Assembled delegates at the Men’s Rights Conference in the London’s Excel Centre. Picture credit: Justice for Men and Boys.
For our fourth episode of The Backlash podcast, we went inside one of the world’s largest gatherings of men’s rights activists (MRAs) in London, and spoke to some of the men, and women, involved in this anti-feminist movement.
We hear from Alastair (who didn't give us his surname) from the UK fringe political party Justice for Men and Boys which organised the conference. We also speak to Karen Straughan, a revered figure within the MRA movement and “the most famous anti-feminist in the world.”
Lara Whyte (LW): Hello and welcome to The Backlash: a podcast series tracking threats against women’s and LGBT rights, brought to you by 50.50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy. I’m Lara Whyte and I am your host.
In July, 50.50 spent a weekend attending the International Conference on Men’s Issues in London, where men’s rights activists from 24 different countries gathered to discuss the evils of feminism and what can be done about it.
Concepts like mansplaining, manspreading, rape culture on campuses were all used as examples of how feminism and women’s rights have supposedly 'gone too far'.
When we talk about the backlash against feminism or women’s rights, men’s rights activists – or MRAs, as they call themselves – are a movement that we think needs serious and critical attention.
I wrote a dispatch on the conference for 50.50 and promptly received torrents of abuse – as the conference organiser emailed all attendees urging them to troll me in the comments section of our website.
There has been some extreme cherry-picking of the article, and claims of misrepresentation as I wrote how, when I walked into the room before the conference began, I was briefly the only woman in a room full of white men. It was worth mentioning, because it was the first thing I noticed as I entered, and it was quite intimidating. I did not say there were no women in the movement – there are – and at the conference there were a tiny handful of non-white attendees, including a speaker from the Indian men’s rights movement.
The Men’s Rights Movement in India. Photo:Amit Deshpande/Peter Wright/Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.
At the conference I spoke to a woman named Karen Straughan, who I really tried to understand in a lengthy interview where she talked about women's privilege and why she's never identified as a feminist herself.
Karen is a revered figure within the movement – and is loved for being, quote: “the most famous anti-feminist in the world.”
Before we go into that interview, here’s a man called Alastair from the British anti-feminist political party Justice for Men and Boys, which organised the conference. This is the description of feminists, and feminism, that he gave to openDemocracy’s Adam Bychawski, who was at the conference for 50.50.
Alastair: There is no pleasing them, there's no making deals with them. They are ideological terrorists. They are obsessed with their ideology and, regardless of what they say, they will attack you and resort to criminal and terrorist activities: bomb threats, violence, disrupting peaceful meetings and then, of course, just lies and slander.
Adam: And have you experienced that yourself?
Alastair: Personally no, but I have seen various examples. Just look at the famous case of Big Red, attacking the cafe meeting and then screaming that feminists don't hate men we just hate patriarchy and using various expletives.
So there has been case after case of feminists and feminist-aligned institutions attacking peaceful people just gathering to talk about their problems because they want to control the narrative. They are offended by men talking without women – no, without feminists – supervising. Feminism is an evil ideology and I want it to be equated with, say, the Westboro Baptist Church.
Other feminist organisations, I would rather have them classed as con groups. They are not charities, they are massive cons. They just lie about statistics to grab money. So that's not terrorism it's just con artistry. Like, wow, women's aid and things. They lie about statistics to get money, playing on people's sympathies – so they're just con artists.
“Feminism is an evil ideology and I want it to be equated with the Westboro Baptist Church.”
LW: So, that’s what we are dealing with there.
Karen Straughan is a Canadian anti-feminist who has been writing and video blogging on gender issues since 2010. She has almost 200,000 subscribers on YouTube which, from the MRAs I spoke to at the conference, seems to be a vital platform for this movement.
Karen opened the conference with her keynote address which was called: “Why women must consign feminism to the dustbin of history.”
We spoke for about 40 minutes, and covered a lot of topics. She is a charismatic and incredibly engaging woman, and so her activism on men’s rights seems to add a certain legitimacy to this movement – which is why I wanted to talk to her to try to dig down into why she does what she does and what motivates her.
