For some men, flirting doesn't come naturally. Credit: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

October 15, 2020   7 mins

Feminism is frequently described as arriving in “waves”. With each successive wave comes an embittered backlash. There was still a strong stigma attached to women giving birth out of wedlock when I was born to a single mother in the 1980s. A few years later, when I started school, my mum lost out on a promotion at work to a man who was significantly less qualified than her for the role.

Yet even back then there were audible rumblings of discontent from men who believed that feminism had “gone too far”. Shortly after my mum had been stitched up at work (an experience depressingly common to many women) the men’s rights activist Warren Farrell published The Myth of Male Power (1993), in which he argued that men — not women — were being systematically disadvantaged by a female-centric conspiracy.

In her latest book, Men Who Hate Women, the feminist writer Laura Bates has delved into the stomping grounds of the latest backlash, immersing herself in the manosphere, an internet subculture where “the hatred of women is actively encouraged, with sprawling, purpose-built communities of men dedicated to fuelling and inflaming the cause”.

The manosphere is made up of pickup artists (PUAs), involuntary celibates (incels), men’s rights activists as well as “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW). PUAs try to lure women into bed with tactics and manipulation, whereas incels blame women’s sexual liberation for their failure to find a partner. Men’s rights activists express what Bates calls a “nostalgic yearning for ancient societal rules and stereotypes”, while MGTOW aim to live their lives free from female contact, though whether this is a conscious choice on the part of the men involved is a matter for debate. According to Bates, these movements form “an interconnected spectrum of different but related groups, each with their own rigid belief systems, lexicons and forms of indoctrination”.

It was journalist Neil Strauss’s bestselling book The Game that first brought pickup artists to mainstream attention in 2005. Prior to that men congregated relatively unscrutinised on underground forums where they shared tips for bedding women (Tom Cruise’s character in the 1999 film Magnolia was purportedly based on cheesy 90s seduction guru Ross Jeffries).

There were two subsequent backlashes against “game”. The first came from feminists, notably during the Julien Blanc scandal of 2014 in which videos emerged of the “Real Social Dynamics” dating coach apparently encouraging students to choke women. But there was another backlash from what would later come to be known as the incel community.

The latter had their nascent beginnings on the forum “PUA Hate”, which was shut down after misogynist mass murderer Elliott Rodger was revealed to have been a member of the site. There have been several incel mass shootings that have targeted women but also men viewed as successful with women. Posters on PUA Hate believed they had been conned by the pickup industry and adopted a rigid worldview which sorted men into a fatalistic hierarchy where those at the bottom had no hope of ever finding a romantic partner.

Incel forums drip with misogyny and Bates provides copious examples: women are blamed for denying men sex while threads speculate on “the mandated redistribution of sex, the keeping of women as sex slaves or the widespread massacre of women and girls”. Furthermore, Bates takes aim at conservative commentators such as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for indulging the incel narrative: Douthat has speculated about a potential “redistribution of sex”.

Jargon from the 1999 cult film The Matrix permeates the contemporary manosphere. In the film, the protagonist Neo is offered the Red Pill as a gateway out of The Matrix by rebel leader Morpheus. In taking the Red Pill, Neo can escape the computer simulation in which most of humanity lives. However, in the process he must confront a set of harsh truths about the world. Alternatively, he can swallow the Blue Pill and retain a sense of blissful ignorance. Adherents of the manosphere claim to have taken the equivalent of the Red Pill. Normies — who put women on a pedestal and behave like “cucks” and “simps” — are blue pill-ers, blithely following “gynocentric” norms.

The original men’s movement was born in the 1970s. Occasionally the sheer earnestness of the manosphere impugns its seriousness, from the tree-hugging, weekend warriors of the mythopoetic men’s movement and Iron John, through to Canadian clinical psychologist/self-help guru Jordan Peterson expostulating in high-pitched tones about lobsters.

But there has always been a dark side. Bates has been sexually assaulted in the past and she relays in horrific detail how she has been subjected to a daily barrage of hate mail (including threats of rape and murder) from enraged men aggrieved at her feminist activism. “For nearly a decade, men have sent me daily messages, often in their hundreds, outlining their hatred of me, fantasising about my brutal rape and murder, detailing which weapons they would use to slice my body open and disembowel,” she writes.

Why, Bates asks, are these men so angry? Partly because we are living through yet another anti-feminist backlash. Manosphere communities assiduously peddle the myth of the bogus rape allegation —when in reality the average adult man in England and Wales has just a 0.0002 per cent chance of being falsely accused of rape in a year. Moreover, many men resent women’s sexual freedom as well as the entrance of women into the labour force.

Bates has visited British schools nearly every week since founding the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012, and rather disconcertingly has noticed of late that some boys have begun to espouse Red Pill ideas gleaned from the manosphere.

