range of issues disproportionately affecting men today, from suicide to homelessness.
“The state is incredibly anti-male and feminism has infiltrated almost every institution,” says Mike Buchanan, leader of a small British political party called Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them), or J4MB. “If you were to tell the average man on the street that his rights are under assault, he’d look at you as if you were a martian. It’s only when you look at the facts that you realise it’s absolutely systemic. And it’s getting worse every single year because men won’t fight.”
Buchanan is at the forefront of the men’s rights movement in the UK. He’s angry. He thinks all men should be because the simple fact is, we’re under attack. His party’s 2015 election manifesto says that feminism is a movement with the ultimate aim of female supremacy, not equality.
It’s a view that resonates with those of Jordan Peterson, the psychologist, best-selling author and intellectual father figure to those who believe traditional masculinity is under threat and worth defending. Peterson is an advocate of bringing back the patriarchy and of socially-promoted monogamy as a means of preventing male violence. Earlier this year, he told the New York Times that “people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: really?
How, in a post-#MeToo world, where men are constantly reminded of their advantages over women could a campaign for men’s rights make even the remotest sense? Surely, if the President of the United States feels entitled to “grab [women] by the pussy” and leading man Henry Cavill thinks it’s romantic for a “woman [to] be chased”, men should be reappraising their privileges, rather than calling for more?
President Donald Trump
The knee-jerk conclusion is that a campaign for male rights must be chauvinism in disguise. In a culture where women are still fighting for equal pay and representation in politics and business, surely these people are a bunch of curmudgeonly misogynists, incels, MGTOWs and rape apologists. But is that all? Could there also be a voice for good? Is it possible to untangle strands of common sense and under-reported instances of discrimination against men in society from the knot of sexist nonsense?
Here’s a commonly cited example from men’s rights groups. Most of us are rightly disgusted by female genital mutilation. It’s a barbaric practice. Criminal. Child abuse linked to long-term physical and psychological harm. But what about male circumcision? It very rarely has the same health consequences as FGM but when it’s done for non-medical reasons on boys too young to protest, is it any more excusable? And if not, why isn’t there the same culture-wide horror?
There are other examples, too.
For every three victims of domestic abuse, one will be male, but men are over three times as likely as women not to tell anyone about the abuse they’re suffering. And while there are 3,649 spaces in England for women and children fleeing domestic abuse, there are just 31 spaces in the UK dedicated specifically to male victims.
There is disparity in the criminal justice system, too. Despite making up over half of the UK’s total population, women make up just 5 per cent of its prison population. Evidence also suggests that women benefit from gender stereotyping when it comes to sentencing, often receiving less time than men for the same crimes, for example.
And as we’re probably all aware, men are also disproportionately affected when it comes to suicide. Of the total suicides registered in the UK in 2017, men made up 75 per cent, making them three times as likely as women to kill themselves.
These are just some of the statistical disparities that inform the key points of J4MB’s manifesto. And while the statistics’ root cause might be up for debate, the statistics themselves are not. Men don’t, it seems, have it all.
While Buchanan founded J4MB in 2013, the birth of the wider men’s rights movement dates back much further.
Emerging from the social and political upheaval of the 1970s, the men’s rights movement came to be as part of a wider cultural shift known as the men’s liberation movement, a loose network of academics, discussion groups and awareness-raising efforts, which – inspired by second-wave feminism’s criticism of patriarchy – called on men to unshackle themselves from the outdated and oppressive notion that in order for a man to be a ‘real man’, he needed to be an alpha male: dominant, aggressive and emotionally detached.
By the late 1970s, the more conservative members of the men’s liberation movement had splintered off to form the men’s rights movement, a group that not only sought to advocate for men’s issues, but also viewed the rise of feminism, and its potential effects on men, as a threat to be reckoned with.
