Paul is good-looking and friendly, with a quick laugh in any situation. Innately curious, he can talk to anyone about anything. With his sun-streaked blond hair, his habit of wearing baggy gym shorts everywhere and his good-natured sense of humor, the late-20s construction worker seems to take life on the easy side.
Underneath the amiable persona, though, he isn’t happy. He has no luck with women. One girlfriend cheated on him with a former friend from work. Another broke up with him, claiming she wanted “space” — only to get engaged to another man in six months.
He moved in with his last girlfriend, but that relationship ended in anger and conflict. “I ended up lending her thousands of dollars to help with her schooling and other life stuff,” he explains. “I thought we were going to get married, settle down together, all of that. But then she broke up with me, moved to another state and now I can’t get my money back. That was half of my future house down payment I gave to her.” Paul wants to take his ex to small claims court to get his money back.
In sharp contrast, Paul’s friends have the opposite experience in love and relationships. Many of his friends found girlfriends, and settled down quickly into the marriages, homes and families that Paul craved. Some set Paul up with on blind dates, but they rarely went beyond the first meeting. “I just wasn’t up to snuff,” Paul says, bitterness in his voice. “They were all looking for richer, more successful men.”
Feeling left out, Paul turned to the Internet, where he fell into an online community that made him feel less alone. He found support for the changes he wanted to make in his life, which resulted in improvements in his health and finances. As he fell deeper into the hole, though, he found himself enmeshed in a milieu full of extremists — one that made him question what it is to be a man in the 21st century.
Considering his romantic resume, Paul is pretty bitter about women and relationships. “Women always say they want a decent guy, and that’s what I try to be,” he says. “But when you are, they walk all over you. They don’t respect you. They take advantage of your decency.”
His normally sunny demeanor cracks with resentment when he talks about women in general. “[Women] sometimes think they’re all that, and that they could always do better, so they’re always looking to climb up the ladder and upgrade or something,” he says. “And yet they complain that there are no good men out there. Well, that’s because all the good men get sick of dealing with them.”
Paul isn’t the only man who feels this way. His point-of-view underlies what many call the “manosphere” or the “red pill” online community. The loosely related sites, forums and blogs are collectively called “red pill” after the movie “The Matrix”: those who swallow the so-called red pill wake up to the idea that men actually have been disenfranchised by the social order and need new ways to cope.
Red-pill sites cater primarily to men who seek ways to regain their confidence within this upended social order. So-called pick-up artist, or PUA, dating advice sites teach men “game” — a series of strategies to pick up female “targets” for sex. Self-improvement and lifestyle sites focus on fitness, finance, grooming and general self-confidence. Politically minded sites have their roots in the men’s rights movement, picking apart divorce and alimony laws that they believe unfairly favor women over men, or examining social issues under a male-gender lens.
In the manosphere, men rant against women, dating or feminism, share “field reports” of dating experiences and experiments, or offer opinions in comments. Prominent sites and blogs include A Voice for Men, Roosh V, Return of Kings, the Art of Manliness, Chateau Heartiste and many, many more.
Some sites are virulently anti-female and anti-feminist; others are more gentlemanly and cultured. Yet these sites, as diverse as they are, share similar language, politics and beliefs about men, women and power.
One of the key ideas uniting many manosphere sites is the goal of “alpha” — becoming confident, assertive and bold enough to get what you want. Alphas are natural leaders who command respect and have their pick of sexual partners, according to Red Pill.
The manosphere uses the idea of “sexual market value” to explain dating game dynamics. Initially, women have high sexual market value, where they can hook up with as many alphas as she can and indulge in “hypergamy,” their desire to land the highest alpha they can. They have the pick of the litter and the power of refusal, leaving men like Paul out in the cold as “incels,” or involuntary celibates.
However, as a woman’s looks fade, she eventually “hits the wall” and their ego and self-perception exceeds actual sexual market value. At this point, men theoretically begin to regain the upper hand.
The special lingo reflects a common worldview: women can do whatever they want because they’re women and empowered by the current legal, social and cultural order of the world, while men are the victims — and they’re not happy about it.
Paul discovered the manosphere after his “gold-digger” ex-girlfriend moved out and he looked for legal advice on getting his money back. He stumbled on a forum of men sharing dating and relationship war stories. A few people posted shared tales and advice on suing ex-girlfriends, but Paul says he resonated with the group as a whole. “It was probably the state of mind I was in,” he says, “but I could relate to a lot of these guys. It was powerful to realize I wasn’t alone, that the problem wasn’t just isolated to me.”
