Take Two Red Pills, Call Me In the Morning: The Sudden and Surprising Rise of the Men’s Rights Movement
Everything I am about to tell you is, to the best of my knowledge, 100% true.
Everything I am about to describe comes from texts I have read with my own eyes, interviews I have heard with my own ears, conversations where I was both present and engaged. All that I write here, I write accurately – or at least as accurately as I am able.
But before I say anything – before you hear what I have to say, before you judge my actions, before you decide the degree to which I am right or wrong – know this:
I have held both the red and the blue pills in my hand, but I have swallowed the blue.
This summer I was commissioned to do a story for Newsweek on the Men’s Rights Movement. I had pitched the idea after having received dozens of mysterious emails from men I had never heard of who all encouraged me to “take the red pill.”
At first, I had no idea why I was getting the emails. I knew the red pill reference to The Matrix, of course. If you haven’t seen the movie, at one point the protagonist is given the choice between swallowing a blue pill, or a red pill. If he chooses the blue, he will wake up and realize that the world is run in the same humdrum fashion he had always assumed. If chooses the red, he will be shown the Truth, and understand that his reality is an illusion, that he is a slave, and that a revolution is needed to overthrow the entire world order.
As it turned out, the emails were a response to a post I had written on Ken Hoinsky, the guy who got kicked off Kickstarter for funding a book on how to bed women for the 23-and-never-been-kissed set. The men who had written me were all part of the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), which is perhaps best described as a confederacy of somewhat disjointed causes that share a deep-seated hatred of feminism. The Red Pill/Blue Pill reference is the way that many inside the MRM both self-identify and identify those outside the tribe. The actual email that got me hooked was the one that came with this message:
“All you know is the BLUE PILL. Until you KNOW the RED PILL you exist in the world of SHADOWS and LIES. You are a SLAVE to the MATRIARCHY. Break your CHAINS, join the FREEDOM-FIGHTING men LISTENING and SEEING, and you will learn the TRUTH and be FREE.”
The email came with about a dozen links to various MRM sites, which of course I immediately began to explore. (Seriously, how could I not?)
What started out as a quick article on the movement’s cause célèbre last June — (Facebook’s policy change regarding offensive images) — turned into something larger and entirely unexpected. To a great degree, much of this is thanks to the first person I interviewed, someone who doesn’t even show up in the final Daily Beast article at all, a young man named Victor Zen.
I’m not sure what I expected when I reached out to Zen, but whatever it was, he surprised. An earnest, college-aged man, Zen is as gentle as he is thoughtful. Those hoping for Zen to turn out to be a crazed, violent brute that hates all women would be disappointed, I think.
“I’m going to apologize in advance,” he said sheepishly when we first talked, “but I may have to step away during the interview. My mom just had surgery, and sometimes she needs help with… stuff.” He didn’t say what “stuff” was, but he didn’t have to; I’ve had to take care of infirmed parents myself. Trust me when I say it’s not the kind of thing you’d graciously do for a woman if you hated her.
My experience with Zen that afternoon mirrored a lot of the interviews I would later have with other MRM members. Each ended up being polite and professional, and almost all were thoroughly likable individuals. Most (but not all) had gone through some horrific life experiences that had led them to becoming committed to the movement. In Victor’s case, it was a shockingly acrimonious relationship between his parents. W.F. Price, who plays a fairly large role in the article, traces his activism back to a particularly nasty custody battle. One interviewee described being physically abused by his mother. His horrific description of her use of cigarette butts was disclosed in a casual, matter-of-fact tone. He only choked up when speaking of the indifference people show when he reveals his trauma. He now identifies himself as a Man Going His Own Way, an MRM descriptor for male separatists who wish to cut social ties with women in general. Another middle-aged man described having trusted his once-fiancée enough to make her a co-signer on all of his bank and investment accounts. She ended up being a con artist who liquidated most of his assets before disappearing.
The other common thread was this: each MRM member I interviewed made a variety of sensational-sounding claims that required fact-checking. Most of those claims were debunked by research. Some examples: Four people I spoke with told me that married women don’t qualify for welfare, and because of this working class women have no choice but to leave their husbands in order to qualify for public assistance. Three told me that college orientations today give detailed instructions to women on how they can pay for college tuition by trumping up rape charges and following them up with a civil suit. Two told me that a divorce attorney who doesn’t advise a female client to lie on the stand and fake a physical abuse charge is liable for malpractice. One told me that feminists have forced Webster’s and Oxford alike to change their dictionary definition of rape to one that is gender-specific. Another explained that not only is the United Nations encouraging circumcision to fight AIDS (true, it turns out), it is telling circumcised males they don’t need a condom to protect themselves against STDs (actually the opposite of true, it turns out). Yet another told me that the BBC airs programs that advocate the elimination of men in society. Pretty much every one of them believes that sexual harassment law states that your employer has to fire you if you say anything a woman colleague does not like. Everyone, it seems, had at least one (but usually many, even as much as a dozen) outrageous-sounding claims that were easily debunked.
But here’s the thing: A lot of the outrageous claims proffered by MRM activists actually turned out to be true.
The Daily Beast article deals with quite a few such claims (and I will be writing about these issues in more detail in the months to come). Notable examples of things I was sure would turn out to be false but ended up being true include:
- In the United States, more men are victims of rape each year than women.