It’s best not to think about these things in monolithic terms, though. While the men’s rights movement might sound like a cohesive, organised group with a clear-cut ideology, in practice it has, since the 1980s, served as a sort of catch-all term to refer to a wide array of men and women whose passions and priorities range from fathers’ rights to hardline anti-feminism.
A few years ago though, that changed. In June 2014, notable men’s rights activist Paul Elam, founder of men’s rights site A Voice For Men, convened the world’s first International Conference on Men’s Issues (ICMI) in Detroit. For the first time in recent history, the men’s rights movement – which had mostly existed in a handful of books, academics papers, blogs and online forums – organised for real.
Since then, three more conferences have been organised by Buchanan and Elam. The most recent was held in July in London, with speakers including Patrick Graham, a retired social worker who shared his experience of being falsely accused of rape, and Steven Svoboda, a Harvard Law School graduate who called for an end to male circumcision.
Circumcision protest at the White House, Washington DC
Although there’s little hard evidence to suggest that public interest in the men’s rights movement specifically is growing, it’s safe to say that issues around gender, from the rise to prominence of people like Jordan Peterson to genderless clothing to flirting in a post-#MeToo era, are more hotly discussed than ever before.
Take, for example, the popularity of The Red Pill, director Cassie Jaye’s 2016 documentary which charts the rise of the men’s rights movement, as well as – *spoiler alert* – her personal journey from self-professed feminist to if not exactly a card-carrying men’s rights activist, then at least sympathetic to the cause: “I don’t know where I’m headed but I know what I left behind; I no longer call myself a feminist,” she says in the final seconds of the film.
Taking its name from The Matrix metaphor commonly used in men’s rights circles – where ‘choosing the red pill’ is used to describe the moment someone accepts as truth the idea that society is structured to advantage women over men – The Red Pill was released on YouTube in March 2017. By May, it was the top-selling movie on the platform.
It also spawned a slew of opinion pieces, a few of which praised Jaye for her sensitive portrayal of the men’s rights movement and how she flagged feminism’s fallibility, but most of which criticised her for the same, some particularly harshly because she is a woman, and well, what woman turns her back on feminism in favour of men’s rights?
Jaye didn’t respond to my request for comment for this article, but one of the women she interviewed for The Red Pill did. Well-known Canadian anti-feminist Karen Straughan, AKA YouTuber Girl Writes What, is one of the men’s rights movement’s most vocal advocates. Formerly an erotic fiction writer, Straughan says that, ironically, it was through frequenting “feminist-leaning” online forums for writers and reviewers that she was first switched on to men’s rights.
“One day, someone [posted] a link to a men’s [issues] website with the message, ‘Let’s all go make fun of these losers,’ or something like that,” she tells me over email. “I went over and read the article. Granted, it was a trivial complaint. Something about hard science fiction – the type men like best (on average) – is dying because of ‘feminization.’”
The response, Straughan writes, was a barrage on the comments section in which “feminists [flung] around gendered slurs” such as “man-babies, losers who can’t get laid [and] micropenised whiners.” All of which she thought “seemed a bit… hypocritical.”
What got her engaged in the men’s rights movement, however, was something altogether more personal.
“The man I’m with now, his situation was what got me involved,” she said. “He [had previously] committed to a woman, raised a child not his own from diapers to kindergarten, loved them both. When the mom cut off his access to his daughter, he talked to two lawyers. Both said he had no substantive parental rights whatsoever.
“The evening my man’s ex emailed him to say she didn’t need a ‘babysitter’ any more so he wouldn’t be seeing his daughter again, he sat on the edge of a bridge until a homeless guy talked him out of jumping.”
When I first started researching this story, and hearing about experiences like Straughan’s, part of me could relate to Cassie Jaye’s ideological struggle in The Red Pill.
What if, I thought, men were in some respects suffering purely because they’re men? What if, even if I couldn’t quite fathom the idea that we were living in some sort of women-ruled conspiracy, feminism had more to answer for than I’d originally thought?
