Why I Went To The Men's Rights Conference

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unnamed-1Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
The panel was mainly women. Six female speakers and five male opened the First International Conference on Men's Issues last Thursday, in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. There are many things misunderstood about the growing movement of Men's Rights Activism, but none is quite so surprising as the number of women championing it.

By nature, I'm a devil's advocate. No matter how clear-headed the stance or righteous the cause, anything supported or shouted down by popular opinion tends to rankle me. It's not so much a sense of justice for the little guy as a nagging suspicion that there's got to be another side to every story. That's what drew me to the ICMI last week, recorder in hand, belly full of nerves, crossing the half-empty parking lot of a VFW hall on the outskirts of Detroit. "If we wanted to find a city that was an iconic testament to masculinity, we’d need look no further than Detroit," read the press release. "Like men, it is in trouble, as most of the world looks the other way."

As a web writer and a feminist, I can't avoid reading about the Men's Rights Movement, nor the vitriolic and often violent discourse that's risen up around it. In the years since it's gained footing in mainstream consciousness, with representation in SNL sketches and parallels drawn to the Elliot Rodger shooting, the discussion around this movement has become even louder, angrier, and that much more confusing. What do these guys want exactly? Can they honestly believe men to be a trod-upon minority? Do they really think feminism is "an empire of evil?" The answers seemed both emphatic and convoluted, and I knew enough to know there must be more to the story. There was — but, if anything, it's even sadder than we thought.

I'd been emailing with Dean Esmay, operations manager and managing editor of A Voice For Men, since April. The organizers of the conference, AVFM has been one of the leading publications and online meeting points for MRAs since its creation in 2009 under founder Paul Elam. Both Esmay and Elam were immediately responsive to my request to attend, and polite and willing to chat when I introduced myself, which took a few deep breaths. Not only was Paul the head of this organization, he's known to be prolific when it came to attacking his critics online, and not one to shy from calling such women "c*nts," "b*tches" and "stupid lying whores." It was a strange relief to find that, as ever, humans are a lot more humane in person than online.

When I first ventured in, I was intrigued and horrified by some of the literature and videos I found there. AVFM has been called out by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its misogynistic content as well as instances of overt or implied threats against its targets (mainly, but not limited to, feminists). Heavily trafficked articles touch on topics like the rise of false rape allegations, how #YesAllWomen is "complete nonsense," and why Elliot Rodger's shooting rampage should, in fact, be blamed on "gynocentrism."

It's language meant to make you angry, and angered I was. Yet, I couldn't help but see, among these articles, headlines that made me angry in a different way: "Men Can't Be Raped According To Irish Law," read one. This article outlines the language that does indeed deny that a man can be sexually assaulted by a woman (and simultaneously criminalizes gay sex, which the post also decries). Another post, titled "This Is What A Child Molester Looks Like," called out a video where a woman openly assaults a stunned young boy in public, while a crowd looks on and cheers. Both myself and other writers on this site have written about the stigma that surrounds male victims of sexual assault and the urgent need for tangible change around this crime. I agreed with AVFM on this topic 100%. I don't know a single feminist who wouldn't.

Here is what makes the MRA movement so hard to talk about: There are real issues facing men today. Of course there are — men are human beings and human beings face adversity. Furthermore, gender bias is a two-way street. Women's issues do not exist to the exclusion of men's. But, in training their crosshairs on feminism, MRAs have chosen the wrong enemy.

Note to readers: The discussion in the comments below is intense and might be upsetting for some. That said, we encourage everyone to share their thoughts and keep the conversation going!
unnamed-2Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
During the two-hour opening-day press conference, the term "radical feminism" came up over and over again, as it would for the following two days. Not surprising, as this is the main target of all MRA rhetoric. Mike Buchanan, a U.K. politician who'd flown in for the conference, seemed to lean most heavily on the term in his introduction. Buchanan is the leader of the Justice For Men & Boys party (the U.S. currently has no MRA political party), which "works to increase people's consciousness of the state-driven advantaging of women and girls at the expense of men and boys."

"Radical feminism," he stated in his introductory speech, "is without a doubt a female supremacy ideology. It's driven by misandry, the hatred of men and boys." Under the sway of this "evil empire," Mike contends that every area of politics, from public health to education, has been feminized to the extreme. "Legislation is routinely drafted to advantage women and disadvantage men." In a sharp suit and tie, Buchanan's personal and political anger came across more loud and clear than perhaps any other speaker on the panel. So, after two hours of jotting notes like: "But, feminists support male birth control, too. WTF?!?!" I directed my question to him:

"You've mentioned terms like 'radical feminism' or 'fundamentalist feminism' a lot, and yet I think there were a number of issues brought up today that a feminist wouldn't disagree with. Do you think there is also a 'good' feminism or a 'fair' feminism?"

Here, Erin Pizzey jumped in to explain that yes, "equity feminism" does exist. The legendary activist went on to say, "that was the Trojan horse that was wheeled in."

With a focus on the issue of domestic violence, Pizzey gained international fame for starting one of the first women's shelters in the U.K. in 1971, but rejected the women's movement early on, believing the cause to be largely motivated by greed and Marxism. (If you'd like clarification re: Pizzey's Marxist connection, Google the video "Feminism Began With Marxist Lesbian University Professors & Their Students"). It wasn't all women with bad intentions, Erin claims. "Because machines had taken the place of so much of the work in the home, there was more time for women to come out and be involved within their communities and to get jobs. That was all happily happening. But, what you have to remember is the cold, hard eye of the radical women — many of them seriously radical lesbians — who took the opportunity to create what I have called 'the evil empire.' It was a money-making billion-dollar enterprise... The first job we have to do is to actually destroy it. "

A brief discussion on the panel concluded that there may indeed be okay individual feminists, but as a group it is evil incarnate, the end of progress. Buchanan added, with emphatic shakes of the head, that "the only form of feminism which has been of any damned consequence for more than 30 years has been radical feminism. It's a hate-driven female supremacy ideology." Sure, us equity feminists may have good intentions, but we have to get through "the gatekeepers" as Suzanne Venker (author of The War on Men) called them. It was Venker who truly helped me understand The Enemy, as it was. "The reality is [feminism is] a political movement. It is a force," she explained. It doesn't really matter how you define "a feminist," because it's those gatekeepers of Big Feminism that pull all the strings. "They're in very high up places: Hollywood, the media, our universities." The girl-power Illuminati.

unnamed-3Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
I found myself relieved when Paul Elam took the microphone, then disconcerted at that relief. But, for all his rhetoric, Elam is a soft-spoken guy, probably more conscious than anyone else in the room that all the press in attendance would welcome an off-the-wall soundbite. Still, when he locked eyes and told me he'd have to be blunt, my gut dropped to the floor.

"When you drove in here today, you saw a police presence, because we came under death threats. We had to change venues two weeks before the conference and scramble to make this happen. There were protests on the street to prevent us from speaking to the very issues that you're seeing here now. Do I think that all feminists are like that? No. There are some great equity feminists out there. But, where have their voices been about this issue — about the fact that there have been threats of violence? That there have been attempts to bully? That the staff at one hotel was harassed? I'm not pointing a finger at you. I would love it if more equity feminists spoke up about this issue, but so far it's not happening."

Let's correct that: On June 2, I received an email from Dean Esmay with a link to a video post on AVFM featuring a scanned letter from the DoubleTree Suites — the original location secured for the conference. The letter stated: "We have received numerous calls and threats and are concerned for the safety and wellbeing of our employees, our guests, and your attendees. The threats have escalated to include death threats, physical violence against our staff and other guests as well as damage to our property." In light of this, the letter continued, AVFM would need to engage seven Detroit police officers, and take out a $2,000,000 commercial general liability insurance policy. Beneath the video was a link to a FundAnything campaign set up by Paul Elam to raise $25,000 to cover the added security costs. Within days, the fund had raised over $32,000.

Of course, they had expected protests, but it seemed outrageous and odd to target the staff and guests of the hotel in this way. Dean told me the calls were anonymous, but AVFM naturally believed it to be the "ideological feminists" making these threats. Furthermore, they had screenshots from a Facebook group of people planning to protest outside the DoubleTree, and were able to pinpoint the one person they suspected was behind it all: Emma Howland-Bolton.

Howland-Bolton is a fifth grade teacher in Detroit with a history of activism. She's participated in sit-ins to protest the closing of city libraries and networked with women's shelters and Take Back The Night. I learned all of this from an open letter to her published on AVFM, demanding that she denounce the threats perpetrated by her organization. Her personal Facebook photos and email address were also included.

Emma herself understands that men face issues specific to their gender, which need attention. "My class only has nine boys in it, so I give up my lunch once a week to host them and let them have 'boy time' socializing together," she told me on the phone later that day. She'd only become aware of the conference in recent weeks. It had become a much bigger story after the Isla Vista shootings led news media to draw conclusions about Elliot Rodger and his connection to various MRA communities. Like most reasonable people, Emma understood that Rodger's actions were those of a mentally ill person, and yet could not discount that his rhetoric regarding victimhood and ostracism by women echoed claims made by the Men's Rights Movement. She joined a Facebook group petitioning the DoubleTree not to host the conference — but she was not the leader.

