For several years now, I’ve had a dark and fairly unusual hobby. When I’m alone and bored and the mood strikes me, I’ll open up my laptop and head for a particularly unsavoury corner of the internet.
No, not the bit you’re thinking of. Somewhere far worse. That loose network of blogs, forums, subreddits and alternative media publications colloquially known as the “manosphere”. An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly. It’s grimly fascinating and now troubling relevant.
In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.
On their forums I’ve read long, furious manifestos claiming that women are all sluts who “ride the cock carousel” and sleep with a series of “alpha males” until they reach the end of their sexual prime, at which point they seek out a “beta cuck” to settle down with for financial security. I’ve lurked silently on blogs dedicated to “pick-up artistry” as men argue that uppity, opinionated, feminist women – women like myself – need to be put in their place through “corrective rape”.
I know about the “men going their own way” movement, which is based around the idea that men should avoid any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with women. I’m aware of “traditional marriage” advocates, who often argue that you should aim to marry a very young woman as she’s likely to be easier to control. I also learned the difference between an “incel” who is involuntarily celibate, and a “volcel” who makes a deliberate choice to avoid sexual activity, and sometimes also masturbation, often in the belief that ejaculation depletes their testosterone and saps them of masculine power.
It’s hard to know whether pseudonymous online posters are telling the truth about their offline identity: the individuals making up the manosphere seem to skew younger on average, but be drawn from all walks of life. There are socially awkward, video game-loving teenagers, bitter divorcees and Ivy League-educated millennials who feel women don’t afford them the respect and admiration they deserve. There are men who claim to be highly successful at attracting sexual partners, but hate women all the same.
One thing I noticed early on is that the community seems to be largely white. And that’s evident because race comes up, a lot. Sometimes, in the form of a kind of racial psuedo-science that advocates use to explain the dynamics of heterosexual relations. The age-old racist argument – that black men are “taking our women” – is made regularly. Racist slurs are chucked around casually. There seems to be a significant overlap with organised white supremacy. ’
Even taking into account its rising prominence, it would be absurd to claim that the alt-right is primarily responsible for electing Donald Trump. More than 60 million people voted for him, the majority of whom have probably had little or no contact with this strange, angry online movement. Most were people who also voted Republican in previous elections.
A minority were previous Obama voters, mainly concentrated in lower income brackets. Just over half of white women went for the guy who was facing rape charges, and who was caught on camera asserting that he would “grab them by the pussy” if he felt like it. Turnout was also depressed, through voter suppression and also because some Democrat voters felt uninspired by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
What is true, though, is that some of his most passionate, core supporters seem to be regulars on the blogs and forums I’m talking about. It’s no surprise that pretty much every prominent manosphere figure came out in support of Trump, and Clinton’s gender isn’t the only relevant factor.
Prior to the election, members of the alt-right online community often warned each other to keep their Trump support secret to avoid being “stigmatised” by more liberal peers. Now they’re celebrating openly. They’re gleeful about some of the harshest policies Trump promised: mass deportations, defunding Planned Parenthood, the wall. They feel like they have scored a victory against feminism and multiculturalism. They’re glad that white men are, once again, in control. They were filled with fury at the thought they had been toppled from their rightful place at the top of the social hierarchy; this is vindication. The old order has been defeated, this is their world now.
When we fret about young people leaving western countries and going to fight with Isis, it’s common to focus on the role of the internet in their political radicalisation. It’s time we discussed the radicalisation of angry, young white men in a similar way. The manosphere gave us Elliot Rodger. He was a regular on the forum “PUAhate” – populated by bitter men who had tried the techniques advocated by so-called “pick-up artists” to attract women and failed.
Reading through the posting history of individual aliases, it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.
Much has been written about financial hardship turning afflicted white communities into breeding grounds for white supremacist politics, but what about when dissatisfaction has little to do with economic circumstance? It’s hard to know what can be done to combat this phenomenon, but surely we have to start by taking the link between online hatred and resentment of women and the rise of neofascism seriously.