Paul didn’t post publicly, but he sent a private message to a forum member, who directed him to other websites and resources. Paul remembers the poster signed off with “Good luck, brother” — a welcome gesture of solidarity during a lonely time.
Paul returned again and again to these forums, for the practical information and for solidarity. He had a routine: work, maybe a drink afterwards with friends, then come home and jump on his laptop, where he would spend a few hours reading all the new material he discovered. He was mostly a lurker on the sites, rarely posting, but he soaked in everything he read.
In many ways, his immersion into red pill culture had a positive impact on him. It gave him support during a tough time, especially as he moved forward in suing his ex-girlfriend to pay back his money. Getting ideas from some blogs he read, he began to work out more regularly, which boosted his self-esteem. He got his finances together, and even began exploring some small-business ideas.
“I’d read somewhere about someone’s experiences with trying the paleo diet,” Paul says. “And I’d think, ‘Hey, I can try that, too.'”
He thrived off the communal energy and developed online friendships with fellow men who were trying to boost their confidence and self-assurance. The support he found and friendships he made helped keep him accountable in his efforts.
And when he was ready to get back into the dating game, he took some of the pick-up artist advice to heart, trying to meet more women in a more confident manner. Though shy to admit it at first, he even took a weekend seminar in Chicago on pick-up artist techniques. He’s less preoccupied with finding a relationship now and finally could just “enjoy dating on its own,” he says. “For once, I feel in control of things. Ironically, I do feel a lot more relaxed and playful in my interactions with girls.” The red-pill community seemed to be working for him.
More importantly, Paul found a way of understanding the world he found himself in. The ideology underlying many of the sites he visited explained his troubles with women. It accounted for women’s “deceit” and “arrogance,” and helped provide ways to cope and seemingly emerge on top.
“It really was like swallowing the red pill,” he says. “The dawn broke, and the world finally made sense to me. Everything had an explanation. And when you can break down and understand something bedeviling and overwhelming you, it’s easier to figure out a solution. That was a relief.”
According to the gospel of the manosphere, that explanation boiled down to sweeping changes in women’s status over the past fifty or so years. While women have made strides towards equality, men by contrast have been left behind. Feminism and its ideals — equality and respect between genders — have disrupted the “natural” dominance of men in the social order.
“There has been a change in the world, especially in the last 50 years. Women’s roles have changed drastically,” Paul Elam, a manosphere blogger and publisher of A Voice for Men, told ABC’s “20/20.” “What a lot of us in this area find is that men’s roles have not changed very much. Many find now that they have to react.”
The result is a world many men — particularly those who aren’t “alphas” — feel ill-equipped to deal with. Many give voice to their frustration, in angry posts and comments that often vent against women or feminism in ugly ways, whether it’s voicing ideas of how some women “deserve” to be raped or how useless and undesirable they become as they age.
While many red-pill members are genuinely interested in improving themselves, others come across as angry, rigid, sexually frustrated fundamentalists with retrograde ideas about gender, sexuality and politics. There are even radical “separatists” within the red-pill community — so-called “men going their own way,” or MGTOWs, who advocate severing all relationships with Western women and opting out of the game altogether.
Many manosphere bloggers also use provocative, inflammatory statements to draw in readers to click, like or respond in comments. Stories like “5 Reasons to Date a Girl With an Eating Disorder,” for example, are typical of the more vicious sites. Yet Elam and other red-pill bloggers say this isn’t anger or hatred, but satire and social commentary. “What I do is reflect and study what the attitude is in the culture,” Elam told “20/20.” “I am not creating the problem, I am documenting some of it.”
But some say this is disingenuous, and what they’re really spreading is bigotry. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies and combats hate groups of all credos, many of its most prominent red-pill sites have a core of misogyny and hate.
“Although some of the sites make an attempt at civility and try to back their arguments with facts, they are almost all thick with misogynistic attacks that can be astounding for the guttural hatred they express,” the group wrote in its intelligence report.
This misogyny can escalate into campaigns of intimidation against women. For example, media critic and blogger Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a Web series examining the role of women in video games. The manosphere and red-pill community flooded her with thousands of messages and e-mails, threatening her with rape, violence and even death. They sent and published pornographic images photoshopped with her image superimposed on them, according to ABC News, and even created a video game where players could repeatedly click on an image of Sarkeesian to batter and bruise her face.
To be fair, many men who gravitate towards the manosphere in general are uncomfortable with the more extreme branches of it. “You dig deep enough, and you definitely hit this vein of ickiness,” Paul says. “It’s like anything else on the Internet. You see a lot of racism sometimes, you see really disgusting frat-guy-like talk. I try to ignore it and just take the good stuff.”
