“Dear University of Toronto Students’ Union… I am here to issue you a promise, or depending on your preference, a warning… we have her image and know her general location. We will identify her and profile her activity and name for public view. We will not stop there, or just with her. And while we will not publish our complete intent, we are dogged in our efforts.”
That quote is part of a post on A Voice for Men, a blog run by “men’s rights” activist (MRA) Paul Elam. And the woman he’s threatening? That’s me.
It was December 2012 and I was working at the University of Toronto Students’ Union. Misogynist organizations who had branded themselves as men’s rights associations were upset because women on campus were leading an organizing effort against them. These men, who were by-and-large not students, had somehow managed to register as an official campus group. They were having events on campus spreading drivel about the dangers of “lesbianism” and promoting other dangerous and violent ideas, even suggesting that there are acceptable forms of rape.
There have always been heaps of reprehensible woman-hating groups organizing in the dark corners of the internet. They recruit on sites like 4Chan and Reddit, where misogynists can freely (and anonymously) post vile thoughts that would be unacceptable in any other sphere of their lives. But now, MRAs were taking their organizing from online forums into the real world and were physically threatening women—primarily women of colour—on campus.
We sounded the alarm early, alerting the university to the threat and asking them to take steps to ensure our safety. We were not taken seriously. University administrators insisted that the MRAs were mostly online and likely “bored kids in Texas” (Elam is based in Houston), and not worth investigating further.
MRAs aren’t just harmless internet trolls
This brush with MRAs—and the way the institution we trusted to protect us neglected to do so—has been on my mind since last Monday, when 25-year-old Alek Missanian careened down what may be Toronto’s busiest street in a white Ryder van, allegedly killing 10 and injuring 16. Prior to the attack, a post appeared on Missanian’s Facebook account that read: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun… All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
There are questions as to whether the post is a hoax, but Facebook has confirmed it came from Missanian’s real account. If it’s legit, it suggests Missanian was inspired by the “incel” community, a misogynist group of men that blames women for what they call “involuntary celibacy.” And that would make this tragedy yet another example of a hateful man turning his rage at women into mass murder.
Missanian’s potential connection to online incel groups reminds me of the online organizing of MRAs. Both groups exist in the manosphere, the online world of anti-feminist men who are actively attempting to shift mainstream culture toward their ideals. Oftentimes, they are not taken seriously. But they should be. The hate-net, spaces on the internet where hateful rhetoric thrives, is a powerful organizing and recruitment space.
Elliot Rodger, the “supreme gentleman” referenced in Missanian’s alleged Facebook post, is celebrated in incel groups. He is also the 22-year-old who killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California in 2014. He eventually turned his gun on himself, leaving behind a video describing his intention to punish women who “deprived” him of sex. After his death, he became a poster boy for the incel community—and a concrete example of how online threats can become very real.
When MRAs bring their violence offline, women of colour are often their targets
When the MRAs were organizing at the University of Toronto, I was stalked and harassed by dozens of men. And when the university refused to intervene on the hateful rhetoric of the campus groups, I joined other angry students in organizing a rally to oppose the obscene ideas.
The MRAs responded by targeting specific women on campus who participated in the rally. They placed photos of some of us online and encouraged their followers to harass us. Their primary targets were women of colour.
At the time, I worked at the undergraduate students’ union with some other women who had attended the rally. We received daily threats via email, phone and social media. Men stalked and photographed us wherever we went. Some particularly dedicated MRAs who were not students sat in the foyer of the tiny students’ union office all day to film us, an apparent attempt at intimidation.
The harassment continued relentlessly for three months. I was terrified to walk home by myself after class, and would be greeted by threats of rape and other forms of physical harm every day. We sent the university proof of everything we were experiencing, and still they did not take our concerns seriously.
This type of harassment is meant to distract women from their activism
I soon realized that this experience was not unique. There is a pattern to the way these violent misogynists organize on the hate-net, and then move their organizing to campuses. They specifically target BIPOC women, because they know as well as we do that our concerns are not taken seriously and our cries for help are often ignored.
Women have been sounding the alarm on MRAs and the misogynist threats in the manosphere since the early 2010s. When we are ignored, they target us on- and offline—and it’s women of colour and queer women who tend to face the worst harassment. I can name dozens of other women of colour activists from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador who have suffered this type of formulaic misogynist attack with no institutional assistance.
The impact this type of harassment has on our mental health is dire. And the chill it places on our willingness to speak in the service of justice is catastrophic.
We can’t ignore MRA violence any longer
Misogynist violence thrives because of the ways that sexism and racism are embedded in our social structures. These violent men can organize with impunity because society does not take the concerns of women, especially BIPOC women, seriously. They rely on a society that doesn’t care what Black, Indigenous and women of colour have to say at the best of times, and consistently refuses to act when we describe the racism and misogyny we experience.
And, as we’ve seen, the consequences can be deadly.
It’s crucial that women are taken seriously when we are pointing to violent, misogynist experiences and organizing. Especially BIPOC women. We are often the first to be targeted by the hateful manosphere. They know that broader society values us less, and they use that to their advantage. If we want to be effective in counteracting the hate-net, we need to seriously consider the experiences of BIPOC women.
If you have institutional power, please do not make the mistake of assuming these threats only exist online or that online threats are inconsequential. We know that online threats can have a significant affect on mental health. But beyond that, these men are in our workplaces and on our campuses. While their organizing may begin online, they can and do move into the physical world. We need institutions to create strategies to prevent physical threats and to support the women who are the target of the manosphere’s rage. And we must pay attention and be sure we aren’t losing loved ones to the hateful organizing in our midst—let’s intervene where we recognize it and halt the spread of violence.
The time to start taking the misogynist hate-net seriously and organizing against gender-based violence is yesterday.
And the time to believe women of colour who sound the alarm on gender-based violence is always.
Sandy Hudson is an activist, writer and academic. She co-hosts a political podcast with Nora Loreto at sandyandnora.com.
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