Following her appointment as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos made headlines by meeting with organizations affected by Title IX, groups that included the self-declared “Men’s Rights Activists.” Her actions prompted a swift backlash from feminist groups, many of whom declared it a “slap in the face” to rape victims.
When people think of men’s rights activists, the image of a lonely, insecure white man lurking in online chat rooms and raging about feminism comes to mind. Although most of the MRAs are in fact white men, these activists come from different backgrounds and often include women.
While collectively described as MRA, the movement is really a loose coalition of various online communities, the most notorious or well-known of which are “The Red Pill” forum on Reddit and the popular website A Voice For Men. In these spaces, MRAs question the validity of the “male privilege” concept and claim that today’s society is gynocentric, or focused on women. They argue that men are subject to discrimination and disadvantages on the basis of their gender. This strain of activism originally emerged in the 1970s as a response to second-wave feminism. But now, online communication has allowed the MRA movement to gain significant traction—growing from a fringe phenomenon to a widespread campaign recognized in the political sphere.
Men’s Rights Activists seem to make some valid points about gender relations. Their beliefs are even parallel to feminism in certain respects—recognizing the reality of gender discrimination and seeking equality. But they are not identifying the real cause of the problems they cite.
There are certainly issues that disproportionately affect men. Male victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are taken less seriously. Suicide rates are higher among men, as is the rate of homelessness. Fathers are given less prominence in their household role.
Men are more likely to be hurt or killed on the job. They are more likely to lose custodial and property battles, and they are given longer prison sentences for the same crimes.
However, most of these situations developed from traditional male gender roles: the authoritative, self-sacrificing breadwinner who does not show emotional vulnerability or physical weakness. These stereotypes are the by-product of misogyny and they hurt women just as much as, or even more than, men. Although societal expectations have historically disadvantaged women, men do face some of the consequences.
Even though feminism has made considerable progress over the last hundred years, society is not yet capable of dismantling the several millennia worth of patriarchal subjugation, let alone reversing it entirely. The idea that “misandry” is an oppressive force on the same level as (or even worse than) misogyny has no merit.
Most importantly, feminism is not focused on blaming men for women’s problems. The feminist movement rightly points out that most violence against women is committed by men, but does not view this as inherent in male nature. It is instead perceived as a result of the patriarchal society that oppresses everyone—an issue of socialization, not hatred.
MRAs nonetheless focus their ideology on anti-feminism first and men’s issues second. Their insistence on playing the victim undermines the validity of their concerns. By depicting women as societally privileged and at the root of men’s hardships, MRAs create a false narrative of oppression that does little to help the vulnerable men their movement was designed to support.
Despite having an activist label, MRAs do not promote any meaningful change. They are not raising money to open shelters for male victims of domestic abuse or lobbying for safer workplaces. Instead, their activism exists in the limited sphere of the internet—parroting the same talking points against feminist arguments to prove that men are the more oppressed gender.
Some MRAs take on a more active role, but usually as a reaction against feminist campaigns. They attend events to intimidate speakers, send threatening messages to vocal feminist leaders, and use smear campaigns and in some cases rape threats to suppress and discredit the feminist movement.
So why is an activist movement that engages in little genuine activism gaining political legitimacy?
MRA ideology represents the kind of misogyny that Donald Trump’s presidency has helped bring to the forefront. Trump’s sexualized remarks about women and comments that “women get it better than men” already make him a sympathetic figure to the MRAs, whose beliefs rely on a narrative of victimhood.
Although Trump has no direct link to the men’s rights movement, it is difficult to ignore the underlying impression that the history of his behavior toward women allows MRAs to feel empowered to become more vocal and aggressive in their views. The current political climate, too, enables them to be more controversial in manner and attitude than ever before. For those reasons, they should be considered a threat to women’s safety and well-being.
Given the MRAs’ lack of concrete action and ineffective, untenable ideology, it may be tempting to view them as harmless. Their attempt to reverse power dynamics and their misconstrual of the source of gender-based discrimination, although alarming, seem unthreatening in the bigger picture. The internet can feel detached from the world of politics, particularly when the MRAs are in small, isolated online spaces. Still, it may be ill-advised to overlook this community: If today’s politics are evidence of anything, it is that those who feel ignored are beginning to wield the most power.