Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism project in 2012, when she was 25, inviting women on social media to detail sexist encounters they’d had. Two years later, she published the book of the same name, curating a document that was horrifying but unsurprising. It should have been shocking but nobody was shocked. Six years on, we meet in King’s Cross, in London, where the cafe has separated the tables with Perspex, so I have a flash-forward to a dystopian near-future where one of us is in prison for feminist activism (obviously her, I decided, ruefully). She is as passionate and determined as I have ever seen her (I have met and interviewed her a few times before), yet somehow more cautious, for reasons that become clear.
Bates was surprised by certain elements of the Everyday Sexism project, like how many of the accounts came from girls in their mid-teens (she had expected more responses to be from women working in offices), but not the phenomenon of sexist harassment itself, which she knew was “hidden in plain sight. It was an invisible problem and this was very much trying to make it visible.” In doing so, Bates seeded an idea that would be proved again and again in the following years, in more and more vivid ways. From the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter, the inflection point for resisting injustice is not when one crusader saves the day, but when everybody is emboldened to speak out at once. Bates comes back to this repeatedly, and not, I think, for reasons of modesty. It was never, she insists, about her.
Yet there was another side effect that she did not expect: torrents of abuse, including graphic rape and death threats, directed at her personally, which keep on coming, regardless of her profile. Truthfully, over the past five years, that profile has been much lower, as she concentrates her efforts not on publishing but on her work in schools. And the on- and offline communities from which much of that abuse springs are the subject of her new book, Men Who Hate Women.
However much you think you know about the “manosphere”, I can guarantee that there will be movements, communities of misogynists, violent events that you have never heard of. You may be all over incels – a contraction of “involuntary celibates”, the most physically violent of these groups – but not have heard of Men Who Go Their Own Way, or MGTOWs. You may have heard of the US and Canadian terrorist attacks against women, but not the one in Germany.
The overall effect is relentlessly chilling; it is impossible to imagine what it must be like, to be the actual focus of this violent fantasy. Yet it wasn’t Bates’s personal experience of far-right misogyny that spurred her research. Rather, she reveals, in the sober, precise but accessible terms that recall her pre-Everyday Sexism career as a researcher (straight out of university, she worked for the sex and relationships expert Susan Quilliam, who was updating The Joy of Sex): “The reason I suddenly decided I had to write about it was because of this bizarre experience I was having in schools.”
Bates had been going to classrooms around the country roughly twice a week, to initiate discussions about feminism, encountering support and resistance alike, “almost always able to have a really great conversation and feel like we’d moved forwards”. Then “something changed,” she says. “I started hearing boys at school who already felt that they’d been poisoned against the idea of even having a conversation about feminism. And they were coming out with some quite extreme things: feminism is a cancer, all women lie about rape, white men are the real victims of society … But the moment it really clicked for me was when they started repeating, at schools from rural Scotland to inner-city London, the same wrong statistics. That’s when I clocked what was going on.”
This began her journey into the manosphere, posing as “Alex”, a confused young man looking on Reddit, and elsewhere, for answers. This took her from the incels, who fantasise about inflicting violent death on the women who won’t sleep with them – which is to say, all women – to the so-called “pick-up artists” who regale one another with heavily jargonised techniques for sleeping with women who don’t want to sleep with them, to the MGTOW, who are “on this forum 12 hours a day saying how important it is to have a life free of women, and how awful and toxic women are, and the only way to deal with it is to get away from them, but here I am, talking about them for 12 hours a day”.
The contradictions in all these communities are so intense as to sound almost deliberate; defying the conventions of the outside world by making precisely no sense. “So you have incels, for example, saying: ‘We absolutely hate and detest women, they are less than human, yet why won’t women have sex with us?’” And they resemble cults in many ways, from the power of the leaders to the woeful consequences of challenge. Dissenters are kicked off forums immediately.
I am immediately struck by how traumatic it must have been to investigate all this, even given how much misogynistic abuse Bates has faced over the past eight years. Yes, she concedes, “the extent of it shocked me, and that felt quite heavy. I thought the numbers were relatively small, and the thing that really came out very clearly in my research was that we were looking at hundreds of thousands of people, millions of views, so many different websites, forums. We’re talking about a massive network. Then there was the fact that I kept coming across bits that were specific about me. That was always a nasty shock.
“But the times I cried was when I was reading the way that the men in these communities write about the women who’ve died. Whenever there’d be an attack, where one of them had gone out and murdered a bunch of women, online they wouldn’t just canonise and revere and idolise that man; they’d also write horribly about these women who’d died, saying things like: ‘I hope he raped her first so she died knowing that he’d been inside her.’”
The point Bates makes is both stark and subtle: there is a live community of violent extremists, operating online without censure, generating concrete terrorist attacks in which the perpetrators are very open about their guiding ideology of misogyny, and radicalising young boys in a way that would be considered dangerously unacceptable conducted in the name of any other worldview. And authorities across the world have environmentalists on terrorist watch lists, yet don’t even put these mass killings in the category of terror attacks. “We talk about them as poor boys who were bullied and things went wrong,” Bates says. “Only once ever, in the whole world, have terrorist charges been brought in relation to an incel killing, even though men have explicitly and very clearly laid down their motives for other massacres.”
And this world of extreme misogyny is chillingly intertwined with the neo-Nazi one. “The journey of many men who are groomed and radicalised online towards white supremacy starts in anti-feminist forums,” Bates says. “You can see it in the overlap of the lexicon – the entire dense, complex language they’ve created for themselves [red pills, blue pills as in The Matrix, black pills to denote suicidal certainty] – is very similar across both groups. A lot of white supremacy is predicated on this obsession with birth rates and replacement theory, the idea that white women need to be forced into sexual servitude and raped, in order to bear white, pure babies. The incel movement is obsessed with sterilising or forcing abortions on black women. And some groups explicitly say – they call it ‘adding cherry flavour to children’s medicine’ – that you target kids of 11-up with anti-feminist memes and jokes, and that’s the gateway to white nationalism.”
As shocking as all this is, it has a familiar side. Here Bates is with a scandal but no manifesto, just like at the start of Everyday Sexism: “I knew that there was this huge issue, and I knew I couldn’t fix it. But if I can get people to see it, that’s the start.”
Men Who Hate Women, by Laura Bates, is published by Simon & Schuster on 3 September. To order a copy for £14.78 (£16.99 rrp) go to guardianbookshop.com. P&P charges may apply