Detroit once epitomized the possibilities of the American Dream: as the hub of the U.S. auto industry, money, power and a sense of virility seemed available to the men who worked hard enough, in factories and in boardrooms, to attain them. Now the city is a husk, and as the jobs trickled into other places, so too did the feeling that the only obstacle separating men and power was their own effort. Once a stronghold of American influence, the city of Detroit is now shorthand for decline and bankruptcy. It makes some sense, then, that the International Conference on Men’s Issues, a gathering staged to raise alarm against what its organizers describe as rising discrimination against men, chose the city for its inaugural meeting the last weekend of June.
For this passionate set, the leaders of what has become known as the men’s-rights movement, Detroit’s losses mirror their own sense of what they see as men’s flagging influence. Sure, women may have once been unequal, they say, but not anymore and not by a long shot.
As a journalist who thinks and writes frequently about women’s issues, I’m well acquainted with the darker side of the men’s-rights movement, which rears its ugly head in “the manosphere” and on Reddit forums, shielded by a comforting cloak of anonymity. And though I’ve never tackled its existence specifically in any story, I knew what some men’s-rights activists had done to women who had — launching large-scale rage campaigns full of name-calling, threats and crusades to get them fired. When I went to Detroit, I expected the men who attended this conference to not be thrilled with my presence — and many made clear that they weren’t — and to make provocative statements about “the myth of rape culture” and even to smoke a lot of e-cigarettes.
But what I didn’t expect was how it would make me feel: sad and angry and helpless and determined, all at the same time. Moreover, I didn’t expect to talk to so many men in genuine need of a movement that supports them, a movement that looks completely different from the one that had fomented online and was stoked by many who spoke at this three-day conference.
The event came at a time when attention for its supporters’ ideas are rising beyond the Internet’s fringe. And while nearly every corner of the web is now home to discussion of the state of feminism today, with anyone from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to Beyoncé participating, a countermovement is growing. Nearly 150,000 people subscribe to forums dedicated to men’s rights on the social-media site Reddit. A recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Lena Dunham attacked their beliefs. And in May, these views came under greater scrutiny following the murders committed in Isla Vista, Calif., by Elliot Rodger, whose views of women matched those found in the extreme corners of the men’s-rights movement.
Beneath the vitriol and fear these men (and a small number of women) express are some truths about the state of men today. In a growing number of ways, boys and men are at a disadvantage. Men and women were hit unevenly by the recession. Women recovered job losses this spring. Men did not. Women are outpacing men in college enrollment, with 71% of women enrolling in a university immediately after high school, compared with only 61% of men, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey found. The suicide rate among men is four times the rate of women, with males accounting for 79% of all U.S. suicides, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. Frequently boys do not have the same support network as girls their age (the cost of this deficit was detailed by Rosalind Wiseman in TIME last December).
And yet despite these real troubles, the leaders of the movement have been unable to move beyond a reputation for hate. Its most influential online gathering place, the website A Voice for Men, founded in 2009 by Paul Elam, who led the June conference, has been described as “misogynist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama nonprofit that tracks hate groups. In addition to purporting to “expose misandry on all levels in our culture,” the site is also frequently a soapbox for Elam to attack individual women he feels are threats to the movement.
Elam and nearly 150 supporters came to Detroit, then, to increase awareness of their cause, but also to try a little rebranding. Perhaps by organizing an official conference, they could make their movement more palatable to outsiders.
“Men’s rights is a tougher-than-necessary fight in a world that believes that men made the rules and have all the rights to begin with,” said Dr. Warren Farrell, an author and Elam’s mentor, who addressed the conference. “It’s like asking for kings’ rights.”
Beginning a Movement
Dr. Warren Farrell did not start the movement himself, but he’s been an icon for believers since the 1970s when two distinct camps of men’s activists began to emerge, one pro-feminist and one anti-feminist. The men’s-rights movement represented at the Detroit conference has its roots in anti-feminist, pro-masculine movements that ripened in the early 1980s. Farrell, once a prominent second-wave feminist who served on the board for New York’s National Organization for Women and was tasked with creating feminist groups for men, became disillusioned in the mid-1970s when NOW opposed “the presumption of joint custody” for parents. Since then, Farrell has focused primarily on men’s gender issues, writing the best seller The Myth of Male Power in 1993, which challenged the notion that men are oppressors.
