James Innes-Smith

There’s more to the men’s movement than Incels

There's more to the men's movement than Incels
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The horror of August's mass shooting by 22-year-old Jake Davison caused many commentators to point towards a dangerous underbelly of male disaffection. But what many overlooked was the fact that the shadowy underground group of disenfranchised males that inspired Davison to take up arms is part of a much larger network of male activism dating back to the late 1970s when the men's liberation movement split into two camps consisting of the pro-feminist men's movement and the anti-feminist men's rights lobby.

Focusing on what they saw as male disadvantage, oppression and discrimination, the men's rights movement hardened into Men's Rights Activism (MRA), an informal network of online communities known as the 'Manosphere'. Reviled by feminists for their anti-female stance and ideological links to neo-conservatism, MRA groups have remained highly controversial, with both sides of the political spectrum dismissing them as a fringe network of angry women-haters. 

Paul Elam, who founded A Voice for Men in 2009, argues that the movement has only ever been about equal rights, which includes the calling out of false rape allegations and the fight for a fair judicial system that no longer discriminates against men during divorce and custody battles. Although Elam himself has struggled with fatherhood, he became something of a father figure to MRA followers who felt disenfranchised by what they saw as an increasingly feminised anti-male world. Men who had endured painful custody battles, protracted divorce settlements and damaging relationships with women often looked to the Manosphere for help, advice and a sympathetic ear. In return, they were offered reassurance that their failures and discontents weren’t necessarily down to personal shortcomings or a lack of responsibility but were more often a result of societal misandry, 'institutionalised feminism', radical leftist activism and a punitive family court system rigged against the interests of fathers. 

Some of the men I met while researching my book about modern masculinity The Seven Ages of Man - How to Live a Meaningful Life complained about ‘the prison sentencing gender gap’, quoting a recent Ministry of Justice statistic showing that for indictable offences 15 per cent of women received immediate custody compared with 28 per cent of men. Such disparities have led the ‘Network for Men’, an online forum, to declare that ‘it’s time for men to stop apologising for themselves.’But the Manosphere has become far more than a refuge for angry victims of an allegedly unfair justice system. 

This secretive underground movement has spawned a number of offshoots including a controversial online community of sexual misfits known as MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) whose explicit vow to 'stay away from women, stop dating and not have children' has driven many subscribers to the margins of society. Cut off from the mainstream, MGTOWs focus their attention on separatism and 'self ownership' rather than MRA style campaigning. While these men are often a consequence of dysfunctional relationships with women, for a minority such as 36-year-old Phil, opting out of traditional relationships with women has been an entirely pragmatic decision. Raised in an Irish catholic family where getting hitched was treated as a matter of course, Phil told me that he knew from an early age that wedded life was never going to be for him. 'Everyone was like "oh yeah we'll see" but when I looked around I struggled to see many happily married men. Why would I have wanted to join them?' 

For committed MGTOWs like Phil, romantic relationships pose too much of a risk both emotionally and financially. Like many true believers, he is convinced that there is a 'covert move against men' and that society has chosen to shift inexorably towards a 'gynocracy'. In online forums, MGTOWs complain of what they see as a ramping up of anti-male sentiment post MeToo. By swallowing a metaphorical 'red pill' - a reference to the movie The Matrix - Manosphere devotees claim to have had their eyes opened to progressivism's ultimate goal, to 'wipe masculinity from the face of the earth, starting with the universities'. They believe authorities have consistently refused to acknowledge where real inequality lies and that those men who refuse to open their eyes to the truth will remain in a kind of inauthentic purgatory. 

Unlike MGTOWs who choose to avoid all relationships with women, the online subculture known as 'True Forced Loneliness' or INCELS (involuntary celibates) to which Jake Davison subscribed, blame their lack of sexual success entirely on women's unwillingness to succumb to their advances. 'Inceldom' grew out of a sense of male entitlement and a belief that having sex with women is a right of all males regardless of circumstance.INCELS first hit the headlines in early 2018 when twenty-five year old Toronto resident Alek Minassian intentionally drove a rental van onto a busy pavement, killing ten pedestrians and wounding fourteen others. Most of the victims were women, ranging in age from twenty to eighty. Minutes before his bloody rampage Minassian had posted a message on Facebook claiming, 'The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! (INCEL-speak for attractive men and women who are perceived to be better than or unavailable to INCELS), all hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!'

