Laura Bates: ‘Misogyny is so normalised in our society that we struggle to recognise it as something extreme’
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Laura Bates opens up about her new book, Men Who Hate Women, and the terrifying and very real ‘manosphere’ that it exposes…
You may not have heard of ‘the manosphere’, but once you have, you will never be able to unhear, unsee or forget it.
The term refers to a vast global network of extreme misogyny and a strong opposition to feminism spreading under our noses. Operating in websites, blogs, and online forums, their women-hating ideologies lead to shocking offline consequences.
These communities have been directly linked to rape culture and a rise in misogynistic terror attacks. And the manosphere is growing, with boys as young as 11 being radicalised to hate and fear women. Yet, few of us know anything about this extremism and many would question its existence.
Despite initially not wanting to give the manosphere ‘the oxygen of publicity’, Laura Bates felt compelled to unearth these misogynistic networks after seeing the extent of their offline power.
In her groundbreaking new book, Bates goes undercover to expose the manosphere – its shockingly large size and influence, recruitment by radicalisation and its devastating impact as it seeps into society – all operating under the radar.
Introducing, Men Who Hate Women: From incels to pickup artists, the truth about extreme misogyny and how it affects us all, by Laura Bates, bestselling author and founder of The Everyday Sexism Project.
‘Imagine a world in which a vast network of incels and other misogynists are able to operate, virtually undetected,’ writes Bates. ‘These extremists commit deliberate terrorist acts against women. Vulnerable teenage boys are groomed and radicalised. You don’t have to imagine that world. You already live in it.
‘Perhaps you didn’t know, because we don’t like to talk about it. But it’s time we start.’
MC Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Laura Bates to discuss the groundbreaking book and the urgent conversation of misogynistic extremism that it raises…
Talk us through the manosphere…
The manosphere is a sprawling network of blogs, forums, video platforms, private members groups and chatrooms that practice misogynistic extremism. The main communities I look at in the book are incels, pickup artists, MRAs and MGTOW.
Incels (Involuntary Celibates) are men who aren’t having sex but would like to be, and they blame women for that. They believe that women owe them sex and actively incite violence against them. They suggest that women should be kept as sex slaves and stripped of their rights, and repeatedly revere and canonise men who have committed massacres of women. They encourage each other to rise up in what they call the Day of Retribution, when men will go offline and slaughter as many women as they can to punish them. Men who have committed real life massacres explicitly in the name of this particular movement include Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. But there are also examples close to home like Ben Moynihan, a teenager who went on an attempted murder spree in the UK, leaving notes for police about how he despised all women because they didn’t have sex with him.
Pickup artistry is a hundred million dollar global industry operating in almost every country in the world, with no transparency, oversight or regulation. Men can pay thousands on almost any given weekend in almost any major city to attend a boot camp where they are essentially trained in techniques to sexually harass and at worst sexually assault women. Some of the leading lights of this industry are men who have themselves boasted about rape or have advocated that rape should be legalised.
Men’s rights activists (MRAs)
MRAs are men who claim to care about issues really affecting men, like mental health, workplace injury or male cancers. But MRAs do vanishingly little to actually tackle those issues. They instead focus their entire time and energy harassing women online, trying to defund women’s sexual violence services and attacking feminism – bringing furious lawsuits to try and challenge the equality act for example.
Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW)
MGTOW are men who believe women to be so toxic and damaging that women have to be avoided at all costs and should be cut out of their lives entirely. These are men who again we might think of as a very niche online group with few members and little offline influence, but as with all of these groups, we’re actually talking about communities in the hundreds of thousands.
There are incel groups with over 100k members, huge numbers of these platforms have millions of posts, and there’s a single MGTOW blogger who has over 70 million views on his videos alone. So we’re actually talking about a really significant number of people whose communities have significant offline impact. And whose ideologies have been smuggled into the mainstream through semi-respectable interlocutors without us necessarily realising it.
Why as an issue is misogynistic extremism still not being taken seriously?
