If you’ve spent any time talking about feminist issues on the internet, you’re probably familiar with men’s rights activists (MRAs). Generally speaking, MRAs hate feminism and believe it’s at least partly responsible for the downfall of society and the gender-based oppression of men.
And if you’ve ever said something on the internet that pisses off a bunch of MRAs, as I have, you know that it’s like stepping in a fire ant hill. People swarm your Twitter feed with outrage and vitriol, and blocking or muting individual accounts can only do so much. It’s the kind of pattern that spawned Gamergate, which sent several women game designers into hiding due to persistent, targeted harassment.
At the same time, though, some of these activists raise important points about the issues facing men and boys — like the fact that men suffer disproportionately from suicide and homelessness, for instance. It seems obvious that men have their own unique, gendered struggles with things like social isolation, or living up to society’s ideals of "manhood." Surely, I thought, there is a way to engage with these ideas in good faith, and to help men deal with these very real problems, without toxic feminist bashing.
At least one online community — on Reddit, no less — is trying to do exactly that. Matthew Hodges, founder of the r/MensLib subreddit, reached out to me this summer and encouraged me to check out the group, and what I saw was remarkable.
Here was a space featuring serious, constructive conversations about how to lift men up without bringing women down. It doesn’t shy away from words like "intersectionality" — like the original "men’s liberation movement" of the 1970s, MensLib is explicitly pro-feminist, but its focus is on how restrictive gender roles hurt men in particular.
It features discussions about topics like the cavalier treatment of male rape in pop culture, or how homophobia is toxic to male friendships, or how to improve services for men who are victims of abuse. And it features real-world activism, like compiling a list of resources for men, holding fundraisers for advocacy groups, and organizing community volunteer events.
I spoke on the phone with Hodges, a 32-year-old attorney who lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, about MensLib and how to change the conversation on men’s issues. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did MensLib get started? What inspired you to create it?
I had gotten really into observing the online gender wars. It was entertaining for a while, and then it started to get pretty depressing. You had people on both sides of these issues who are passionate about the parts that they care about — but what they're really passionate about is arguing, and making the other side look bad.
After a while, I realized that I either needed to stop observing it or I needed to try to help fix it. So I started thinking that what we needed was an actual solutions- and positivity-focused men's group, where we could talk about these issues that are so important but ditch some of the bad habits of what we've seen before.
And there was just this humongous response. We had 2,000 people who were interested in MensLib just in the first few days of being live [in August 2015], and we started trying to craft what we wanted to see out of that kind of community. That’s still an ongoing discussion, but for the most part I think we have settled on a mission statement and approach that's working pretty well.
I founded it, and I make some limited executive decisions, but this is so much a team effort — I work with a team of moderators who are some of the kindest and most good-humored and dedicated and passionate people I’ve ever met in my life.
We’ve become something that people talk about online when men's issues come up, which is really gratifying for us. They’ll talk about the issues with the men’s rights movement, and someone will pipe up and go, "Have you checked out MensLib? They're doing something different; these guys actually care about men's issues."
Our growth is small but steady. We’re building kind of a quality over quantity route when it comes to recruitment, which I think is fine, because we're trying to do something that is a bit more difficult. This discussion is so often characterized by slap fighting and vitriol, which can be really seductive — whereas the progress that we need is a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion. And that doesn't have the grab of telling people, "Here’s why you're angry, and here's who you're blaming."
How do you actually go about creating a less toxic culture in this community? How do you enforce these norms? What’s out of bounds?
Reddit likes to talk about the values of free speech — but a lot of times what you see is people using "free speech" as a bludgeon to shout down opposition. So we have a couple of strong rules about, in particular, civility. We regularly remove comments that cross the line into being personally insulting.
One of our strong rules is try not to paint whole groups of people with a broad brush. So for instance, if you want to talk about a particular policy that a particular group advocated for, you can talk about the policy and criticize it. But you're not going to use that as a soapbox to say, "And this is why feminists are horrible."
We really do believe that gender issues, for the most part, are often flip sides of the same coin. If a women's group is talking about getting more women into the workforce or into executive positions, the flip side men's issue is the pressure on men to be in the workforce instead of being at home, and fighting that stereotype of men not being caretakers of their family.
So we’re trying to just encourage people to look for those commonalities. And if you have a specific criticism, make it a specific criticism. There's always a way to frame a criticism not as some rage bait, but rather as, we're honestly looking for solutions. We want to make a proposal as to how this thing could change.
I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on the broader men’s rights movement and how you fit into it. Are there self-identified MRAs who aren’t just rage-baiting and who are doing good work?