Four years earlier and eerily reminiscent of Davison's atrocity, another 22-year-old woman-hater named Elliott Rodger had killed six people during a shooting rampage through Isla Vista, California, before eventually turning the gun on himself. Feminist playwright Ella Hickson has blamed the rise in the number of INCELS on what she describes as the 'visual force of capitalism over the last ten years' and the worrying statistic that the average person sees over 3000 sexualised images of the female form every day. Is it any wonder that young men increasingly expect to have sex on tap when society tacitly condones the sort of hardcore pornography that presents women purely as sex objects? When it comes to feeding men's unrealistic expectations, Hollywood is guilty of producing a raft of movies featuring obnoxious overweight stoners winning the hearts and bodies of inordinately beautiful, underwritten female protagonists. Puffed up by a sense of entitlement, the target audience of young, nerdy males leave the cinema expecting supermodels to fall at their feet; why bother making an effort when you can just as easily attract women sitting at home in your underpants?

For men who fall prey to Men's Rights Activism the gap between reality and expectation seems unbridgeable. Several years on from his red pill epiphany Phil remains firmly opposed to 'female-centred social norms' where men are expected 'to meet a girl, get married, have 2.4 kids, a dog and a house'. For MGTOWs, traditional relationships are little more than institutionalised male servitude. Ironically, this rejection of social and gendered norms has more than a passing resemblance to the sort of progressive activism they despise. 

Older MGTOWs tend to be more militant in their outlook, seeing the gender war in broadly feminist terms, as a battle that men need to win if masculinity is to survive. Often disparaging about the MRA's failure to stem the tide of radical feminism many MGTOWs are furious at what they see as the double standards inherent within the gender debate, where it is deemed acceptable for women to pass judgment on men (a la toxic masculinity) but sexist and misogynistic the other way round. 

When it comes to MeToo there is a consensus across the manosphere that the movement has managed to widen the divide between the sexes by pathologising masculinity. With traditional masculinity trashed and white males in particular treated as an oppressor class, MRAs maintain that for a man to be afforded any kind of respect he must identify as part of an oppressed minority. 

Darren Deojee, a male mentor with over twenty-five years experience of working with men and boys has noticed a marked decline in men’s mental wellbeing as a result of what he considers to be politically correct indoctrination. Deojee, a father of four, believes progressive activism is making young men feel increasingly ashamed of their masculinity. Many of the boys in his care have been encouraged not to identify with maleness in what Deojee describes as 'numerous distorted ways' such as denouncing male competency as patriarchal oppression. 

Doctor Brenda Todd, a developmental psychologist at City University London, argues that there has been too much criticism of men as a class rather than of specific individuals. This in turn has tainted male identity, giving young men the impression that there is something problematic about being a man. Anthropologist Samuel Veissiere, who has made a study of toxic masculinity in the age of MeToo, believes that while calling out bad behaviour in young men is necessary, there is a growing tendency to label all masculinity as toxic without acknowledging men's healthier, protective characteristics.

While boys fret about the negative consequences of their gender, Deojee notes that older males have grown weary of being 'judged for the deeds of men long dead'. He warns about the dangers of focusing on culpability pointing out that radical feminists and MRAs are both guilty of blaming each other for what are often deep personal wounds caused by painful break ups and dysfunctional relationships. The resulting animosity and resentment feeds into their activism. 

The rush to place male behaviour under the microscope once again comes at a sensitive time culturally. While discrimination based on immutabloe characteristics is rightly seen as unacceptable, MRAs complain that when it comes to men they are all too often lumped together into one homogenised group. Thankfully, the sort of atrocity we witnessed in Plymouth is still rare but if marginalised young men continue to feel that society is weighted against them, who knows how many more Jake Davison's are out there waiting to make their move.

Written byJames Innes-Smith

James Innes-Smith is the author of The Seven Ages of Man — How to Live Meaningful Life published by Little, Brown on 5 November 2020.

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