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"Men's Rights" Activists Are Trying to Redefine the Meaning of Rape

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This past December, authorities at Occidental College in Los Angeles noticed a sudden rise in reports filed on their anonymous online sexual assault reporting site. The site was intended to give students a safe, private space to report sexual assaults to college authorities. But this new influx of reports was clearly something else. Rather than accusing fellow classmates, these forms listed as the perpetrators “Occidental College” or “feminism” or, memorably, “Fatty McFatFat.” “It seemed pretty clear these reports were not being made in good faith,” says Jim Tranquada, Director of Communications and Community Relations at Occidental, in a phone interview.

In fact, as Occidental would soon learn, the reports were being filed by members of a Reddit board dedicated to the so-called Men’s Rights Movement.

A loose coalition of activists, the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), has made its way onto the media’s radar in recent years because of their vocal, mostly online, activism on issues like child custody and domestic violence law, which they see as biased against men. They gather on dedicated Men’s Rights websites like A Voice for Men and on Reddit under subreddits like MensRights and TheRedPill , and share their theories on various YouTube channels. They made headlines last year when Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli was tied to a men’s rights group advocating for divorced fathers; the group’s former leader was a vocal advocate for the theory that women use domestic violence charges to manipulate men. Much of the movement’s notoriety is due to their often-vitriolic style and their habit of targeting those who speak against them with ad hominem online attacks.

Lately, though, the movement has focused much of its attention on the issue of rape. As the nation grapples with rape in increasingly public waysObama’s January formation of a new task force to address rape on college campuses, the widespread publicity around the Steubenville and Maryville rape casesthe MRM is crying foul.

They claim that rape statistics are overinflated, that female-on-male sexual assaults are ignored or sneered at, andabove allthat false rape reports are a far larger problem than we acknowledge. And they’re taking action. In Canada this past summer, a men’s rights group plastered the city of Edmonton with posters aimed at young women. “Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual,” the posters read. This fall, members of a MRM website took online vigilante justice against an Ohio University student they believed was falsely crying rape. (It turned out she was the wrong woman altogether.) The Occidental incident has sparked other, similar actionsthis month, MRM websites called for a mass spamming of Dartmouth’s anonymous online sexual assault reporting form.

To dismiss the MRM as merely misogynist and extreme would be to ignore the fact that their beliefs are shared by a troublingly large percentage of the American population. And while the MRM’s rhetoric is ugly and often sophistic, they have identified a number of issuesconsent, victim-blaming, and legal standards of proofthat have too often been presented in black and white terms, when the reality is much more complicated.

Take the issue of false rape accusations, which gets endless play on MRM websites and YouTube channels. Women falsely accuse men of rape for “lots of reasons,” Karen Straughan, a 43-year old Canadian mother-of-three who has become a major figure in the MRM, told me when we spoke on the phone. Straughan mentions the case of Praise Martin-Oguike, a Temple University football player falsely accused of rape last year by a woman who was apparently angry that he wouldn’t have a relationship with her. There is also the Hofstra University student who falsely accused five men of rape in 2009, allegedly to keep her boyfriend from finding out she’d cheated on him. (The Hofstra case has become a touchstone in the MRM community, viewed as proof that a woman will ruin five men’s lives to cover her tracks if she needs to.)

The most reliable statistics available place the number of false rape reports at between 2 and 8 percent of all rape reports. Yet most people, both in and out of the MRM community, believe these numbers to be much higher. One survey found that both male and female college students believe that about 50 percent of rape allegations are false. So while the substance of the MRM’s claims are false (false reports of rape take place much less frequently than they claim), they have identified a flashpoint issue that progressives disregard at their peril. False reporting of rape can be a life-destroying crime. It may not be especially common, but it is serious.