Even the communities that make up the manosphere appear to have grown more extreme in recent years. There was always a dark side to the “seduction community”. It came marinated in assumptions that women were overly emotional and naturally duplicitous. But geeky men venturing out onto Sunset Boulevard in top hats and feather boas (peacocking) with pocketbooks full of canned conversation starters — “Who lies more, men or women?” — seems quaint compared to what came later. Today the pickup community is marinated in Red Pill ideology, partly as a result of YouTube and its polarising algorithm. In the years after The Game was published, Erik Von Markovic (AKA Mystery) with his cheesy magic tricks was replaced by characters like Roosh V (real name Daryush Valizadeh) who writes that “My default opinion of any girl I meet is ‘worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise’”.

Bates frequently compares the incel movement to other violent extremists such as Jihadis. In the study of extremist movements there is a careful line to tread between condemning the ideology while examining what attracts people to it in the first place. As with incels, violent Islamist movements are characterised by a pathological hatred of women. In recruiting new adherents, jihadists often target deracinated second-generation migrants, feeding them a story of domestic prejudice, rampant promiscuity and imperialist western interventions in the Middle East.

Similarly, it is important to ask why young men are being drawn to incel ideology. The internet is one reason, as is the lingering societal assumption that men have a God-given right to sex. Yet paradoxically for someone of the Left, Bates echoes uncompromising War on Terror rhetoric when she writes about incel radicalisation. “I am not particularly interested in a ‘redemptive’ narrative for incels,” Bates writes. “What incel beliefs… are actually about is terrorism”.

But surely it’s pertinent to ask why there has been a rapid rise in the number of angry, sexless men in the early twenty-first century? Since 2008 the number of American men under 30 reporting no sex has nearly tripled. Bates makes no mention of this, nor of the increasingly winner-takes-all sexual marketplace generated by the retreat of monogamous norms and an increasingly polygynous, app-dominated hookup culture. While it’s important not to slip into victim-blaming rhetoric that sees the problem as women’s sexual freedom, the challenges facing unattractive, low-status men seem hardly to register on Bates’s radar.

Similarly, there is little examination of what drew men to the ‘seduction community’ in its heyday. Misogynists who wished to assert tyrannical power over women were certainly ubiquitous in the genre, as Bates makes clear. “Instead of being open to women’s feelings and needs, acolytes are taught to ignore and deny them,” she writes. Yet it is obvious from the testimonies of some who gravitated towards pickup forums — often after typing a banal cry for help such as “how to get a girlfriend?” into a search engine — that many had grown frustrated with useless mainstream advice to “just be yourself”. Men are expected to just know how to conduct themselves during courtship and many don’t. Moreover, dating is often paradoxical: what people say they want in a prospective partner is often different from what they emotionally respond to.

The manosphere encourages men to be uncompromising emotional robots. As Bates convincingly demonstrates, this is immensely damaging to women. It also produces emotionally stunted men. “When feminists talk about ‘toxic masculinity’ we mean the enormous potential damage posed by an outdated version of what it means to be a man,” writes Bates. Those attempting to reanimate a rigid, dogmatic version of manhood for the 21st century confuse force with strength. They also come across as overcompensating for deeper insecurities: see US President Donald Trump bombastically playing down his COVID-19 infection.

Yet Bates seems to approach the topic of masculinity from an assumption that gender is entirely socially constructed. I’m not sure this — sometimes referred to as the blank slate — is helpful. Bewilderingly, she lists “strength”, “physical prowess” and the pursuit of “money and status” as examples of “toxic masculinity”.

There are certainly toxic incarnations of all of the above. However, it seems unlikely that men try to cultivate athletic physiques and pursue power and status entirely as a result of brainwashing by western capitalist patriarchy. Every man from high school age up knows that masculine, high-status men receive the greater share of attention from women. Moreover, outside of the rarefied ideological bubble of the social sciences it is widely accepted that this is partly a product of millions of years of evolution and sexual selection. As the Mary Harrington writes for UnHerd: “Females in sexually dimorphic species don’t choose mates at random but select for traits that will give their offspring an advantage of some kind.”

A similar point was made (albeit in a more humorous manner) in Grayson Perry’s recent and well-received critique of contemporary masculinity, The Descent of Man:

“When I talked to a women’s therapy group, several members bemoaned the lack of real ‘manly’ men in middle-class circles these days. But when I quizzed them about this, they admitted that they only wanted him in the bedroom department; the rest of the time they wanted a nice sensitive chap who would clean out the cat litter without being asked. Good luck with that.”

Despite Perry’s scepticism, this really isn’t too much for women to expect from men. The manosphere won’t like it — housework is for “cucks” after all. But it also runs against fashionable notions — regrettably espoused by Bates who dismisses everything which hints at gender being partly a product of evolved preferences as “pseudo-science” — that we can do away with masculinity in toto.

Harmful gender stereotypes abound and it is important to combat them. But assuming masculinity will fade away — to be replaced by some genderless utopia — is no more plausible than the Marxist belief that greed and avarice will vanish once the state takes over the means of production. It simply flies in the face of masses of empirical, cross-cultural evidence. Perhaps more pertinently, it also contradicts the lived experience of the majority of men, which in turn helps fuel the resentful grievances of the manosphere.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.