Gender

A Look Inside The Infamous Men’s Rights Movement

The MRM may be known today for its radical, anti-feminist rhetoric, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.

The ongoing inflammatory diatribes emanating from the radical men's rights movement (MRM) have been a cause for concern, particularly following the recent #womenagainstfeminism campaign which saw radical MRM groups unleash a scathing misogynist-fueled attack on feminists.  

Not only have such incidents diminished the group's chance of being taken seriously as a meaningful social movement, but have tended to drown out the voices of the more moderate and pro-feminist men’s groups fighting important social issues that affect men, such as sexual abuse in prisons, child custody rights, lack of shelter for homeless men and high rates of workplace fatalities. 

But, it wasn’t always this way. Many would be surprised to learn that the men’s rights movement sprung up in the 1970s led by pro-feminist males in response to second-wave feminism. Surrounded by feminists and interested in supporting feminist ideas, these men recognized their power and privilege and through a critical lens began to challenge the notion of “traditional masculinity” and the dominant model of manhood by working with one another.

Led by Warren Farrell, a pro-feminist educator who served on the New York Board of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the movement began to form consciousness-raising groups in support of feminist ideas. In the ‘70s, Farrell who was seen as one of the first leading males thinkers on women’s rights, wrote his famous book, The Liberated Man from a feminist perspective where he paralleled male and female experiences and introduced the idea of alternative family/work arrangements promoting women at work and male caregivers.

Essentially, the pro-feminist men rejected society’s strict expectations of gender roles, which they believed hindered men’s ability to express themselves emotionally and intimately. Gender was merely a social construction rather than a biological issue and therefore oppressive to both sexes.

As the ideology evolved in the ‘70s, the movement began to branch off into various strands with the pro-feminist movement at one end and the emergence of groups that began to focus their male attention on what they thought was male oppression, which became the forerunners of some of today’s more extreme versions. At that point, something extraordinary happened. Warren Farrell did a surprise backflip and abandoned his previous position as a pro-feminist to go on to lead what would later become the modern pro-men’s movement, which became principally focused on men’s oppression and discrimination.  

Why did Farrell turn his back on feminism? According to a 1997 interview, Farrell said he had a falling out with NOW over its stance against the presumption of joint custody for children: “I couldn't believe the people I thought were pioneers in equality were saying that women should have the first option to have children or not to have children—that children should not have equal rights to their dad,” Farrell told ManWeb.

Farrell went on to write the controversial novel, The Myth of Male Power, where he renounced his prior feminist stance and argued that women are the true power holders in society through their role as primary carer and nurturer of children and that men are the “disposable sex” — their power is merely an illusion. He challenged the belief that patriarchal societies make rules that benefit men at the expense of women and spoke of how men were severely disadvantaged and oppressed with regard to parenting restrictions, domestic violence and conscription.

While his book produced much criticism in feminist circles, Farrell’s ideology began to catch on in the “manosphere” and men’s rights activism or MRA started to gained some momentum, particularly the father’s rights movement which focused on discrimination against men with regard to child custody and divorce. The father’s groups began to lobby for laws that would make joint custody the default custody arrangement in the interests of both father and child.

But, as writer R. Tod Kelly explains in The Masculine Mystique, the modern men’s rights movement didn’t really start to take off until the digital age.

“[…] For the most part the MRM limped along relatively unknown for decades. And then, the Internet happened, and the MRM evolved along with it into a coalition where the most radical, hyperbolic and outrageous voices are disproportionately rewarded with visibility and clout.”

Other streams like the mythopoetic men's movement, which had also emerged from second-wave feminism but with less of a political agenda, were able to obtain greater exposure and influence with technology. Led by poet Robert Bly, who wrote the men’s guidebook “Iron John,” the mythopoetics offered a spiritual, self-help focus to men’s rights by using rituals and storytelling to help boys become healthy men. 

Described as a “weekend-warrior, drum-circle, pass-around-this-wooden-phallus-and-talk-about-your-dad movement,” the mythopoetic groups dealt with interpersonal issues around their own manhood and a heavy emphasis was placed on the impact of absent fathers on men’s psychological development.

