Mad Men: Inside the Men's Rights Movement?and the Army of Misogynists and Trolls It Spawned
Warren Farrell Photograph by Winni Wintermeyer
On a balmy afternoon last June, dozens of demonstrators carrying "Stop the Violence" and "Rape is Rape" placards descended on the Hilton DoubleTree in downtown Detroit. They had come to protest the first-ever national gathering of the men's rights movement, which aims to battle discrimination against men but has drawn criticism for stirring up hatred of women. Two weeks earlier, a sexually frustrated 22-year-old named Elliot Rodger had gone on a suicidal rampage in Santa Barbara, California, killing 6 people and injuring 13. He had left behind a chilling 137-page manifesto suffused with a bitter misogyny and language commonly found in men's rights forums. "The girls don't flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male," Rodger wrote. "Who's the alpha male now, bitches?" His attack ignited a firestorm online, spurring women to share their experiences of misogyny via the hashtag #YesAllWomen, and bringing major media attention to the men's rights movement.
With irate phone calls and even death threats pouring into the hotel in the run-up to the conference, its organizer, A Voice for Men, was forced to move the event to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The group warned ticket holders by email that "ideological opponents" were likely to show up, and that they would be "looking for anything they can to hurt us with."
When conference goers arrived several weeks later, they were greeted by a cadre of burly security guards. A computer glitch at the check-in desk sent the line snaking into the parking lot, where some men lounged listlessly on the hot asphalt. Finally, about an hour and a half after the first workshop had been scheduled to begin, the doors swung open. The crowd clattered up the stairs to a dimly lit room with scuffed mint-colored walls and a water-stained ceiling. There, amid rows of folding chairs, stood Warren Farrell.
A soft-spoken septuagenarian with a silver beard and delicate hands, Farrell explained with a smile why he'd asked the security team to stand down: "I said it didn't look like there were any killers out there." There was a burst of laughter. After a while, he asked everyone to stand up. "Put anything you have in your hands down and just give that person in front of you a nice shoulder rub," he said. Tension faded from the men's faces. Over the next several hours, Farrell doled out hugs, regaled them with stories about his days as a feminist icon, and waxed lyrical about fatherhood and male sacrifice. He also invited the men to share their personal pain. Some wept as they spoke.
Farrell is widely considered to be the father of the men's rights movement. In a series of books published since the 1980s, he has made the case that the primary victims of gender-based discrimination are men—casualties of a society that relies on their sacrifices while ignoring their suffering. He blames this phenomenon for a litany of woes, from the plight of blue-collar workers to the state of veterans' health care and rising suicide rates among young men. Many of today's men's rights activists view Farrell's 1993 book, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, as their touchstone, and the online forums where they congregate are steeped in Farrell's ideas.
For some, the "manosphere" offers a place to air real grievances about issues such as bias in family courts or sexual abuse suffered by men. But it also has spawned a network of activists and sites that take Farrell's ideology in a disturbing direction. Men's rights forums on sites like 4chan and Reddit are awash in misogyny and anti-feminist vitriol. Participants argue that false allegations of rape and domestic abuse are rampant, or that shelters for battered women are a financial scam. Others rail against women for being independent or sexually promiscuous.
These ideas have given rise to aggressive tactics and rhetoric. The National Coalition for Men—whose board of advisers includes Farrell—has fought to cut off state funding for domestic-violence programs if men aren't included. A Voice for Men's founder, Paul Elam, who is a friend and protégé of Farrell's, has justified violence against women and written that some of them "walk through life with the equivalent of a I'M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH—PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads." Other activists have published names of women they consider enemies and have praised online stalkers, such as the "Gamergate" mobs who bombard feminist critics with rape and death threats.
Farrell told me that these tactics make him uncomfortable, but he argues that all movements have—and need—their extreme factions. "I've been through the movements," he said. "I've seen how Martin Luther King alone was dismissed. It took Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver to say things that were pretty ridiculous in some ways, but that brought the attention that led to Martin Luther King being seen as the nice, centered, balanced person." He also cited the SCUM Manifesto written by 1960s feminist Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol. "SCUM means 'Society for Cutting Up Men,'" he noted. (Read Farrell's post-publication response to this story here.)