Emma was as surprised as anyone when the letter went up on AVFM. Her friend Joel actually created the group, yet Emma was the one whose job was suddenly in jeopardy as calls came in to her superintendent, decrying her as a criminal, a violent woman, and a threat to the children she educated. Still, she planned to protest with the rest on June 7. "I love this city. I love teaching here. I love living here. To have a hate group come here because of what they feel Detroit represents, I find really offensive."

As for the violent threats? Emma was unaware of any calls made from anyone in the group. AVFM had sent me two screenshots from the group, both from the same poster. One read "These people make me trigger happy" and the other suggested storming the conference. Emma stated unequivocally that that poster was not welcome. He was told not to come to the protest. No one who expressed anything but peaceful intentions was welcome.

It should be noted that A Voice For Men publicly expressed an equally conscientious commitment to non-violence at the conference. When certain commenters replied with violent language to the open letter to Emma, they were reprimanded and told they'd be barred from the comments section (and the conference) if the language continued. I spent the following weeks elbow-deep in comments, social media, and publicity on both sides and the message remained the same: These people are monsters, but we are not. So, don't act like it.

There had been a great deal of Internet chatter that the letter had been fabricated in order to raise funds in light of low ticket sales (which were priced at $250), but it seemed equally likely that angry protestors had gone too far. I reached out to hotel management and Hilton HQ directly. I was scheduled to stay at the DoubleTree to cover ICMI and hoped they might be forthright with me as a concerned guest. Had there indeed been threats of a violent nature and, if so, what measures was the hotel taking? No comment. On June 7, the DoubleTree protest went as planned and the hotel accepted the petition. Two days later, it announced it would not be hosting the conference.

unnamed-4Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
"We have opted to move to a venue that will seat more people and provide more security than was available previously," wrote Elam on June 11. Citing the "disingenuous and quite insane backlash" against the conference, he announced the location change to the VFW in St. Clair Shores. A week later, ticket prices went up to $300.

I was concerned with all the new interest and hundreds of attendees expected that perhaps press might be shut out. When an uptick in anti-feminist comments began appearing on my posts that same week, I felt myself catching the low-grade paranoid fever that surrounded this event. Would I be safe? Would I be followed? Would the commenter who called me "a neo-Nazi liberal feminist hag" be there?

Paul was correct. There was a police car parked outside the VFW when I arrived. Throughout the weekend, I witnessed two police officers on the premises at all times. There was also a handful of AVFM security members always in sight, and the staff was careful to make sure we all had color-coded lanyards attached to our credentials (with fine print that read: "AVFM accepts no liability for the safety of your person or property while at this conference"). But, it seemed that all the dramatics had passed weeks ago. I never felt unsafe at the conference. And, this weekend, there was no clash to contend with. Also concerned with safety, protestors elected to steer clear of the conference, publishing an open letter regarding their decision, and taking to Twitter with a #NoMRA hashtag to voice criticisms.

And, what of those attendance numbers? During the press conference, there were no more than 40 people in the VFW hall, but why should there be when that's a gathering specifically for the media? Still, parking my rental car the next morning when ICMI was in full swing, the lot was not yet full. I entered the cool, fluorescent-lit hall to find it buzzing with around a hundred people — mainly men, and most of them white, but this was not a homogenous group. The MRA movement — at least this representation of it — is growing in diversity, and the number of women in the crowd continued to surprise me. Kids, too.

I chatted with Mike Buchanan for a moment, waiting for the day's presentations to begin. Smiling and friendly, he was clearly pumped for his upcoming speech on the political issues men face today.

"I can't think of a single battle you ladies haven't won," he guffawed. Sitting right next to me, his tone was different than it had been from behind the mic. It felt almost like a high-five. I asked him again about his take on radical feminists and why he thinks they're the problem.

"Radical feminists are typically quite psychologically damaged," Mike explained. He waved his hand, gesturing at the various factors that might have contributed to this mental disorder. "Dad wasn't in the picture…"

"Right." Really, what was I supposed to say? I had two more days in this room.

During the midmorning break, I wandered upstairs where the Honey Badger Radio women were hanging out behind a swag table. The Honey Badgers took their name from the animal made famous by YouTube (the one who doesn't give a shit). They're female MRAs, also identifying as either non-feminist or anti-feminist depending on the individual.

"There have always been female supporters for male human rights," one named Rachel Edwards explained. "I don't think we're opposed to women's rights at all!"

I brought up my as-yet-unanswered million-dollar question: Is feminism really the root of all mens' problems? Heads shook all around the table, but Kristal Garcia, a life coach and dom, clarified: "No, it perpetuates them, but it's not the root."

So, what is?

