Belt Magazine presents an excerpt from distinguished reporter Jeff Sharlet’s disturbing, brilliant, and important new book about the threat of American fascism The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War.
By Jeff Sharlet
“What is ‘the manosphere’?” I asked Paul Elam around three a.m. one morning. This was not a factual question. It was an existential one.
I already knew that “the manosphere” referred to an online network, vast and like the universe constantly expanding, each little twinkling star in its firmament dedicated—obviously—to men. Men and their problems. Usually with women. Some galaxies of the manosphere were dedicated to self-declared pickup artists, who want to help ordinary men trick women into having sex with them; other solar systems dealt earnestly with child custody and the Adderalization of rambunctious boys. There were constellations of MGTOWs, “Men Going Their Own Way,” separatists and onanists and recluses. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of websites and forums large and small, many openly hostile—Sluthate, Angry Harry, the Nice Guy (he’s not), the Spearhead—and many more that were brutally lewd, such as Return of Kings, published by the author of a popular series of country guides with titles such as Bang Ukraine: How to Sleep with Ukrainian Women, in Ukraine.
As the flagship political site of the movement, Elam’s A Voice for Men functioned as the closest thing there was to a center, an intelligence, a superego to the bloggy manosphere id of lust and fury. Just how big the whole thing was, nobody could say. More than fringe, less than mainstream, but at three a.m., sitting with Elam in his hotel room, I wasn’t looking for numbers. Size didn’t matter. What I wanted to know from Elam was, what does it all mean?
Elam had just wrapped up a conference, “an eye-popper,” he said, his first gathering in the real world. “You can’t fight titty hall,” he likes to say, but now, he thought, he was doing so. He was, he believed, “fucking shit up.” That was his slogan: “Fuck their shit up.” “They” being feminists. 6’8″, 290 pounds, with the beard of John Brown and the rumbling voice of James Earl Jones, Elam, whose name just so happens to be “male” backwards, wanted to be a “provocateur.” Responding to a feminist critic, he once wrote, “the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection.” But that kind of talk is just for show, he said. He noted that he used to be a counselor. What he was doing, he thought, was a kind of therapy.
He wanted me to understand, so he drew a map of the manosphere, alluding to history as he sketched, its roots in the men’s liberation movement of the 1970s and ’80s and the New Age men’s movement of the ’90s, “Iron John,” men playing drums in the woods. The new movement came of age online, when Elam first started posting under the name Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey’s midlife-crisis character in the 1999 film American Beauty. The movement had since fed on fact and delusion: 9/11, perceived as insult to American manhood, and the very long war that followed; the financial crash of 2008, and the wages that already felt like they were falling; the strange science of male decline—tumbling sperm counts, fewer male babies—and the rise of gender studies. Most of all, it loathed women “leaning in,” women in men’s locker rooms, women in combat, women with the gall to think they, too, can be funny, or president.
Elam began with two big circles next to one another. Within one he wrote “Game,” “PUA,” and “MRM”—“game” refers to the “techniques” used by PUAs (“pickup artists”) and “MRM” stands for “men’s rights movement”—and within the other, “MGTOW,” who apparently merited a domain all their own. Dangling between the two spheres, he drew an oblong shaft he labeled “Dark Enlightenment,” for the men who believe the problem goes beyond feminism to democracy itself. He held up the map, two big circles and a shaft. Was it—did he draw—“a dick and balls?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, chuckling, “yes, I guess it is.”
If you’ve heard of the manosphere, it may have first been in the context of Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two-year-old self-described “supreme gentleman” who on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, murdered six people. In a YouTube video he posted the day he stabbed to death three men in his apartment and opened fire on a sorority house at UC Santa Barbara, he declared the slaughter a “Day of Retribution,” revenge for the world’s failure to provide him “the beautiful girlfriend I deserve.” Rodger was a self-declared “incel,” which means involuntarily celibate, and a student of several manosphere philosophies, but his most active connection was through a forum called PUAhate. Most of its members embraced MGTOWdom after trying and failing to adopt the ways of the pickup artists—hence the “hate”—at which point their bitterness brought the angriest of them to the politics of Elam. Some of A Voice for Men’s biggest web traffic followed Rodger’s murder spree. Media attention surrounding the Isla Vista shootings was a twofold gift for the group, driving new recruits to the movement and allowing A Voice for Men to present itself as the moderate middle for its opposition to mass murder.
