"Men's rights" group's sad reality: Behind the doors of a depressing confab

Their core problem: The idea of masculinity they so passionately defend interferes with the support they so crave

Published July 11, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1030501p1.html'>Dario Lo Presti</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Dario Lo Presti via Shutterstock)

At the VFW Hall in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, the First International Conference on Men’s Issues is about to begin. Attila Vinczer, the emcee, takes the stage. Before introducing Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, the organization running the conference, Vinczer wants to make something known.

“The fundamental, most important point is that we are safe,” Vinczer says. “We have security. Anyone that violates our rules, or becomes intolerable, will be ejected.”

I didn’t doubt it. When I arrived at the VFW about a half-hour before the scheduled start of events that morning, all the attendees were still standing outside. I was met at the door by two men carrying walkie-talkies and wearing black polos with white lettering that read “SECURITY.” Standing behind them were two St. Clair Shores police officers who patrolled the conference for the day. As I took my seat, a mild-mannered man asked me through a Southern accent if I was an “MRA” (Men’s Rights Advocate/Activist) and told the story of how he became one.

“I knew something was wrong from the age of 7,” he told me. “I did a class presentation in my grade school about how girls are allowed to hit boys and boys aren’t allowed to hit them back,” he said. “Needless to say, my teacher didn’t like me very much after that.”

Within the “manosphere,” a loose collection of blogs, forums and websites dedicated to  “Men’s Rights,” A Voice for Men may be the most visible and active. Paul Elam started the website in 2009 to write about what he sees as the “social malignancy” of feminism and the widespread oppression of men and boys. Elam and his team of writers point to high male suicide rates, “misandry” in the family court system, “false rape” accusations, domestic violence against men, and many, many other issues as evidence of male oppression. Their list of grievances reaches far and wide, but they always trace it to the apparent source: feminism.

Although Elam and the conference’s speakers claim to support equality, Elam is infamous for writing that women don’t just “ask” to be raped, but they’re “freaking begging for it. Damn near demanding it.” He once wrote to a feminist blogger, “I find you so pernicious and repugnant that the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection.” He created a website called “Register-Her” to list the personal information of feminists he doesn’t like and attract the attacks of other MRAs. Several women have been bombarded with vulgar, intimidating attacks following their critiques of AVoiceforMen.com or Register-Her, convincing some to erase their writing. Although Elam has scaled back his rhetoric in recent months, the articles and comments host a stream of sentiments like Elam’s.

A Voice for Men and its supporters took great pains to show that they were in danger of attacks from so-called violent feminists, making security a top priority since the early stages of planning. Soon after they announced the upcoming conference, which was to take place at the Double Tree Hotel in downtown Detroit, feminist organizers began a campaign petitioning the hotel to cancel it. AVfM characterized the organizers as a band of aggressive hooligans who were hell-bent on violently attacking the conference. They released a letter from the Double Tree Hotel stating that because of death threats, AVfM would have to hire additional security. Paul Elam created a crowd-funding page to cover security costs and contributions poured in. He made his goal within 24 hours, eventually topping out at $32,365. The protest at the Double Tree was without violent incidents and AVfM changed the venue, but the security remained.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes AVfM as “essentially a mouthpiece for its editor, Paul Elam.” This was probably true earlier on, but seeing the conference is enough to prove that the reality is much more complicated. The conference’s attendees were mostly white, middle-aged and 20-something men, as you might expect, but it wasn’t only them. Among the attendees and especially the speakers, for example, there were more than a handful of women. Before launching into her talk, “Equitable Relationships in the Age of Female Entitlement: An Oxymoron,” a long diatribe that sarcastically mocked “entitled” women whom she described as “jealous,” “manipulative,” “demeaning” and “predatory,” Dr. Tara Palmatier joked, “As the third woman presenter, my, aren’t we an interesting group of misogynists?” The crowd erupted in laughter.

I met a young, white woman named Ellen when she sat in my row before the talks began. As she sat down, smiling brightly, turning from side to side, shaking hands and introducing herself to everyone around her, I liked her immediately. “This is my first MRA conference,” she said to the group. “I’m so excited.”

Ellen is an entrepreneur from New York, where she helps first-generation immigrants make their businesses more American-friendly. She told me that she opposes feminism because it paints her as a victim. “People come into my business and say,  ‘It must be so hard for you, being a woman entrepreneur,’ and I say no! I’m smart. I’m capable. I’m not a ‘woman’ entrepreneur, I’m an entrepreneur!” After work, feminism follows her home. “My boyfriend does all the cooking and I do all the cleaning, but people have told me that he’s victimizing me.”

Patricia, an African-American woman who just finished her first year in college, spoke about men’s issues with calm confidence and poise. At school, she often hears arguments for feminism and respects some of them, but says that feminism tends to be one-sided. “They focus on violence against women, but not violence against men. They talk about the objectification of women, but never objectification of men,” she told me. She came to the conference by herself to hear another side of the story, and so far, she had liked what she heard.

Anne Cools, the longest-running senator in Canada, gave the first talk, explaining the ways that Canadian family law disadvantages men. Cools said that while divorce and domestic violence are not the fault of either sex alone, the act of “depriving” a man of his house, wife and children is dangerous. That deprivation, Cools said, drives men to homicidal impulses, and it’s a “foolish woman, or a foolish mate, who drives a man to engaging those impulses.”

