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'These are communities which are extremely violently misogynistic': Investigating the world of incels, pick-up artists and men who hate women

We speak to the author Laura Bates about what she discovered in some of the dark – and not so dark – recesses of the internet.

THE INTERNET IS a vast place. Within a few clicks you can be discovering things you never knew about, or having discussions with strangers who feel like new best friends.

But all of this has a dark side too. It barely needs to be pointed out that not everyone using the internet has good intentions. Some want to cause pain to others. And there are those with controversial or even dangerous views who can easily reach new followers and friends.

British-based author and activist Laura Bates has long been aware of gender inequality in real life, thanks to her work with the Everyday Sexism Project. As part of this, people catalogue the incidences of sexism that they have encountered. Bates knows that misogyny lurks around corners, not just online.

But for her latest book, she takes a step into the world of online misogyny. Men Who Hate Women enters the spheres where hating – and often deliberately avoiding – women is a way of life for certain males. The book, says Bates, is a way of letting people know that this behaviour exists.

‘Most people have simply never heard of them’

“These groups and communities have been on my radar for some time,” Bates tells TheJournal.ie. “It’s this odd thing where most people have simply never heard of them, but as a woman online, you’re more likely to have come across them. And as a feminist writer or activist, you almost definitely will have been in contact with them because they come to you.”

She’s seen the behaviour of such groups nauseatingly up close. “I’ve been receiving rape threats, death threats, sometimes a few hundred messages a day from people who are often members of these groups, for the best part of the last decade,” she says.

Yet Bates isn’t afraid of tackling the issues they bring up head-on. “There was an argument certainly earlier on that it was best not to give them the oxygen of publicity, which I completely understood and sympathised with,” she says. 

In her work in schools however, she kept meeting young boys who she says had been the “victims” of such groups. “Who had absolutely been victims of what if it were any other kind of group we would call online grooming or radicalisation. That they have been very much convinced by extremists [of] very misogynistic, violently anti-women points of view,” she explains.

She started to realise that the influence of these online groups was spreading, “and that it was actually starting to emerge in the mainstream in ways that weren’t recognisable to most people, because most people don’t know that these groups even exists”.

It was at this point she started to see it as an “urgent” problem that is “having a much greater impact on our society I think than people realise”. So she decided to see what these groups were doing – and concocted the character ‘Alex’ who wanted to become one of these men.

‘Alex’ infiltrated groups such as the MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way, who don’t want anything to do with women. They spend time online discussing, ironically, women, and how awful they are. This irony is discussed by Bates in the book – that often these groups dedicate their time to the one thing they claim they want to avoid. 

Alex also entered the world of PUAs, or pick-up artists, who believe the best way to bag a woman is to ‘neg’ her by bombarding her with criticism. Then there are the ‘incels’, or involuntary celibates, who blame women for their own barren sex lives. 

Along the way, Bates looks at what she believes is the “radicalisation” of young men through the internet, which can result in behaviour like that of Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a killing spree. The motivation was allegedly his rejection by a woman. 

She also discusses how some of the messages of these groups end up filtering into in the mainstream through high-profile commentators. 

“I think many people in the public eye are very good at kind of issuing dog whistles to extremist communities, whilst retaining this claim of possible deniability,” she says, describing how information “gets smuggled up from the bottom end of the chain” and readied for public consumption through viral videos, and then comes out of the mouths of mainstream media commentators.

By this time, “it’s caveated and phrased in such a way that it’s, it’s not quite linkable to the extremists directly”, she says.

“So, if you look at Trump telling Congress’ women of colour that they need to go home to their own countries, or talking about caravans of Mexican immigrants being full of rapists – what he’s referring to are theories that the far right and misogynistic communities online are obsessed with. And they take these kinds of oblique references as confirmation and support for their worldview and that galvanises and emboldens them enormously.”

She continues: “So if you’re online and you’re immersed in communities which are telling you that women lie about rape and white men are the real victims in today’s society, that sounds immediately a little bit less extreme, if you’ve heard women coming forward with sexual harassment allegations being referred to as a witchhunt on [the radio] or if you’ve watched a mainstream television programme, where the host is ranting about not being emasculated in today’s world and there’s a war on men.”

Men Who Hate Women is a sobering and shocking look at corners of the internet that Bates’ readers will no doubt never have entered willingly. 

Vulnerable victims?

“I was very aware of the fact that these groups often complain that they’re misrepresented or misunderstood or mischaracterised and I wanted to really make sure that I took the time to get very deeply immersed within the communities to really try and find out for myself,” she says of creating ‘Alex’. 

“There hasn’t been much written about them at all, but what does get written about them tends to either excuse them as a group of vulnerable victims, who really should be pitied instead of feared, or a group of kind of monsters who are just evil, inherently evil,” she adds.

“And I wanted to try and get deeper than that. I wanted to understand what the communities were like, how they treated their own, how they would treat me if I was one of their own, rather than somebody they already saw as an adversary.”

She says she was “open to having my mind changed” and that she wanted to be fair, to not make assumptions. She became a member of a huge number of different forums, chat rooms and secret groups “to really get a sense of the full spider’s web”.

What she found was “really, really shocking”.

“It very quickly became clear that these people who complain that they’re misrepresented or that one bad apple is used to [beat them] all with the same brush, wasn’t the case at all. That you know, these are communities which are extremely violently misogynistic. That actually the arguments they make about women deserving to be raped and beaten and murdered are extremely common, that they’re very desensitised to that kind of rhetoric,” she says.

She found that inciting offline violence and encouraging one another to kill and rape women “is completely common and normalised”.

What shocked her also was how easy it was to come across this content – it didn’t necessitate going into the Dark Web. 

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Societal problems

For all of the nastiness she has discovered, Bates has empathy for the reasons why people turn to them.

“The great tragedy of these communities is that they have hit on very real and urgent societal problems, ” she says. “Instead of trying to solve them, they focus all of their energy on encouraging hate and violence.

“They identify real problems like for example, insufficient services for male victims of sexual violence, but instead of campaigning or fixing any energy on trying to procure these services, instead they focus on bringing lawsuits and trying to close down women’s domestic violence shelters. They spend all their time and energy attacking feminists instead of trying to support them.”

She says that the worst part of it “is that a lot of very vulnerable men who end up driven into their clutches in the first place have been desperately damaged by really constricting and toxic societal expectations, outdated stereotypes of masculinity”.

“And these groups double down on exactly those stereotypes.”

Some of the activities she’s talking about take place on social media sites. Are these powerful multinationals doing enough to fight this behaviour?

“I think they pay lip service to it,” says Bates. “And I think they could do a huge amount more if they wanted to.” She doesn’t believe that the will is there. ”I think that they’re very focused on profit, and on their bottom line, and I think they realise that a vast percentage of their users might be members of these communities that are engaging in this kind of thing.”

Doing this work meant getting face-to-face with horrifying comments about herself online, such as ones where people wrote about wanting to cause her injury or sexual abuse.

“It’s really, really hard,” she says of having to read these things. “It was a very difficult and upsetting thing to be searching for some material that was specifically about me.”

But like all her work, Bates is concerned less about that and more about trying to bring about change through informing people of the toxic and dangerous behaviour of people in society.

“I think for me it helped knowing that there was a positive purpose to it. I was doing it for a reason and that hopefully it was going to make a difference,” she says.

“I might not have the answers, but at the moment, the vast majority of people have never even heard of this stuff. And we certainly can’t solve it at that invisibility, so maybe I can help people to see it. At least that’s a step in the right direction.”

Men Who Hate Women is available now. 

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