This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).
Like other forms of hate and extremism, misogyny migrated long ago from ‘real life’ onto every nook and cranny of the Internet. The problem is so pervasive that this spring, Nina Jancowicz published a book titled How to be a Woman Online. While misogyny existed before Web2, technology has played a major role in spreading misogynistic extremism. Although tech may have a role to play in stemming the tide of this insidious ideology, it is not the solution to this growing problem.
Misogynistic extremism should be distinguished from everyday misogyny as well as from toxic masculinity. ‘Misogyny’ is a general hatred of women, which may or may not manifest in a public fashion. In her book Misogyny, scholar and social worker Gail Ukockis defines toxic masculinity as “behaviors and attitudes of hypermasculinity that stress virility over cooperation and violence over compassion.” The ideology that I have labelled ‘misogynistic extremism’ is more dangerous than toxic masculinity because its focus is not on masculinity but on a seething hatred for women and girls who, these extremists believe, make their lives miserable. I have defined ‘misogynistic extremism’ as a hatred that sees women exclusively as mindless commodities to be obtained for sex, status, and domestic service. The extremists choose not to even acknowledge women’s humanity, preferring the term ‘femoids’ or ‘foids,’ a portmanteau from ‘female’ and ‘android.’ Misogynistic extremists degrade women, seek revenge against them for perceived sleights, and frequently support the use of rape or other forms of violence to return women to their ‘natural habitat’ as slaves to men within the private sphere.
In this Insight, I provide an overview of misogynistic extremism online and provide strategies for addressing this serious threat. The first portion of the article explores the dynamics of misogynistic extremism and provides examples of how this ideology manifests online. Next, the article looks at the danger posed by misogynistic extremism. Finally, the piece looks at the role that technology can play in ameliorating the problem, and the more substantial role that must be played by offline communities. Although tech may have a role to play in stemming the tide of this insidious ideology, tech alone cannot solve this growing problem.
Misogynistic Extremism Online
Social media and message boards are the most common ways for misogynistic extremists to express their views in a public forum. Online male supremacist forums, as well as 4chan and Gettr maintain users’ anonymity as they spew ideas that they know are socially unacceptable. While one can find misogynistic extremism on mainstream platforms, the most hateful or violent content on such sites is removed by trust and safety teams. To see the fully-fledged outbursts of misogynistic extremism, one must take a deep dive into the message boards of MGTOWs (‘Men going their own way’) and incels (‘involuntary celibates’).
One of the most common tropes on MGTOW and incel message boards is the overt dehumanization of women. Take, for example, the following interaction between users on an incel message board:
User 1: ‘Treating neanderthalensis feminum a.k.a. “women” like if they aren’t the not-fully evolved humans they actually are, is a crime to me…Don’t be a criminal: rape foids!’
User 2: ‘I read somewhere [women are] actually more like domesticated animals… basically we created foids by domesticating them, the way we created dogs and cats. which is why they thrive living inside and being fed: and as pets, I [sic] have no hate for foids. the [sic] drama starts when we start treating them as people, even though we domesticated them for our pleasure…’
Misogynistic extremists also express their anger when women they deem to be unattractive have sex–the valuable ‘commodity’ that incels and MGTOWs cannot access. This anger also intersects with racism if the woman in question is non-White. On 3 November 2022 one user wrote, “I hung out with my mates and we all phone called [a Black woman] and told the 400lb bitch to lose weight.” He reveals at the end why he is bitter about his encounter with this woman: “[This Black woman thinks] I am more privileged than her. I am a poor virgin incel who can’t get sex… Despite being 400lb she can get sex and have an amazing sex life while I rot.”
In Fig. 1,we can see an example from the conservative social media platform Gettr that demonstrates this thinking. The user is complaining that a woman he sees as ‘ugly’ is ‘allowed’ to make choices about who she chooses for sex partners:
Misogynistic extremists also express a longing for a mythical past in which heterosexual men were the only people who were permitted openly to exercise sexual agency. Some MGTOWs prefer the term the ‘Great Regression,’ to refer to the idea that women often exercise sexual agency to choose partners who they find physically attractive, an option that “optimized her survival circa 30,000 BC…In plain English, they now want “bad boys” and “players,” not gentlemen.”
In one incel forum, a user makes this point explicitly when he writes that women should be married so that as a result “there would be enough women to go around.” Another user agrees, downgrading rape to a non-crime because, in his words, “Just think about it: we could not get any sex even if we begged and struggled for it, and we’re mocked for the pain it causes, yet the WORST THING that could happen to a foid is getting sex without asking for it. The sex game is so tilted in the Foid’s favor they can literally get sex while sleeping, and that’s the drama of their lives.”
Measuring the Threat
So why is this misogynistic extremism more dangerous than toxic masculinity or everyday misogyny? Research shows that men who enact these extreme forms of women-hate are more likely to commit crimes against women including image-based abuse, stalking, trafficking, raping, and/or murdering innocent people. Elliot Rodger was the first self-identified incel to carry out a mass murder motivated by what he saw as his unjust lack of access to female bodies. He was not the last, as other men have seen Rodger’s crime as ‘inspiration’ for their own acts of terrorism.