Various other moderate men’s rights online media forums began to form concentrating their efforts on the evolving role of men in contemporary society today. The Good Men Project (GMP) is an outlet allowing men to tell stories about the defining moments in their lives in the hope of sparking “a national conversation” around the question of what it means to be a good man in the 21st century.  Although, it too became rife with controversy after its founder Thomas Matlack was discredited for being anti-feminist by pro-feminist writer Hugo Schwyzer who subsequently had a very public breakdown after confessing to numerous sexual relationships with his students and trying to kill his girlfriend.

Still, other proactive men’s advocacy groups have sprung into action to build awareness around domestic violence and rape against men, often ignored by society and unreported because of men’s reluctance to describe themselves as victims. Men Can Stop Rape, for example, have concentrated their efforts on ending violence against both women and men and offering sexual harassment workshops to promote awareness while counseling male perpetrators of violence. While, What Men Can Do are male anti-porn activists who believe the portrayal of sex in porn is “man-centric” and harms men and women by reducing girls into sex objects and increasing sexual violence and misogyny.

Robert Jenson, a radical pro-feminist professor at the UT Austin has been instrumental in his critique of pornography and masculinity. In 2007, he wrote, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, illustrating how mainstream porn reinforces harmful social definitions of manhood and influences male attitudes about women and how they should be treated. Jenson has called on men to reject porn and rise above preconceived notions of sexuality.

Yet, despite the historical efforts and teachings of these men’s rights bodies, it has been the outspoken anti-feminists who have dominated the MRM and continue to marginalize the views of the moderates today. Civil rights groups have described the activism of the radicals as "thick with misogynistic attacks" and "dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general,” Huff Post reported.

The anti-feminists have been linked to neo-conservatism and believe feminism has exceeded its objective and now is harming men who are the most disadvantaged in society.  While their causes remain fragmented and at times outlandish – the ‘pick-up artist’ movement is really a thing – the one thing they have in common is “a deep-seated hatred of feminism.”  

The most notorious and influential anti-feminist group at the moment is A Voice For Men (AV4M) which attracts half a million-page hits a month with their rape apologist rhetoric and belief that all feminism is set out to destroy men. This year, they held the first International Conference on Men’s Issues in Detroit, preceded by a ‘special workshop’ by Warren Farrell to “discuss all the ways society has done them wrong,” Washington Post reported.

The group has been particularly vocal on the issue of false allegations of rape which they say account for almost 50 percent of all rape cases. These dubious claims have caused outrage and drawn a lot of criticism from anti-rape organizations and rape victims who have countered MRM’s “rape stats” with their own that clearly show the majority of sexual assaults against women go unreported. 

Of course, even logic and data doesn’t stop the anti-feminists from continuing their “women bashing” tirade.  In 2012, MRM writer Matt Forney wrote an infamous article called, “The necessity of domestic violence" where he said, “women should be terrorized by their men; it’s the only thing that makes them behave better than chimps.” More recently, anti-feminist Return Of Kings founder Roosh Vörek publicly stated he supports having sex with women too drunk to consent, The Daily Beast  reported.

While such negative publicity sure keeps the MRM in the spotlight, it’s not winning them much support, not even from those opposed to feminism.  In fact, while the MRM has suggested it has an ally in the Women Against Feminism movement, their Facebook page explicitly states it is not men’s rights activism (MRA) page and does not support its message.  

The MRM has sparked its own backlash from other men’s rights activists particularly after the misogynist-fueled mass shooting in California when it came to light that gunman Elliot Roger was linked to the MRM  and had posted on numerous woman-hater blogs and forums. In response, male-victim organizations have begun to distance themselves away from the movement and do not wish to be publicly affiliated with it.

None of this comes as much of a surprise given the movement’s current ‘female hate’ model. As writer Olley Garkey writes, “when you stand right next to rape apologists, to men who call women animals…when you scream about false rape claims as if all claims of rape are false, it invalidates everything you might be trying to accomplish.”