In Karen’s keynote address, she spoke about why she would give up her right to vote if it led to men and women having equality – and remember that she thinks that women have more privileges than men.
So I start here by asking her why she would possibly give up her right to vote.
Karen Straughan during her keynote speech. Photo: Lara Whyte.
KS: I would if I felt like that was something that I had to do in order to make things more fair or redress an imbalance, I would certainly do that. That doesn’t mean that I want to, or that I would choose to do so for no reason whatsoever, so...
LW: So what is the reason then?
KS: Well, you know, when women got the vote – when men got the vote, they got the vote, largely in the US, they got the vote because their voting rights and their citizenship rights were tied to conscription. And when women got the vote and full citizenship rights they didn’t have any similar obligation placed on them.
Women got the rights, got all the same rights, they didn’t get any of the obligations to the state. So I think that’s not fair. Personally, I would rather women be made to register in the selective service in the US, I think they should be held more accountable, as citizens, and have similar obligations to men.
You know, people say there’s no draft in Canada, but that’s just one act of parliament away from happening if it’s ever necessary, right? And if women aren’t included in that draft, then I don’t know that they deserve their vote.
LW: So what about the obligations on women to continue the population?
KS: There are no obligations on women to do that. Would you...
LW: But without those bodies none of us would be here...
KS: True. What we have is this idea that women have an obligation, you know, in quotation marks, to give birth, when women have no such obligation and they haven’t for at least 50 years.
LW: And so you think that’s a privilege, that women have more privileges than men? Is that correct or am I putting words into your mouth there?
KS: Um, I think that women definitely have more privileges than men. Because a privilege is something that you get for nothing. Right?
“Women definitely have more privileges than men. Because a privilege is something you get for nothing. Right?”
LW: So what are those privileges?
KS: Well, if men got the vote because they’re draftable, and women got the vote for nothing, that’s a privilege.
LW: But do you not think everyone should have the vote?
KS: I think everyone should have the vote too, I just don’t think that only men should be drafted. And I think that the way we frame it now, it's all of these horrible men, who kept the vote away from women for no good reason whatsoever, when in reality the majority of women didn’t want the vote and essentially fought against getting the vote, some of them because they were worried that they would be drafted, and they didn’t want that.
LW: But fundamentally you do agree with the principle that women should be able to vote...
KS: I think that every adult should be able to vote, sure.
LW: So when you say 'I would give up my vote,' you are just being provocative, you don't really mean it?
KS: Not really, because I would, I absolutely would.
LW: You’re Canadian;
LW: There’s a lot of Canadian women in this movement. What's that about?
KS: I don’t know; cabin fever? I have no idea why that is, we’re a little bit weird I guess.
LW: And what did draw you to the movement – and I’m trying to avoid the 'why are you here' question – if you could just kind of take me through the steps, like did you identify as a feminist?
LW: But some of the arguments that the men’s rights movement put forward, to me as an outsider, do seem to be in line with some of the feminist goals…
KS: It’s not about the goals, or its not about the stated goals – feminism isn’t just a prescription, right, it’s a description as well. So it not only says here’s what we want society to look like, in the future, it also describes what they feel society actually looks like right now.
That’s a diagnosis, right, so they are essentially saying: here is the disease, here is the mechanism as to how it operates and here is what we need to prescribe in order to get to a healthy body. And I think that they have the entire paradigm of disease wrong, the entire model and conceptualisation of the disease wrong.
Slut Walk protest in Toronto, 2011. Photo:Anton Bielousov. CC 3.0
LW: What has feminism got so wrong?
KS: Oh, that society is a patriarchy, where men oppress women for their own benefit. Who is raising these men who allegedly created a society that hates women? And how can you actually look at the men around you, that you care about, and say that you and people like you constructed a society based entirely on oppressing the people with whom you form the most intimate personal relationships with from the moment you are born. Oppressing them for your own benefit. What kind of psychopath would a man have to be to decide that this is how I want society to operate? That I want to oppress these women for my own benefit.
“What kind of psychopath would a man have to be to decide that this is how I want society to operate? That I want to oppress these women for my own benefit.”
LW: But did they not just inherit this society where they had a privileged position so therefore they're unwilling to give it up?