A Voice for Men’s first International Conference on Men’s Issues convened a month after the killing. It was supposed to be at the Detroit Hilton Doubletree, a swank downtown hotel with $24 cocktails. But “the feminists” protested, and since the hospitality industry is pretty much in the thrall of feminism, or because feminists floated death threats, or because a member of the men’s movement floated death threats so that people would understand that feminists were floating death threats even if they did not, in this instance, float any death threats—for one of these disturbing reasons, claimed A Voice for Men, the Hilton Doubletree told the first annual International Conference on Men’s Issues—fathers’ rights, suicide, and circumcision, aka “male genital mutilation,” and also false accusations of rape, male victims of rape, and unfaithful White wives “cuckoo for cocoa penis puffs,” as one speaker puts it, plus “mangina” journalists who “cherry-pick” quotes such as “cuckoo for cocoa penis puffs” out of context to try to make men look bad—the Doubletree told these men to “go elsewhere.” (The Doubletree would neither confirm nor deny this claim.)
Elsewhere was a town called St. Clair Shores, and in it a VFW, Post 1146, known as “the Bruce.” As in the sign out front that declared, cruising at the bruce / every friday night / 5–9 p.m. By “cruising” they meant muscle cars, a fact I mention because A Voice for Men was surprisingly pro-gay, or at least, anti-anti-gay, even if Post 1146, deaf to all that might be promised by the phrase “Cruising at the Bruce,” was not. There was artillery on the lawn and a faded sign on a fence around the parking lot: warning. Of what, to whom, was not clear. The blacktop beyond, where conference attendees lined up to go through “security,” was broken with weeds. The men didn’t notice the conference’s decline in circumstances. They were too excited about “security.” They kept saying, “No feminist better try coming here!” Local police had dispatched four officers, and the conference attendees had deputized even more security from their own ranks. “Security” wore black polo shirts, and there were a lot of black polo shirts, but since the line was slow, Security decided to sweep us all in with a request to return for a “check.” Nobody did. Only one feminist attempted entry, an activist who went by the handle “Dark Horse Swore.” The black shirts eighty-sixed her. She set up at a nearby bar, ordered pizza, opened a tab, and invited any conference attendee who cared to talk. Feminist pizza? Not a chance. These men knew the tricks. They’d taken the red pill, they liked to say.
A red-pill moment, explained one men’s rights activist (MRA), “is the day you decide nothing looks the same.” It’s what the movement calls the born-again experience of opening your eyes to women’s Matrix-like control of the modern world. For a young MRA named Max von Holtzendorff, the red-pill moment was being accused of sexual harassment by a coworker to whom he proposed sex, “being blunt and forthright, because it seemed the best way to ensure consent.” For Jim Strohmeyer, a former professor, it was “six months in a box” after what he said was a false accusation of domestic violence. For Gunther Schadow, an MD/PhD, it was a “meta-study” on domestic violence that inspired him to seed a foundation with half a million dollars with which he hoped to overturn the Violence Against Women Act. For Dan Moore, whose MRA name was “Factory,” the red pill was a revelation in stages. First, he said, his wife cheated on him. Then she wanted him to know it. “She’d laugh at me.” His low point: lying on the floor in a fetal curl while she stood over him, mocking him. He said she had a butcher knife in her hand. (She denied this. All of it.)
For Dan Perrins, one of the security black shirts, it was the day he ended up in jail after he said he lodged a complaint against his ex, the beginning of a legal battle that led him to a hunger strike. “I should have killed the bitch five years ago,” he’d tell me. “I’d be out by now.”
“Women gone insane with the power of the pussy pass,” was how Elam described the movement’s raison d’être in an essay called “When Is It OK to Punch Your Wife?” It was another one of his “provocations.” Elam is White, and frequently complained about what he views as the disparagement of White men in popular culture, but he identified with Malcolm X; he believed he needed to shock society to be heard. He said his talk of “the business end of a right hook” and women who are “freaking begging” to be raped, was simply his version of Malcolm’s “by any means necessary.” To wit: Elam’s proposal to make October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month,” in which men take the women who abuse 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.”
Elam described such language as satire. Then again, one evening in a bar, he told me he stood by every word. A group had gathered with pitchers of beer at a place near the VFW called the Blue Goose. “It’s a David-and-Goliath kind of deal,” he said. He thought he was David, personally confronting the Goliath of Womanhood, his “provocations” his sling. And just as in the biblical story, it wasn’t so much about killing Goliath as giving hope to his people. This, to Elam, was how his “provocations” work: “satire” that’s really rage that’s really a beacon, a Bat Signal: calling all angry men. “Men who’ve decided to check out because they can’t take it anymore, guys going to live in their cars because they have nowhere to go. I get emails from people who say, ‘I was suicidal until I found your website and realized I wasn’t alone.’ ”
Factory raised his beer to Elam. “This guy saved my life,” he said. It was two years previous; Factory had taken the red pill by then, but marriage, kids, and family court still proved too much. He decided to do himself in. He sent off one last email, to Elam. “Just seemed the guy I knew who’d sorta understand.” Elam did; he called the police, who intervened in time.
