“Dear University of Toronto Students’ Union… I am here to issue you a promise, or depending on your preference, a warning… we have her image and know her general location. We will identify her and profile her activity and name for public view. We will not stop there, or just with her. And while we will not publish our complete intent, we are dogged in our efforts.”
That quote is part of a post on A Voice for Men, a blog run by “men’s rights” activist (MRA) Paul Elam. And the woman he’s threatening? That’s me.
It was December 2012 and I was working at the University of Toronto Students’ Union. Misogynist organizations who had branded themselves as men’s rights associations were upset because women on campus were leading an organizing effort against them. These men, who were by-and-large not students, had somehow managed to register as an official campus group. They were having events on campus spreading drivel about the dangers of “lesbianism” and promoting other dangerous and violent ideas, even suggesting that there are acceptable forms of rape.
There have always been heaps of reprehensible woman-hating groups organizing in the dark corners of the internet. They recruit on sites like 4Chan and Reddit, where misogynists can freely (and anonymously) post vile thoughts that would be unacceptable in any other sphere of their lives. But now, MRAs were taking their organizing from online forums into the real world and were physically threatening women—primarily women of colour—on campus.
We sounded the alarm early, alerting the university to the threat and asking them to take steps to ensure our safety. We were not taken seriously. University administrators insisted that the MRAs were mostly online and likely “bored kids in Texas” (Elam is based in Houston), and not worth investigating further.
MRAs aren’t just harmless internet trolls
This brush with MRAs—and the way the institution we trusted to protect us neglected to do so—has been on my mind since last Monday, when 25-year-old Alek Missanian careened down what may be Toronto’s busiest street in a white Ryder van, allegedly killing 10 and injuring 16. Prior to the attack, a post appeared on Missanian’s Facebook account that read: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun… All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
There are questions as to whether the post is a hoax, but Facebook has confirmed it came from Missanian’s real account. If it’s legit, it suggests Missanian was inspired by the “incel” community, a misogynist group of men that blames women for what they call “involuntary celibacy.” And that would make this tragedy yet another example of a hateful man turning his rage at women into mass murder.
Missanian’s potential connection to online incel groups reminds me of the online organizing of MRAs. Both groups exist in the manosphere, the online world of anti-feminist men who are actively attempting to shift mainstream culture toward their ideals. Oftentimes, they are not taken seriously. But they should be. The hate-net, spaces on the internet where hateful rhetoric thrives, is a powerful organizing and recruitment space.
Elliot Rodger, the “supreme gentleman” referenced in Missanian’s alleged Facebook post, is celebrated in incel groups. He is also the 22-year-old who killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California in 2014. He eventually turned his gun on himself, leaving behind a video describing his intention to punish women who “deprived” him of sex. After his death, he became a poster boy for the incel community—and a concrete example of how online threats can become very real.
When MRAs bring their violence offline, women of colour are often their targets
When the MRAs were organizing at the University of Toronto, I was stalked and harassed by dozens of men. And when the university refused to intervene on the hateful rhetoric of the campus groups, I joined other angry students in organizing a rally to oppose the obscene ideas.
The MRAs responded by targeting specific women on campus who participated in the rally. They placed photos of some of us online and encouraged their followers to harass us. Their primary targets were women of colour.
At the time, I worked at the undergraduate students’ union with some other women who had attended the rally. We received daily threats via email, phone and social media. Men stalked and photographed us wherever we went. Some particularly dedicated MRAs who were not students sat in the foyer of the tiny students’ union office all day to film us, an apparent attempt at intimidation.
The harassment continued relentlessly for three months. I was terrified to walk home by myself after class, and would be greeted by threats of rape and other forms of physical harm every day. We sent the university proof of everything we were experiencing, and still they did not take our concerns seriously.