After all, what did I really know? I wasn’t an authority on gender in the workplace, or a lawyer familiar with the workings of the divorce courts.
It seemed unlikely at first, but maybe there were, as Mike Buchanan claimed during our phone call, innumerous radical feminists in the workforce refusing to hire men over women, irrespective of who was actually better qualified for the job. Maybe there were, as he also claimed, as many men facing the threat of domestic battery from their wives and girlfriends as the other way around. And maybe women were playing just as active a role as men in perpetuating the negative idea that, in order to play his rightful role in society, a man must be financially successful, physically strong and emotionally stoical, thereby propping up a culture that causes many men to develop feelings of inadequacy and, in some cases, contemplate or commit suicide. Maybe, I thought…
But probably not. At least, not in the pervasive ways men’s rights activists were claiming.
I thought of something Buchanan had mentioned during our conversation that just didn’t sit right with me.
“Men are born worthless,” he said. “Women, on the other hand, are born extremely valuable, because they are the ones who get to decide which men get to have sex and, therefore, kids.”
But that’s just not really true, is it? In China and India, two of the world’s most populous countries, evidence suggests parents prefer to have sons over daughters. Even in the US, plenty of parents are still hoping for a boy over a girl, especially first- and second-generation immigrants from countries with less gender equity and lower female labour force participation.
As for women getting to decide which men get to have sex with them, I’m not so sure. According to the UN, 71 per cent of the world’s human trafficking victims are women and girls, and the majority of them are trafficked for sex. And sex slaves don’t get much say in who gets to rape them.
Then there’s the idea of male disposability, that male lives are considered inherently worthless and therefore disposable, making them especially suited to dangerous manual jobs and military combat. “It’s men who take all the bloody risks,” says Buchanan. “Because women have easier and better options.”
But, while there’s no getting around the fact that, yes, many more men have died in combat than women, there is the not insignificant matter that women in UK and US military forces weren’t legally allowed to serve in combat until 2016.
Along with male suicide, the notion of male disposability is one of the more emotive issues the men’s rights movement draws into focus in its campaign to be taken seriously. These issues, troubling, distressing and so bound up with human life as they are, perfectly illustrate what men’s rights activists call the vast ‘empathy gap’ that exists between men’s and women’s issues, i.e. that male disadvantages go unrecognised in a culture that tends to balk at the idea that men could in any way be worse off than women.
Personally, I rate any attempt to encourage people – man, woman, black, white, rich, poor, whatever – to imagine what life could be like if the shoe were on the other foot. Empathy breeds understanding, and understanding breeds respect.
But I worry that, while some men’s rights activists might have the ability to empathise with, and ultimately respect, women, several at the top have proven time and again that they do not.
Take Paul Elam of A Voice For Men, for example. One of the men’s rights movement’s most prominent and divisive members, he has been ridiculed in GQ and treated with near reverence in The Red Pill, never missing an opportunity to fuel a media frenzy with shock tactics, or what he likes to call “satire”.
