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We Don’t Understand How Dangerous the Manosphere Truly Is

From incels and MGTOW to Mike Pence and the Proud Boys, the movement is held together by misogyny, explains a leading manosphere scholar

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, male supremacy “misrepresents all women as genetically inferior,” views sex as something men are are owed and believes American society oppresses men in favor of women. All of which are also widely held contentions — shocker — across the manosphere (from men’s rights activists, to pick-up artists, to incels, to Men Going Their Own Way, to the Red Pill subreddit). 

Alex DiBranco, a 33-year-old sociologist whose research focuses on right-wing movements in the U.S. and their relationship to the manosphere, co-founded the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism (IRMS) in 2019. Her goal was to bring together female researchers, many of whom had faced online harassment themselves, to increase attention on the hateful ideology held by some men. Male supremacy is similar to white supremacy, she says, except that anti-racists usually get that the burden of activism shouldn’t fall on the victims of racism alone. As such, a good place for men to start, she suggests, is realizing that male supremacy isn’t limited to a radical fringe — it’s everywhere.

I recently spoke with DiBranco about her inspiration for starting an institute entirely devoted to researching male supremacy, how it rules the day in the Christian Right and why the term “misogynist incel” isn’t necessarily redundant. 

What inspired the idea for IRMS?

We saw a gap in the existing scholarship looking at misogynist movements and male supremacist ideology. Over the course of the Institute’s short lifespan, we’ve begun to see a change in recognizing male supremacist ideology and taking more recognition of misogyny as a serious threat in and of itself. There had been an uptick in research looking at the alt-right and Donald Trump, but even though misogyny was a core pillar of the alt-right infrastructure, media outlets were leaving out the misogyny portion of things, as well as the uptick in organizing among misogynist groups.

Also, some of the acts of mass violence connected to misogynist incel ideology, particularly starting in 2014 in Santa Barbara, weren’t being taken seriously enough. When misogyny was reported on, it was mostly this framing of it being a gateway to white supremacism rather than recognizing that the misogyny and male supremacism in and of themselves are dangerous ideologies. That classification doesn’t make them less-dangerous actors, even though they were perceived that way.

Is “misogynist incel” a specific subset of incels? 

No, at IRMS we use “misogynist incel” as our designation for the ideology of male supremacist incel men, similar to the construction of the term “racist skinhead.” The way “incel” is used is problematic without a qualifier, because it’s something that men, women and nonbinary people can identify as. For example, a bisexual woman in Toronto created the first forum where the term incel was used. There are also supportive, feminist, gender-inclusive communities for incels.

A lot of the coverage on incels doesn’t distinguish misogynist incel ideology from just the state of being an incel, which has helped many misogynist incels make claims that they’re being misconstrued or misportrayed. “Inceldom,” to them, isn’t a movement or an ideology, but a state of being, which is a really problematic framework. So, “misogynist incel ideology” is a term we use that’s specific to forums that promote dehumanizing language regarding women and glorify the 2014 Santa Barbara perpetrator and other mass killers. Other incel support forums aren’t misogynist groups and shouldn’t be considered with an analysis that way.

Why is it so problematic for incels to consider inceldom a “state of being”? 

Because it implies that it’s unavoidable, which is a big part of their victim narrative. They want to divert attention to their mental health struggles and suicidal ideation. We absolutely support the increase of mental health services and access for all people, because it’s really insufficient in the U.S. But it’s not a solution to misogynist ideology or racist ideology. 

The autobiographical manifesto left behind by the 2014 Santa Barbara perpetrator has become a founding document for the movement. They honor him as a martyr on the anniversary of the attack and quote directly from his manifesto, which is a typical social movement design. 

And so, when they make those claims of victimization, they want to focus on the idea that this is an unavoidable state and an injustice to them. The fact that analysts continue to use “incel” in a generic way reinforces a belief that only men can be incels and women have all of the freedom and choice in the sexual marketplace. Terminological vagueness is helping the misogynist incel movement evade appropriate analysis and recognition.

Where does the manosphere fit into male supremacy more broadly, or vice versa? 

“Manosphere” is kind of an ambiguous term that I usually avoid using because it’s not very clear what it means. Probably the best way to understand the term “manosphere” is as “a collection of misogynist male supremacist communities and forums that are active online.” The term derives from “blogosphere” and is more about the online forum they primarily organize in. It’s not really about the nature of the ideology itself. And so, just like the alt-right is only one manifestation of white supremacy, the manosphere is only one manifestation of male supremacist movements. It includes groups like A Voice for Men, which came from the men’s rights activist movement, which predates the internet.

So when we use “manosphere,” who are we really talking about? 

Men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, misogynist incels, Men Going Their Own Way and the Red Pill subreddit are the “big five” secular online misogynist movements we talk about in our research. Some, like the Red Pill, are developed purely in the online environment. Others, like men’s rights activists and pick-up artists, go back decades into the pre-internet era. 

Has it changed much? 

We’ve seen a definite shift from what in the pre-internet era was mostly a movement of white, conservative, middle-aged, often divorced, un- or underemployed men, moving into the broader men’s rights spheres. We see a much younger demographic, and migration from groups like the men’s rights movement to more violent and rhetorically extreme movements such as MGTOW and misogynist incels. And so, in our approach to studying male supremacism and its potential for violence, we warn against focusing only on something like misogynist incels as the main driver of mass violence related to misogyny over the past six years. It’s better to contextualize them within male supremacist violence more broadly.

