Sarah clearly remembers the moment she lost the love of her life to the “Red Pill.”
She was sitting inside a dark closet next to the bedroom where she and her partner had slept for close to four years, as he shouted at her through the wall. “You don’t listen to me!” he screamed at her. “You’ve never listened to me!” The closet was a place to be alone, to think, to figure out how to bring back the man she’d once fallen in love with.
Sarah (a pseudonym), 30, had met Craig while she was studying for her master’s degree in psychology. He worked at her local pub near in Holborn, West London. Craig, who had voted for the Conservative Party in 2010 but “wasn’t interested in politics” worked odd jobs — as a bartender, as a bouncer at a nightclub, on contract at a recruiting firm — earning just enough to pay his rent and bills. They bonded over their unwavering support for the Chelsea Football Club, Al Pacino movies and late-night runs to McDonald’s for Chicken McNuggets and barbecue sauce. On the nights when she studied late, Craig would meet her outside the university library to walk her home. When she was sick, he’d bring her spicy dumpling soup from her favorite Chinese restaurant.
“He was a really chilled-out guy for the first couple of years we were together,” Sarah tells me when we meet at a cafe near her place of work. Small and slender, with bright blue eyes and dyed blonde hair, Sarah looks down at her cup of tea as she recalls the best moments of her relationship, the ones she tried to fixate on during those nights when Craig would shout at her, claim she was a “bitch” and a “whore” and send her text messages calling her an “anti-English,” “dumb liberal.”
“Our relationship started normally: We went for walks, saw films, went out for dinner. Most of the ‘arguments’ we’d have would be where to go out on a date. When I moved in with him after graduation, the arguments were about who would do the washing up or the cooking that night,” she says. By the end of their relationship in September, though, she found herself having to not only try to get Craig to do his share of the laundry, but to justify why people should be allowed to speak languages other than English in public, why removing taxes for tampons isn’t unfair, and more bizarrely, why being a feminist isn’t the same as being a Nazi.
“Nearly all the arguments came from YouTube videos he was watching,” Sarah tells me. “Because he’d work at night, he’d spend the day on the internet. He’d be watching them, and send them to me throughout the day on WhatsApp, over email, anywhere really.” During one work meeting in 2016, she received videos from him about a “migrant invasion into Britain, orchestrated by Angela Merkel and Barack Obama,” which showed Libyan refugees getting off a boat carrying large bags and shouting, “Thank you, Merkel!” played over dark orchestral music. Other videos supported Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants, diatribes on feminism “threatening traditional families” and “scientific evidence” suggesting that white people have higher IQs than black and South Asian people.
With each, he’d ask what her view on it was. Sometimes, she’d say she didn’t know, and he’d “send me more videos, or explain why they were correct.” Other times, when she’d disagree — for example, when it came to whether abortion should be legal — he’d get angry. “He would start off by saying I was wrong, demanding I explain my view — during a work day! When I wouldn’t respond to him immediately, he’d tell me that my view was stupid and idiotic and that I was just another ‘dumb leftie’ who didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Other times, when Sarah would ignore his messages, he’d get erratic and angry. “He would shout at me for not being interested in the things he was, that I wouldn’t take any of it seriously,” she recalls, her eyes tearing up. “He would tell me that I wasn’t smart enough for him, that what I learned at [university] was ‘pointless left-wing nonsense,’ that I only stayed with him because I was afraid to be alone.”
In the year leading up to their breakup, Sarah tells me she desperately tried to help him stop watching the videos he was slowly becoming obsessed with. “I tried to take him to parties I was invited to, to be around him more. I sent him messages every hour while I was at work to say that I loved him. I thought that having human contact, to know that he didn’t have to be so angry all the time, that he was loved by so many people, would be enough to get him away from all that material.”
She also compromised her own values “to get him to open up to me,” as she tried to “find a middle ground” between his radical right-wing views, and her liberal positions on issues like immigration, religion and Brexit. “When he said that Brexit would be good for the U.K. because there would be fewer immigrants that would erode White English culture — a statement that truly shocked me — I remember nodding and saying that it would be a good thing for more people to be taught English.”
