What I Heard at This Weekend's Men's Rights Conference in London
From "feminist witch hunts" to a bunch of speakers arguing that men have it worse than women.
Graffiti on the Millennium Bridge, London, supporting men's rights. Photo: Paul Nichols / Alamy Stock Photo
This weekend, the global men's rights movement came to London for the 2018 International Conference on Men's Issues (ICMI) – an annual summit bringing together MRAs and their sympathisers from the US, Canada, Australia, India and Europe. As someone who's been following men's rights for a while, I wanted to go along, partly to find out what actually happens at these events, but also to see whether the attendees really all were the women-hating wackos they are believed to be.
So, who are the MRAs? What you realise at events like ICMI is that, to the extent that a "men's movement" exists, it's really a bunch of smaller groups rallying around related issues. Of these, there are four main camps: child custody, domestic violence, false accusations (rape and sexual assaults) and circumcision (still a huge hang up for the movement). Add a handful of "red pillers" and alt-right types, and that's everyone covered.
Age-wise, ICMI's attendees ranged from men in their early-twenties to pensioners, with the main cohort being middle-aged. Demographically, it's more CAMRA meeting than 4chan. There were also a handful of women present, most of whom were treated like near celebrities (director Cassie Jaye, for example, was happily autographing DVDs of her documentary The Red Pill).
What brings all these groups and individuals together is an underlying belief that the system is rigged against men, to one extent or another. Some ICMI delegates attribute this to a general naivety among those in power to assume the best of women; others see feminism as a malign conspiracy to shatter the nuclear family and usher in an era of weak men and socialist state control.
Now to the big question: is the men's rights movement inherently misogynistic?
At the start of 2018, The Southern Poverty Law Center officially classed two men's rights organisations as hate groups, identifying them as "male supremacist". Overwhelmingly, groups or websites advocating men's rights present their arguments with a misogynistic slant, whether it's coded or undisguised. MRAs commonly have a victim mentality – viewing themselves as being systemically persecuted, with women getting a better deal – and many are loudly anti-feminist.
So: is there misogyny within the movement, to the point you could say it's one of its defining characteristics? Absolutely. As the SPLC has pointed out, while some men's rights advocates "voice legitimate and sometimes disturbing complaints about the treatment of men, what is most remarkable is the misogynistic tone that pervades so many".
However: was the ICMI solely about women-hating? No. Some of the speakers I saw managed to get their points across – the need to support male victims of sexual violence, for example – without resorting to misogynistic rhetoric, or painting men as society's great victims. Even then, though, it wouldn't take long for audience members to make the connection to feminism as the ultimate evil. You'd think, too, that speakers would feel at least a little uneasy about speaking in front of banners proclaiming the latest "Lying Feminist of the Month" – but apparently not.
As a rule of thumb, the more overtly political the speaker, the closer they came to outright misogyny. At one low point, an Austrian political activist presented his "red pill" political platform, calling for compulsory paternity testing at birth (in general, the men's rights movement is obsessed with cuckolding) and acknowledging common ground with white nationalists. Most attendees watching on shook their heads as he spoke.
Many of the MRA speakers there seemingly came to the movement not after being influenced by dogma, online or off, but off the back of some heavy personal ordeal. Of course, it wasn't possible to say whether all these stories were entirely true – or at least whether the men were blameless – but most sounded fairly harrowing nonetheless.
One speaker, for instance, had been implicated in a lurid child sex abuse case, thrown out after the CPS ruled the accuser unreliable. On the other end of the scale, another gave a rambling presentation on the "feminist witch hunt" which had driven him from his job at the University of Oxford; it even included a weird spider-diagram naming individual feminists and detailing how they had wronged him.
Maybe it's this intense emotional involvement which allows newcomers to swallow the wider dictum around men being the oppressed sex, something which flies in the face of popular evidence. Take domestic violence: it would be silly to deny that men experience DV at all (including from male perpetrators, of course) – but to claim that men are somehow the biggest victims (either in numbers alone, or by getting a rougher ride from the system) requires a real warping of reality.
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Whether that warping comes from an overpowering emotional response (i.e. the inability to see beyond your own traumatic experience), an internalised distrust of women (i.e. misogyny) or a mixture of both – well, that's the difficult thing to say.
If men's rights has a strategic weakness, beyond the outright misogyny espoused by so many of the movement's members, it's the inability to empathise with women who might be in a similar situation – or even build bridges with women's campaigns. This oversight means that even when the movement hits upon real issues – male sexual abuse, for example – its tactics usually fall short of what the issue deserves.
Of course, there were exceptions to this at the ICMI. When a male domestic violence victim praised recent information campaigns for being more inclusive and helping more victims come forward, you started to think there might be some utility in a men's rights movement – at least, one started from scratch, untainted by what it has now come to represent. And for all its faults, the movement is also genuinely invested in men's mental health.
Often, though, the discussion has a habit of falling to the lowest common denominator. The language can be dehumanising, whether deliberate or accidental (men, in general, are "men", whereas women are usually "females"), and you're never too far away from a cringeworthy or problematic interjection. Towards the end of the weekend, for example, one sympathiser of the Men Going Their Own Way movement – which advocates men avoiding relationships with women – questioned whether a speaker was too quick to attribute a particular woman's behaviour to feminism, rather than the nature of women themselves.
It's attitudes likes this which make the movement (not to mention the misogyny and its caricature of feminists as angry misandrists) hard to take seriously – and which will ultimately harm those it wants to protect.