There is a good piece that The Nation published around Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX rules, where they talk about the connections she had with some men’s rights activists groups that informed those rules. And so, you’ll definitely see in men’s rights forums that they talk about Title IX and false accusations a lot, because it’s a consistent underpinning for most of these movements.

Does the fathers’ rights movement continue to be significant in this space? 

It still exists, but hasn’t been as active in the past decade or so. We’ve seen a significant shift from fathers’ rights to issues of sexual harassment, sexual violence and claims that women make false allegations of rape as a more key recruiting method for bringing young men into the men’s rights movement, which then drives people into misogynist incel and pick-up artist ideologies.

Paul Elam became the face of the modern men’s rights movement in 2008 when he founded A Voice for Men, which rallied against false rape accusations and divorce courts to become the movement’s most popular website for nearly a decade. Is he still considered a leader?

Yes, although not as prominent as in the early 2010s. He was Warren Farrell’s prodigy and the men’s rights movement was one of the most significant and organized movements at the time. He continues to organize the International Conference on Men’s Issues, an international conference for men’s rights activists to come together. He’s maintaining one of the offline versions where the movement continues to organize. He was on an alt-right podcast in the last couple of years, too. But his prominence is certainly less significant than it was a decade ago. 

Has anyone taken his seat? 

Not really. The more extreme, more violent growing movements like MGTOWs and misogynist incels tend to be mostly leaderless. There’s less of a phenomenon today of pointing at a particular individual as a leader in the movement. There are people like Jordan Peterson, who are very popular in misogynist movements, and there are still some key players, but not the same hierarchical influence from one leader.

What is MRA terrorism? 

We talk about male supremacist terrorism as an overarching heading, similar to categories of domestic terrorism like white supremacist or anti-government terrorism — for example, the Charleston church shooting and the Oklahoma City bombing. Within male supremacist terrorism, there may be particular ideologies that are more specific. So, misogynist incel acts of terrorism have been on the uptick over the past six years.

Men’s rights acts of violence and bombing in the past were forms of men’s rights activist terrorism and fathers’ rights. That also goes back to things like the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique attack in Montreal, which was perpetrated by a man who gave his motivation as fighting feminism. He targeted women engineers at the engineering school. That’s one of the first documented acts of mass violence that was explicitly driven by misogynist anti-feminist ideology.

Where does the Christian Right fit into male supremacy, and the manosphere. One of your fellows, Matthew Lyons, raised the term “patriarchal traditionalism.” 

I used to mostly study anti-abortion movements, and one of my areas of focus is the Christian Right. This concept of patriarchal traditionalism is something psychologists classify as “ambivalent sexism.” You have benevolent sexism — chivalry, opening doors, putting white women on a pedestal. But that goes hand-in-hand with hostile sexism. When women step out of line, they are then targets of vitriol. Because new, secular manifestations of misogynist movements aren’t patriarchal traditionalists motivated by religion, we see a lot less of the benevolent sexism side of things and much more of the hostile sexism that goes hand-in-hand with the rise in anti-feminist conspiracism. Conspiracy theories about feminist elites look very similar to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish elites. 

How so? 

The construction of the conspiracy generally formed by anti-Semitism is an idea that there are Jewish elites in positions of power who are pulling the strings of the global economy, society and media, and are behind everything, including racial unrest — because they have this dehumanizing belief that Black people aren’t intelligent and capable enough to come up with organizing concepts on their own. 

Women and feminists are becoming the enemies of these groups. It’s a shift from white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which had women’s auxiliaries and welcomed women as having a significant part in the movement, to multiethnic and multiracial burgeons of far-right organizing like the Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer, in which misogyny is used as part of the glue to hold coalitions of men together.

Our former president and vice president are good examples of these two lines. Mike Pence is our Christian Right traditionalist who won’t eat with a woman who isn’t his wife by himself, and Donald Trump is our secular misogynist with a history of sexual violence, sexual harassment and objectifying vitriol. They work together. Donald Trump was perfectly happy to deliver to Christian Right groups, to anti-abortion groups. But nobody really believes that he’s motivated by deep religious sentiment against abortion. 

Do secular misogynist groups even care about abortion

Abortion in particular isn’t so much a focus of secular misogynist groups, except maybe that they think men should make the decision whether to have an abortion. Or using abortion as a form of reproductive coercion. But you still see alliances across the Christian and secular version of male supremacism. For the most part, the issues they care about and the people that they don’t like are similar. Betsy DeVos is deeply entrenched in the Christian Right and very motivated by conservative Christianity. She was working with more secular men’s rights activist groups toward rules around sexual harassment and sexual violence that are on the face of them fairly secular. Right-wing Christians’ own beliefs about male supremacism and victim blaming made them perfectly happy to cater to the base of secular misogynists.

So we’re seeing a reorientation in terms of where alliances and movements fall? 

Yes, which makes it particularly important to have an understanding of male supremacism and misogyny, because otherwise there’s confusion in understanding actors like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and Boogaloo Boys, who aren’t overt about their white nationalism but were very active in opposing Hillary Rodham Clinton. There are versions of the threat to democracy and social justice that increasingly are coming from an anti-feminist conspiracist perspective, which is why it’s so important to be aware of them.