On a cool Spring evening in early 2019, I was deep in the throes of a furious argument about rape. On one side, a group of men who believed women were so fundamentally worthless, and men so entitled to sexual gratification, that rape should simply be legalised. On the other side, men who argued furiously against rape becoming legal… because it would take the fun out of it for them. As I reeled at their vitriol, I was cosily curled up on my own sofa, a fleece blanket tucked over my knees. Welcome to the strange, jarring dissonance of the last two years of my life.
For over eighteen months, I immersed myself in the murky depths of a group of communities sometimes known as the ‘manosphere’. These are communities of men who hate women, for different reasons, and in different ways. They include incels - so-called ‘involuntary celibates’, who believe women owe them sex and plot to rape and kill as many as possible on a grand ‘day of retribution’. And ‘men’s rights activists’, who devote so much time to attacking feminists that they have little to spare for any issues actually affecting men.
Then there are ‘Men Going their Own Way’, who believe women to be so dangerous and malevolent that avoiding them altogether is the only option. Or ‘pickup artists’, who charge tens of thousands of pounds to ‘train’ other men in seduction techniques that really amount to harassment and abuse. In one pickup forum, users swap tips for how to ‘convince a chick to swallow’. One suggests: ‘Hold her mouth and nose shut. Just like when you have to get your dog to take medicine.’
When I set out to research these communities for my new book, Men Who Hate Women, I didn’t think there was much that could shock me anymore. But I was wrong. I might have been braced for the extremity of their bile, (‘Women should be terrorized by their men,’ writes one manosphere denizen, ‘it’s the only thing that makes them behave better than chimps.’) But I was totally unprepared for the sheer size and scale of the groups I was about to stumble on. I began to uncover an enormous web of interconnected websites, forums, chatrooms, blogs and video platforms. I quickly realised that we weren’t talking about a few dozen isolated, embittered men. Instead, community membership and forum statistics suggested that the numbers of men involved were in the hundreds of thousands.
Penetrating their communities undercover is near impossible, populated as they are by paranoid conspiracy theorists. First, I had to learn the language. These communities have their own strange lexicon, with words like ‘foid’ (female humanoid), ‘HB’ (hard body) and ‘roasties’ (women with labia supposedly disfigured by promiscuity) contributing to the utter dehumanisation of the opposite sex. Then there is a complex ideology to navigate, from the mythologised notion of taking the ‘red pill’ (to open your eyes to a world in which white men are the real victims of society), to academic arguments about the ‘redistribution of sex.’
Sadly, there is a rich and endless trove of material to study online, from the hate-filled forums to killers’ manifestos not deemed dangerous enough to be removed from the internet. I learned from these, inventing ‘Alex’, a male persona as disillusioned and angry as the other men I found online. Undercover, I started to infiltrate the various groups, often being challenged to describe my incel status in detail, or to answer misogynistic questions before I would be admitted to key message boards. I used little details, like incels’ bizarre obsession with the idea that wrist circumference is a key component of male attractiveness, to allow me to blend in.
The investigation took me from strange, dark corners of the internet to the apparently innocuous pages of bodybuilding websites and private gaming chat rooms, where I saw vulnerable teenagers being ruthlessly targeted and radicalised. The process, which used ‘edgy’ memes, humour, videos and even mainstream media reports, would be called grooming if it were being carried out by any other extremist group.
I started to realise, in horror, that what I had wrongly assumed were niche, fringe internet communities were actually creeping offline. I saw a vitriolic video featuring prominent feminists, my own face included, being used to advertise a ‘conference’ for men’s rights activists. Swathed in a heavy black coat, my hair hanging down to hide my face, I turned up, and listened, undetected from the back row, as the speakers railed against everything from #MeToo to single mothers. They cheered loudly at the mention of Donald Trump, who they believe supports their cause.
I chatted awkwardly with a sharply dressed white man in his early thirties, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and neatly sidestepping his questions about how I’d come to attend the event with vague murmurings about wanting to learn more. An hour or so later he would be onstage, calling for former CPS chief Alison Saunders to be vilified and prosecuted for her support of sexual violence victims. These men are not cave-dwelling trolls or pale teenagers who never leave their parents’ basements. They are likely to be the men you know, work with, or walk past on the street.
I watched as pickup artists boasted about ‘going caveman’ – physically pinning women down and ignoring their pleas to stop – then posted videos and images of women, apparently taken without their knowledge or consent, to boast about their ‘conquests’. I saw incel community members egging each other on to rape or attack women they knew in real life. I saw trolls place competing bids for the stolen panties of unsuspecting young women. I read discussions between businessmen about refusing to mentor women at work in order to avoid the supposedly high risk of false rape allegations. One man wrote about the gratifying surge of power he felt when deliberately following scared women at night. Other forum users encouraged him to escalate his behaviour, offering tips for committing rapes without being caught. Some days it felt difficult to emerge from the swamp of hate into real life.
I started to wonder just how many women might be affected, without even knowing it. So, if you’ve been approached by a stranger who seemed to think he had a right to your attention… if you’ve been dropped by a workplace mentor for no apparent reason… If you’ve encountered a man who thinks every woman secretly has a ‘rape fantasy’… then you might have come into contact with the manosphere. Even if you’d never heard of it.
Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates is out now.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.
In need of more inspiration, thoughtful journalism and at-home beauty tips? Subscribe to ELLE's print magazine today! SUBSCRIBE HERE
You Might Also Like