I think that there’s a number of reasons. The first is that it’s a relatively emerging threat in terms of mass killings, so people are failing to join the dots and make the connections between them. But I think a big part of it is that misogyny is so normalised in our society that we really struggle to recognise this as something extreme. We are so used to women being murdered by men. One woman is killed on average every three days by a male current or former partner in the UK – that is literally the backdrop to our daily life. So I think we struggle to see these as atrocities and it is a huge blind spot. It’s also because of who often commits these offences – educated white men and so the criminal justice system finds excuses for them. Look at the recent Georgia shooter for example. The police officer giving a press conference explained, ‘He was having a bad day’, after he had massacred eight people including six asian women. The way in which we collectively excuse, condone, normalise and ignore these white men when they commit mass shootings and terror atrocities really hampers us as a society in tackling the problem.
How much were you aware of going in?
I was aware of these communities because as a woman writing on the internet about feminist issues, these men come to you. So I have been aware of them for some time, but there was an argument in feminist circles that we shouldn’t give them the oxygen of publicity and that was something that I largely agreed with. So, for a long time it just wasn’t something that I really spoke about publicly. What changed my mind was the recognition that these groups actually have a lot of offline power. We’re talking about a very established network here with millions of views and followers, with hundreds of thousands of members. They were doing pretty well without the oxygen of our publicity and they were beginning to commit an increasing number of terrorist attacks. The Toronto van attack, the massacre of a woman with a machete in a Toronto massage parlour just over a year ago, and another attack in Canada where a man attacked a woman and her young daughter in a pram in the parking lot of a store. The fact that these men were actually increasingly killing in the name of this extremism meant that it was no longer something that could be ignored. But also, there was for me a particular tipping point in the sudden realisation that they were radicalising and grooming school boys in a mass campaign without anybody noticing.
What prompted that sudden realisation?
I started to spend a lot of time in schools. I would visit on average two schools a week, so in the last nine years I have spoken with tens of thousands of students and visited hundreds of schools. Those aren’t always easy conversations, and there was always some resistance, awkwardness and anxiety around it. But in the last couple of years, there was a very marked and dramatic shift in the responses from teenage boys. They were coming to the conversation with their minds already firmly made up. They hated feminism. They believed that I (as a feminist) was a man-hating bitch. They really believed that there was a feminist conspiracy stacked against them at the heart of government and that white men are the real victims of today’s society. They had been fed false information which they had internalised, for example that men are the vast majority of victims of abuse and that huge numbers of false rape allegations are rife in our society. It seemed to me very clear, particularly because they were quoting the same figures and statistics, that this shift in attitudes was largely driven by exposure to extremism in these online communities. And that was the point at which I thought I have to write about this, because a generation of teenage boys is being radicalised and nobody has any idea that it’s even happening.
How have people responded to Men Who Hate Women?
It has been quite overwhelming actually. There has been a pretty swift and extreme response from the communities described in the book of course, but what has really blown me away is the number of people who have got in touch to say they have been personally affected. Women whose entire lives have been affected by men who were groomed into pickup artistry, women who’ve been sexually assaulted by pickup artists, women who have had horrendous experiences in family court and mums who are devastated and terrified about their teenage sons and have nowhere to turn for support. There was one particular mum who got in touch. She was so concerned about her son having been radicalised and him being in potential danger that she had actually contacted social services. She was told, ‘If it was ISIS we could help you, but there’s nothing we can do about it’.
How important is having conversations to ensuring progress?
I think it’s really important because we can’t tackle a problem if people don’t know the problem exists. That was why I started the Everyday Sexism Project. People said that sexism didn’t exist anymore and that women were equal and I realised that we can’t begin to encourage people to be part of solving a problem if they honestly don’t believe it’s there in the first place. That’s how I feel about this as well. We can’t mobilise people to protect youngsters who might be radicalised and support women who might be victims if they have no idea that these communities even exist. It’s really important that we talk about it and it’s crucial for young men in particular that we have open conversations for the sake of their mental health.