Still: “It wasn’t enough for him,” she says. “That was the moment I knew I wouldn’t get through to him.”
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Sarah and Craig’s relationship isn’t atypical in 2019, a time in which it’s not uncommon for women to find themselves with male partners who have been “Red-Pilled,” or radicalized online by misogynistic, far-right content and communities. In particular, on online forums such as the U.K.-based “The Student Room,” users have posted stories like this one: “My boyfriend views relationships as a manipulation game and brags about stuff that never happened with elaborate lies. … He believes girls are evolutionary programmed to want to be treated like shit, but have developed clever adaptive methods to deceive men.”
The term Red Pill refers to the internet’s “manosphere,” a collection of male-dominated subcultures that ranges from “incels” (involuntarily celibate men who believe that Western liberalism and feminism prevents them from having sex or securing long-term relationships) to “men’s rights activists” (who believe that liberal, left-wing politics have waged an all-out war on white, heterosexual men by “promoting” abortion, immigration and LGBTQ issues). In 2016, The Guardian described Red Pill communities as a network of groups that collectively envisioned “a reality that women run the world without taking responsibility for it, and that their male victims aren’t permitted to complain.” Popular mantras used on Red Pill message boards include “Feminism Is Cancer,” the same phrase used by right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson.
On Reddit, where Red Pill pages have more than 200,000 members and are among the most vibrant communities on the platform, men, often those who are socially awkward and emotionally vulnerable, are told that “women are, by nature, manipulative, attention-seeking, inconsistent, emotional and hypergamous. Accept this truth. Once you do, you can game women for what they are… not what you want them to be.”
“The ‘manosphere’ consists of a large number of groups — whether it’s incels, ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ or ‘pick-up artists’ — that all push the same kind of message, that the men who go to their pages are being hard done by women and society at large,” says Annie Kelly, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia who researches the impact of digital culture on the far right.
She adds that while there isn’t a single reason why men would be attracted to Red Pill communities, as a hyper-networked online subculture, it’s able to transmit its messages and philosophies to a much wider audience. All of which means that “grievances related to lack of sexual and romantic partners are located in the same spaces as right-wing propaganda around the refugee crisis and trans issues. When they’re reinforced in these groups, as well as by mainstream media outlets on Facebook and YouTube, people are more exposed to them, and they end up buying into some of the maxims without realizing it. The online world becomes part of their lived world.”
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Last week, the Huffington Post ran a feature about Nina Kouprianova, the wife of U.S. neo-Nazi and alt-right leader Richard Spencer, detailing instances of verbal, psychological and physical abuse she endured while married to him and assisting him in his goal of establishing an all-white ethnostate in the age of Trump. Kouprianova claims that she denounces Spencer’s ideology and was simply providing assistance to her ex-husband out of love and care for him, rather than his movement.
As the article made its way around the internet, many people found themselves asking the same question: How much sympathy should we have toward women whose partners lurch further to extremism during the course of their relationship — especially if these women tend to be the ones held responsible for bringing the men back from the brink? Indeed, in knowing the views and attitudes of social conservatives in regard to issues like immigration, rights for minority groups and LGBTQ issues, should these women have avoided dating such men entirely
This is the situation Ellen, 24, found herself in as she watched her boyfriend, 30-year-old Steven (his name has been changed at Ellen’s request), become more and more entrenched in right-wing online content. Speaking over the phone, Ellen tells me that at times, she felt “hypocritical” being in a relationship with Steven. (As a long-time socialist, Ellen uses her social media accounts to post anti–Conservative Party messages, memes about the failures of capitalism and support of anti-racist organizations.) Her and Steven, however, had been childhood friends, having grown up in the same small town in the south of England, the kind of place where families all know each other, drink at the same pub and play soccer on Sundays. “I knew he had some controversial views before we started going out,” Ellen explains. “Maybe that should have been a warning. But we also had a family history. He worked in my mom’s office. And to me, he was always the attractive guy next door.”
