It’s a difficult time to be an American man—the middle class is shrinking, the ice caps are melting, and everybody’s so touchy about rape these days.
An “International Tribal Meetup Day,” planned for February 6 in Duluth’s Leif Erikson Park, was intended as a meet-and-greet and to—seriously—brainstorm ways to make rape legal. Similar events were planned all over the country, organized by Return of Kings, a blog run by Roosh Valizadeh, who is currently one of the more visible figures in the “men’s rights movement.”
Valizadeh suggested the rally as a way to show that there are men in every town who are really tired of women thinking it’s ok to speak up if sex is hurting them. (Really. According to Return of Kings, one of many indicators that “a girl isn’t worth a relationship” is if she kicks up a fuss that you’re hurting her in bed.)
Within the men’s rights movement, Return of Kings is extreme, but it’s only a matter of degree. They all share a belief that men are entitled to women, whom they characterize as conniving and dishonest. They claim men experience the brunt of sexism. They commonly blame feminism, while minimizing issues like domestic violence and rape and/or claiming men are more often the victims of rape, partner violence, and false accusations.
Return of Kings suggests men videotape their sexual encounters—without the woman’s knowledge—so they can protect themselves from false allegations of rape, which Return of Kings believes are rampant. “Not only is a woman’s word being taken above that of a man’s, often with full media encouragement and provocation, but 1 in 4 women are now certifiably mentally ill...”
In the run-up to the February 6 rally, Valizadeh said rape on private property should not be a crime. “I propose that we make the violent taking of a woman not punishable by law when done off public grounds,” he posted on Return of Kings in February 2015. “Without daddy government to protect her, a girl would absolutely not enter a private room with a man she doesn’t know or trust unless she is absolutely sure she is ready to sleep with him. Consent is now achieved when she passes underneath the room’s door frame, because she knows that that man can legally do anything he wants to her...”
Valizadeh did not return calls seeking comment.
Such extreme sentiments may not be endorsed by other—ostensibly more moderate—men’s rights activists (MRA)s, but they all have the same underpinnings in retaliation against second-wave feminism, as described in Susan Faludi’s 1991 book, Backlash:
The truth is the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women.
This counterassault is largely insidious: in a kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s position have actually led to their downfall.
“It’s interesting,” says Emily Gaarder, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, “when those who have been in positions of power and privilege see another group gain power, they seem to think they have lost something...I think some of those father’s rights groups are part of a backlash of courts being more willing to understand domestic violence and actually starting to see the perspective of victim advocates.”
The father’s rights movement is not interchangeable with the men’s rights movement, but there is overlap. Fathers4Justice, which describes maternal custody as an “obscenity,” claims, “Successive governments have deliberately removed the need for a father legally, emotionally and biologically through legislation. We now have a generation of socially engineered fatherless families.”
Fathers4Justice asserts that men “have no legal right to see their children,” despite being required to pay child support. The group’s “fact sheet” contends that 40 percent of domestic violence victims are men.
Return of Kings spreads the same misinformation, just in more extreme language. “[T]he threshold [to deny child custody] is invariably much, much higher for mothers than fathers. A man need only have the audacity to leave his wife or anger her during the divorce, to the point where she demands sole or primary custody.”
Return of Kings takes it one step further and proposes that unmarried mothers should be forced to put their children up for adoption, because, “Girls who lack fatherly discipline become broken women.”
Most of these claims by the MRAs are demonstrably false. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 60 percent of rape victims and 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women.
Pew Research found that 67 percent of sole child custody is, indeed, awarded to the mother—but only 11 percent of fathers seek sole custody. Since the 1980s, courts have defaulted to joint legal and physical custody, which comprises nearly three-quarters of custody arrangements.
As for mental health, it appears about equally in men and women, according to the American Psychological Association, although some diagnoses are more common in one gender or the other. Eighteen percent of the US population—both male and female combined—have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Return of Kings almost reads as parody, but unfortunately it’s not, and women who are targeted by MRAs have reason to be fearful. Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the blog Feminist Frequency, used Kickstarter to fund a study of the depiction of women in video games.
Her project turned dark fast. Sarkeesian received rape and death threats through social media. Someone wrote a video game in which players could punch her in the face, causing her to bleed and bruise. Her Wikipedia page was hacked with pornography. Eventually her home address and telephone number were published online.
“I think that we live in a world that is awash in violence against women,” Gaarder says, “To expect women to say, ‘Oh, gee, it’s just on the Internet. I guess I shouldn’t be concerned,’ is just ridiculous.
“Many people, especially younger people, spend a lot of time and energy on the Internet, so to act as though what is happening in online forums and blogs is inconsequential simply because it’s online doesn’t really speak to how it feels when you’re the one being targeted.”
When Return of Kings announced its pro-rape rally, activists in Duluth organized a candlelight vigil and march through Leif Erikson Park in counter-protest. “I said this is unacceptable and we won’t stand for it,” says Kim Young, one of the organizers of the counter-protest.
“Sexism isn’t as overt as it used to be,” Gaarder says. “So when we see it happening in such obvious ways, it rears its ugly head and we can say, ‘See? This is what we were talking about.’”
Three days before the rally, Return of Kings called it off. “I can no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend on February 6, especially since most of the meetups can not be made private in time,” Valizadeh posted on the site. He didn’t explain when or how his original purpose of standing up to be counted apparently changed to planning a private event.
Young’s group proceeded to raise awareness on February 6 anyway, holding signs downtown that said, “No More Rape,” and then going ahead with the procession and candlelight vigil to honor victims of sexual assault.
“It was a really good night and it was really good for solidarity building. And many men came out to support us, which I was really happy about.”
Duluthian Joe Kelly, for example, even identifies as a “father’s rights activist” himself—but in a very different way than other groups that use the term. In addition to publishing the girls’ empowerment magazine, New Moon, with his wife, Nancy, Kelly founded the non-profit Dads and Daughters, where he encourages men to find ways to build a relationship with their daughters.
It’s impossible to know how many MRAs there are—in Duluth or anywhere else—but, although they seem to lurk mostly in the corners of cyberspace, they feed on and reflect the misogyny in mainstream culture, according to Christopher Godsey, a PhD candidate at UMD who leads batterers’ recovery groups.
“I think one of the open secrets about...men who identify as MRAs or Roosh V. followers, is that it’s a distillation of the general dominant culture that we all live in; it’s not separate from that culture. I think these beliefs are the water we swim in. They’re the air we breathe.”
Aprill Emig is a recipient of the Larry Oakes Journalism Scholarship. She is a senior, studying philosophy, journalism, and women’s studies at UMD, where she serves as managing editor of The Statesman. She is assistant news producer at KUMD radio, innovations editor at Lake Voice News, and a contributor to Congdon Magazine.