On Sunday, a USA Today article on this weekend’s inaugural conference for men’s rights activists (MRAs) asked whether it marked, “A kinder, gentler turn to the gender wars?” In May, Elliot Rodger, killed six people after regularly posting misogynistic rants against the “oppressive feminist system,” and a video warning, “If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you.”
In the intervening time, the First Inaugural Conference for Men’s Issues, hosted by A Voice for Men, faced a successful campaign asking Detroit’s Hilton DoubleTree hotel to cancel the event. The petition, which obtained close to 6,000 signatures, pointed out that MRAs were designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012. It continued, “MRAs are linked to the recent mass shooting in UCSB, wherein a young man declared that he would exact revenge on all the women who had rejected him. MRAs are linked to false rape statistics, further perpetuating the dangerous myth that women, ‘make it up for attention.’ MRAs are linked to threats of rape and murder against women who dare to speak out against them.”
Jaclyn Friedman writes in A Look Inside The Men’s Rights Movement, “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.”
After news outlets connected Rodger to groups in the MRA sphere, Paul Elam, founder of A Voice for Men, asserted that his organization is committed to nonviolence and that Rodger was not a member. However, Katie McDonough writes at Salon that “until the moment that he is alleged to have killed six women and men, Elliot Rodger was every bit the same as the other men who are defined by their resentment toward women and their sense of bitter victimization in the world.” While she deems it “irresponsible to lay this violence at the feet of the men’s rights activists with whom Rodger seemed to find support for his rage,” nonetheless it “denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum.” In 2009, another man who filled an online journal with misogynistic rants killed three women at a fitness center.
Former PRA researcher Chip Berlet has written extensively on how toxic rhetoric can feed violence, and the danger in viewing these perpetrators as mentally disturbed lone wolves. As Berlet said following the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, “[Right-wing pundits] are not legally culpable for the assassination of Dr. Tiller, but they must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating a dangerous environment.”
While claiming to be a pacifist, Paul Elam has gloried in the idea of a judge who ruled against fathers being “doused with gasoline and set afire.” He opposes abortion (and, it seems, adoption and motherhood too) and wrote a Mother’s Day article saying, “If you have a vagina, the blood of all those children, who are abused far more at the hands of women than men, has stained your skin and caked around the cuticles of your fingers.” He further argued, “Progress for men will not be gained by debate, reason or typical channels of grievance … The progress we need will only be realized by inflicting enough pain on the agents of hate, in public view, that it literally shocks society out of its current coma.” Would the murders Elliot Rodger committed fit that vision of public shock?
Then there’s Elam’s 2010 post about women who go clubbing, accept drinks, make out, and enter a man’s apartment, who end up “victims” [quotation marks his] of rape. “In the most severe and emphatic terms possible the answer is NO, THEY ARE NOT ASKING TO GET RAPED .. They are freaking begging for it. Damn near demanding it.”
The next paragraph goes on to claim that women get raped because they are stupid, arrogant, and narcissistic. The post was scrubbed from A Voice for Men’s website as of 2014, and Elam claims it was intended as satire on the impossibility of promoting self-protection without being accused of victim-blaming. The scrubbing of the post smacks of an attempt to clean up his image, as the organization attempts to mainstream itself to the public. Yet even the “satirical” message, if we take it as such, is that empty-headed women need to be informed by a man that they face risks and that the solution is for women to smarten up not address what Katie McDonough calls “toxic male entitlement.”
Other scheduled conference speakers have blamed women for the state of the world because they choose “fucking monsters” and “assholes” rather than “nice guys” (which we assume the male MRAs consider themselves); Asserted that women are “demanding” desired violence with their behavior—what another speaker calls “consensual violence” (consent would be a negotiated BDSM situation, not domestic abuse); Equated paying for dinner and not getting sex to “a male version of date rape;” And argued that when a woman’s “nonverbal ‘yeses’ … conflict with those verbal ‘noes,’ that the man not be put in jail for choosing the ‘yes’ over the ‘no.’”
Visiting A Voice for Men’s website today, the first thing I noticed was a speaker denouncing feminism as never about gender equality, but always about misandry and “blaming men.” According to MSNBC’s coverage, the first day of the conference was attended by over 100 participants, and focused on rants about the “evil empire” of feminism. Barbara Kay, a columnist for Canada’s National Post, claimed that rape on campus is nothing more than “buyer’s remorse” and rape culture a “baseless moral panic.” (Note: Men’s Rights Activists include women; structural patriarchy and misogyny influence the beliefs of everyone.)
This is a kinder, gentler turn?
As Jaclyn Friedman writes, “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. … 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.”
I was proud to be among those feminist women who worked on the campaign to improve the FBI definition of rape. In college, as a committed feminist, I took a course titled “The Masculine Mystique,” which analyzed the problems that a patriarchal, homophobic, violent system causes men, especially considering stereotypes against men of color and the disproportionate number of black men in prison (most egregiously for harmless drug offenses). An inclusive gender justice movement is already a part of the feminist sphere, and expanding as women and feminist gain more authority and ability to make change.
The men’s rights movement (MRM), with its history and present-day of virulent anti-woman and anti-feminist hate speech, is not the place to look for a “kinder, gentler turn to the gender wars.” Don’t be fooled by a single pragmatic attempt at portraying a more respectable image.