Anti-feminist counter protestors
In 2010, Elam published an article on his website in which he declared October annual “Bash a Violent Bitch Month”. Intended as a response to this Jezebel story, which admittedly rather irresponsibly makes light of male victims of domestic violence, in the article Elam encourages men who are the victims of female-perpetrated violence to: “Beat the living shit out of them. I don’t mean subdue them, or deliver an open handed pop on the face to get them to settle down. I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall till the smugness of beating on someone because you know they won’t fight back drains from their nose with a few million red corpuscles.” When I ask Buchanan, a good friend and colleague of Elam’s, whether such language was warranted in response to the Jezebel article, he replied at once amused and surprised, that he found it “entirely reasonable”. Really? The Jezebel article, as ill-advised and utterly unfunny as it is, peaks in its violence with details of how one Jezebel staffer “punched a steady in the face and broke his glasses.” She breaks his glasses. Not his nose. Elam’s article on the other hand, calls for men to forcibly pummel women into the nearest wall until they bleed. This is the kind of language that fuels hate, not empathy. And were men and women equally at risk of being violently attacked by each other; if it really were a case of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, then maybe one could better understand the source of Elam’s vitriol. But the fact of the matter is it’s not. The fact of the matter is, satire or no, Elam’s is the kind of language that emboldens men to rape and kill women. Elam’s statements, such as “Women who drink and make out […] are freaking begging [to get raped]”, are part of a wider misogynist rhetoric that pervades the online “manosphere”, a network of forums, pick-up artist (PUA) communities and subreddits; some of which were frequented by Elliot Rodger – who in 2014 killed six people and injured 14 others before shooting himself dead, citing the “cruelness of women” as the reason for his crimes – and Alek Minassian, who murdered 10 people by driving a van through a crowd in Toronto earlier this year, and as we later learned was a self-proclaimed ‘incel’, or ‘involuntary celibate’, a man who hates women for denying him his perceived right to sex.
That the men’s rights movement doesn’t consciously distance itself from these radically misogynist voices and factions undermines its project to help men. Sure, it gives voice to some serious and legitimate concerns from male suicide to mother-bias in custody battles, but I can’t help but wonder if the objective of most men’s rights activists isn’t so much to help men, as to hate women.
“It’s worrying,” says Dr Steve Robertson, author of Understanding Men and Health: Masculinities, Identity and Well-being, who has worked in the fields of men’s health and gender studies for over 20 years. “From what I can see, men’s rights groups don’t spend that much time actually helping men. They’re not actively involved in helping male victims of domestic violence, and I don’t see them doing a lot of work in the area of men’s mental health, or with men who might be feeling suicidal. Instead they spend an awful lot of time looking for facts and figures to support where they’re coming from.”
For all the rights of men being “brutally assaulted by the state,” as Buchanan put it, the extent of J4MB’s political action to date is a few gatherings outside Conservative Party conferences protesting male circumcision. And other than the International Conference on Men’s Issues, the wider men’s rights movement engages in little beyond finger-pointing, mud-slinging and keyboard-bashing.
When I first started researching this article, I published a tweet inviting men’s rights activists to share their views. Cue a flurry of tweets from several users, including one whose bio reads “Interested in #equality for men and women […] #Suicide and #homelessness rates are 4 times higher for men”.
At first, the user in question seemed interested in speaking with me, but on learning that I was writing for FashionBeans, tweeted a link to this article (which, by the way, I didn’t write) and then another in which he told others to “Be wary” because I intended to write for what he referred to as a “beta male / cuck publication”.
I don’t know about you, but something tells me this particular Twitter user isn’t so much interested in liberating men from a culture that causes them feelings of inadequacy and suicide, as much as locking them in it and throwing away the key.
You could buy Mike Buchanan’s version, which is to say that the population is so blinded, so ‘blue-pilled’, that it’s impossible for him to raise enough funds or rally enough supporters to do anything of significance. Or you could see this all for what it really is: a group of mostly anti-feminist men (and some women) politicising their personal grievances to the extreme and failing to see that – in adopting a highly partisan view of the world and everyone in it – they’re part of the problem they rail against.
“Many men’s rights activists, like many radical feminists, don’t understand that gender is relational,” says Robertson. “It’s almost impossible to think about the things that you could do to help men, without thinking about the impact on women and vice versa.” After all, we kind of need each other to survive.
So, if you are a man, and you feel lost, aggrieved or in some other way disadvantaged, seek help. Look at the groups involved in the Men and Boys Coalition. Find your nearest men’s shed. Find an NHS therapist. Just don’t fall into the dangerous trap that it’s women, or some faceless feminist conspiracy, who are the source of your problems.
Take it from me. Because I’m not a radical feminist. I’m not a ‘blue piller’. I’m not a beta male. I’m a man. And sure, I might have problems – but I’m not oppressed.