Most mass shooters are men. Sophie Walker, the former leader of Britain’s Women’s Equality Party, tweeted that fact soon after 51 people were killed by a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand. (A Mother Jones database of all U.S. killing sprees since 1982 records four female killers and 111 male ones.) In response, she was deluged with angry emails and accused of “playing the gender card.” A BBC journalist told her, “Not sure now is the right time to make this about gender Sophie.”
Only, she did not “make this about gender.” The shooters themselves did that.
The idea that feminism is decadent, and is destroying Western civilization; the idea that women’s natural role is to have children, and to be subservient to men; the idea that strong men are needed to save the world through violence—all of these arguments are found across extremist websites, and in the words of shooters themselves. Anti-feminist rhetoric is a powerful gateway to violent white nationalism, and it is calculated to appeal to the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for mass shootings: young white men.
The 28-year-old man awaiting trial over the Christchurch massacre wrote a self-justifying screed titled “The Great Replacement.” It begins: “It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates.” The 21-year-old American who allegedly killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, left behind a four-page document outlining his motivations. Its most consistent theme is the danger of Hispanic “invaders who also have close to the highest birthrate of all ethnicities in America.” The alleged shooter adds: “My motives for this attack are not at all personal. Actually the Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.”
Both men are referring to the right-wing conspiracy theory popularized by the French author Renaud Camus, which warns that nonwhites are having more children than whites, and that the resulting demographic change threatens European culture. This idea has been memefied by the online far right, with different groups painted as the usurpers: The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted “The Jews will not replace us”; for the Christchurch shooter, the threat came from Muslims; in El Paso, it was Hispanic immigrants.
In all these strands of replacement theory, controlling white female sexuality and reproduction is vital. Women’s sexual and reproductive freedom are seen as threats to civilization itself. It is therefore not surprising that anti-feminism is an entry point to the online far right. “Misogyny is used predominantly as the first outreach mechanism,” Ashley Mattheis, a researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies the far right online, told me. “You were owed something, or your life should have been X, but because of the ridiculous things feminists are doing, you can’t access them.”
One recruiting ground is the collection of sites known as the “manosphere,” which the British anti-extremism charity Hope not Hate considered a serious enough force to include in its most recent “State of Hate” report. “It’s a very difficult movement to get to grips with,” says the Hope not Hate researcher Simon Murdoch. “It’s a very loose movement. And because it’s online, people are usually anonymous.”
The manosphere stretches from the kind of lukewarm anti-feminism that would pass virtually unremarked in a newspaper column through to glorifications of extreme misogyny. Although the manosphere’s leading figures have appeared at far-right events, and vice versa, the links between the two are more about an exchange of ideas than shared personnel.
As young men are drawn deeper into these online communities, the anti-feminist message transforms into one with racial overtones, Mattheis said. “Once you engage with the idea that a social-justice-warrior club and the feminist movement have increased the precarity of men,” she said, “that moves over time into the increased precarity and endangerment of ‘the West.’”
These ideas circulate through YouTube videos, anonymous message boards such as 8Chan, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts. The online ecosystem allows dense, rambling conspiracist tracts to be chopped up and recirculated in more palatable forms. Camus’ book-length version of The Great Replacement, for example, was condensed by the Canadian far right activist Lauren Southern in a YouTube video that now has more than 600,000 views. Southern is no fringe figure: She is verified on YouTube, and she was retweeted by Donald Trump in May.
Anti-feminism and the far right overlap because both weave narratives around real, observable phenomena surrounding race and reproduction. Birth rates are indeed falling across the developed world. Women who reach higher education levels tend to have fewer children. The “family wage”—where a man earns enough to support a wife and children—has disappeared. Working women have greater economic freedom, instead of being dependent on men. Many of them find it easier (though still not easy) to leave abusive or otherwise intolerable relationships. Women who can control their fertility and their bank accounts do not have to be subservient to men.
Then there’s the sexual revolution. Put simply, Western women are largely choosing for themselves whom to have sex with, rather than having their lives dictated by families, religion, or the state. The modern far right often rails against conservative Muslim communities—several British groups, such as the English Defence League, warn frequently about the alleged encroachment of Sharia law—but these sentiments are, paradoxically, mixed with an admiration for societies in which women’s sexual freedoms are restricted. According to Mattheis, the far right argues that Muslim men control Muslim women, and that means “their civilization is rising [while] the West is declining.”
Anti-feminist ideas work so well as recruiting tools for the far right for three reasons. First, they sit at a particular point in popular discourse: They are widely accepted in mainstream society and can be voiced with minimal pushback, yet still seem “edgy” and iconoclastic. The argument that women are less intelligent than men, for example, is less inflammatory in Britain than the suggestion of differences among racial groups—when Hope not Hate’s education team goes into British schools and colleges, it sees this firsthand. “This opposition to feminism is one of the things that students will feel much more comfortable expressing,” Murdoch says. “Antiblack racism is something they know is a bit more sensitive.” But at the same time, sexism is frowned upon by political and cultural elites, so voicing it feels rebellious and insurgent. The 24-year-old shooter who allegedly killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, was reportedly in a “pornogrind” band that released albums with names such as 6 Ways of Female Butchery, and he was reportedly suspended from school for keeping a “rape list” of fellow students.