I ask if Paul’s ever wanted to express any dissent, but he just laughs. “I’m not one to really be active on social networks or anything like that,” he says. “Sometimes you do hear other guys say messed-up stuff, rape jokes and all that…I think they’re just venting.”
Even if Paul were inclined, however, it’s not easy to express a different opinion on many red pill sites. The manosphere often calls men who speak out for women or feminism “white knights” or “manginas,” and label it “beta” behavior. There’s even a sarcastic acronym — “NAWALT,” or “Not All Women Are Like That” — tossed off when someone tries to argue for more subtlety and fewer generalizations in a debate. If cults are in part defined by their suppression of differences in opinions through shame and intimidation, then the more virulent red-pill sites and their communities qualify.
It also doesn’t help when the media picks up on the more sensationalized threads of the manosphere. According to the Washington Post, for example, Santa Barbara mass murderer Elliot Rodger regularly read pick-up sites and watched red-pill YouTube channels. He was most active on a site called PUAhate, for red-pill followers whose “game” didn’t work despite all their efforts.
Rodger identified himself as an “incel” on these sites, and his digital footprint reveals a deep-seated anger towards girls, as well as a strong sense of entitlement that characterizes the extreme ends of red-pill Internet. Many in the red-pill community distanced themselves from Rodger, but the media coverage of Rodger drew fresh attention to the disturbing misogyny and hatred underlying parts of the red-pill Internet.
Rodger’s involvement in the manosphere did give Paul some pause about what he was exposing himself to. “It makes you think when you hear [Rodger] say the same words and ideas you heard a good friend said to you in another context,” Paul says. “Sometimes it takes hearing something come out of a crazy person’s mouth to realize just how nuts it is.”
But he’s quick to point out most people he’s encountered in his red-pill community are decent, upstanding people, not mentally unbalanced killers. “Not all men are like that,” he says ironically, considering how “Not all women are like that” is commonly mocked in the manosphere.
The manosphere speaks to a deep emotional need in men like Paul, one that isn’t met elsewhere in his life. At the heart of the manosphere is a confusion and questioning of what it means to be a man in the world now. Many red-pill participants long for the days when a man’s job in the world was simple: find a mate and provide. Yet even these traditional expectations are more difficult to meet — men haven’t fared as well as women in the new economy, according to Time. And in terms of relationships and marriage, they often feel ill-equipped to adapt to new expectations of emotional intimacy.
Some believe men need to develop new social and emotional skills to adapt to a new world. Yet there’s little social structure or support to teach these values, and few models to emulate. Unlike their fathers or grandfathers, men like Paul feel there’s no new roadmap for them to follow, so some have taken refuge in corners like the manosphere, which takes their confusion seriously.
The problem is the manosphere is often alienating to the very men who could benefit from connection and open discussion with one another. “Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with motivating guys to become better men, but the Red Pill seems to be doing so in an aggressive and adversarial sort of way,” Jim Romaniello, blogger and e-book author of “Becoming Alpha,” told Business Insider. “From an outside perspective, it seems like they’re a bit too vocal about categorizing themselves as alphas and others as betas…there doesn’t seem to be an attitude of wanting to bring other people into the fold. It seems divisive rather than inclusive.”
Paul says he’s starting to outgrow the manosphere for these very reasons. Part of it is the perhaps the nature of the medium. “After awhile, you realize the bloggers are recycling the old ideas and stories, and they all repeat each other,” he says. “You get sick of headlines that are flashy and just aim for the lowest common denominator. I feel like I’m hitting my learning ceiling and not really growing anymore.”
But he hasn’t quite let go, simply because there’s not much else in his world or life that speaks to his sense of confusion and isolation right now. He’s smart enough to realize he can’t recreate the past, but he’s not sure how to march into the future. “Deep down, I don’t think the world will be a better place if women go back to the kitchen or whatever. You just can’t turn back time; the world is what it is,” Paul says. “But I can’t deny I’m not confused by the world today, and the role I’m supposed to play in it and how I’m supposed to be.”
Though Paul’s bitterness with his romantic experiences is striking, it’s likely his anger will recede, eclipsed by his equally sincere desire to improve and grow — a desire awakened with his red-pill Internet involvement. “I just want to contribute and be respected for that,” he says when I ask what alpha means to him. “Contribute to my family, my community, my neighborhood by being my best self that I can.”
The world of the red pill gave him a start, but Paul just might have to improvise the rest of the way. “I just am not sure the best way to get to where I want to be. I don’t think ‘game’ is the answer, but it’s a starting point,” he says. “Maybe it’s the blind leading the blind in terms of these sites — but at least I’m not alone.” ♦
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