Sphere of influence

Sexual violence in schools has hit the headlines recently. One of its causes, believes Laura Bates, is boys’ exposure to the manosphere, an online pit of misogyny

Hero image

Imagine your child only lives in the same country as you half of the time. When they are with you they are safe but the other place they live is the Wild West – lawless and without adult supervision. There are dangerous men on every corner who want to hurt your daughter and indoctrinate your son into gangs.

Bates demonstrates how the manosphere reaches beyond the shade and into mainstream spaces

You don’t really know or understand the extent of the risk, or what signs to look for. Your child doesn’t talk about the place much, or tell you anything about how they spend their time there, but often they ask if they can visit more, so it can’t be all bad. You’re not proud of it but sometimes you send them there when you need a break. Parenting is hard work! Even part time.

It sounds scary but also improbable, right? Wrong, according to activist and writer Laura Bates. She spent months exploring the intricate network of corrupting influences in the very place most of our children spend their time – the internet.

“It’s weird that we don’t see that as more of a problem to be addressed,” she says. “But we’re at this unique moment in history that’s never happened before and will never happen again, that we never really talk about even though it’s absolutely huge – when a generation of non-digital natives is parenting and educating a generation of digital natives.

“There’s a culture gap there that often goes completely unaddressed, but it is an experience that is often utterly obscure to most adults. They have no idea about the kind of thing that teenagers are seeing on a daily basis.”

For her latest book, Men Who Hate Women, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project allowed herself an amount of screen time that would make even the most laid-back parents uneasy. She was looking for the manosphere – something she acknowledges sounds harmless, even a bit silly, but like a populist right-wing politician with a silly hairdo, underestimating it only gives it more power. From incels (involuntary celibates) to pick up artists via men’s rights activists, it’s the term used to describe a sprawling web of groups, belief systems, lifestyles and cults that exist online, each promoting their own toxic brand of misogyny. But what do weirdos lurking in shady corners of the internet have to do with your child’s screen time? You’re pretty certain they’re not looking to join a cult.

In the meticulously researched book, Bates demonstrates how the manosphere reaches beyond the shade and into mainstream spaces. She imagines she’s a curious 13-year-old boy who heads to YouTube – font of all knowledge – and types: “What is feminism?” One of the first videos that comes up is a pro-feminist speech by actor Emma Watson but the next video is an episode of The Rubin Report, a talk show about “free speech and big ideas”, in which host and alt-right influencer Dave Rubin interviews far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, who is given free rein for his take on modern feminism: “primarily about man-hating… a very angry, bitter, profane, lesbianic sort of feminism”, with a “constant message that men are evil and broken and wrong”.

“Most people would be quite shocked to hear that teenagers get their news from YouTube because for adults YouTube is the home of Grumpy Cat videos and movie trailers. It’s quite a benign space to them, but that’s part of the problem,” says Bates.

The manosphere seeps into other areas too – like bodybuilding websites, where young, impressionable teens go to learn how to change their bodies, but where other topics are far more popular in forums. On bodybuilding.com Bates finds threads about rape where comments include “There is no such thing as rape, rape is a fabrication of the female mind” and “It’s only rape once the chloroform wears off”.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it seeps into the gaming world where she says men cast out for manosphere recruits. She interviews one 12-year-old boy who was smart enough to tell his mum when he heard, through his gaming headset, someone shout: “Feminism is cancer.” Many others won’t.

But even if all that is true, it’s only the internet – it’s not real life, right? Wrong again. Bates uses a number of examples to illustrate how online misogynistic hatred in the name of free speech can and does incite real-world violence. She writes that the “massive underbelly of the iceberg is going largely unnoticed and unseen, yet the tip is extending into our real world and becoming bolder and sharper every day”. It was working in schools where this first became apparent to her.

“There is a really concerning trend in teenage boys’ attitudes that at the moment we’re just not acknowledging,” says Bates, who is unequivocal about what this online indoctrination amounts to. “It is a form of radicalisation that we don’t label radicalisation, done by extremists who we don’t call extremists, and as such it is completely under the radar of Prevent or any kind of counter-terror organisation, and it’s completely off the radar of parents and teachers as well.

“I’m meeting boys who honestly believe that there is a huge feminist conspiracy at the heart of our government to undermine white men, who are the true victims of today’s society. They believe that the gender pay gap is a myth, that men are the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse, that almost all rape allegations are false, that girls shouldn’t go out wearing short skirts.

“They believe biological essentialist nonsense – that they are simply genetically superior to girls, that they are simply destined to have better jobs and to earn more money than girls, that they are naturally just better than girls because these are the messages that they’re receiving from these extremist communities online and without anything to offset that narrative they are ripe targets for radicalisation.”