The way rape is dealt with on college campuses is another bugaboo of the MRM. “We have a problem with feminists hyper-inflating rape statistics, creating a kind of hysteria on campus over a problem that needs due attention from law enforcement,” says Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, widely considered the flagship website of the MRM. The site, which features essays pontificating on society’s supposed anti-male bias, gets about 10,000 to 12,000 hits per day, says Elam, 57, proudly declaring that this is more than “every significant feminist website I can think of” except for Jezebel. (Elam’s estimates are probably off. While Slate doesn’t release precise breakdowns, their overall traffic for January was 24 million; Double X made up a good portion of that traffic.) The way Elam sees it, college campuses are hotbeds of feminist bias where all male students are shamed as potential rapists in endless anti-rape orientations and workshops. He and other activists devote much time and energy to disproving the popular “one-in-four college women will be sexually assaulted before graduation” statistic that floats around campus sexual assault awareness seminars and rape support webpages. He especially scorns the way many universities use their own on-campus justice systems to deal with accused rapists, sometimes coming to conclusions different than the court system.

The fact is, the way colleges and universities deal with rape is often problematic. And there is a kernel of truth to the objection to the one-in-four statistic: It is a misstatement of a much-misunderstood study; according to the Justice Department, about 18 percent of women will victims of rape in their lifetime, as will 3 percent of men. More broadly, colleges do sometimes mishandle sexual assault accusations in ways that may be biased against the accused.  The MRM frequently points to the case of Caleb Warner, a University of North Dakota student accused of a 2009 rape and subsequently found guilty by a student committee and banned from campus for three years. The police, however, found the report unreliable and eventually issued an arrest warrant for the woman on charges of false reporting. It took 19 months of petitioning to force the university to agree to re-admit Warner.

But the far more pressing issue in terms of the way that colleges address rape accusations has to do with the institutions ignoring or mishandling cases of sexual assault. Occidental, along with a number of other elite colleges, came under federal investigation last year for precisely this. The case was brought by 37 current and former students, including several men. According to the complaint, administrators explicitly discouraged students from coming forward with sexual assault reports. This is not unique to Occidentalsimilar cases have arisen at the University of North Carolina and Swarthmore, among others. This kind of discouragement, shaming, and victim-blaming is exactly why we need anonymous reporting and more stringent anti-sexual assault policies, say victims’ advocates.

The MRM’s tirades and hijinks certainly don’t meaningfully add to the debate surrounding the way we handle sexual assault. But to totally ignore the issues that they raise does not further a productive conversation. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to talk about these issues in progressive or feminist circles, where discussions of sexual assault prevention can quickly degenerate into angry hyperbole and name-calling. Among progressive media circles, to suggest that sexual assault and sexual assault prevention can be less than clear-cut is to court accusations of being a rape apologist. When Slate’s Emily Yoffe wrote about the importance of teaching college girls about rape and alcohol safety, the blogosphere pouncedthe writer Jessica Valenti even accused Yoffe of having “made the world a little bit safer for rapists.” Some feminists dismiss the problem of false rape accusations as trivial in the face of real rape. “A man's chances of being falsely accused of rape are incredibly small,” wrote Slate’s Amanda Marcotte. (To be fair to Slate and the range of perspectives that it offers, Marcotte’s colleague, Emily Bazelon has written that fairly conservative estimates put the number of false rape reports at 20,000 a year.) When Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto wrote a piece several weeks ago bashing the idea of equating drunken sex and rape, organizations like NOW demanded his ouster. Though Taranto does have a record of being a dinosaur when it comes to gender issues, to see his point here as rape apology seemed quite a stretch.

So unless progressives want the MRM to lead the dialogue on these issues, perhaps they should start addressing them more comprehensively and less reactively. There will almost surely be more MRM rape campaigns in the coming year, says Dean Esmay, the managing editor of A Voice for Men: “We will continue to look for ways to stir things up.” Ignoring the matters these campaigns raise risks ceding the conversation.

Emily Matchar is the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.

Image via Shutterstock.

This piece has been updated. It incorrectly identified James Taranto as a Washington Post columnist. In fact, he writes for The Wall Street Journal. We regret the error. 

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