Something that surprised me was the extent to which the groups prey on vulnerability…
The really tragic thing is that many of the young men who are driven to these websites are suffering. They are suffering from the traditionally prescribed societal strictures of masculinity and what it means to perform that. The irony is that male mental health as a crisis needs to be tackled, something that the manosphere would claim to believe is very important, but actually it suits them for men to continue suffering. They continue to tell men, ‘you have be powerful, violent and in control of your woman – that’s the only way for a man to be successful’. They really double down on exactly the kind of messaging that is harming men in the first place. And if we could provide boys with offline spaces to explore some of the anxieties, fears and frustrations that often sends them into the arms of these communities, then that would be a really good way to offset their power. It can’t be a coincidence that these communities have risen so sharply in their influence and success at grooming young people at the same time that we’ve seen a massive decline in funding for youth services. Hundreds of youth centres have been forced to shut their doors and boys don’t have that same opportunity offline to create a sense of community, purpose, belonging and brotherhood. That’s what these communities are offering them.
We have clearly been dangerously complacent by underestimating the manosphere. How much are online ideas leading to offline action?
I’ve traced over a hundred deaths or serious injuries to massacres carried out in the last ten years alone by men explicitly involved in these ideologies. But it’s also happening in a more day-to-day sense as men who are coming into contact with these ideas online are having an impact on their female peers. For example, if we’re looking at the absolute explosion in people coming forward to talk about experiences of sexual abuse in schools in the UK, we can’t separate that from the fact that the male peers of these girls are being radicalised to hate women on these websites. Or pickup artistry for instance, it might not hit the headlines in the same way that it does when Elliot Rodger takes a gun and goes out and massacres women, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t women all over the world being raped or sexually assaulted by men. Often the same men who have been trained on pickup artistry websites to believe (as they very commonly say on there) that every woman has a rape fantasy, and you’re just playing into it.
Despite its power, the manosphere appears to be virtually unheard of even by government…
That’s very much the case. I interviewed and contacted some very high level counter-terror organisations for the book and it was very notable. In one particular case, I used the word ‘incel’ and there was a long pause at the other end of the line before they said, ‘Sorry, could you spell that?’ It’s definitely not on the radar. There’s a US government accountability office report, literally auditing their response to all different kinds of terrorism. It includes people with extreme views on federal ownership of land and people with extreme views on animal rights, but there’s not a word in there about gender, male supremacy or inceldom. And in the period of the report, there were three massacres carried out by incel, but it doesn’t feature even though some of those other forms of extremism left zero people dead in the same period.
Why is there a reluctance to recognise misogynistic extremism as a hate crime?
I think that the reason why partly comes back to this complacency about violence against women as a normal part of society. We simply don’t recognise these men as terrorists because the murder of women is something that is so commonplace and normalised. But I think it’s also partly in media reporting. Some of these massacres weren’t reported in the media as extremist attacks when they happened – the Toronto van attack and Elliot Rodger are good examples of this. The motivation behind them was completely clear. 80% of Minassian’s victims were women and he told the police that he had murdered women because he was an incel and hated women for not having sex with him. But the police said in a statement that there was no apparent terrorist link, and the press didn’t report on the fact that these extensive manifestos and ideologies had been left behind by the killers. So, in part it just isn’t reported on, and the government also doesn’t take it seriously when it is.
Tell us about your male alter-ego to enter the manosphere undercover…
Alex was a disillusioned young white guy who wasn’t particularly successful, didn’t have very many friends, and hadn’t had much romantic success. He was pretty into gaming and body building and he hung out in online forums. I very deliberately didn’t take him straight into the manosphere because I think a common misconception is that boys won’t come across this stuff if they don’t go looking for it, and with Alex I wanted to show and really experience the slow slippery slope that can take you there. So, he was on YouTube watching a gaming video when suddenly the algorithm recommended a video to him about the gender pay gap being a myth, and then from there he was immediately led onto a video of a feminist being destroyed in an argument by a men’s rights activist. From there was a video about men going their own way and whether he realised that the vast majority of men who think they’re fathers in the UK are actually cuckolds being forced to raise illegitimate children. From there, he was given a link to a pickup artistry website where suddenly he was being given all these techniques on how to force women into having sex with him. When that didn’t necessarily work, he found himself drawn into an incel website where they were furious with pickup artists for suggesting that you can get women to have sex with you because women are evil and the odds are hopelessly stacked against men.
What did you discover through Alex?
