WASHINGTON ― Daryush Valizadeh, a blogger known as “Roosh V” who calls himself a “neomasculinist and professional pickup artist,” doesn’t believe sexual harassment exists. He told me so in an email, after I sent questions about the wave of women coming forward to accuse high-profile men of misconduct.
“Either a sex crime was committed or not,” he wrote. “If you are too sensitive to work in an environment with men, maybe you should become a housewife instead of attempting to change an environment to suit your extreme fragility.”
Pickup artists aim to help men attract women, sometimes by manipulating women into having sex. They overlap with men’s rights activists — Roosh says he isn’t one — who often spread vile misogynist lies and pseudoscience about women. Mass shooter Elliot Rodger, who was enraged women rejected him, used language common in men’s rights forums, like “who’s the alpha male now, bitches?” Many in both groups strongly oppose feminism because they say women already have too much power.
For people in these groups, the Harvey Weinstein moment — in which powerful men are paying a price for public allegations of sexual harassment and abuse — isn’t surprising. It’s simply another perilous step down the slippery slope they have long warned about, one that leads to a world in which men are equal— if not greater — victims of gender-based discrimination.
Some anti-feminists seem to agree that Weinstein is a bad guy, and at least some of the allegations against him are true. “He’s a disgusting pig who preached feminism while treating women like dogs,” Valizadeh said. But they also fear that “good cases make bad laws,” as Warren Farrell, who is called the father of the men’s rights movement, put it.
Others, like Paul Elam, a prominent men’s rights activist and the founder of the for-profit A Voice For Men, are worried about false accusations. High-profile accusations that turned out to be wrong have damaged the lives of “many innocent men,” he said, and made real victims less likely to be believed. (Yes, Elam’s last name is “male” spelled backwards. He says it’s not a pseudonym.)
Women have used the post-Weinstein climate to draw attention to how common sexual harassment and abuse is, in some cases using the hashtag #MeToo. But some men’s rights activists see themselves as being unfairly lumped in with the Weinsteins of the world.
“Every-time a famous guy is accused of sexual harassment it means every man must be painted with the same brush,” a user complained last month on Reddit’s Red Pill subreddit. Red Pill is a popular place for men’s rights activists to congregate. Its name is a reference to the movie “The Matrix” and describes waking up to an anti-feminist worldview. “Just amazes me you can’t say anything about women, but if one man gets accused of sexual harassment then the internet will blow up,” the person added.
Some also think women are incentivized to make accusations for money. “Two men telling dirty jokes to each other is seen as a Payday for fat lazy spoiled Western women,” another Red Pill user wrote. “They know they’re too incompetent to rise to the top via meritocracy which is why they are trying to do it via lawsuit.”
For many women, coming forward is a tremendous personal sacrifice, one that comes without any promise of being taken seriously ― let alone making money. Some come forward in spite of potential non-disclosure paydays. Ellen Pao says she turned down “millions” in a non-disparagement contract to tell her story. And incredibly wealthy women like Gwyneth Paltrow have accused Weinstein of harassment when they seem to have no financial incentive to do so.
Men’s rights activists have some ideas about how to deal with the current crisis. One “fundamental problem” is when “people don’t stand up for themselves,” and “when they don’t take action on the spot,” Elam explained. He brought up a personal story. When he was in the Army, he told HuffPost, his commanding officer sexually harassed him. (HuffPost did not verify this anecdote.) “My response to him was ‘fuck you.’ Nobody is going to make me violate my values, and if I pay a price for that, that’s the way it is.”
“I am sure it might be construed that my behavior then mirrors what we seem to be seeing from the women making allegations today,” he elaborated in an email. But “I think that would be a mistake. If the officer in question had persisted, or had tried to punish me for rebuffing his advances, I would have most certainly reported him.”
But combatting harassment is not always as simple as confronting a superior. Many victims fear they won’t be believed, or worry they’ll face professional repercussions. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study from 2016, for example, cited a 2003 study of 1,167 public-sector employees that found 75 percent of those who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.
Elam and other men’s rights activists also argue that women share at least some responsibility. “For us to clutch pearls and virtue signal over that kind of misbehavior, without also calling women to task on using their bodies and sexuality to get ahead, it leaves us with an incomplete discussion,” Elam said. He claimed that a woman once propositioned him for sex in a job interview in the 1980s. On his website, he described the issue less tastefully: “Women in Hollywood don’t just dive onto the casting couch, they pick the fabric and the color that will make them their sexy best.”
Sexual harassment and abuse are about power, not sex. The allegations that Louis C.K. masturbated in front of multiple women, for example, are about humiliation. As Liz Meriwether wrote in The Cut, “What happened wasn’t actually sex at all; it was one person finding pleasure in another person’s humiliation and fear. What happened was an attack.”
But in the world of men’s rights activists, if the accused looked like actor Brad Pitt, women would never complain about a colleague exposing himself. “If Harvey Weinstein asks a beautiful actress if she wants to get a massage, she might consider that sexual harassment. If Brad Pitt asks the same woman if she wants a massage, she might say, ‘Gee that’s wonderful,’ said Farrell. (Multiple women alleged that Weinstein sexually assaulted them; he didn’t just ask for a massage.)
Some men’s rights activists also see workplace and dating relations as treacherously fraught, when plenty of women argue they’re not. Farrell believes “body language cannot be legislated,” and “we are beginning to destroy women’s opportunities in the workplace” as “men will increasingly fear hiring women because of not knowing when they’re overstepping.” He later added, “Women speaking up is a good step one, but if it becomes just that, then the workplace will become more and more fearful of women, when we all want the workplace to become more and more positively [integrated.]”
Hiring women is good business sense, not some kind of ticking time-bomb for a sexual harassment lawsuit. As Wharton professor Adam Grant and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, “Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed; innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable; and companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits.”
Karen Straughan, an anti-feminist and men’s rights activist based in Edmonton, Alberta, said she has complicated views on the Weinstein fallout. “There are women who are genuinely victims of men’s sexual misconduct,” she said. And “there are reasons I support a presumption of innocence and a high burden of proof.”
Straughan was sexually harassed at a workplace when she was 21, she told HuffPost in an email. When she quit and applied for unemployment insurance, the employer contested the claim. On the bright side, she added, when her now-22-year-old daughter raised complaints of unwanted sexual advances by a colleague at a different workplace, “they took her concerns seriously, and they also took her requests seriously.”
Straughan said she would also like to see change, but she wouldn’t go about it in the same way as some feminists. “The cultural shift I would like to see is one where such allegations are taken seriously when they are made. By seriously, I don’t mean ‘believe the victim’ and start the lynching. What I would like to see is less emotionality and more due process.”
Straughan acknowledged the same possibility that feminists have: backlash. “All that needs to happen is for a handful of bandwagoning women to level accusations that turn out to be demonstrably false, and the entire edifice will collapse. If such a thing happens, you might even see a popular toxic femininity narrative born out of it,” she said.
“I wouldn’t object to such a thing.”