We were sitting poolside at Farrell's home, a wood-shingled bungalow overlooking San Francisco Bay in the hills of tony Marin County. As his personal assistant served us a mélange of roasted vegetables sprinkled with pine nuts, Farrell, who has a warm and thoughtful air, mused about his walks in the woods with John Gray, author of the best-selling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. He and Gray recently landed a contract for a sequel called Beyond Mars and Venus, which will lay out Farrell's evolving utopian view of gender relations. "We're all interested in beyond Mars and Venus," he explained. "That's the search for the unique self."
Farrell traces his interest in gender issues to his childhood. His mother had given up a scholarship to Cornell to find a husband, but being a housewife made her miserable. "I had seen her move in and out of depression," Farrell later wrote. "Into depression when she was not working, out of depression when she was working." His mother took medication to ward off the gloom, but it made her dizzy and prone to stumbling. She died at age 48 after falling in the garage one day and hitting her head. Farrell was still reeling from the loss when he moved to New York in the late 1960s to pursue a doctorate in political science and encountered the fledgling women's movement. He shifted his research focus to feminism and joined the board of the National Organization for Women's New York City chapter, which made him a hot commodity. "Feminists were constantly asking, 'How can we clone you?'" he recalled. "At parties, women would plop me down in front of their husbands with instructions to 'tell him what you told me.'"
NOW tapped Farrell to organize a nationwide network of men's consciousness groups, including one that he told me was attended by John Lennon. In these sessions, and in his popular 1974 book, The Liberated Man, Farrell argued that women were not the only ones hindered by sexism: Gender roles hurt men too, by forcing them to shoulder the financial burden of supporting families and stifle their emotions. Soon Farrell was burning up the talk show circuit and mingling with the likes of Gloria Steinem and Barbara Walters. People ran a glowing four-page spread with photos of Farrell cooking breakfast in his Upper West Side apartment and tossing a football in a park with his then-wife, Ursula, a Harvard-educated mathematician and rising IBM executive. The Financial Times named Farrell one of its 100 "top thought leaders," while other papers hailed him as "the Gloria Steinem of Men's Liberation."
Farrell's calling card during this era was role-reversal workshops. In one session at a Tony Robbins seminar in Hawaii, he made the 100-plus men in attendance gather on the stage for a beauty pageant. Contestants pumped their biceps and swiveled their hips while Farrell led the women in chants of "Shirts off! Shirts off!" and "Slut! Slut! Slut!" Those who attracted the loudest catcalls were named finalists and ordered to turn around and show off their butts, while the rejects huddled, shirtless and humiliated, on the floor. Farrell then organized the women into rows based on their earning prowess and blasted the ones in the back as "losers." While men generally were game for these exercises, Farrell said, he was disappointed to find that women often decamped during the second half of the program.
Farrell crowning the winner of a "male beauty pageant" as Alan Alda looks on Toronto Public Library/Getty
The cultural tumult of the 1970s was also shaking up family dynamics and turning divorce into a political issue. NOW came out in favor of awarding child custody to the primary caregiver, in most cases the mother. Farrell, who was by then teaching at Rutgers University, came to believe that feminists were more interested in power than in equality—a view that resonated with a growing number of men. Women's entrance into the workforce, combined with a stagnant economy, was making it harder for men to be sole breadwinners, and many divorced fathers found themselves cut off from their children. The men's liberation movement began to fracture, as Farrell and others grew disillusioned with feminism.
Farrell shifted his intellectual focus again and began work on a book about incest, including case studies. One involved a New York writer who regularly had sex with his 17-year-old daughter and occasional three-way trysts involving his daughter's friend. In a 1977 interview with Penthouse, Farrell explained that some saw incest as "part of the family's open, sensual style of life, wherein sex is an outgrowth of warmth and affection." The magazine also quoted him as saying that "genitally caressing" children was "part of a caring, loving expression" that helped them develop healthy sexuality.