I think what I really saw through Alex’s eyes was the slippery slope where irony and humour somehow turn into reality and you can’t put your finger on where that shift happens. It starts with jokes, banter and things that you can brush off as irony, so it’s really hard to say exactly where it is that these comments about killing women and raping them suddenly stop being ironic. By the point that it happens, you’ve become so desensitised to it that it doesn’t seem quite so shocking. It’s a really gradual immersion and they are so talented at grooming – they know exactly what they’re doing. They target boys as young as 11 and they smuggle this misogynistic messaging in through viral YouTube videos and memes, very gradually pulling them down a path where it becomes more and more extreme. They also very deliberately see extremist misogyny as a kind of gateway to white supremacy. They think that if they can groom boys into anti-feminism and hatred of women online, then it’s more set from there to Neo-Nazism or white supremacy.
And you attended an MRA meeting in person…
I was very scared (and surprised that they didn’t recognise me). Particularly given that the meeting had been advertised with a video of pictures of prominent feminists’ faces, with photoshopped devil horns and red eyes, and mine was one of the faces. I booked my ticket in Alex’s name instead of mine, arrived at the last minute very discretely and slipped in at the back. It was nerve-racking but also really unsettling because the people there were the kind of people that you might sit next to in the office or walk past in the street. I sat next to a very sharply dressed man in a suit, and he was charming, affable and chatted politely with me. Then maybe an hour later, he was on stage baying for blood, calling for women who supported sexual violence services to be jailed to cheers from the crowd. It was a very disconcerting experience and I felt extremely anxious while I was there. But I thought it was important to experience it first hand, to be able to report accurately what was happening.
Many women are afraid to speak out against these groups…
Some of the women whose stories I include in the book have literally had to leave their jobs, their homes etc. They’ve had their lives completely turned upside down because of the sheer power of these networks to commit mass harassment, sometimes over decades. Look at Luciana Berger and the very deliberate and orchestrated antisemitic and misogynistic campaign of abuse against her. Look at women like Diane Abbott. Some of the journalists I spoke to ended up losing their jobs after writing about men’s rights activism because they just weren’t able to continue. It’s very real and it’s much more significant than I think so many people realise. But the vast majority of people would dismiss all of the groups in this book under the single label ‘troll’. They would think that we were talking about a tiny handful of losers on the internet with no offline influence and that they are men to be laughed at or pitied and that’s the end of it. There is a disconnect between the reality of women’s lives being affected by these men and the public perception of them.
And as a female writer, receiving rape and death threats now seem to be an expected part of the job…
It’s considered totally normal. You do a television interview and when you come home there’s a message saying, ‘I’ve just seen you on TV and I would like to use your hair as handlebars and rape you until you die’. How have we got to the point where a society is prepared to accept that as the price that women should pay for doing their jobs. It’s completely insane.
Why isn’t there more conversation around these threats?
It’s a very difficult thing for people in the real world to understand. It sounds completely bonkers to some people when you say that because of your job you hear from 200 men a day about how they would like to rape and disembowel you. Most people just don’t know how to respond to that and will usually say ‘Oh but it’s not real’ or ‘they don’t really mean it’. There’s an empathy gap. If someone said, ‘I just watched a scary movie and when I woke up in the night I felt really scared’, we’d all go ‘oh yeah I get that’. But for some reason, if a woman says, ‘I read 10 men fantasising about disembowelling me yesterday and then I couldn’t sleep and felt sick all night’, people will go ‘Oh they’re just trying to get to you, why are you letting them?’ During the course of writing the book, there was a men’s rights activist in the States who was bringing one of these furious lawsuits about the draft being sexist to men. He wasn’t happy with the judge who was presiding over the lawsuit who he perceived to be a feminist, so he turned up at her house disguised as a delivery driver and opened fire, shooting her son dead and seriously injuring her husband. These actually are men who do go offline and kill women, and it would only take one of them, so we have every right to be scared.
What do you hope people will take from Men Who Hate Women?
I hope that people will have their eyes opened to a real threat that we all need to play a part in addressing. I hope it will have an impact on policy makers. I hope that it will lead to better training and support for teachers in recognising this as an emerging form of radicalisation. I hope that parents will feel empowered to be able to have important conversations with their children and to support them better, and I hope that people will take a collective sense of urgency from it. This is a threat that we haven’t recognised before that we really need to act on now before it’s too late.
Men Who Hate Women, by Laura Bates, published by Simon & Schuster, is now available in paperback at £9.99.