Many of the men active in the movement seem to have been drawn there through their own harrowing personal experiences, whether with divorce courts that stripped them of custody or ex-wives who cheated. Born into a military family, Elam worked as an addiction counselor for 20 years, before becoming disenchanted with the academic direction of psychological treatment and what he saw as a feminist overhaul of psychotherapy.
Elam quit his job and spent time as a truck driver before starting A Voice for Men in 2009. The site launched just as the global recession was peaking, leaving many men out of work and struggling to reconcile their identities outside the role of primary breadwinner. Early on, notes Dr. Julie T. Woods, a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written several texts about gender and culture, the 2008 recession was called the “mancession” because many more men than women became unemployed.
“I think you’re hearing real anxiety about not being able to fulfill this basic commandment of manhood as they define it,” Wood says.
This angst was palpable in Farrell’s remarks during the press conference. “Women don’t marry men in unemployment lines,” he said. The audience nodded in agreement.
Today, Farrell’s concerns are not just financial. He speaks in favor of developing a male birth control pill, establishing better programs to care for veterans and helping boys struggling through adolescence. His allies rally against what they see as rampant paternity fraud (when a woman attempts to pin paternity on the nonbiological father of her child with the hopes of getting child support), a biased court system that favors mothers over fathers, soaring male suicide rates and prominence of domestic violence against men.
Women, they say, have distorted private life and taken over public life (never mind that 4 out of 5 Representatives in Congress or 9 out of 10 governors are male).
“Legislation is routinely drafted to advantage women and disadvantage men,” said British activist Mike Buchanan, later adding, “Boys are being relentlessly disadvantaged by an ever more feminized education system.”
Despite a shared feeling of disenfranchisement, most of the attendees I spoke with struggled to recall a time in their lives when they were discriminated against for being men. When asked, two different attendees mentioned losing out to a woman for a job opportunity, though one conceded that she could have simply been more qualified.
Some of the men at the conference said they were drawn to the movement after alarming personal experiences caused them to realize there were far fewer resources for men’s emotional and physical health than there were for women.
Brendan Rex, a 28-year-old who flew down from Manitoba, Canada, to attend the event, confided that he lost his virginity at the age of 14 when a woman climbed on top of him and had sex with him while he was drunk and unconscious.
“It kind of took me a few years to come to terms with the concept that I had nowhere to go,” Rex said. “Then about six years ago I kind of realized that there were a lot of other people like me; it’s not uncommon for men to be sexually abused, it’s not uncommon for men to be sexually abused by women. But because there’s this lack of knowledge, there’s this lack of community — you’re completely isolated. You have no one to talk to who understands this.”
Throughout the three-day event, the specter of feminism, or what British domestic-violence activist Erin Pizzey called “the evil empire,” loomed large, threatening to rip children from their fathers, lobby false rape accusations and remind men that in parenting, work and war they are forever disposable. (The movement includes a small fraction of women dedicated to the same mission.)
A palpable distaste for women seeped between the cracks of the conference, in comical asides and throwaway comments. When the conference’s M.C., Robert O’Hara, asked a woman in the audience a question and she responded with a no, he quickly shot back “Doesn’t no mean yes?” The audience burst into laughter.
During another panel, psychologist Tara Palmatier cued up a slide with a photo of Miley Cyrus displaying her naked stomach. Transposed atop it was the caption, “Quit objectifying me. You’re being rapey!” a clear nod to the belief that a woman’s attire and behavior are causal factors of sexual assault.
Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian radio host, blamed mothers for the violent behavior of men.
Molyneux said that because 90% of a child’s brain is formed by the experiences it has before the age of 5, and women have “an almost universal control over childhood,” violence exists in the world because of the way women treat children.
“If we could just get people to be nice to their babies for five years straight, that would be it for war, drug abuse, addiction, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases,” he said. “Almost all would be completely eliminated, because they all arise from dysfunctional early childhood experiences, which are all run by women.”
