On December 29 of last year, misogynistic social media influencer, Andrew Tate, was arrested in Romania on suspicion of rape and human trafficking. Later charged, and in ways that mirror former US President Trump’s present legal woes, the ‘controversy’ was very 2020s. First, anyone who had had the displeasure of viewing Tate’s online content would not have been in the least bit surprised by the news. Indeed, the charges were a natural extension of his oft-stated views on women, their role in society, and heterosexual relations. Before being banned from the platform, Tate had argued on Twitter that women ‘bear responsibility’ as victims of sexual assault, later describing in violent detail what he would do to a woman were she to accuse him of cheating (he’s OK with male infidelity, by the way). On his decision to relocate from Britain to Romania, he cited what he – ill-advisedly, it turns out – saw as being the country’s more lenient approach to rape, saying that it was “probably 40% of the reason… I like the idea of just being able to do what I want.” Perhaps most illustrative of his broader outlook, he once bemoaned the “decline of Western civilisation” after seeing an airport billboard “encouraging girls to go on holiday as opposed to… being a loving mother and a loyal wife.”
So, as far as arrests go, Tate was “hiding in plain sight” and it had always seemed more a case of “when” rather than “if” to anyone paying attention. However, reporting of the incident – and to a lesser extent of his banning from various social media platforms in the months leading up to it – also exposed to the wider public the astonishing extent of the influencer’s popularity among the heterosexual boys and men to whom his content is geared. As part of the broader online ‘manosphere’ – a loose network of antifeminist and reactionary YouTube and TikTok channels, and other social media accounts – Tate remains their Kardashian. Undented by recent events, he enjoys a profile that, were it not for his seemingly beyond-the-pale views, could only be described as mainstream. His videos have garnered countless millions of views, accompanied by all but uniformly supportive comment sections. His Twitter (or ‘X’) account, reinstated in late-2022 by Elon Musk, now has over 6 million followers. A recent YouGov poll found that approximately one quarter of British young men agree with his positions on women. These are just a few of the many metrics we could share.
What is going on here? How could someone like Tate, so blatantly offensive to some, resonate so powerfully with others? It’s particularly vexing given the numerous studies that show young people, including boys and men, moving decidedly towards more progressive outlooks. Scholarship up to this point – most notably the work of Debbie Ging at Dublin City University – has been very good at making sense of manosphere discourses and the logics of purveyors like Tate. To quote Ging, they represent a ‘preoccupation with male hegemony’ elicited by misdirected anxieties over “men’s position in the social hierarchy as a result of feminism.” The predominant explanation given for the spread of this phenomenon is a gendered form of zero-sum thinking: the idea that men, while still enjoying disproportionately better socioeconomic outcomes, experience the gains made by women over recent decades as losses. Baked into this theory of ‘aggrieved entitlement’ – however inadvertent – is an unhelpful dismissal of contemporary hetero-masculine anxieties as a sort of overprivileged ‘get over yourselves!’ whingeing. While the theory has ‘bigger picture’ validity, it leaves little scope for acknowledging the very real, and to some extent distinct, contemporary pressures faced by heterosexual boys and young men, and how they increasingly feel ignored by, and disenfranchised from, mainstream society.
We argue that it’s time to shift to a more empathetic investigation of what’s driving boys and men into the arms of the manosphere. For one, we need to be more cognisant of the way in which a concept like ‘male privilege’ renders invisible the wildly complicating dimensions of class and/or race. Indeed, try telling a young working-class man from the British Midlands or American ‘flyover country’, with no girlfriend and dubious job prospects, that he’s the beneficiary of undue ‘privilege’. The realities of male privilege remain true in an overarching systemic sense, as well as in the countless minute ways men experience the world differently from women. However, it is important to recognize the various socioeconomic factors that prevent many men from experiencing this privilege in any sort of life enhancing way.
As a cohort, heterosexual men in countries like Britain and America are also significantly more likely to be isolated and friendless, as well as involuntarily single and celibate. Along with the rest of youth, they are also entering adulthood in the context of an economy that is offering fewer secure and meaningful jobs. All of this is exacerbated by a set of enduring traditional expectations that measure a man’s worth precisely against these increasingly unattainable sexual and financial markers of success, while also inhibiting boys’ and men’s ability to talk about their failures. Of course, the gender scholarship we’re respectfully critiquing here has long highlighted the link between unattainable masculine ideals, on the one hand, and antisocial behaviours and negative mental wellbeing outcomes, on the other. However, this can often veer into an implicit victim-blaming in which boys and men are their own worst enemies and need only shed their ‘toxic’ attitudes to live healthier, more integrated lives. In the context of the abovementioned realities, it’s easier said than done, and somewhat puts the cart before the horse.
Indeed, heterosexual boys and men seem stuck between a mainstream conversation largely (and not unjustifiably) focused on their historical privilege and toxic practices, and manosphere figures like Tate who sell misogynistic delusions of grandeur while painting the world as hostile to their interests. However self-detrimental, it’s not surprising that some choose the latter. Responding to this, a nascent body of scholarship is treading a different path by investigating the vulnerabilities on which the manosphere feeds, as a way of better understanding its disturbing end-product. To give some examples, a recent study of the notorious manosphere breeding ground, 4chan, coauthored by the first author here, found that many boys and men yet to exhibit reactionary views are drawn into these spaces more for a sense of community and because, alarmingly, they feel safer expressing vulnerabilities here than via conventional support channels. This is presently being followed up by the same team’s study of the similarly notorious Reddit platform, with data suggesting comparable
patterns. In their groundbreaking 2023 study, Daly and Reed interviewed members of the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) subculture – a subset of the manosphere motivated by abject failure in the sexual marketplace – and found that they were being driven deeper into this misogynistic community by the misunderstanding and persecution they felt emanating from mainstream society. Echoing this work, the second author here is presently undertaking a study investigating the ways in which men’s engagement with these subcultures can be considered a form of digital self-harm. Vulnerable men actively engage in toxic online environments that pull them deeper into self-loathing and isolation, and they find curious ‘solace’ in forums where their peers continuously belittle and insult them.
More work needs to be done to understand the causes, contexts and narratives underpinning the manosphere’s appeal, and it needs to be empathetic as well as critical. If we continue to dismiss the anxieties of heterosexual boys and men as little more than entitled special pleading, we will be guilty of exacerbating the sense of disenfranchisement on which figures like Tate successfully prey. No one wants this. Loneliness, the psychologist, Carl Jung, observed, “does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.”
Marcus Maloney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures.
Kate Babin is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures.