The Women of the Men's Rights Movement
Inside the online world of honey badgers, trolls, and feminist threats.
It was just after she'd had her first child that Janet Bloomfield realized she didn't want to go back to work and pay some nanny to raise her kids. She had gone to college to study film theory and assumed, like practically every American woman does, that she would start a career before marrying and having a family, but that wasn't how things turned out. She met a man, fell in love, and stayed at home.
She didn't feel ashamed of this decision, nor did she feel denied in any way—a close college friend of hers nicknamed Pixie had wound up in a similar situation when her son was diagnosed with some severe health issues. But other people, especially other women, apparently had a problem with Janet's choices. She felt that her friends were disdainful of her and thought she was crazy or stupid to rely on a man for her income; they insinuated that her husband would "trade her in for a younger woman," and that she would wind up broke and abandoned.
Janet and Pixie started writing letters back and forth while Pixie's son was in intensive care, where Pixie wasn't allowed to bring her cell phone. They talked about how housewives had fallen out of cultural favor, and about how Janet was a "victim of parental alienation," as she would later say—her parents had gone through a vicious divorce and her mother had turned her and her three brothers against her father. In October 2012 these paper and ink musings became a blog, JudgyBitch.com, with Janet writing rants and Pixie doing the graphics and maintaining the back end.
Trading cards courtesy of Europa Phoenix, who draws illustrations for the Honey Badger Podcast.
As she was starting the website, Janet was searching for answers as to why her peers disliked stay-at-home moms and why her mother had had the power to separate her from her father. She found herself exploring a part of the internet that was full of complicated theories about social hierarchies, propaganda, and gender bias, in the process reading story after story of men being discriminated against in family courts and custody battles. Respect for traditional family structures was waning. The very concept of the family, in fact, was now regarded as a means by which men oppress women.
As she read more, disparate threads started clicking together—all these things were the result of a systematic vilification of the male gender. The misinformation, the lies, the poison, it all came back to radical feminism. Even her film-theory courses had taught her to watch movies through a feminist filter. She gradually acquired a set of beliefs with the help of a loosely organized online community of thinkers and writers called the Men's Rights Movement (MRM).
Her new worldview ran counter to the way people were supposed to think and talk about gender and society. As she used her website to strike back against feminism, people got angry, which was fine with her—the more animosity she got for pushing boundaries, the more boundaries she pushed.
Janet Bloomfield. All photos by the author
Today Janet is a slender blond just entering middle age who's far more affable in person than on the web, where she is fierce, self-assured, and cutting. Even as she adopted her strident views, she didn't share them with her neighbors in her small town out of fear of the imagined consequences. "My husband could lose his job," she told me. "I don't need all my kids' teachers, and all the parents of their little friends, treating them differently because of my views."
In 2013, Janet found a welcoming home for those views in A Voice for Men (AVFM), a popular MRM website run by a man named Paul Elam, who founded it in 2009 and has become known for his provocative stances and language. She started to comment on some posts, and after reading her blog, Elam ended up reaching out to Janet about republishing some of her work, giving her a platform.
Other women were popping up on the site at Elam's invitation, and he began referring to some of these feMRAs—female men's rights activists—as Honey Badgers, a reference to the viral YouTube clip about the indomitable "crazy nastyass" creature that fights off snakes and bees and "doesn't give a shit."
Later that year, three of these women formed the Honey Badger Brigade, a website and podcast on which they discussed men's rights, feminism, and geek culture. Janet became a regular on the podcast, putting her at the heart of the YouTube channels, blogs, vlogs, subreddits, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts that make up the MRM. Though the movement is all about defending men and boys from social misconceptions, discrimination, and feminism, in an odd twist it's the female activists—pissed off, extremely well read, and spoiling for an argument—who are driving the conversation.
Portraits of some Honey Badgers on a table at the men's rights conference in June
The origins of the Men's Rights Movement are murky. If you go back you can find mentions of groups like the League for Men's Rights in late 19th-century London (it advocated against the "encroachment of women") and Der Bund für Männerrechte, or the Federation for Men's Rights, which formed in Vienna in 1926 and focused on divorce and paternity rights but also "fighting all the monstrosities that have come from the emancipation of woman."
The modern versions of Der Bund für Männerrechte formed as a backlash to second-wave feminism and the burn-your-bra career gals of the 1970s it inspired. The most notable organization of the era was the National Coalition for Men, which still exists today and seeks to "promote awareness of how gender-based expectations limit men legally, socially, and psychologically." The idea that men are oppressed by society was later championed by Warren Farrell, whose 1993 book The Myth of Male Power inspired Elam and many other current-day men's rights activists (MRAs).
The most common concerns of the MRM include:
(1) The family court system, which activists say frequently forces men to pay too much alimony while not considering their feelings when awarding the custody of children;
(2) Government programs that assist only women rather than both genders, especially those that give aid to female victims of sexual assault—MRAs claim that men who suffer the same abuse are often ignored;
(3) The right to opt out of raising a child, since, some MRAs say, women can opt out of a pregnancy;
(4) False rape accusations, which MRAs think don't get enough attention from a culture increasingly inclined to believe women who say horrible things about men;
(5) Fighting back against radical feminism, the ultimate evil as far as the movement is concerned.
These aren't mainstream issues, but the modern-day MRM has acquired a constituency online that its forebears couldn't have dreamed of. "We are growing exponentially because of the difference in modern communications," Janet told me.
The internet, of course, has made it possible for people to broadcast their words to the entire globe without the restrictions that come with finding a publisher or being part of a larger organization. The floodgates are open, and everyone is free to write and disseminate long-winded manifestos, form tough-talking groups, and break away from them into increasingly splintered factions when disagreements arise.
Thus, you've got run-of-the-mill MRAs like most of the readers of AVFM, but you've also got a constellation of related online phenomena: the pickup artists (PUAs), who concoct elaborate systems for interacting with and seducing women; the anti-PUAs, who feel ripped off by PUA gurus promising to get shy young men laid but don't deliver (they achieved notoriety recently because Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, frequented one of their forums); Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOWs), who have vowed to stay away from women entirely, often after being sexually traumatized or otherwise abused; and Red Pill, a catchall term for those who see the world as being dominated by women and oppressive to men, and exhibit some of the most extreme language of anyone affiliated with the MRM. Not all of the men who adopt these labels belong to organizations, but the most prominent group in the US is unquestionably AVFM.
Karen Straughan, also known as GirlWritesWhat, is one of the most popular polemicists in this manosphere. She has more than 67,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, and her 2011 vlog on "Feminism and the Disposable Male" has been watched more than a million times, making her royalty among feMRAs. By day, she is a 41-year-old divorced waitress and mother of three. The self-educated bisexual woman used to make ends meet by writing erotica for women, and she discovered the MRM when she and a few other authors decided to troll a men's issues forum—where she had something of a road-to-Damascus moment when she realized she had more in common with the forum dwellers than her fellow trolls.
You're probably familiar with men's rights and the backlash it inspires among feminists and people who think MRAs merely use new language to justify ugly old beliefs. Hardly a month goes by without a wave of semi-prominent blog posts about the latest controversy ginned up by the MRM and its opponents, and the more venom that gets thrown at them, the more the MRAs—and the Honey Badgers in particular—spit back.
For instance, I realized during one of my conversations with Janet that she was the author of a particularly fucked-up post titled "Why Don't We Have a Dumb Fucking Whore Registry? Now That Would Be Justice," a piece she penned in response to the much-publicized 2013 trial of two small-town football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl who had passed out after drinking at a party. "That is a tragedy for the boys, for justice and for the victims of actual rape," she wrote of the verdict, adding: "Comparing a stupid, drunk, helmet-chasing whore who gets fingered while passed out to an actual rape victim is completely and utterly absurd."
When I talked to her about the case, she used it to illustrate the need for women to be cautious about what situations they get themselves into. She told me she rejects the "feminist notion that girls should be able to behave however they want and nothing bad will happen to them." Janet went on: "If we try to tell our girls to be aware of the dangers out there and be responsible, we are said to be slut-shaming or victim blaming."
We managed an academic dialogue on the subject during our conversation, which is quite rare, as both MRAs and their detractors tend to reach for hyperbole immediately upon encountering one another. "There is very little willingness on the part of gender feminists to engage in real debate," said Kristal Garcia, a Honey Badger who has had irreparable rifts with several friends over her involvement in men's rights.
It may seem strange that Kristal would accuse the other side of being unreasonable when her own team includes people who would refer to a teenage sex-abuse victim as a "whore"—but those within the MRM say they're merely responding to all the mud that gets slung at them, and men in general, by feminists. Inside the internet bubble they inhabit, that's simply how you talk.
When I first encountered Janet and the Honey Badgers on the internet, like many people I found a lot of what they said outrageous, even disturbing. But I couldn't stop watching the online back-and-forth between these women and the feminists who abhorred them. The ridiculous internet gender-war circus was better than anything on Netflix, so I kept on clicking, prepared to root for the good guy and boo the villain.
As I read their posts and watched their vlogs, it struck me that the feMRAs, especially Karen and Janet, were articulating their theses surprisingly well, more so than many of their male equivalents. Like most MRAs, they're essentially egalitarians who are in favor of discarding traditional gender roles; Janet is a staunch liberal who supports LGTB rights, legal abortion, and civil liberties for all. I wanted to find out how these clearly intelligent women could say the things that they did, and Dean Esmay, AVFM's managing editor, helped me contact them after vetting me over the phone. Soon I was chatting with the Honey Badgers about everything from Jay-Z and Solange to Sharia law to rape allegations. I eventually got invited to the Honey Badger Brigade podcast by Alison Tieman, one of the group's founders, and came to know a lot of feMRAs.
It's unpleasant to defend people who throw around words like cunt, bitch, and whore while talking about gender, but I must admit that in my conversations with them the Honey Badgers drew my attention to things I had never thought about before and even convinced me some of their grievances are legitimate. I now believe male circumcision could be described as "genital mutilation" and we shouldn't be so casual about performing it. I also think that society is too eager to accept women being physically violent in relationships, and that we need to start talking about due process in regard to rape allegations, even if the conversation is uncomfortable.
Almost against my will, I found myself liking the group and marveling at their diversity. There's Alison, who is sweet, even meek, in the flesh—she tends to draw her shoulders up and lean forward like she's about to blush—but in front of the webcam she's confident, funny, and expressive. There's Kristal, a voluptuous black woman who vlogs from her pink-walled apartment in New York City; in a previous career as a sex worker she discovered that her male clients "couldn't be themselves in the outside world" and that "sex shaming mostly comes from other women." There's also a pair of younger Badgers: Jess Kay, who looks like a bubbly alterna-rock chick (she has verses from three different Incubus songs tattooed on her arm) and who got into issues facing boys after her son was born, and Rachel Edwards, who started a "nerdcast" offshoot of Honey Badger Radio to discuss geek culture from a feMRA perspective.
These women live mostly on the internet, and many track YouTube hits, retweets, and blog visits closely. JudgyBitch.com has had "2.3 million views in just under two years," Janet boasted to me. "On a bad day, I get 3,000 hits; on a good day, it goes up to 5,000."
At any given time, female authors have at least three articles on AVFM's front page, along with a link to the latest Honey Badger Brigade podcast and a banner for Karen's YouTube channel. That's a heavy female presence for a site dedicated to men and boys, and Janet has struggled with the question of whether their prominence helps or hurts. "It's a tricky knife's edge to walk," she said of being a feMRA.
Jess seems to be a bit more pragmatic. "Unfortunately society listens to women more than men," she told me, "and if we can take advantage of that to get some equality, well, then, good!"
A more pressing issue—at least when it comes to getting the mainstream to take the MRM seriously—is the insane heights the online rhetoric often reaches. For instance, when I first googled "men's rights" and "MRA," one of the first things that came up was something Elam had written, a "satirical response" to a piece on Jezebel, the feminist website that's a common MRM foil. "In the name of equality and fairness, I am proclaiming October to be 'Bash a Violent Bitch Month,'" Elam wrote in the post, which was originally published in 2010. He went on, emphasizing that he wasn't serious but clearly intent on stirring up shit:
I'd like to make it the objective for the remainder of this month, and all the Octobers that follow, for men who are being attacked and physically abused by women—to beat the living shit out of them. I don't mean subdue them, or deliver an open handed pop on the face to get them to settle down. I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall till the smugness of beating on someone because you know they won't fight back drains from their nose with a few million red corpuscles.
Now, am I serious about this?
No. Not because it's wrong. It's not wrong. Every one should have the right to defend themselves.
But it isn't worth the time behind bars or the abuse of anger management training that men must endure if they are uppity enough to defend themselves from female attackers.
Though this sort of language probably helped AVFM get called out for misogyny by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012, the general consensus among the MRAs I've encountered is that bombast like Elam's is worth it—the tone might alienate a few potential allies, but it also brings a lot of attention to the issues. (In the case of the quote above, the issue is that the media treats violence against men as a joke.)
"There is a lot of over-the-top, strange, hyperbolic, polemical, deliberately provocative stuff in this movement," Janet wrote to me one day. "Do I agree with everything anyone who calls themselves an MRA publishes? Are you fucking nuts?!? Of course not. But I realize that those early, angry movers were utterly essential to the movement emerging. And now, we are in a different place in the dialogue and the conversation needs to shift a little."
One of the more notable results of this "shift" is that more and more activists have referred to their cause as the Men's Human Rights Movement in an effort to emphasize a link to the broader notion of human rights.
"There have to be reasonable and rational calm voices in this movement." Karen said. "But it's not going to be very effective if that's the vanguard." Janet, Karen, and the rest of the Honey Badger Brigade themselves at the forefront of that vanguard, the tip of the spear that will pierce through all the illusions of feminism, one diatribe at a time.
In December, Elam announced that he and other MRA leaders were organizing an MRM conference—the movement's most significant IRL manifestation to date—at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Detroit, a choice he said was symbolic. "If we wanted to find a city that was an iconic testament to masculinity, we'd need look no further than Detroit," Elam wrote. "It is a city teetering and struggling for its footing. It is seeking, like many men, to find its balance and its place in the world again. Also like men, it is in trouble as most of the world looks the other way."
