In my years working in the secular movement, for various organizations and in different capacities, I’ve often been surprised by the sometimes-flippant dismissal of the misogyny I still see present in our world. How, I’ve wondered, can people who are so deeply committed to justice and equity for nontheists fail to recognize the ever-present patriarchal conventions by which we operate? In my tenure on the board of the Secular Student Alliance, I was lucky enough to work with Alex DiBranco, a researcher studying these issues. Last month, DiBranco launched her latest project: the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism (IRMS). I caught up with her recently to discuss these complex and omnipresent topics.
Sarah Henry: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What in your background inspired you to found the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism?
Alex DiBranco: While my original research focused on the Christian right and anti-abortion movements, I also worked as an activist on sexual violence issues, and starting in the early 2010s I was watching men’s rights activists (MRAs) like Paul Elam and their victim-blaming rhetoric. Over time, I became more concerned with the growth of secular misogynist movements. By the time Donald Trump was elected president, I had been pushing for some years for social justice organizations to expand their focus on reproductive justice to a more inclusive gender justice framework that would theorize rape culture as a right-wing ideology. The misogyny demonstrated by Trump’s campaign brought new interest to this subject and I was able to start writing and speaking in key venues about the threat posed by male supremacism. Unfortunately, the subject continued to be understudied and treated as a secondary concern or gateway to ideologies taken more seriously, like white supremacism, rather than being recognized as a threat by itself.
I was fortunate, however, to meet a few emerging scholars who were also focusing on misogynist ideology, and we began to build collaborative projects and support one another. The Institute for Research on Male Supremacism developed out of that collaboration and I am very grateful to my co-founders.
SH: Why is the mission of the IRMS so important at this moment in time? What makes it so relevant?
AD: In 2018 there were two mass killings by men connected to the “incel” ideology in North America—incels being men who call themselves “involuntarily celibate” and consider it an injustice that attractive women don’t have sexual intercourse with them. These events really changed the amount of attention focused on these growing online communities. However, there continues to be a problem with sympathetic myths associated with how misogynist mobilizations are viewed, including buying into MRA or incel talking points. For instance, reporting that male violence is driven by rejection from women, rather than understanding it as part of a male supremacist, antifeminist ideology that should be approached in the same way that we would approach white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies and violence. There was even an appalling New York Times column by Ross Douthat in which he suggested that if we talk about economic redistribution, then why not sexual redistribution, as though women’s bodies are just currency.
IRMS is dedicated to changing the narratives that give shelter to male supremacist and misogynist ideologies and mobilizations, and to supporting media, researchers, and activists in challenging these threats. There were at least two attacks related to incel ideology that were thwarted in the last year (because they were stopped without fatalities these attempts received only minor attention), and new data shows incel online communities are growing and becoming more extreme. In other words, the threat these mobilizations pose still remains and is growing, which is why the mission of IRMS is so important.
SH: Recently, you were attacked online by a neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. What do you think is the goal of these hate campaigns? How have these specific efforts impacted your life?
AD: The goal of these campaigns is clearly to intimidate and thereby silence people who are researching and/or challenging misogyny, particularly women. The Daily Stormer founder, Andrew Anglin, put up my photo and under it a caption in which he referred to himself as the “spiritual successor” to an incel mass killer, which I think speaks for itself. Ironically, the attack was triggered by an interview I did for NPR about the toll that doing research on extremist movements has on psychological health. Fortunately, I was already in contact with an enormously helpful group, Equality Labs, which works in data security for activists, and was applying for a grant to set up digital security when the post went up. I’m doing what I can for myself and those affiliated with IRMS to protect our personal information, as doxing has for years been a serious problem for women reporting on misogynist groups. I haven’t let The Daily Stormer‘s hit piece impact me much besides pragmatic considerations, and instead am pointing to it as further evidence for why IRMS is so needed. It’s the daily reading of misogynist content, as discussed in the NPR article, rather than this one ineffective attempt to tear me down that has the biggest impact on me and is real emotional strain.
SH: It seems to me that, more often than not, religious dominionism, white nationalism, and male supremacy are inextricably intertwined. Is that something you’ve found in your work? What prompted you to specifically focus on male supremacy in your new venture?
AD: I would actually have to say that contemporary white supremacist and male supremacist communities demonstrate more of what I term secular misogyny, which includes what appears to be an overrepresentation of atheists with regards to their small percentage of the population.
With the Christian right in the United States, we’re familiar with what Matthew Lyons explains well as “patriarchal traditionalism,” in which (white) women are put on a pedestal if they fulfill expected roles as wives and mothers. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan also accepted women as part of their movement, with women’s auxiliaries (as researched by Kathleen Blee) or, in neo-Nazi groups, as “race warriors.” Psychologically, this demonstrates what is termed “benevolent sexism,” directed toward women who stay in their appropriate place—think chivalry and male breadwinners. Juxtaposed to a “hostile sexism” for those who step out of line, both combine to form what’s called “ambivalent sexism.”
In the contemporary alt-right, as women and feminists have become main targets of male supremacist mobilizations, we basically just see hostile sexism in use, without the benevolent sexist religious trappings. In addition, the atheist movement, frequently called the secular movement, has a problem with white men who are anti-religious but overtly sexist and racist. They’ve discarded the belief in God, but they bring baggage that may very well stem from conservative Christian patriarchy, now being promoted from a secular frame. I sometimes say that atheist men who came from conservative Christian backgrounds and continue to perpetuate misogyny decided to be “skeptical” of the existence of the supernatural but not of the substance of conservative religious sexism, racism, and antigay ideology. The Islamophobia within the atheist community provides another link to the alt-right and white supremacist mobilizations (as Adam Lee has written about for Political Research Associates). As an atheist humanist, all of that drives my motivation to focus on this new brand of secular misogyny.
SH: Thank you for answering some questions and for educating our readers on these strains within the secular movement. How can people support your work and the IRMS?