Jess Kay, who identified as a non-feminist rather than anti, explained that one cause could be society's innate gynocentrism. "We focus so much on what affects women. If it affects women it's a problem. If it affects men, whatever, it gets swept under the rug."

At this point, Sage Gerard, a male student activist who supports the MRA cause on campuses, joined the conversation. I didn't beat around the bush.

"Rape culture: go!"

"It's all bullshit."

"It's all bullshit?!" Quelle surprise!

"Rape culture is bullshit."

"So, you don't think it exists on campuses?"

"I think it exists as propaganda. But, no. We're not handing out pamphlets saying, 'how to make your rape more discreet.' No one's doing that."

Recently, I'd written a story about someone who actually did do that. Sage leaned in and blinked at me: "One person is not a culture."

Sage stepped out, and I spoke with the Honey Badgers for another half hour. They're an easy group of women to talk to; a good deal less zealous and more articulate than some of the speakers on the panel downstairs. Garcia, a former feminist, did not sound entirely wrong when she explained in detail how current use of the term "rape culture" can be perverted in a way that criminalizes all men and tells women they need to live in fear of a whole gender. Rachel Edwards added, "When you talk about rape as being something that men do to women you're erasing male victims, and you're also erasing female victims of woman-on-woman sexual assault." Even RAINN has questioned whether or not the term is problematic and doesn't address crucial factors when it comes to preventing sexual assault.

There was no question that these women and I were on opposite sides of a good many issues. But, somehow, we seemed to have the same intentions, and it was sort of thrilling to have such a cordial conversation about them. At least, no one called anyone a "stupid lying whore."

unnamed-5Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Throughout the weekend, speakers lectured on topics like feminism and domestic violence, the need for compulsory paternity testing at birth, and the disposability of men. On breaks, I'd drive the four miles back to my hotel and watch a rerun of The Nanny while desperately texting my friends and all but weeping when they didn't text me back in five minutes. Returning from lunch, I'd join the inevitable cluster of journalists standing a few yards from the door, melting in the steamy fug coming off Lake St. Clair for a five-minute gossip. It wasn't so much gossip as all of us looking at each other going, "So…." The only food within walking distance was IHOP, so at the end of the day, too beat to drive the half mile to Denny's, I just had IHOP for dinner. It's pretty exhausting being a part of an evil empire all damn day.

Barbara Kay is a solid speaker. Many of the ICMI panel members are clearly more suited to the written word, but Kay, a Canadian columnist with the National Post, had her audience breaking into laughter and applause for the whole of her 45-minute lecture, "Misandry In Media." The perpetrators of rampant media misandry, she claims, are so powerful because they are "organized and funded by government and institutional grants." Nearly every speech included a similar claim — it's the gatekeepers, the evil empire, the massive political force that is radical, misandrist feminism that controls our world and subordinates men with an iron heel. Who exactly is wearing that heel, I've yet to discover.

But it's Them, for sure. It's Them who started the #YesAllWomen campaign, "glossing over" the fact that Rodger killed more men than women. It's Them that created the "rape crisis industry in business," and it's Them that perpetuate the myth of rape on campus entirely. In fact, says Kay, "The vast majority of female students alleging rape on campus are actually voicing buyer's remorse, from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky lines of consent on both sides. It's true! It's their get-out-of-guilt-free card. Like Monopoly!"

This was the only moment of the entire conference during which I was unable to stifle a reaction. My mouth dropped open. The guy two rows ahead of me guffawed with laughter. I heard it every time I replayed Barbara's quote on my recorder that night in my hotel just to be absolutely positive I got it right. The reporter seated next to me tweeted it right away, and in under a minute another attendee replied: "I'm there, too, and that's not what she said."

Not all MRAs are dishonest or slanderous or even completely wrong. But, some of them are. And, they seem to be the ones behind the microphone.

That's the sad story of this movement. The fact is, there are men's issues that we, as a culture, need to address. It is tragic that this is what's become of the movement trying to do so. For all the moderate, rational voices, the message overall is one that alienates and attacks rather than collaborates. One minute I'd empathize sincerely with an MRA who'd been screwed out of the right to be a father. The next minute, a stranger would politely explain to my face how deeply psychologically damaged I must be to be a feminist.

Warren Farrell, who spoke on the subject of fathers and sons, was met with applause when he said: "We don't need a women's movement blaming men, and we don't need a men's movement blaming women." And yet, so did "buyer's remorse" — and that sounds a lot like blame. It sounds a lot like hate. There's no way of knowing how many of the reasonable, rational, "equity MRAs" there are within this movement, but when I drove away from the VFW that evening, it was around a hundred men and women in a room, chuckling about rape. In that real moment, the whole thing smacked of evil. But, a hundred people in a conference room in St. Clair Shores is no empire.