Following Cools was Erin Pizzey, described as a legendary figure in the U.K.’s Men’s Rights community. Drawing from her decades of Men’s Rights experience, Pizzey explained that there never was a woman’s movement – only a “handful of Marxist women turning against men on the left who decided to make a multibillion-dollar industry – an ‘Evil Empire.’” As for what this industry is, exactly, Pizzey left us unenlightened.

Terrance Popp, a veteran, spoke about military suicide, which he blamed entirely on divorce. He played a dramatic, disturbing short film called “The Reason for Veteran Suicides.” While the film shows a veteran suiting up for his suicide, a voice-over says, “Because she is not happy, now I’m a felon. Because she’s not happy, now I must go to prison,” and so on. The video closes with shocking statistics: “70% of Iraq War Veterans return to divorce. Within 5 years of their return, 90% get divorced.” Asked where he got the numbers, Popp replied that they were based on his impressions. The questioner nodded in understanding.

No matter the speaker, no matter the topic, every single talk received a standing ovation.

During the lunch break on day two, at a sandwich shop a couple of miles down the road, I sat down with a group of young men who heard about the conference on Freedomain Radio, a popular libertarian podcast hosted by Stefan Molyneux, who spoke at the conference about the evils of circumcision and blamed the widespread violence of men on their mothers. At lunch, one of Molyneux’s fans nodded when I asked if they had had personal experiences with men’s oppression. Through a deep, yet soft-spoken voice, he shared that at age 14, a girl at school playfully pushed him. To the girl’s surprise, he pushed her back. By the next day, students were calling him a “woman beater” and his older sisters were asking what was wrong with him. More than a decade later, he found himself still wrestling with this experience in counseling. At the conference, he said, he felt he could open up.

Another man at the table agreed. Men are always told to “man up” and “deal with it,” when they face difficulty, he said, but “men have feelings too.”

“At this conference,” one man explained, “I’m hearing that other men have gone through the same things as me,” he said. “I have support.”

Between talks that characterized women as dependent, weak and overly emotional, and men as strong, “good,” but oppressed, I heard this sentiment over and over. Men attending the conference commiserated about their unmet need for support and intimacy. These men want to have relationships that allow them to share their feelings and be comforted. What AVfM misses, among other things, is that the idea of masculinity that they so passionately defend interferes with their search for support.

The security is a case in point. In the lead-up to the conference, AVfM and its supporters couldn’t stop talking about the dangerous, violent feminists who wanted to stop their conference, but they failed to produce any credible evidence of this. They claimed that the Double Tree Hotel received threats, and a letter that they claim was written by the Double Tree alleges this as well. However, the Double Tree has not confirmed that they received threats publicly or that the letter is authentic. The Detroit Police confirmed that the Double Tree called to ask about security rates, but not that they had received any threats. In promoting the conference, A Voice for Men pointed over and over to comments by one person, which protest organizers denounced and deleted, or videos of feminists at protests yelling angrily.

During the conference, Dr. Palmatier summarized feminism as the “radical notion that women are morally superior to men.” Karen Straughan argued that feminism has been about blaming men since the suffragists, who, in their Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, did not object to “the system” or “the law” for depriving them of the vote, but “he.” Even though that document is a specific list of wrongs that were enabled by federal policies – prohibiting women from voting and married women from owning property, to name two -- Straughan sees it as an attack on men for being men.

If one of the primary messages of the conferences was "feminists are bad," the other was "men's rights activists are good." In the talk “Men’s Unique Way of Healing,” social worker Tom Golden covered every inch of the stage with his energetic pacing and pantomiming, opening the talk by holding his hands in the air and chanting, “Men are GOOD!” “How many of you have been told that you don’t know how to talk about your feelings?” Golden asked the crowd. His explanation: Men shouldn’t be expected to open up emotionally. They sit in a fishing boat all day without saying a word and then exit the boat as best friends. Michael Jordan emoted by crying for his late father after winning the championship. Men are “good” just the way they are, and need not bother with all of that “crying” and “talking about your feelings” stuff.

This is a confusing message at a conference where so many men seemed to be searching for a way to express their feelings. A Voice for Men gives its followers plenty of reasons to be angry, but very few tools for addressing the anger. There are many organizations that work to address military suicide, the sexual abuse of men and violence against men, to name a few, but the speakers didn’t say a word about them.

If a comparison to its most recent event is any indication, then AVfM is building momentum. Last year, AVfM and a Canadian group called “Canadian Association for Equality” staged a rally at the University of Toronto that was attended by only about 30 people, including Paul Elam, Atilla Vinczer and at least a handful of other active AVfM members. The conference, on the other hand, attracted somewhere around 150 people at $259 per ticket. Under the leadership of its increasingly media-savvy leader Paul Elam, A Voice for Men seems to be one step further from the status of an alarmist fringe group and one step closer to being a considerable social force.

Toward the end of the conference, I spoke with a man who said his divorce sent him to AVfM. During the divorce, he wondered why he had married his wife in the first place, but knew now that it was because he falls for narcissists. Before he learned about Men’s Rights, he felt the need to take care of people. But now, “when I’m attracted to a woman, I stop to ask myself why.”

By Jonathan Timm

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