Farrell maintains that he said "generally caressing" and that the magazine conflated his ideas with those of his subjects. "The question is, how does a man or a woman justify having incestuous relations?" he told me. "I was reporting how people justified it. In most cases the article made that clear, but in some cases what the people I interviewed had said got mixed up with what I said."
But Farrell chose not to fight the misperception. "That taught me how the research could be misused by anyone looking for a reason to advocate incest," he says. Instead, he abandoned the book project.
Farrell cooking dinner for his then-wife, Ursula, in 1972 Graham Bezant/Toronto Star
The following year, he and his wife, who was the primary breadwinner, divorced. Farrell says he still remembers the conversation that led to their split: He asked her who she would marry if he were to die—somebody like him or the type of man she worked with? "She said, 'I feel I'd have a lot more in common with another IBM executive,'" he recalls. "And I took a big, deep breath."
A few years later Ursula did marry a fellow IBM executive, while Farrell, who would not remarry for two decades, came out swinging against feminism. By 1988 he had collected his evolving views into his book Why Men Are the Way They Are, depicting a world where women—particularly female executives—wield vast influence. Even those women who are less successful have "enormous sexual leverage over men" and "can use the power to get external rewards," he wrote. Men, on the other hand, have been reduced to "success objects," judged solely by their status and earning potential.
After the book's debut, Gloria Steinem quit returning his phone calls. Actor Alan Alda stopped asking him to tennis. But once again Farrell's ideas lit up the talk show circuit. During an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he blasted women who expected men to pick up the tab on dates. When a female guest tried to protest, Farrell pulled a fat wad of cash from his pocket and shoved it in her face. "When you say a guy can't afford you, what you're asking the guy to do is take the money out and say, 'How much, honey?'...We have to ask, is there any difference between Abby and a prostitute?" The book rocketed up the bestseller list. Farrell, whose file drawers were bursting with grateful letters, outfitted his cream-colored Maserati with "Y MEN R" vanity plates.
In 1993, Farrell published his full-throated manifesto, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex. The book tackled a number of pressing issues affecting men. It also took some bizarre turns: At one point Farrell pondered whether the American male was the new "nigger." ("When slaves gave up their seats for whites, we called it subservience; when men give up their seats for women, we call it politeness.") He took a sledgehammer to bedrock feminist ideals, claiming that women have themselves to blame for unequal pay, that domestic violence is a two-way street, and that government programs to benefit women only exacerbate inequality.
Farrell also argued that female sexual power was eclipsing any societal advantages that men might have. "The powerful woman doesn't feel the effect of her secretary's miniskirt power, cleavage power and flirtation power," he wrote. "Men do." And thanks to feminism, he argued, when women felt ill-treated they could now more easily pursue sexual-harassment or date rape charges—a notion that carries strong currency among today's men's rights activists. "No one has taught men to sue women for sexual trauma for saying 'yes,' then 'no,' then 'yes,'" Farrell opined. "Men were left with less than one option. They were still expected to initiate, but now, if they did it badly, they could go to jail."
The Myth of Male Power struck a chord among a new generation of would-be activists for whom "male disposability" became a rallying cry. "It's their bible," says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who studies gender issues at New York's Stony Brook University. "It's really the foundational text."
Marc Angelucci, a Los Angeles attorney, first read the book as a law student in the 1990s. "It's not an exaggeration to say it transformed my life," he told me when we met at the men's rights conference in Detroit. Like many in the movement, he likens this sudden paradigm shift to the pivotal scene in the dystopian sci-fi film The Matrix, when the hero swallows a red pill and wakes up thrashing and naked with a tangle of wires and plugs bored into his skin. The world he's inhabited, the hero realizes, is merely an illusion designed to keep him docile and enslaved. (This is also a key trope for Pickup Artists, a subculture focused on manipulating women into sex. PUAs, who congregate along with men's rights activists in the subreddit /r/TheRedPill, were a fixation of Elliot Rodger's.)