- In many parts of the U.S., men who are victims of domestic or sexual abuse have no access to resources such as safe houses; in many places (including, as it turns out, my home town of Portland, OR) the laws and policies that enable resources for at-risk victims are written in such a gender-specific way as to only apply to women.
- If you fall behind on your child support payments because you have lost your job, you can be sent to prison – and in your trial you are not entitled to legal representation.
- If an adult woman molests a male child, and that molestation results in a pregnancy, that boy can be forced to pay child support for his offspring once he becomes a wage-earning adult.
- As I noted above, the U.N. is pushing for mandatory circumcision in third world countries – and this push has been publically applauded and encouraged by Democratic Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton.
As it turns out, most the MRM’s opponents actually agree that there are a lot of cracks in the system where men (especially low-income men) are at risk at having their civil rights and safety violated. However, no one aside from the MRM seems willing to actually run with any of these balls. Which means that if you are, for example, a male at risk of sexual assault looking for a political white knight, the MRM isn’t just your best available option — they’re your only available option.
Unfortunately for that at-risk male, the MRM might just have the single worst political instincts of any civil rights groups I have ever encountered. In fact, as you will see if you read the Beast article, the movement’s insistence on pushing aside its more moderate leaders in favor of its most comically vitriolic makes it untenable for a mainstream politician or policy maker to align themselves with MRM causes. (Imagine if you will the effectiveness of the 1970s feminist movement if it had publically rallied around its Andrea Dworkins and marginalized its Gloria Steinems. Or if the Civil RIghts Movement had bet all of its chips on Stokley Carmichael and left Martin Luther King, Jr. as an unknown without a flock.)
Many of the MRM’s critics (and believe me, there are a hell of a lot of them) worry that having the MRM in the public spotlight might be damaging to women. I highly doubt this, if only because I question the movement’s ability to persuade anyone outside of its own sphere. Which isn’t to say I don’t worry that the movement might be damaging; I do. I worry that the MRM might be doing the most damage to the very people it sets out to help. Public policy changes need either mainstream public support or heavy political clout. As it stands, the MRM has neither, and, worse, does not appear have any interest in taking even the smallest steps to change that fact.
Indeed, the piece over at the Beast is largely the story of two men, who most of those I interviewed identified as the ones most likely to be leading the entire movement ten years from now, as the MRM’s old guard begins to step aside. Both these men, I must say, are incredibly fascinating – though they are so in very different ways. Each is equally committed to the same cause, but the actual paths each takes in the name of that cause could not be more disparate. As it turns out, there really are a lot of at-risk men that need the MRM to succeed in making meaningful changes to public policy. Whether or not the movement is able to accomplish this, I believe, depends largely on which of the two men the movement’s rank-and-file ultimately decides to follow.
The story was actually filed and originally scheduled for publication in August, and by then was slated to be published simultaneously by both Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Then, before it was to be published, Newsweek was purchased by IBT Media and the Newsweek-Daily Beast relationship was severed. So for the past few months my story has sat in the freezer, so to speak, while the wrangling of who actually owned the story was worked out behind the scenes. (In a way, it sort of felt like my story was the child in a divorce custody hearing.) The Beast won out, which is fitting. The editor I worked with, Katie Baker, was from the Beast side of Newsweek/Daily Beast; furthermore, she was the article’s champion early on and was unbelievably awesome throughout the entire experience. She even gave me access to Newsweek minions to help dox people so that I might interview them, and to run down the barrage of claims that needed to be fact-checked for the story. (Note: No one we doxed internally was outed; these were purely fact-finding searches.)
Speaking of Katie being super space awesome, I should take a moment to thank some people whose help was pretty invaluable. And believe me, help was definitely welcome: In the course of researching the story, I spoke with over a dozen of the movement’s members and leaders, as well as many of their friends, family members, and co-workers. I consulted with professional advocates for male causes, social workers, media executives, law enforcement officials, family law attorneys, and government statisticians. I heard from many of the women who have been individually targeted as enemies of the movement and who have faced its wrath, and a few women who are among the movement’s most ardent supporters. Along the way I racked up over forty hours of recorded interviews, watched over twenty hours of video tape, read eight books recommended by MRM activists, pursued hundreds (maybe thousands?) of online posts, and read every single Reddit comment going back five years by one of the article’s main subjects.
When I look at all the hours that went into the piece, I’m not sure it could have been written at all without the help of Katie, the staff at Newsweek and the folks at the Daily Beast, as well as OT’s own Conor Williams and my own personal editor of choice, Jason Kuznicki. There’s not a person on that list that doesn’t get a beer the next time I see them.
If you would like to read the final Daily Beast piece, you can find it here.
 Zen told me that if you put up a picture on Facebook that advocated raping a woman it would be taken down by the moderators, but if you put up one that advocated castration for men it would be allowed to stand. I had seen Zen make a similar claim in a post on the website A Voice for Men. I actually tested that one out by finding a Facebook post that joked about castration (an hour of my life I’ll never get back) and reporting it to the moderators. When I checked back in less than an hour, the castration joke had been removed. I followed up with Zen later with my findings, and to his credit he admitted he had been wrong; to his major credit when I looked back at his own post about Facebook later, he had updated it with the new information. All of which is to say that if the MRM is smart, it will recognize it needs more Victor Zens in its ranks.