One of the more peculiar results of the modern digital age is the rise of the “men’s rights activists” (MRAs). Previously known simply as misogynists, these men—and not a few women—have rebranded themselves as the defenders of men against feminism, which they view as a hegemonic force that isn’t about equality but female dominance. They’ve started websites, created a major social media presence, and even held a conference last summer to draw media attention to this alleged assault on men’s self-actualization.
And their efforts have been effective. While the conservative movement has always been anti-feminist, some of the more ridiculous MRA notions have been blooming in right-wing circles, including Fox News running a segment suggesting that even one movie with female leads is tantamount to male oppression and Republicans trying to kill the Violence Against Women Act with stalling tactics. Even so, it’s beginning to appear that the best way to expose the true motivations of the “men’s rights” movement was simply to let its supporters speak for themselves.
In the past few months, MRAs have finally gotten some serious mainstream attention, creating an opportunity to show the world that they are what they say they are: humanitarian activists who simply want men to be equal in a supposedly female-dominated world. Knowing, for instance, that the press would be swarming his MRA conference held in Detroit over the summer, A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam publicly asked participants to put their best face forward:
Please, for all here who are attending, keep this in mind with everything you do and say. Even at after-hours social events, if you hear anyone saying anything that can be used against us, or that makes our gathering toxic, pull them aside politely and say, “Hey, you are hurting us with this. If you want to hang with this group you have to stop it.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Of course, the fact that the warning needed to be issued at all should have been the first clue that MRAs are not ready for prime time. Still, it goes to show that Elam and his allies were cognizant that this was their opportunity to show the world that they’re good guys who are just trying to help men.
The result has been one of the worst own-goals in organizing history. All mainstream press of MRAs, no matter how fair-minded the writers try to be, has ended up concluding that they are, in fact, a bunch of misogynists who are delusional at best and manipulative abusers at worst. The most recent installment, a GQ piece about the Detroit conference by esteemed writer Jeff Sharlet, paints a picture of bunch of self-pitying creeps who, as feminists have long said, simply want to put a positive spin on old-fashioned misogyny. Sharlet spoke with an attendee who believes the age of consent should be reduced to 12 and met another at Elam’s private after-party who brags about shaming his daughter when she told him she was raped: “I told her if she pressed charges, I’d disown her.”
But while Sharlet’s experience was bad, his female friend who tagged along out of curiosity, Blair, got it much worse. Sharlet reports that the collegiate activism director of A Voice for Men, Sage Gerard, treated Blair completely grossly, getting handsy with her and warning her about sending mixed messages. Later, at the private party, Sharlet notes that Elam and his buddies made rape jokes about her. “Just a couple of middle-aged guys joking around about rape with a young woman they’ve never met before in a hotel room at one in the morning,” Sharlet writes.
But while Sharlet’s piece, with his eye for telling details, may be the most devastating, MRAs have not fared any better in their other encounters with the mainstream press. BuzzFeed’s investigative report into Elam resulted in a portrait of a tyrannical, abusive egotist who uses accusations of false paternity to keep the upper hand in his relationship with his ex-wife and the daughter he had with her. Emmett Rensin of Vox did a series of interviews with an avid MRA named “Max,” who comes across as a delusional ass who has confused challenges to male privilege with oppression.
Even the supposed intellectual guru of the MRA movement, Warren Farrell, apparently can’t hold it together long enough to get through a basic interview with a respected outlet. Mariah Blake of Mother Jones bends over backward to be fair to Farrell, describing him as a man with “a warm and thoughtful air,” but even this septuagenarian reveals his creepy side when Blake asks him why he thought it was appropriate to choose a picture of “a woman’s bare derriere, a paean to women’s Delilah-like sexual power” to grace the cover of his seminal MRA text The Myth of Male Power. His response is jaw-dropping:
“I felt that it was a tasteful message that had not been communicated effectively to women about how powerless men feel around the beautiful woman’s body,” Farrell told me. Cupping a hand over his crotch, he added, “Our upper brains stop working and the lower brain starts working.”
This notion that women have all the power because some of them are beautiful while still retaining the legal right to say “no” is hardly an argument limited to Farrell. In fact, it underpins A Voice for Men’s response to Sharlet’s article, tastefully titled, “GQ’s Jeff Sharlet pimps out Blair [name redacted] for clickbait.” Elam, who wrote the piece, continues to creep on Blair within it, writing, “By the way, Blair is into dogs, but I want to make it perfectly clear that I don’t mean that in a sexual way.” He links to her website, presumably so his fellows can continue the process of harassing her.
But you see, they at the conference are the victims here, of Sharlet and Blair’s supposed plotting to trap them by exploiting the apparent inability of men to behave like adults when an attractive face pops into view. In fact, Elam includes a few photos of Blair in his piece, so you can see for yourself how pretty she is. As David Futrelle, who has tirelessly tracked the MRA movement for years, catalogues, many staff members of A Voice for Men also showed up in the comments of the piece to accuse Blair of being “disingenuous doe-eyed (one eye slightly smaller than the other and just a smidge crossed) wannabe double agent,” a “honey trap,” and of being an “an eye candy distraction whose job was to flirt with guys” because she wore shorts and had “rosy cheeks.”
Surveying this disgusting landscape, there is only one, unavoidable conclusion to draw: The best way to fight the misogynist movement disguising itself under the misnomer of “men’s rights” is to simply hand them a microphone and give them the chance to speak their piece. No other work is required.