In the late 1990s, Angelucci joined the National Coalition for Men; he later founded the Los Angeles chapter and began filing lawsuits to force battered women's shelters to take men in too, alleging they were discriminatory. (One case ended in a ruling requiring state-funded shelters to do so.) Angelucci has also fought to make the draft compulsory for women, and he has worked to water down the Violence Against Women Act.
Farrell, who serves on the advisory board of Angelucci's group and strongly supports these efforts, says the goal is "to create equality" and force discussion of issues such as domestic violence against men.
As Angelucci did battle in the courts, the dot-com era was taking hold, and men's rights activists scattered around the country were coalescing into an online movement. The manosphere was littered not only with anti-feminist diatribes but also with racism, homophobia, and far-right conspiracy theories. One early site, Fathers Manifesto, interspersed excerpts of Farrell's writing with calls to exile blacks from America and claims that Catholic priests were sexually abusing children as part of a plot to spread AIDS.
Farrell, a self-proclaimed technophobe, rarely ventured online, but he continued to write books and seek publicity for his cause. In 2003, he ran for governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger on a fathers' rights platform, garnering around 600 votes. Later, Farrell approached the Obama administration with a proposal for a White House Council for Men and Boys and signed on luminaries like former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, but the plan did not come to fruition.
It wasn't until recent controversies drew attention to the men's rights movement that Farrell began to feel his ideas were having a real impact. During an interview on NPR's All Things Considered in September, Farrell suggested that men's rights activists were tackling the very problems that may prompt young men to go on shooting rampages. "We're all in jeopardy," he said, "if we don't pay attention to the cries of pain and isolation and alienation that are happening among our sons."
During Farrell's private workshop in Detroit, he focused on male sacrifice. "What I'm going to ask you to do is just close your eyes with me for a moment. I'm going to ask you to find a time in your father's life when your father had what you would say is a glint in his eye." As the men bowed their heads, he told a story about a man who went home after one of his workshops and spoke to his father. "He said, 'Dad, I realized that I had thought a lot about me but not a lot about you. I didn't ask you about what your sacrifices were and what really made you happy.' And his dad's response was to cry for the first time that he had ever seen his father cry."
When the men lifted their heads, their faces were flush with emotion. Farrell went around the room asking them to share their stories. Tom, a portly, gray-haired man with Coke-bottle glasses, described how his father, a textile worker, had struggled for 20 years before stumbling into a college teaching job and finding a modicum of fulfillment. "I didn't really realize how much of a glint in his eye it was until he passed away," Tom said. "Unfortunately, he didn't stick around very much to enjoy it."
Next up was Brian, a lanky, bearded 30-year-old barge hand who'd driven up from Tennessee for the event. After his parents' divorce, he only saw his father—a power line technician who was a workaholic—once or twice a year. "The joy in him was buried so deep that it took me a minute to get clarity on where the glint came from," Brian explained as he broke down crying. "It came from me—when he'd see me step off the plane." As Brian spoke, Farrell wrapped an arm around his shoulder. Some of the other men wiped away tears or buried their heads in their hands.
Later Matt, a clean-cut young man in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, recalled how his father spent decades working a job he hated at the IRS. Only last December, after his father passed away, did Matt realize that his father had harbored a secret passion for writing. "Basically he drank himself to death. And when my siblings and I were cleaning out his apartment we found a lot of empty liquor bottles, but also a lot of unpublished poetry and scripts," he said, looking down. "Also, I found his application to the federal government, which was from 1971—about the same month my older brother was conceived. So things sort of fell into place for me."
Farrell had repeatedly asked me to serve as a stand-in for women—I was the only one present—and at the end of the exercise he called me to the front of the room and asked me to interview some of the men so that they could practice discussing their concerns. First up was Jim, a slender, amiable ex-professor with freckles and curly red hair. When I asked how he became interested in men's rights, he faced the group and flashed a sly smile. "Well, my ex-wife had a lot to do with that," he said. "She had me arrested for the crime of domestic violence. I went to trial because I was innocent, and I spent six months in a box with other angry men. I lost my job and my career."