KS: I wouldn’t call it a privileged position at all.
LW: Why not?
KS: Why not, well, OK – have you ever spent any time being shelled in a trench?
LW: No, thankfully not.
KS: There you go. Well, you know, that was just something that men... all it took was social pressure from young women. There was a story I read on...
LW: Was that not more about government winning territory and utilising both men and women to do that?
KS: Yeah, they utilised women to manipulate men into giving their lives. And why would men give their lives at the behest of women if they were interested in oppressing women?
LW: Your talk was about how women need to demolish feminism…
KS: I think you need to appeal to their basic sense of fairness. I think women do have a sense of fairness when it’s sort of really presented to them in bold terms.
So many of the women who have come into sort of the men’s movement or the non feminist and anti-feminist activated sectors of society it's because they had sons and they saw how their sons were treated at school or saw how their sons were treated by the system. They don’t want to dope their kid up with ritalin, just because the teacher doesn’t like his boy behaviour.
Things like that…
“They don’t want to dope their kid up with ritalin, just because the teacher doesn’t like his boy behaviour.”
LW: Within every newsroom that I’ve worked in, I’ve experienced a man on my level earning more. Have you never experienced any kind of sexism within your work that’s made you think: oh, something’s not really right here?
KS: Not in terms of pay, no…
LW: So you’ve never been a victim of sexism?
Australian Services Union Protest, 2011. Photo: ASU/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
KS: Sure I have… not in terms of pay. And frankly, as far as pay goes, it wouldn’t really, you know, 50 cents an hour doesn’t bother me, I’ve always been a minimum wage worker, up until I started doing this. So that’s just arguing over pennies and...
LW: It’s value, and it's a sense of...
KS: OK, you know you have a right to be angry about that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it's systemic, across society, it may just be in places where you’ve worked, or in a particular industry. You know, I could tell you that female runway models make 10-100 times more than male runway models…
LW: And male footballers make 10-100 times more than female footballers.
KS: That’s right, there you go, and there’s not necessarily any injustice there. Because female runway models bring in more money for the client, right, and so do male footballers, bring in more money for the league. So, essentially, what you're looking at: some of these issues are systemic, maybe; you can’t assume that all of it is sexism, and you don’t necessarily have to assume that any of it is sexism, because some of it can be explained just by personal preference of women.
LW: So you were featured in the film Red Pill. So one of the things that really struck me in that film was that there was a discussion of a loss of status for men, a kind of, a loss of income, a loss of place, and that women were kind of blamed directly for that. But at no point was there any discussion of capitalism. The economic realities of our time are that a few people are incredibly rich and everybody else is getting poorer, and the film really didn’t go into that.
And the men’s rights movement, from my so far limited experience of it, just seems to be anti-women it doesn’t seem to be anti-the other contributing factors that have led men to this space where they feel like they’re not being taken seriously, where their pain isn’t being heard…
Women's March in Philadelphia, 2018. Photo: Rob Kall. CC 2.0.
KS: OK, well, here’s the thing: it hasn’t really mattered what system we’ve been operating under, men’s pain has not been heard. So, communism, you know, men’s pain was not heard. Capitalism, men’s pain was not heard. Socialism, men’s pain is not heard. Men’s pain is not heard. It doesn’t really matter what economic system we’re working under these are deep psychological, social-psychology problems right, that are intrinsic to us as human beings, they’re not some kind of bi-product of whatever economic system we’re using, they’re endemic to all of them.
“Men’s pain is not heard.”
LW: But it feels like feminism and women’s rights are being blamed for the conditions of where we are at the moment, and feminists would be advocating for some of the same things here… you know, men’s pain should be heard, they shouldn’t have to be strong, boys should be able to cry...
KS: I know, and it seems very surprising then that when men’s rights activists talk about their feelings, the male tears coffee mugs come out on Twitter, you know, from feminists, from the very feminists who say we want you to talk about how you really feel. When men talk about that, then they get: wha-wha, man-baby beer tears, sorry I hurt your man-feels.