Dr. Jay Giedd, who serves as chief of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Unit on Brain Imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch, said that he didn’t think this idea “could be more wrong.”
Though a child’s brain reaches 90% of its size by age 5, that doesn’t mean it’s done developing. “Almost nothing is set in the first five years or even in the first 10,” he said. “There’s no scientific support for these claims.”
At Elam’s request, the majority of the speakers were noticeably less anti-woman in person than many are in their writings or speeches elsewhere. A recording from Molyneux’s radio show from January posted to YouTube with the title “The Matriarchal Lineage of Corruption” reveals the full extent of his thinking.
(Warning: NSFW material)
“Women who choose a–holes guarantee child abuse,” he says. “All the cold-hearted jerks who run the world came out of the vaginas of women who married a–holes. I don’t know how to make the world a better place without holding women accountable for choosing a–holes.”
“Women worship at the feet of the devil and wonder why the world is evil,” he adds later. “And then know what they say? ‘We’re victims!’”
The movement is quick to disavow the concept of misogyny and instead direct attention to so-called Honey Badgers, a handful of women who support the cause. When I introduced myself as a reporter to two men sitting in the audience during the first day of the conference, one attempted to predict my first question by saying, “Do I hate women? No.”
Still, being surrounded by men who belly-laughed at rape jokes and pinned evil elements of human nature wholesale on women was emotionally taxing at best and self-destructive at worst. Once, during a particularly upsetting segment of the program, I had to excuse myself from the auditorium to seek refuge on the bug-filled bank of Lake St. Clair. I kept wondering why I had volunteered to fly 600 miles to attend the conference alone, to surround myself not just with crass ideological opponents, but with people with violent Internet histories who believed my very existence oppressed them. But to emerge on the other side of this with both my sanity and a worthwhile story, I would have to actually adopt a grain of their advice. I would have to stop feeling like a victim, and in turn cast aside all of the humiliating and unfair and devastating experiences I had collected as a woman.
For the most part, the conference tried to display the gentler side of the movement, one that embraces activism for significant men’s issues. Its organizers are aware of the fact that it would tarnish their authority to allow misogyny to overshadow their policy prescriptions to help real problems that affect men.
Days before the event began, Elam published a warning post on A Voice for Men saying that some ideological opponents and members of the media “will be looking for anything they can to hurt us with,” so anyone caught trash-talking women would be ejected from the conference.
For Elam, who once created a website called Register-Her, which encouraged men to name and shame women who supposedly made false rape allegations, shifting to a less polarizing agenda would mean a powerful change of heart. Elam has since shuttered Register-Her, and at the conference spoke of working to “build bridges between men and women instead of walls.”
“I find it hard to believe that this is Saul on the road to Damascus,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “that Elam has really had an entire personality change.”
Though in person the activists worked hard to coat their message in a kinder, press-friendly sheen, the conference had barely been over for a day before Elam published a post to A Voice for Men taking issue with my tweets during the conference, which made clear that I was upset by many of the sentiments expressed.
In the post, Elam called me a “low rent hack” who “practiced journalistic scumtardery,” a “liar and a bigot [who] will be exposed.” He titled the post “An Amazing, Amazing Conference, Even With the Stink of Jessica Roy in the Air.” Those who tweeted at me following the publication of the post minced fewer words.
It seemed the perfect example of the fact that though the movement was attempting to put a polite face on in public, they still continue to harass and intimidate online. (Though they adopted similarly skeptical attitudes, none of the male reporters who tweeted or wrote about the event were subject to similar treatment.)
Elam says that being satirical and controversial is his way of drawing attention to the message.
When you talk to someone like 68-year-old Steve DeLuca, the legitimate need to remedy some of the issues raised by men’s-rights activists becomes more evident. A Vietnam veteran who was injured in combat, DeLuca spoke movingly to me about the two brothers he lost to suicide, and the unfathomable toll the high suicide rate among men can take. There are men out there, like DeLuca and Brendan Rex, who have a real stake in the movement’s success. The paranoia and vitriol of its leaders can’t possibly do anything for them.
Update: This original story has been updated to clarify comments from Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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