"Make good eye contact," Farrell prodded. "Connect from the heart, so you can keep track of where you're connecting with her and where you're disconnecting." Jim spun around, looked at me intently, and further explained that the episode had sparked his interest in "general biases against men in society."
The next morning, 100 or so men were scattered around the VFW's main hall, a vast, fluorescent-lit room with a wood-paneled bar and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. A group from Farrell's workshop ushered me over to where they were sitting. Jim, the redhead, smiled and patted me on the back, as if to say, "Welcome to the club."
At the podium, Farrell was introducing Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men. Farrell explained how he'd initially heard that the site was a hub for "angry" activists, but later discovered it was a thoughtful group of people wrestling with the same issues he cared about. He added that one of the main differences between him and his protégé was that Elam was "secure enough internally to allow the space for the anger." He then embraced Elam, who went on to give a speech about the plight of blue-collar men.
A gruff man with a thick charcoal beard and glasses perched on the end of his nose, Elam says he long sensed that working men had gotten a raw deal but that he couldn't put a finger on the problem until he cracked open The Myth of Male Power in the early 1990s and had his red-pill moment. "The next thing you know, I was two days without sleep reading it," he told me during an interview last fall. "It turned my world upside down."
Elam, who had been working as a drug and alcohol counselor, became convinced that his field was rife with anti-male bias. "We began to identify and treat masculinity as the disease and the cure for it was misandry—the hatred of men and boys," he would later write. "Men's groups devolved into sessions of shame, clinically applied and charged for by the hour." Elam began raising unsettling questions, such as why women checking into the clinic were routinely asked whether they'd been battered while men were asked whether they'd hit their wives. His colleagues' reaction was "incredibly hostile," he told me, which only stoked his rage. Eventually, he waded into the manosphere. While he was put off by the bigotry and conspiracy mongering, he believed the internet could help rally scattered men's rights activists into a formidable movement. In 2009, Elam, who was now working as a truck driver, launched A Voice for Men from a laptop in the cab of his 18-wheeler. "I aimed to attract the kind of people who could make a movement," he said, "women, people of color, gay men—anybody regardless of demographic, as long as they were aware of and concerned by issues of men."
A Voice for Men has succeeded in bringing some women into the fold, among them Karen Straughan, a brash fortysomething waitress turned YouTube sensation. Her most popular video, "Feminism and the Disposable Male," which rehashes the central theme of The Myth of Male Power, has racked up more than a million views. A Voice for Men also works with Janet Bloomfield, a driving force behind the viral social-media campaign Women Against Feminism, which features photos of women holding signs with anti-feminist slogans.
Elam pairs his big-tent approach with brazen, in-your-face rhetoric. When video surfaced last September of NFL star Ray Rice punching out his fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator, Elam argued that Rice was justified because she had lunged at him (though he suggested Rice shouldn't have hit her so hard). Elam has also dubbed October "Bash a Violent Bitch Month" and declared that men who are physically attacked by women should "beat the living shit out of them."
"I don't mean subdue them, or deliver an open-handed pop on the face to get them to settle down," he wrote on his website. "I mean literally to grab 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. And then make them clean up the mess."
Elam says the post was a satirical retort to the feminist blog Jezebel, which had made light of women hitting their boyfriends. He also maintains that A Voice for Men deploys over-the-top language and tactics because it's the only way to overcome public indifference and draw attention to the urgent problems facing men. "I don't know a social movement that has made any progress without anger," he told me. "We all saw what happened with Warren Farrell. He spent 40 years engaging in very reasoned, polite discourse about men and boys, and society basically said, 'So what?'" (Read Elam's post-publication response to this story here.)
But such rhetoric could lead to violence, warns Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. "When you have a movement pumping out nasty propaganda, it invariably finds fertile ground in the mind of someone like Elliot Rodger or the man behind the 1989 Montreal massacre," she says, referring to 25-year-old Marc Lépine, a misogynist who shot 14 women to death at a university.