LW: But is that not more about the corporate capture of feminism and how capitalism is just making feminism…
KS: Oh no, feminism has always been just absolutely rotten, right from the declaration of sentiments and probably before, it’s just absolutely rotten. It’s had a streak of man-hating a mile wide running through the middle of it, and go read the declaration of sentiments, read it with an uncharitable eye, okay, and look at it as a list of grievances: men have been horrible to women, end of story, period.
LW: But is the men’s rights movement not doing kind of the same thing by blaming women?
KS: We don’t blame women.
LW: Second part of that question is what’s it like being a woman within the men’s rights movement?
KS: It’s excellent, it’s excellent, it’s awesome to be part of this movement. One of the things that always struck me is, because I come to a lot of these things, and I have never ever in anyway felt uneasy or unsafe; there’s some wacky guys here sometimes, right, at these things, they’re a little socially awkward, they’re a little goofy, for sure. But I’ve never felt in anyway endangered while I’ve been here.
But, you know, there was this male feminist I did an interview with, and I did a sort of conversation with him online, about a year and a half ago, and he seemed desperate to jam me back into a female victim box – he seemed absolutely desperate to essentially say what you've said to me here, some of the things that you have said to me here, you know: don’t you feel you’ve been victimised by sexism? Don’t you feel you’ve been treated unfairly? Well, of course I have, everybody has. But he just seemed determined to cram me back into this box of female victimhood, where he could, I don’t know, be my rescuer and the rescuer of all woman and then, like 8 months later he shot his girlfriend to death.
LW: He’s not a feminist – if he shot his girlfriend, he’s not a feminist.
KS: But what is feminism? Other than trying to keep women in a box where they concentrate constantly on their victimhood. What I get out of the men’s rights movement is the feeling that I can serve, that I have something to offer people who are not like me, that I have something to give to society, something unique, something valuable, right, that I have an obligation and a responsibility to pick that up and carry it forward. Not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of others. That is a massively huge feeling. Feminism, all it ever told me was, you know: poor you. And that's just not who I am.
“What I get out of the men’s rights movement is the feeling that I can serve.”
LW: So do you get abuse from people online?
KS: No…. I get the odd bit from feminists, the odd feminist will be like, you know, you’re a traitor to your gender, or you just want male attention. I just, generally I just ignore it. Every once in a while someone will put an actual argument rather than a slur, and I’ll get involved in a conversation, but generally it’s pretty, I keep things pretty genial.
But 99% of the feedback I get is positive, so…
LW: What do you think is the biggest myth about the men’s rights movement that you would like to bust?
KS: That we hate women, that’s the biggest myth that I would like to bust. I have never seen anybody at any of these events who I could describe in any way as hating women. Men are angry at women, at times, particularly, and I think, honestly, justifiably so. It’s justifiable to be angry like, when you ask, how do you convince women to give up these advantages, and it’s like: because that would be fair?
LW: What advantages do you mean?
KS: Like advantages in family court, the assumption that the mother is the best parent...
LW: But feminists would agree with you on this.
KS: Except that they fight shared parenting bills.
LW: I think it was you that said earlier that a lot of shared parenting bills were brought in by women.
KS: They are brought in by women but they're not brought in by feminists.
You said: you guys seem so anti-women. And we are not anti-women. And honestly even when we talk about how men have specific masculine virtues – or like when I was saying there weren’t any women swimming through the caves in Thailand, rescuing those kids – like, you know, that’s fine, that’s fine. Because women have other things that they do, that they're good at, that men aren't necessarily good at, or don’t want to do.
And you know the whole idea is that we are complementarian, that we are together, and that we each have strengths and weaknesses and we balance all of these things out. That is what we want. We don’t want men and women to be in competition with each other – that’s just a recipe for unhappiness for everybody, especially children.
LW: You said something in your speech about gallons of water that would be saved if families stayed together. What did you mean by that?
KS: Well, when you have a divorce and you have a family now living in two separate households instead of one, you use more water, you buy more refrigerators, and washing machines, and TVs...
LW: Yeah, I get that, that’s not what I’m asking…
KS: If we didn’t have the divorce rate that we do, and if people were getting married at the age they were in the 1970s and staying married, then 30 billions gallons of water a year in the US would be preserved because we would have a lower consumption rate.
