“Men don’t really have networks of support,” says 31-year-old Davey (not his real name), an IT engineer from Chicago. “So I was trying to see how these operate, and how people talk to each other when they’re in need or offering support.”
Davey is one of more than 70,000 members of a subreddit called the Auntie Network, a group where strangers offer information, resources and a helping hand for those seeking abortion services. As the name suggests, the group is made up of “aunties” who help pregnant people access abortion pills, offer rides and a place to stay for those who need to travel for a termination, volunteer to accompany them to appointments or simply lend an ear. Unsurprisingly, the majority of members are women, but there’s also a few men — or “uncles” — like Davey, who offer to help as well.
Davey doesn’t remember when he joined the group, but says he’d been “lurking” for a long time before he plucked up the courage to post. His first post, made just eight days ago — shortly after the Supreme Court vote to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked — read: “Willing to help if I can. So sorry for what’s happening. I’m a single guy, so not sure if it’s appropriate for me to offer. Will not be offended if this gets deleted. Just wanted to say I’m willing to help.”
His post is similar to many of the uncles who offer their support: hesitant and unsure if they’re welcome. “I’m concerned about gendered assumptions,” he tells me. “I’ve heard stories about guys taking activist stands just to get close to women, so there’s clearly some precedent for skepticism.”
In an attempt to ensure he was totally upfront with anyone who might come to him for help, Davey thought it was wise to explicitly state that he’s a single guy. “It would probably be upsetting to discover [that fact] on meeting me in person for the first time,” he says, “particularly if someone assumed I was partnered.” Still, although he hasn’t helped anyone out yet — he didn’t put his location in his post, which is how most people find helpers — Davey feels like his post was “received well.” And, like most posts from uncles offering support, it was. One moderator responded: “We have many helpers who do not identify as female. We have straight men, gay men, non-binary people, trans people… every gender is welcome here.”
But while it’s true that every gender is welcome, when it comes to actually helping, are pregnant people more apprehensive of men? “I’d have a hard time trusting a man to help when I’m in a position as vulnerable as seeking emergency contraceptive care,” Tennessee-based Claire (not her real name) tells me, “especially in a Southern state where you need help as soon as possible.” Claire posted in the Auntie Network recently looking for someone to ship abortion pills to her, and was referred to two local clinics, where she could safely and legally access them. Even so, if a man had offered her help, she says she would accept it, so long as she met him in a public place during the day. “If he was, for example, coming with me to an abortion clinic, it would have to be my car,” she explains. “Basically things that would help me feel like I have more control over the situation.”
It’s understandable that women would be skeptical of men’s motives — after all, there is a long, sordid history of men pretending to be something they’re not in order to form relationships with women. Take, for example, the undercover British cops who, while posing as political activists, started families with unsuspecting women (then disappeared without a trace). Or “wokefishing” men, who pose as feminists on dating apps in order to trick women into hooking up with them.
When it comes to abortion, considering the possibility that a man might have an ulterior motive may be too exhausting for many women to even contemplate, hence why men’s help (even with the best intentions) might get rejected.
This is particularly likely to happen if the help an uncle is offering involves an in-person interaction. Pseudonymous Katy, a 24-year-old artist from Kentucky, joined the Auntie Network because she lives in a “trigger law” state — which would instantly ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned — and wanted access to resources, like Plan C, if she needed them. But, she says, she would never even consider a man for this kind of support. “If a guy was offering up his home to women coming into town for services, I — and I’d venture to say a lot of women — would get the ‘uh-oh’ feeling,” she explains. “Not only would I think there might be an ulterior motive there, but — to be blunt — what can a man provide me in this situation that a woman can’t? For starters, they certainly can’t provide me peace of mind that I won’t be assaulted or kidnapped. It’s a very emotional and difficult time, and I’d want and need women’s support.”