A 2022 study by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership revealed that a significant percentage of men hold hostile attitudes toward feminism and female sexuality – attitudes that predispose them to belief in misogynistic extremist ideology. In their study that spanned 29 countries, 23 per cent of men agreed with the statement, “Men have lost out in terms of economic and political power or socially as a result of feminism,” including 20 per cent of American men and 24 per cent of British men. Further, 12 per cent of American men and 8 per cent of British men agreed that “It’s a woman’s obligation to have sex with her boyfriend or husband even if she doesn’t feel like it,” with a global average of 10 per cent of men agreeing with that sentiment. And, 8 per cent of men around the world believe that it is fine to share “intimate images of someone online without their consent.”
These statistics are chilling – they highlight the danger inherent in misogynistic extremism, especially as it manifests online. Clearly, a significant percentage of men agree with statements that diminish women or aim to take away female sexual agency. It is not known how many of these men already frequent incel or MGTOW forums. Still, there is latent danger among the men who agree with the women-hating statements who have not yet found incel and MGTOW forums. How many such males will become misogynistic extremists when they do find them? How many of those men will commit murderous acts of violence?
Addressing Misogynistic Extremism: Moving Offline
Misogynistic extremism is facilitated and amplified by technology. But is technology the best approach to solving the problem? Issues of content moderation put the onus on tech companies to solve the issue of extremism. This approach reflects an ideology of technochauvinism that sees tech as the solution to all problems. The neologism ‘technochauvinism’ was created by Meredith Broussard in her 2018 book Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World. Broussard demonstrated that technochauvinists show a “general lack of concern for social issues” and identify problems only for the capitalistic purpose of making profit by creating a technological solution to the issue. She notes, also, that technochauvinism is often accompanied by an overblown penchant for free speech and by the idea that all problems would vanish if everyone would only use more technology.
The most common tech solution to misogynistic extremism is content moderation. Trust and safety teams should identify the threat posed by misogynistic extremism and take down this content, even if it doesn’t directly threaten a specific individual woman or use particular hateful terminology. In fact, extremists are experts at gaming the moderators by using their own slang. Consider the use of ‘femoid’ or ‘foid’ instead of the more obviously offensive terms ‘bitch’ or ‘c**t.’
Major search engines inhibit the ability of users to find extremist content. Indeed, incel or MGTOW message boards are not searchable on major search engines, and so users seeking this content must avail of smaller, lesser-known search engines such as DuckDuckGo.
Despite the contention of technochauvinists that algorithms are unbiased arbiters of what content is useful, technology is not neutral; indeed, as one nonprofit formulates the idea, “All Tech is Human.” Web hosts are not passive entities that are legally obligated to host any content regardless of its morality. As the Apple Store has declined to give the alt-right social media channel Parler a platform, so too could web-hosting services refuse to provide an online home for incels, MGTOWs, and other woman-hating extremists. While I don’t question the absolute right of companies to host this kind of speech, there is a moral responsibility for it, and companies cannot claim ignorance for what happens on these forums.
The ideology of technochauvinism is wrong in relation to the problem of misogynistic extremism. Still, while technology does have a role to play in ameliorating this issue, it cannot be the core of the solution.
Technochauvinists are correct to the extent that the problem of misogynistic extremism can be tempered with technology if web hosting services and content moderators refuse to host such content. Still, only major search engines and web hosting services can afford to turn down business; capitalism intersects with technochauvinism in a way that guarantees that most companies will make the profitable choice most of the time, regardless of the morality involved.
Conclusions & Recommendations
Misogynistic extremism is not only an online problem, but reflective of a greater social issue. Social issues are impacted by the online, but need to be accompanied by offline solutions that address the underlying social norms that drive them. Real solutions to extreme hatred of women must be enacted offline. The process of ending misogynistic extremism will be long, but dedicated efforts by key players can make real progress.
First, mainstream media must improve in its reporting on women and gender equality. At present we are still reliant on minimal criteria such as the Bechdel test in which passing means that a movie or television show includes two women having a conversation about something other than a man. Instead, writers and directors must make movies that feature women, and critics must not shove them into the corner of ‘chick flicks.’ Feminists might highlight this problem by referring to macho films as ‘dick flicks.’ We must reject the notion that the male experience is universal and the female experience specific.
Second, women need male allies. We hear a lot about allyship for the LGBTQIA+ community and the BIPOC community–and of course such allyship is important–and we need people who do not self-identify as women to be allies to women and girls. When allies hear men using misogynistic language, they can step in and explain the falsity of their statements and give examples of women of great character and moral standing. One study from Harvard Business Review demonstrates the effectiveness of training bystanders in how to intervene in sexual harassment situations, and another campaign on London’s tube also emphasised the impact of bystander intervention in harassment.
Educators also have an important role to play in teaching children that women have intrinsic value. Proper sex education will empower girls and teach boys that women have sexual desires, have the right to exercise their sexual agency, and have value beyond being someone’s daughter, sister, or wife. Plus, teachers can feature female scientists, mathematicians, astronauts, writers, inventors, business leaders, and change-makers in their classes. They should do so in a way that seamlessly integrates these figures into the curriculum, rather than as a separate ‘women’ section of the discipline. Women are, and always have been, an integral part history. With any luck, they will be an even more important force in the future.
Technology has had a major role to play in spreading this disturbing ideology, and technologists do have a part to play in stemming the tide of woman-hatred. But the greatest change will come from media, respectful education, and bystander intervention.