“If we didn’t have the divorce rate that we do… 30 billions gallons of water a year in the US would be preserved because we would have a lower consumption rate.”
LW: But why would you stay in an unhappy marriage? You are not advocating for that are you?
KS: Unhappy, define unhappy. And how long does unhappy last? And can you work on it to make it less unhappy, or even back to happy? They surveyed women, I forget how many, what the sample size was, but they asked them what they were going to do and they followed them for 5 years, and asked them how happy they were, and the women who decided to end their marriages were less happy than the ones who decided to work on it and stick it out.
LW: That’s seems to be a really traditional, heteronormative view of the family...
Paul Townsend/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.KW: But my family never decided what I was going to do with my life.
LW: If I could clarify, what I was trying to say there is, you know, the traditional family with the man being the head of it and the family staying together…
KS: I haven’t necessarily talked at all about…
LW: But that’s what it seems like to an outsider when we talk about families staying together…
KS: So you’re saying when women are the head of the family, families split apart... is that what you're saying?
LW: No, I’m not saying that…
KS: Because that’s what it seems… when men are the head of the family, families stay together, when women are the head of the family, families break apart...
LW: Well, no, it’s normally when a family breaks apart that the woman becomes the head of the family not necessarily through choice but circumstances… but I suppose the point I was trying to ask you about was, in a wider sense, there seems to be a kind of over-romanticising of the past within this movement…
KS: Not really…
LW: So you talk about your sons in the talk and how a lot of women come into this kind of advocacy after having sons. Why is that? And you talked about the tricks, the pitfalls, that girls can destroy boys' lives, what are they?
KS: Oh, any kind of false allegation, for sure, even if it doesn’t really go anywhere other than rumour, it can destroy your social reputation as a boy.
Paternity fraud, going off birth control without telling him. How’s that? I know a guy, one guy whose wife ‘oops’-ed him for four out of their five kids.
LW: And told you, and didn't tell...
KS: She told her sister and her sister told me. I think after the third time he pretty much knew. But by then he was stuck; it was cheaper to keep her. And every time he said he wanted a vasectomy she said she’d get a divorce. Well, yeah, she hasn’t worked the whole marriage, he’s stuck paying alimony, and she’d get custody and oh my goodness there’s his entire life in ruins, in shatters.
You know, like, honestly you realise that when men rape women, the legal system at least tries, at least acknowledges that those women have been wronged, but when women rape men, the legal system is the instrument that they use to do it.
“When women rape men, the legal system is the instrument that they use to do it.”
LW: So you’re one of the most high profile women within the men’s rights movement, and more women are joining this movement, why do you think that is?
KS: Because I think that they see something wrong, and part of the reason why I do this isn’t just because I want my sons to be OK, I want my daughter to be OK too, and the world that I am leaving them. I’m not going to be here forever, and they're going to inherit this shit, this complete shit pile, OK, and so I feel like I have an obligation to try and make things at least liveable for them.
LW: So that was Karen Straughan – and as you've heard, this movement and the men, and women, who lead it are complex.
Some of what they say actually chimes with feminist thinking, like when they talk about shared parenting responsibilities. But then other messages are just baffling: the suggestion that women, overall, are more privileged than men, or their obsession with men dying in wars for women.
We'll continue tracking the men's rights movement on 50.50, openDemocracy's gender and sexuality section. Before you go, I wanted to draw your attention to two fantastic pieces from the last month that you might have missed. Both of these pieces can also be read in Español – for those of you who can speak and read Spanish.
How ‘conscientious objectors’ threaten women’s newly-won abortion rights in Latin America – it’s an amazing piece by Diana Cariboni. And also on sexual violence at the San Fermin running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, we have a special piece by Rocío Ros. So do check those two pieces out.
You have been listening to The Backlash, by 50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section.
Big thanks to the team at the International Men’s Rights Conference this month including Camille Mijola, who is one of our feminist investigative journalism fellows, also to openDemocracy's Adam Bychawski, who did some great reporting with these MRAs.
50.50 is an independent feminist media platform. You can find us on Twitter @5050oD, and you can support our work by donating on our website. Help us track the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.
This episode of The Backlash was presented and produced by Lara Whyte. Audio editing and music production by Simone Lai.