Despite sometimes working within it, Bates is critical of the media, which she believes presents a “slightly diluted, slightly sanitised version” of the same manosphere ideas and often in a titillating manner.

At the end of March, mainstream media outlets across the land were awash with stories about a prevailing rape culture in UK schools. The killing of Sarah Everard at the beginning of the month prompted an initial influx of over 8,000 reported incidents to the website Everyone’s Invited, which encourages survivors to share their stories, much in the vein of Bates’s Everyday Sexism project.

“The front pages described a ‘sex scandal’ in schools when what we’re really talking about is a sexual violence crisis. Boys see this idea of sex scandal and pundits asking ‘Is it just feminism gone mad?’ Some of our biggest newspapers and radio platforms have done pieces saying this is a massive over-reaction. ‘How dare you accuse all boys of being rapists? Women are hysterical and over-reacting.’ If boys see that kind of narrative in the mainstream media it immediately legitimises and normalises the more extreme version of that that they’re receiving online, so they become easier targets for radicalisation.”

A few weeks on and the media has gone cold on the subject after the government vowed to launch an investigation and gave its official reaction – “shocked”. Bates, for one, was not.

“Organisations have been shouting about this for years and years and years. We’ve been campaigning on it. We’ve taken tens of thousands of exactly these stories, submitted to the Everyday Sexism project, to ministers.”

In 2016 Bates contributed to a thorough report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools by the Women and Equalities Select Committee. It identified an “urgent” situation of “the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; children of primary school age learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hardcore pornography; teachers accepting sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children”. Despite the evidence and existing legislation, it said, “the Government has no coherent plan to ensure schools tackle the causes or consequences”.

“The government has absolutely been made aware of this repeatedly and by its own inquiries so the idea that anybody can describe this, not least the education secretary, as an absolute shock is incredibly frustrating,” says Bates. “It either means that they simply aren’t listening or haven’t cared about this before. They haven’t bothered to look into their own research.”

Bates welcomes the investigation now and says she will continue to shine a light on the topic. In the 10 years she’s been visiting schools to talk about relationships, consent and sexual violence, she’s watched manosphere rhetoric become increasingly more common.

Bates points out how it follows a similar trajectory as the alt-right. Both, she writes, “revel in masking vitriolic, violent, bigoted ideology with smokescreens of irony, sarcasm and deliberate provocation”. The manosphere is emerging, she believes, just as the alt-right did, from an extreme, fringe movement that existed mostly online, to become a legitimate view held by mainstream figureheads.

How is a parent supposed to identify manosphere indoctrination?

“It’s not necessarily that a boy is going to turn around and tell their teacher or their parent: ‘I believe all of these things about girls,’” says Bates. “It might be more of a hardening of attitudes that they notice. Perhaps a resistance to an alternative viewpoint. Perhaps certain words and red flags that I think parents can look out for – words like ‘normies’, ‘triggered’, ‘red pill/black pill’. There’s a lexicon around it. My biggest piece of advice for parents would be to get a bit of a sense of what the online world is that young people are operating in. Partly I did write the book because I felt that parents and educators desperately needed a road map.”

One of the recommendations from the 2016 select committee report was to ensure every child at primary and secondary school has access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals. It added that this should be achieved by making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject, something that is being implemented in the summer term, but with the caveat that parents can opt out. Bates finds this troubling.

“It’s basically opting out of a child’s rights. I believe it is every child’s right to have an education about these issues, which are universal, important issues that will affect them, and of course there’s every reason to think that the parents who are most likely to opt out might be parents of children who most need that core information.”

Schools are currently in a consultation process with parents about how the curriculum should be delivered and Bates urges parents to take up the opportunity.

“It’s really important that schools get the message that the vast majority of parents want young people to have up-to-date information about consent and healthy relationships, about sexual violence and stereotypes. There’s been a huge number of surveys to that effect.

“But I also think there’s a lot parents can do. People often have this binary argument where they say we shouldn’t be doing this in schools because it’s a parent’s job, as if it has to be one or the other. To me it has to be both, in the same way that a child learns to read at school and we support their reading at home. These conversations need to be had in as many ways and as often as possible.”

But even if parents and teachers educate themselves on the miseducation our children are receiving online, it will never be effectively tackled without proper funding, says Bates.

“If the government is serious about tackling this in schools it needs to make sure that teachers delivering that new curriculum are resourced to do it properly, with really robust information and from a feminist perspective, quite frankly.”

Men Who Hate Women is published by Simon and Schuster

Photo: Activist-writer Laura Bates. (Pako Mera/Alamy)

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Sphere of influence

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.