Beirich cited a third example: mass murderer Anders Breivik, who carried out attacks on a government building and summer camp in Norway in 2011, killing 77 children and adults. Breivik wrote a manifesto that seized on men's rights ideology—he declared that fathers had become "disposable," that women use their "erotic capital" to "manipulate" men, and that the media turns men into a "touchy-feely subspecies who bows to the radical feminist agenda." Men's rights activist Peter Andrew Nolan, who runs a site called Crimes Against Fathers, praised Breivik, suggesting he was "a hero." (Some men's rights activists, including Elam, disavow Nolan as a dangerous radical.)
The same year, a distraught father named Thomas Ball, who had been denied visitation with his daughters, walked up to a courthouse in New Hampshire and laid his driver's license and car keys on the steps. He then doused himself with gasoline and pulled out a lighter. Following Ball's death, A Voice for Men published his manifesto, which called on aggrieved men to "start burning down police stations and courthouses" and warned there would be "some casualties in this war." The group insisted it wasn't encouraging bloodshed by publishing the document, which has since been taken down. "I regard violence as a bad outcome to be avoided," then editor in chief* John Hembling wrote on the group's website. "But it's coming."
Soon after, A Voice for Men launched a site called Register-Her.com; modeled after sex offender registries, it purported to track female murderers and rapists, as well as women who scheme against men. The site's motto: "Fuck Their Shit Up."
"Mary Jane Rottencrotch wants to say that her husband beat her just for the sake of gaining leverage in a divorce," Elam complained on his online radio show. The solution, he said, was to give the husband a place to publish her personal information, "even the route she takes to work, if she bothers to have a job." Elam added that there would no longer be "any place to hide on the internet anymore" for "lying bitches."
Publicizing personal information to make someone a target of harassment (a.k.a. "doxing") is a common practice among men's rights activists. In late 2013, someone posted photos of Rachel Cassidy, a 20-year-old college student in Ohio, on the anonymous online forum 4chan, alleging she had lodged false rape accusations. Nolan, who has made it his mission to "name and shame" women who wrongly accuse men, dug up every bit of information he could find about Cassidy and posted it to Crimes Against Fathers. Police and university officials were explicit that Cassidy had nothing to do with the rape charges in question. Nevertheless, she was inundated with hateful messages and death threats, forcing her to delete all her social-media accounts and quit attending classes.
The venomous tactics deployed by some men's rights activists have helped fuel a backlash against Warren Farrell. One cool evening in November 2012, Farrell arrived at the University of Toronto to deliver a speech on the "boy crisis." A throng of angry students was massing near the auditorium entrance. Campus police hustled Farrell in through a rear door, but backstage he could hear demonstrators chanting, "Fuck Warren Farrell! No hate speech on campus!" Soon protesters in black hoodies were barricading the entrance and heckling ticket holders: "Fucking rape apologist! Incest-supporting, women-hating, fucking scum!"
A Voice for Men posted footage of the protests, edited to play up images of angry feminists taunting police as they cleared the scene. The video went viral and helped make Elam's site a leading outlet for the movement. A Voice for Men later started posting video from other feminist demonstrations and publishing the names and photos of some of the protesters on Register-Her.com.
A few months after the Toronto incident, Elam, who hadn't known Farrell previously, met Farrell at his Marin County home. "I had been just walking around with a great big man crush for 20 years, and suddenly there he was," Elam said. He began publishing Farrell's writings on his site, and Farrell started cohosting a monthly online chat with Elam. Soon, a new generation of activists was clamoring to read The Myth of Male Power. In early 2014, Farrell published a new edition; the cover featured a woman's bare derriere, a paean to women's Delilah-like sexual power.
"I felt that it was a tasteful message that had not been communicated effectively to women about how powerless men feel around the beautiful woman's body," Farrell told me. Cupping a hand over his crotch, he added, "Our upper brains stop working and the lower brain starts working."
Following Elliot Rodger's murder rampage last May, Farrell and the men's rights movement drew attention like never before. There is no evidence that Rodger (or other killers) had any ties to Farrell, Elam, or men's rights organizations. But commentators highlighted Rodger's focus on the Pickup Artist scene and his ideas about women and their sexual dominion over men. "They think like beasts," he wrote.