Nor did Ellen pay much attention to Steven’s views when they first started dating in early 2017. At the time, she was a university student, and he was between jobs with aspirations to work in finance. “He was interested in conspiracy theories — the kind of thing that most guys are into — and I actually felt that most of his ‘anti-establishment’ persona leant more to the left.” Steven enjoyed talking about these theories with Ellen, and Ellen was happy to discuss them with him. “I enjoyed the intellectual side of the relationship,” she says.
Things changed quickly, however, when, according to Ellen, Steven returned to their hometown after losing his job in London. With few friends around him and Ellen at university, he spent the majority of his time online, learning how to trade foreign currency via obscure blogs and YouTube tutorials before wading into more political waters. “It started off fairly mild,” Ellen says, with a slight laugh. “He would WhatsApp me Jordan Peterson lectures about ‘social justice warriors’ on university campuses. Sometimes I’d just ignore them, or say that I didn’t agree with what they were saying. Eventually, he moved on to more extreme material. He would send me videos by Stefan Molyneux about the links between race and IQ, or how it was scientifically proven that Conservative women were more attractive and left-wing women like me were fat and ugly.”
Ellen thinks some of Steven’s behavior was born out of wanting to be provocative, but she also says that as he spent more time alone, the deeper he got stuck in this rabbit hole. “I didn’t know any of these right-wing characters until we started dating, and he kept sending me videos from them,” she tells me. “I had to learn about what they were saying, quickly, so that I could try to debunk his view, or at least challenge them. And usually when we would debate these topics, it would end up in tears.” That’s because, “When I would try refute him, he would flip out. He would say that I was hysterical, that I was stupid and acting on my emotions rather than the facts, that I didn’t want to open up my mind to anything other than my left-wing views.”
Still, she hoped that he could at least see some of her perspective — that they could compromise, even when it came to her most deeply held convictions. “I was spending hours a day trying to get him to see other people’s views. But the more he would watch these videos, the more he reinforced his opinions. If I said something, he’d just send another video to ‘prove’ his point. He’d shut down conversations if I didn’t relent and agree with him. He wanted to debate things with me — but only up to a point. Eventually, he’d expect me to side with him.”
“While most Red Pill groups tend to focus on single men, there are sub-groups like Married Red Pill where men who are married are trying to get their wives to see the world in the way they do,” says Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and author of The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism. “A lot of the time that will be influenced by things the men see on social media, but also the images that these kinds of groups [conjure] up. They use a lot of iconography from the 1950s to advocate for ‘traditional’ families and ‘traditional’ gender roles, and they’re using new technologies to try achieve that.”
Similarly, they provide guides on how to better convince skeptical or unwilling partners of the husband or boyfriend’s newfound beliefs. “These guides provide resources and subjects designed to help ease their partners into Red Pill ideologies,” Ebner explains. “Some of the tips employ techniques like neuro-linguistic programming to achieve this, or other aggressive ‘psychological techniques’ that are common in pick-up artist communities.”
Though the various techniques differ, Ebner suggests that the goal is the same: By recruiting women to the movement, they gain more legitimacy.
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Ellen and Steven have now broken up. She has blocked him across all her social media accounts, and goes back home much less than she used to. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t Ellen who broke up with Steven. After another fight over right-wing YouTube videos he sent her, he ended the relationship, claiming that Ellen was no longer intellectually stimulating for him. In fact, she was an “idiot” who was incapable of understanding the “facts” that are right in front of her.
She was left heartbroken. “I gave my whole self to him, to try help him, to support him. I compromised so much of my convictions and beliefs to help HIM. And he rejected all of it for these YouTube people. He rejected one of the only genuine relationships he had.”
For Sarah, similar feelings remain. Though she hasn’t been in contact with Craig for several months, reminders of him are everywhere, especially when she works on the computer they once shared. “I was listening to Coldplay when I was cleaning the other day,” she laughs. “And the next video YouTube had scheduled for me was one of these right-wing talk shows in America about how abortion clinics are being secretly funded by George Soros. I see these kind of videos on my recommended pages all the time.”
It turns out she can’t seem to escape them either.