To Elam it was clear how satire and solace, threat and solidarity, bleed into one another. It’s the world that’s confused, he believed, addled by feminism, and also a much older weapon in the gender war he thought had been waged against men not only since women got the vote but for centuries: feminine wiles. He referred me to the man who provided him his own red pill, which came in the form of a book, 1993’s The Myth of Male Power. “We have long acknowledged the slavery of blacks,” writes the book’s author, Dr. Warren Farrell, whom Elam sees as speaking the gentler truth of his same message, a White Martin to Elam’s White Malcolm. “We have yet to acknowledge the slavery of males.”
They had evidence. Men, particularly poor and working-class men, particularly men of color, are cannon fodder abroad and expendable labor at home, often trapped in jobs nobody really wants—miners, oil riggers, garbagemen—and injured at work at higher rates than women. Imprisoned at far higher rates, too, and more often the victims of violent crime. Men get hit by women nearly as often as the other way around (even if the physical damage done is decidedly one-sided). And there are almost no shelters for battered men, unless you count homeless shelters, and if you do you’d better count the men who make up the great majority of their population.
These are largely economic conditions, but conference speaker Dr. Helen Smith, in her book Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream—and Why It Matters, describes the problem as “female privilege”: schools, she argues, drug the boyishness out of boys, and workplaces, she claims, promote underqualified women, leaving men dumb, doped, and too broke to afford what one of Smith’s sources—echoing Elliot Rodger—describes as “an expensive bitch.” To men “on strike,” in Smith’s parlance, women are the economic condition.
Which is essentially a shorter version of the solipsistic analysis of sex and money offered by Elliot Rodger in his 141-page manifesto. It’s delusional, and also tragic. “Female privilege” obscures for these men and their few female allies the actual convergences of class and gender, the ways in which working-class bodies of all genders, soldiers and sex workers, miners and maids, are disposable. And their use of such terms makes it harder to hear the MRAs when they cite real numbers, such as the fact that three-quarters of the Americans who commit suicide most years are men, or that nearly as many men as women, according to a 2014 study in The American Journal of Public Health, report having been subject to nonconsensual sex.
The irony of the men’s rights movement is that so much of its analysis is essentially a feminist one. No less a feminist theorist than the late Andrea Dworkin—a “300-plus-pound basilisk of man-hate,” according to Elam, who he claimed “wanted to be raped”—critiqued the idea of men as “disposable” in her book Right-Wing Women, published in 1983, ten years before Warren Farrell published The Myth of Male Power. “Feminism,” wrote Dworkin, “proposes one absolute standard of human dignity, indivisible by sex.”
“Nope,” says the manosphere. Or, rather, like an obnoxious child, “I can’t hear you!” A number of men at the conference told me that women’s studies programs teach The SCUM Manifesto, a 1967 screed advocating the elimination of men. That’s true, I said—it’s taught as an artifact. I knew, I told them, because my wife had taught it in a women’s studies program. And she wasn’t trying to eliminate me.
Several men looked at me sadly. “If only you knew,” one said. Another hugged me. “This is a safe space,” he said.
And that was when Elam drew me his diagram. The Dick & Balls. He didn’t mean to, but there they were. A sign. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I guess it is.” He smiled. They all smiled. We were high in the manosphere now, the great phallic oversoul, the red pills were working, the rape jokes no longer landing like bombshells, they were like the weather, ordinary as rain. We’d arrived: the dreamworld of Elam, where men are men, no matter how broken, because they can’t imagine wanting simply to be human. In the manosphere they never had to. The question was never raised. That’s what the manosphere meant: the solace of men, the solace of looking away.
Jeff Sharlet is the New York Times best-selling author or editor of eight books, including The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, adapted into a Netflix documentary series, and This Brilliant Darkness. His reporting on LGBTIQ+ rights around the world has received the National Magazine Award, the Molly Ivins Prize, and Outright International’s Outspoken Award. His writing and photography have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair, for which he is a contributing editor; the New York Times Magazine; GQ; Esquire; Harper’s; and VQR, for which he is an editor at large. He is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College, where he lives in the woods with many animals.