Our policy at MensLib is we're not throwing shade at feminists, and we're also trying not to throw too much shade at the men’s rights movement.
I think, fundamentally, there are many individuals within the men’s rights movement who genuinely care about men's issues. And up until not too long ago, the MRM was pretty much the only game in town for that. It’s been just in the past couple of years that some of these other organizations have started up to try to redirect the conversation toward something more positive — not just MensLib but also places like the Good Men Project.
But the tactics the men’s rights movement has decided to use — in many ways, it’s the dark mirror image of what we do. It’s a lot of focus on anger and outrage, a lot of focus on pointing fingers and line drawing. This very "us versus them" or "you're with us or you're against us" mentality.
It really does just come down to tactics. If you're spending all of your time being belligerent or outright hostile or hateful online, that's what you're going to get back. Which, ultimately, is bad for men as individuals, because it's just not healthy to be that angry all the time. It's also unhelpful for men's issues — because if that's the face of men's issues advocacy, then nobody's going to take men's issues seriously.
We did a demographic survey not too long ago, and it showed that about 70 percent of our members identify strongly or very strongly with the label "feminist." And something like 35 percent of our members are women. So it's not like women aren't taking men's issues seriously, either.
We look at feminism as, in general, a movement for the equality of the genders. And that means that men have a place at that table too, because there are gendered issues that impact men. And the framework of feminism, the analytical lens of looking at gender roles, dissecting them, deconstructing them if they're unhealthy — that's just as applicable to men's issues as it is to a lot of women’s issues.
The men’s rights movement is much more in the "feminism is a bad word" camp. They like to treat it as a monolith and say if you identify as a feminist, that means you must co-sign everything Andrea Dworkin ever said.
[Bursts into laughter] Yes! I have had this exact conversation so many times!
And I know so many feminists who have exactly the reaction you just had. As soon as you say, "I think feminism has some good ideas," somebody is going to mail you a copy of the Scum Manifesto and start yelling about how feminists think all men are rapist pigs. That's just not the case at all.
But if you treat it like a monolith like that, of course everybody who identifies as feminist is going to be upset when you're saying, "You're a dyed-hair, thick-glasses-wearing, bra-burning man hater." If you start out insulting everybody who could possibly identify with that term, then yeah, they're not going to take you seriously, and they're certainly not going to take your issues seriously.
Let’s talk about the substance of those issues. What are the biggest problems that men’s advocacy is trying to address? What’s the analysis of what the causes and solutions might be?
I think there are a couple of things going on. There is this overarching issue of masculinity, and our perceptions and expectations about masculinity, and the way that does or does not fit into the world we're living in now.
One of the really prominent men's issues right now is the education gap, which we know is a thing, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Boys are falling behind starting in elementary school, up to a pretty stark graduation rate difference in college, and then in grad school the graduation gap is gigantic.
Then there’s men’s mental health, including depression, relationships, and societalization. Not just romantic relationships, but also that men tend to become more isolated as they go through life, and don't have support networks the way women tend to. There’s also a lot of body image and eating disorder and substance abuse stuff.
Men’s health is its own kind of standalone issue — men-specific health problems and men’s access to health care. We know men don’t go to the doctor as much, and when they do, they don't tell the doctor about things. That’s also tied up with this overarching issue of how men are portrayed or how men are supposed to act.
I think the changing nature of men in the workforce or home life is a big thing, and that also has a subset of other problems. So we're talking about men in the workforce, and also paternity rights, child custody, and caretaking. The way that men are portrayed, whether they're in the workforce or a stay-at-home dad.
As for what to do about it, I think there are a number of excellent groups that are tackling some of the finer-grained issues. There’s the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a UK organization that focuses on men's mental health and suicide support. Their mission and mandate is to make sure their name is out there so men know somebody they can reach out to for help.
We’ve seen some efforts to promote services like that in the places where men gather — clubs, bowling leagues, bars.
There are legal groups tackling things like male rape in prison, like Just Detention International. And their efforts are also helped out by groups like MaleSurvivor, which are much more like support and recovery sort of networks for men who have experienced sexual violence.
In a lot of ways, men's issues need the same suite of targeted support that women’s issues have. And for them to be able to coordinate efforts, and make sure efforts aren't being duplicated — but rather that every group has a mandate, and that they can all collaborate to tackle different aspects of that same issue.
I think another really important thing is not to treat men's issues as if they're trying to steal the spotlight from any other important issues — but rather welcome them at the table of the broader social justice movement. Treat them like they’re just as important as other aspects of making this world a better place.