Conservatives rushed in to defend the men's movement: Helen Smith, who blogs for the website PJ Media, argued that "feminists and their supporters who block funding and education going to boys' and men's issues" may have been to blame for Rodger's attack. After the protesters showed up at the Hilton DoubleTree in Detroit, Fox News suggested their goal was "muzzling" men. "Feminists are up in arms, calling a men's conference a hate group even though it included all races and sexes," said morning show host Steve Doocy, pointing to the diverse community Elam had built. "So who are the ones being intolerant?" An opinion piece on cnn.com by Marc Randazza, a First Amendment lawyer who has spoken up for Rush Limbaugh, violent video games, and the pornography industry, suggested that A Voice for Men had endured protests and threats simply because it had the "audacity to question certain issues from a man's perspective."
Missing from that coverage were the group's fierce tactics, which have continued unabated. In October, with vicious misogyny raging online around the Gamergate controversy, feminist pop-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian canceled a talk at Utah State University after administrators received an email threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history." A Voice for Men responded with an essay asserting that the email's author was in fact a feminist posing as a men's rights activist, and insinuating that Sarkeesian stood to profit from the episode.
The same month, A Voice for Men set up a copycat website that appeared intended to divert traffic and donations from the White Ribbon Campaign, a violence prevention group founded in response to the 1989 mass shooting in Montreal. In addition to claiming that its namesake was a scam, Elam's fake White Ribbon site argued that "corrupt" academics have conspired to cover up the epidemic of violence against men, and that women's shelters are "hotbeds of gender hatred." When critics called him out for the deceptive site, Elam wrote a scathing retort. "Go right straight to Hell, you gang of bigoted, lying scumbags," it read. "That is, if Hell will even have you pieces of shit."
On day three of the Detroit conference, Elam was speaking from the podium in the main VFW hall. "One of the things that we've missed in this culture, especially over the last 50 or 60 years, is mentoring," he said. "But I also think that we adapt, especially as men, and that we can receive mentoring from their words, which I've received for many years now from Dr. Farrell."
Farrell posing in 1987 with Gloria Steinem. Wikimedia
Farrell, who had joined him on the stage, wiped away a tear and gave Elam a hug. "Paul, that was really beautiful," Farrell said, touching his hand to his heart. He described how his father, after reading the first draft of The Myth of Male Power, had asked him if he was prepared to wait a whole generation for his book to be acknowledged. "Like my dad said, 21 years later, that's finally happening. It's happening here. It's happening now. It's happening with us. It's happening, in part, because of Paul Elam." Farrell then asked everyone who had contributed to Elam's site, or "gone the distance" to attend the conference, to stand and give themselves a round of applause.
Two nights before, I'd met some of the men from Farrell's workshop at an Irish pub. They were huddled around a long table on the patio. Jim, the redhead, hugged me and offered me his stool, and Peter, a sweet sixtysomething man with bifocals and a broom-handle mustache, came over to tell me that the workshop had inspired him to be more supportive of his son, who had a child out of wedlock. "I want to tell him how proud I am of him for being a good father," he said as his eyes welled with tears.
Later in the evening, a man named Kevin sidled up and grabbed my hand. His breath smelled of alcohol and he was twitching and swaying within inches of my face. He told me a rambling story about a woman he dated who had put another man in prison on false rape charges. He claimed to have landed in jail for a week himself over phony abuse allegations. "Magically, your soon-to-be ex-wife finds an attorney," he said, "and it's basically all lies from then on." With a note of triumph, he added that he left his job as a program manager for Microsoft around his 2008 divorce to avoid paying taxes to a "corrupt government" he believes coddles women at men's expense.
When I got up to leave, Kevin handed me a business card for "John Galt Industries" (a reference to the anti-government hero of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged). As I tucked it in my pocket and headed for the door, he trailed me so closely that I could feel his breath on my neck. "I'm not stalking you," he said. "I'm not stalking you."
Correction: The original version of this story in the January/February 2015 issue of the magazine misstated Hembling's job title.