Second, anti-feminism offers to address a genuine sense of grievance. Sites such as 4chan, another anonymous message board, have developed a whole language to talk about the hurt young men feel: “Staceys” (conventionally attractive, sexually available white women) date “Chads” (jocks), ignoring “nice guys” who get “friendzoned.” Men who claim to be feminists are “manginas” and “white knights.” If these men date feminists, they are probably being “cucked” (cheated on), because women like real men, not “beta males.” What starts as Why won’t girls sleep with me?—an appeal to a wounded sense of entitlement—becomes Why can’t women be controlled?
Finally, anti-feminist ideology has the capacity to become a 360-degree conspiracy theory, similar to the kind of anti-Semitic ideas that flourish online. Feminists are presumed to influence all government decisions, even though women are still underrepresented at every level of elected office. Across the fractured, diverse outposts of the manosphere, “one of the few things they will agree on is a conspiratorial view of feminism,” Murdoch says. “They don’t consider that it was ever a movement for gender equality. They think it was a guise to assert control over men.”
Young men who enter this world undergo a “grooming process,” Mattheis adds. Feelings of disaffection are blamed on women, and “as they go down that track, there’s conspiratorial stuff on climate change, corporations, based on someone’s interests.” This is a common feature of online conspiracy theories: Genuine problems are identified and attributed to a single cause, whether that’s the “gynocracy” or the “great replacement.”
The ideology of the online far right—like other conspiracy-minded parts of the internet—is a messy web of borrowed ideas, some of them contradictory. It draws intellectual firepower from other groups, such as the rationalist and New Atheist movements. These argue that humans are irrational and prone to prioritize feelings over facts, and their adherents sometimes claim that scientific truths are now unspeakable because of political correctness. The leaders of these movements are largely male, which plays into the long-standing association of men with intellect and women with emotion.
When plugged into the anti-feminist tradition, these ideas translate into a scientific “truth” that men are intellectually and physically superior, and, therefore, that their greater political power and wealth through history are justified. Feminism is unnatural, disruptive—and doomed. Mattheis sees an intriguing mirror between this ideology and that of Islamist terror groups such as the Islamic State. The religious version is that men’s superiority has been divinely ordained, whereas the “secular version is biology, the difference between the male and female brain.” Either way, “it’s a basic founding part of their worldview,” she said. Both ideologies preach that “for men to be strong, women have to be in their right place. That’s what makes society okay.” The manosphere offers disaffected young men a comforting, nostalgic vision: a return to order in a world that can seem frightening and fast-changing.
All the researchers I spoke with stressed the need to differentiate among the various strains of far-right and anti-feminist ideology. Elizabeth Pearson of Swansea University, who researches “counter-jihad” movements, warns against using one of feminism’s new buzz phrases: toxic masculinity. To her, it has become “code for problem men—and they are usually Muslim men or white working-class men. They might be marginalized and disenfranchised. They might be ‘difficult.’” Her fear is that the knee-jerk response to the rise of the far right will repeat the mistakes of counter-extremism and counterterror policy after 9/11 by identifying “a population that then becomes the new problem.” That framing both alienates the majority of nonviolent, non-extreme men and does little to address the grievances, or counteract the methods, that lure susceptible individuals toward the far right.
After yet more mass shootings, the picture feels bleak. But there is some small consolation: the researchers I spoke with said that the links between anti-feminism and the far right are now being taken seriously. Understanding these links should help us tackle extremism. When I first started writing about sexist online abuse and anti-feminist memes in 2013, there was a widespread perception that these were purely internet-based phenomena, and therefore not serious issues. That view has receded as prominent women have been harassed offline through attacks coordinated and glorified online.
It is also now apparent that the memes and ideas spread by anti-feminists and other extremist groups have worked their way into mainstream politics. In 2017, Robert Fisher, a Republican state lawmaker in New Hampshire, resigned after the Daily Beast reported that he had left offensive comments on an anti-feminist Reddit forum called “The Red Pill.” A username linked to him had attacked women’s personalities as “lackluster and boring, serving little purpose in day to day life” and advised men to record their sexual encounters to avoid false rape allegations.
Mattheis, who studied the Republican debates during the 2016 presidential election, saw similar “false rape” narratives gaining purchase there. Early in his campaign, Trump framed the need for immigration around the specter of Mexican rapists. These incidents were a somber reminder that what starts in the manosphere now has real political power. Mattheis’s research interests, which were once dismissed as a fringe preoccupation, are seen as more and more legitimate. Gender has always been a factor in mass shootings. Finally, now, we are beginning to ask why.