It seems like the men’s rights issue I hear about the most, both anecdotally from friends and from MRAs, is divorce and custody. Men losing custody even if their female partner is abusive, really unfair-sounding child support arrangements, that kind of thing. What are your thoughts on that?
That whole issue is such a bugaboo. Without pointing fingers, I think that different groups will cherry-pick the numbers that best support the argument they're trying to make. I've ended up reading a lot about this issue — and the more you read, the less you know. That just means we need more studies.
It seems like a lot of the rhetoric around child custody has less to do with custody and more with child support payments — taking an individualized grievance and turning it into a societal problem that may or may not exist to the extent that you're saying it exists.
If we take for granted that men get screwed in custody court settlements, which I don't, we're still only talking about something like 4 percent of divorces. The other 96 percent are decisions that are made without ever seeing a judge. So even if family court is screwing fathers over, it's a tiny proportion of the custody issue.
And maybe where you should be focusing your attention is not on the 4 percent of cases that get decided by a court, but rather addressing the societal expectations about men and their children. Or figure out why so many men don't take responsibility for their kids once there's a divorce and they make an arrangement with the mother.
On the flip side, we know older judges do tend to have ingrained bias about the relative ability of mother or father to be primary caretaker. What’s encouraging is that we're seeing that gap narrow a lot, and we are getting closer to a 50-50 split, or ideally not having a gender preference and just looking at who is the best primary caretaker.
We do have institutional biases, but it's also a cultural problem.
How can we prevent men’s issues and women’s issues from feeling oppositional or antagonistic toward one another?
In our space, we just don't do it. We’re just really strict about, you know, this is what's come before and we don't find it helpful. This isn't your place to soapbox or to just try to poke holes in the other side.
We’ve talked some about trying to export that to the internet at large, and that's a monumental task. I think our role in that is to at least help model the discussion.
Tell me more about the activism piece. Do you have particular activist goals, meetups, things like that? Or is it more about setting an example for how to have these conversations?
Our main thrust right now is to model that better discussion, and just to create and provide a space to have it. But we also want to be putting our money and our actions where our mouths are.
So we've done a number of projects. For International Men's Day last year we worked on and released a resources for men guide, with a list of support organizations and other resources broken down by issue category [like mental health and suicide prevention, support for men who are victims of rape or domestic violence, homelessness resources, and support for gay, bi, and trans men].
And this is partially in response to this talking point that you hear a lot, which is that there are no support resources for men. That’s just not true. There are tons of organizations that either provide targeted support for men as part of their mission — or that is their mission, to address this issue in the way it impacts men.
We’ve done a number of fundraisers on an ad hoc basis. We’ve done fundraisers for CALM and for Barbershop Books — which puts bookshelves full of books into barbershops in inner cities, geared toward boys who are sitting around waiting for their parents to get their hair done, really targeted literacy support.
We’ve done AMAs, or Ask Me Anythings, with Ally Fogg, a journalist for the Guardian who writes about men’s issues, and Chris Anderson, the executive director of MaleSurvivor, which deals with sexual and relationship violence against men.
We’ve reached out to a number of other communities on Reddit in particular that provide targeted support for different issues — the rape subreddit, or survivors of abuse, or suicide watch. So when people come to us with specific personal concerns, we can offer them kind of generalized support and also point them toward communities that really focus on those issues.
How did you get interested in the men’s rights space to begin with, before you started this group?
I came really late to gender issues. I'm an attorney with a science background. I’ve worked on green building policies, sustainable city development, as well as a lot of food and agriculture and land use type stuff. Political organizing and activism is one of my professional focuses — and I think that that, more than any specific knowledge I have about the issues themselves, is what I bring to this group.
That’s why it's been really important to build a team of moderators with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Each of our mods has a different take on what they prioritize as men's issues, or specific policies to better serve those interests.
I think that fundamentally, since I was young, I was in favor of just a general sense of justice. Gay rights issues were a pretty big deal to me when I was in high school and college, growing up in the Great Plains of Omaha and in small-town Kansas. I had gay friends and saw how toxic masculinity works. Expectations of what a man or a boy should be had these negative impacts on people I cared about.
But I didn't really start with men's issues specifically until I had spent a while online just kind of observing the gender wars. When you read past the people screaming at each other and you see the issues at the root of it, you see that they’re important and need to be addressed. Men are killing themselves, partially because of not being able to live up to a masculine expectation. That’s literally a life-or-death issue.
Do you have a sense of how the broader men’s rights movement perceives MensLib?
Not positively. [Laughs] A lot of them tend to ignore us. There is a very vocal contingent that seems to absolutely despise us. A couple of these guys, I swear to God, they spend more time on our subreddit than most of our regular members do, just looking for things that they can disagree with us about. And then they take it off to their little communities and talk about how awful we are.
And I think part of that does come from our embracing of our allyship, or whatever you want to call it, with feminism as a large, abstract entity.
So many people are so convinced that feminism is the root of all of men’s issues. That any men who are okay with feminism are either suckers or trying to get feminists to sleep with them. We even get some conspiracy theorizing that all of us are actually women in disguise, trying to dismantle the men’s rights movement by pretending to be something better.
Is there any space in the broader men’s rights movement, other than you guys, that doesn’t blame feminism for men’s problems?
I'm not sure. I haven't seen it if there is. Every once in a while, someone will say, "I don't like the men’s rights movement blaming everything on feminism, but I also don't care for the way MensLib wants to use feminism to address men's issues. What we need is a real, like, men-centric movement."
And my issue with that argument is — well, okay, go do that if you want. We’re not changing what we're doing because you disagree with it. But also, if you look at feminism as an analytical framework for addressing gender issues, I don’t know what a third way is, really.
And then the argument comes down to, "I don't like that it's called fem-inism." Which, you know, we're just okay with. That's the historical root of the study, so that's what it's called. We don't feel like it debases men's issues to be using a technique that has "fem" in the name.
So I don’t know what that third way would look like, and I don’t think anybody has ever really demonstrated it. It kind of seems like you’re either using that toolbox to address men's issues or you're rejecting that toolbox. If you make up a new toolbox and slap "man" on it, you're still using all the tools of feminism, at least as far as I can tell.
The taxonomy wasn't quite right. MRAs may or may not be people who also like the "red pill." But the red pill doesn't really care for the men’s rights movement. The red pill is about embracing the alpha-dog mentality, treating women like children — whereas the men’s rights movement actually wants to talk about men's issues. And to the extent that they talk about women, women are the problem: not something to be manipulated, but rather something to be opposed because they're the ones who are being manipulative.
And then Men Going Their Own Way are people who have no patience for either of those two groups, because they just want to demonstrate how much they don't need women by constantly talking about how much they don't need women, I guess. And the red pill certainly has no patience for them, because their whole thing is getting laid all the time.
It’s sort of three groups, a Venn diagram that may overlap at the edges. And then MensLib may be its own little circle off to the side, and all of them are within a big set of "people who talk about men's issues." But there are very different approaches between the four different groups.
Also, nobody wants to take responsibility for Elliot Rodger. Nobody is going to acknowledge he may have shared beliefs with the group you're a part of. But I think ultimately, he’s one of the starkest portrayals we've ever had of toxic masculinity taken to its logical, horrible extreme.
What are some of the biggest controversies and debates within MensLib?
[Laughs] Oh, man, they're gonna hate me for this. But basically, anything that puts the responsibility on men. I think that's our biggest challenge, is introspection.
It’s one thing to talk about the male homelessness problem and the relative lack of support organizations for helping out men who are living homeless. Because that's actionable — you know, there's a funding bill coming up, and we can petition to have more funding put in for a social service organization or something like that. Or we can do a fundraiser for this shelter in this place that's already working on this issue.
But what’s really hard is having a conversation about, say, how all of the school shooters are men, and why is that. It’s really difficult to have that conversation without somebody popping up and saying, "Why are we blaming men for this issue?"
Well, it's not necessarily blaming men. It's blaming the men who do these things. But the fact that there’s such a gender split waggles its eyebrows suggestively at the idea that there’s something about gender that's at play there.
Also something like the HeForShe campaign, or Next Gen Men, who are focused on violence against women. A popular objection to that kind of effort is why do we blame all men for this issue that some men are committing? I try to rein that back and say we're not blaming all men, we're saying this is a problem men create. Not all men.
You do have to say "not all men" unironically, like every other word, because otherwise somebody’s gonna say, "I’m getting sick of these articles that want to paint all men as rapists."
But whether or not it’s palatable, it helps to try not to put men on the defensive. To talk about issues in the abstract without making them specific to the individual. Making it crystal clear that when I talk about this issue created by men, I am not talking about all men. I think that’s important.
I think part of it is men being on top for a long time, where they weren't the ones with the issue. And then it's kind of a new sensation to have your group be the one that's being critiqued and deconstructed.
And I know what some of my social justice activist friends would say about that. That you don't back down from speaking truth to power or institutional privilege. But I think it does make for more effective advocacy if you don't start off by alienating the audience that really needs to be hearing what you're saying. The person you disagree with needs to feel like you’re agreeing with them the whole time.