The uncles in the Auntie Network are understanding of this. “I’ve been lurking here wondering whether being an uncle is okay,” someone recently wrote in the subreddit. “I obviously can’t understand any of the experience, but would like to help if I can.” Of course, not everybody seeking an abortion identifies as a woman — and someone recently pointed out in the group that some trans men may actually feel more comfortable with a male helper.
There’s also a few things men can do to make pregnant people feel safer, particularly if they’re helping out in-person. Speaking about male clinic escorts — who shield patients from anti-abortion demonstrators — Susan Braselton, the coordinator for clinic escorts at Tulsa Women’s Clinic, says, “I find men have a harder time realizing that not only do women need the support, but also need the assurance of autonomy. It’s important for me to educate the men I train (especially the tall/large ones) to not get too close to the car at first, and then the patient. Give them space. Don’t crowd. Sometimes the patient will shrink away from intrusive men.”
Obviously, meeting someone you met online always comes with risks — particularly when you’re trusting them with medical care. Even though she wouldn’t accept support from men, Katy says she would still vet any women who offered to help by searching them online and checking their social media, and adds that she’d take a friend to any face-to-face meetups. Sahra Harvin, the programs manager at Fund Texas Choice is critical of the Auntie Network for this reason, saying communities like it “force abortion seekers into situations where they must trust complete strangers to provide a safe environment and reliable resources, while also giving up any semblance of privacy through an already stressful situation.”
“It’s remarkable to see the groundswell of support for abortion seekers, but auntie networks aren’t the solution to the problem of a post-Roe future,” she explains. “That effort would be better spent supporting abortion funds and practical support organizations through donations, volunteering, resource-sharing and signal boosting.”
Nevertheless, despite Claire and Katy’s skepticism about male helpers, pseudonymous Pete, a 44-year-old supply chain executive from Michigan, doesn’t feel like he’s been met with any mistrust. It could help, he says, that he’s a married man with two kids. Another uncle, 31-year-old Kieran from Indiana, has also never felt any wariness from pregnant people in the group. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone really cared that I was a cisgender man trying to help,” he tells me.
While people may not outwardly express their hesitation, it speaks volumes that none of the men I spoke to have provided much, if any, assistance to those in need — though, not for lack of trying. Pete did share his address with a woman from his state once, as she needed a reliable location to send supplies to, in case they needed to be signed for. However, there does seem to be more aunties and uncles than those seeking help in the group, which might explain why Davey and Kieran have yet to provide support.
Katy says she doesn’t really see many uncles in the group, anyway — possibly explained by their own uncertainty about being welcome. “I think there’s a lack of men in the group because men aren’t super well-educated on all the ins and outs of birth control, Plan B and abortions. For example, my boyfriend is a great guy, but he doesn’t really understand how my contraceptive implant works. It’s no shade, it’s just that women know our bodies, and we’ve relied on each other for knowledge and support for centuries.”
For many uncles, though, that’s exactly why they joined the Auntie Network — to learn and help. Kieran grew up Catholic, but, he says, was “fortunate” that both of his parents worked in health care, as he learned at a young age that “the anti-abortion nonsense was something to leave at the alter.” As he got older, he “became fully aware of the continued efforts to limit abortion access” and “began to understand the moral implications and socioeconomic impacts of [taking away] a woman’s right to choose.” Already an advocate for abortion, Kieran says he joined the subreddit because it’s “a novel way to provide basic, life-changing assistance.” “Whatever we can do to help others is how we move forward,” he tells me. Although he’s yet to be asked for help, Kieran says he stands at the ready to mail abortion pills to anyone who needs them or pay for someone’s travel and hotel expenses.
For uncles like him, the most important thing is to turn their helplessness into action — even if that just means sheepishly vocalizing their presence. “I want to help anyone in need, but particularly those caught in circumstances that I think are exacerbated by negative policies of the government,” concludes Pete. “The draft Roe decision is a travesty, and I will do everything in my power to help. If I can do something every day to take care of my fellow human, that’s a good day.”