News of the gathering outraged feminists and other MRA antagonists, and on June 7, a few hundred people took to the streets of downtown Detroit to protest the shit-talking bloggers. They called on Hilton to refuse to accommodate the group they claimed promotes "hate speech." AVFM announced it was getting death threats from feminists (a claim the group's opponents viewed with skepticism), crowdfunded more than $25,000 to cover additional security it said was necessary, then said the conference was going to have more attendees than the Hilton could deal with. So the conference decamped from the Motor City and all its symbolic heft to a VFW hall in St. Clair Shores, a suburb to the north.
Alison responded to the hubbub with an emotional lament on her YouTube channel. "Even discussing men's problems—this society can't handle it, can't tolerate it," she said, close to tears. "How is that a patriarchy?"
The conference would be the first time for most of the Honey Badgers to see one another in person. It was also their first opportunity to meet Elam and other MRM legends like Erin Pizzey and Canadian senator Anne Cools, who both spent the 1960s and 70s opening up women's shelters before breaking from feminism and spending years arguing for paternal rights, shared parenting, and recognition of the fact that mothers, not just fathers, hurt their children.
Before the event started, Elam told his followers in a blog post that members of the press and "ideological opponents" of the MRM "will be listening, eavesdropping, and if they can, gathering things to harm us with," and warned that "ANYONE sitting around trash-talking women, men, making violent statements, even jokingly, will be brought to the attention of security who will issue ONE warning (or less). After that, they will be directed by security to leave."
This was clearly just a PR strategy, however—Elam had no interest in toning down the rhetoric to appeal to Middle America.
"No one at AVFM is seeking approval from mainstream sensibilities," he told me. "I don't do political activism. I don't lobby politicians. The only thing I do is make an appeal to the consciousness of men and women. For me this is not about getting laws passed. I don't want 'the Violence Against Men Act.' I don't think those things are solutions. My goal is simply to allow men and women an alternative worldview."
This raises a tricky question: Under all that page-view-grabbing vitriol, what do MRAs want? Are they trying to change the world or just speaking to an increasingly embittered choir? It seems unlikely that the MRM, in its current state, will metastasize into political viability, partly because so many activists have an aversion to how politics is practiced in the real world. Trying to get legislation passed would inevitably mean softening the tone and would force the MRM to compromise on some issues. And it's way more fun to cause a ruckus.
From left: Hannah Wallen, Kristal Garcia, Rachel Edwards, Alison Tieman, and Karen Straughan at the AVFM conference
Whatever the goals of the conference, the reality didn't match up with the ambitious ideals of the MRM's countless vlogs and articles. Tickets to the two-day event cost $300, but it felt low-rent and poorly organized. Rows of fluorescent lights glared down on cracked linoleum and the 200-odd people who parked themselves in hard-backed chairs for nine hours of lectures punctuated with a few short breaks and lunch. No refreshments were provided except for a catered dinner on the first day and pizza for lunch on the second, both of which came with a suggested donation.
But to the attendees, many of whom rarely get a chance to interact face to face, it might as well have been a World's Fair. Janet spent her days at the back of the hall manning the social media hub, tweeting rapid-fire updates, arguing with MRM critics, hashtagging #noMRA, and trying to provoke feminists by keeping track of how many times she used the word whore.The Honey Badger Brigade, meanwhile, sat in a mostly empty room upstairs, their brightly colored merchandise standing out against the wood paneling like a rainbow lollipop. There were buttons and T-shirts created by Alison, who works as an artist and designs the Brigade's graphics, and trading cards that featured heroic renderings of the Badgers by an artist named Europa Phoenix. Janet and the rest might have been anonymous in their hometowns, but they were bona fide celebrities in the VFW hall.
On the second day of the conference, Karen took the stage and announced, "My name is Karen, and I am an anti-feminist." As she began breaking down the "historical inaccuracies" of feminist thought, it was clear she was a rock star, a big fish in a small pond of angry men. In the audience, the other Honey Badgers sat together wearing white T-shirts printed with her face. "We needed an assertion of the rights of women," Karen conceded, but added, "We do not need a women's movement that blames men." There was wild applause.
Afterward, the Honey Badgers returned home, in most cases to lives in which they can't express their views for fear of becoming social pariahs. Kristal in particular was disheartened. "I was finally able to have conversations on men's human rights, equity, and egalitarianism without someone jumping to incorrect conclusions," she told me. Now it was back to the blogosphere.
Yet their work online is bearing fruit, a few conversions at a time. At the conference I got to talking to Rachel, the young Honey Badger, about how she'd joined the movement, and she recalled the first time she saw Karen's videos—as she watched, she told me, she thought, Oh, man, I want to be like her when I grow up.
Alex Brook Lynn is a filmmaker and journalist from New York City.