How To Raise Your Boy In The Age Of The Manosphere
Illustration by Mr Marcos Montiel
“Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” In The Lion King, Mufasa tosses this nugget of wisdom to his son, Simba, as they gaze out from Pride Rock. This scene plays out in my head when I think of my role as a father. Then my thoughts turn to the world my own son is set to grow up in, a bonfire-potted wasteland ravaged by culture wars and climate change, incels and trolls. And that shadowy place in the distance? The manosphere.
In her book Men Who Hate Women, Ms Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, describes the manosphere as “an interconnected spectrum of different but related groups, each with their own rigid belief systems, lexicons and forms of indoctrination”. She chronicles, in great detail, an ecosystem where misogynist, racist and homophobic ideologies fester and mutate unchecked. Worse still, these ideas, which “had previously been confined to the murkiest corners of the internet”, are now spilling out into our world, IRL.
“Many dads really struggle, but what these boys want is a strong male role model”
For many parents, this became unavoidable with the emergence of Mr Andrew Tate, an influencer who, at the time of writing, is under house arrest in Romania, but seemingly on the tongue of every boy in the playground. “The manosphere existed well before Andrew Tate,” says Dr Simon Copland, a PhD candidate in sociology at the Australian National University and an expert on the subject. “He has certainly given them more coverage, but it is bigger than him.” Remove Tate from the picture and “there is every chance that someone else will fill the gap,” Copland warns. “We need to address the reasons why people join in the first place.”
I thought my seven-year-old son was safe, but according to the charity and support group Exit Hate, boys as young as nine are being targeted, groomed and radicalised by online groups. “We do training in schools and colleges, asking young lads how they feel,” says Mr Nigel Bromage, the founder of Exit Hate. “A lot of them are saying that they feel lost. They’re worried about identity and feel voiceless. They feel like they don’t have anywhere to talk and the manosphere is giving them a place where they can have those difficult conversations.”
Young men have a lot of questions – about themselves, the world and their place in it. The manosphere offers easy answers. Bromage says it’s up to parents to have better answers. “Mums tend to take responsibility and want to have these conversations,” he says. “Many dads really struggle. Some do more overtime just so they don’t have to go home. They keep out of it, but what these boys want is a strong male role model.”
The first step, then, is to step up. Here’s what you should do next.
It’s an ongoing conversation
Don’t think of it as “the talk”. “What talk?” asks Ms Sophia Smith Galer, author of Losing It: Sex Education For The 21st Century. “We should be talking.” In short, a one-off chat about the birds and the bees isn’t going to cut it. Sex education should be an ongoing dialogue that should come from parents and teachers, as well as children themselves.
“We can begin by making sure we instil in our children, from infancy, an understanding that their bodies are their own and that others must respect their boundaries,” Ms Lola Okolosie, a teacher and writer, wrote on the subject of parents dealing with Tate in The Guardian earlier this year. “These issues will need revisiting again and again.”
It may feel awkward at first, but the goal is that eventually it won’t be. “We’re not necessarily built to talk about all these things in a confident way,” Smith Galer told The Blindboy Podcast earlier this year. “We should acknowledge that, no, we do not have all the answers, but are prepared to do our own research to find out,” Okolosie says.
Understand what you’re dealing with
A big problem is the digital culture gap that now exists between parents and their children. To close it, Bates suggests plunging into men’s rights pages on Reddit yourself. “Sign up for some of the biggest comedy meme accounts on Instagram and see what they’re pumping out,” she recently told The Guardian. “Try typing something innocuous about women on YouTube and then pay attention to the five or six videos that the algorithm serves up. Make a TikTok account and get a sense of what that world actually is like.”
But don’t think you have to go too far down the rabbit hole. “I’m not sure parents need to have an in-depth understanding of how the far right uses social media,” Copland says. “But they should be instilling progressive values in their kids from an early age and should be discussing politics and issues regularly so they can intervene if and when they need to. It’s about giving kids a strong sounding board, so they don’t get information only from social media.”
Know the signs
Exit Hate lists the following behaviours as indicators that someone is being groomed by extremist groups online: they isolate themselves from family and friends; they talk as if from a scripted speech; they are unwilling to debate their views; they are suddenly disrespectful of others; they are increasingly angry or secretive; they have new tattoos of numbers or symbols that you don’t recognise; they voice support for individuals or groups with racist views.
“People can look for phrases such as ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘social justice warriors’ or more niche terms, such as people being referred to as ‘Chads’, ‘Stacys’, ‘betas’ or ‘cucks’,” Copland says. “The manosphere talks about relationships between men and women in quasi-scientific terms.” He explains further here.
Don’t become the enemy
“The instinct is to attack Andrew Tate, but this is the worst thing you can do,” says Mr Phil Priestley, principal consultant for Inclusive Development, who works in schools and colleges as a mentor and coach.
“Tate persuades young people that the institutions around them are not trustworthy, referring to them as ‘The Matrix’. He has his followers programmed to be on alert for people who try to discredit him. The young men become defensive of themselves and begin to perceive you as an enemy.”
Turn their lights on instead
“Andrew Tate is a master when it comes to gaslighting,” says Priestley. “We have to be the adults who walk into the room and turn the lights on.”
Priestley suggests flipping misogynous theories by applying them to the women in young men’s lives. Working in small groups of no more than three, he’ll ask how they would rate their sisters or their mums out of 10 for attractiveness. Then he’ll get them to rate each other’s mums or girlfriends, usually to uproar.
“I’m not judging,” says Priestley. “I resist the urge to call out the hypocrisy. The boys have to verbalise it for themselves. With the lights on, young men are perfectly capable of doing the rest.”
Build a community
As boys grow up, their focus naturally shifts from their family to a wider community. For parents, losing this influence over them can be unnerving, but if you’ve done the groundwork, your son stands a better chance of finding the right role models, whether in real life or the wider media.
“We need to ensure boys have a broad spectrum of men they can look up to, so they can understand that being a man can involve lots of different things,” Copland says. “I think we do that in our society pretty well at the moment, particularly in spaces like the arts and music. The issue is less that boys don’t have men to look up to, it’s that some men provide easy answers – ie, blame women – to men’s problems. We need to give them alternative answers. Men can often be the best messengers for this.”
Give them the tools to be digitally literate
“In communities targeting men’s mental health or sexual health, you can find a lot of misinformation,” Smith Galer says. She uses the example of NoFap, an online community that centres around the abstinence of masturbation, but has little scientific or medical accreditation. For those with a degree of digital literacy, this should be a red flag. Teach your kids what to look for.
Get your son to explain tech to you
“Young people have amazing IT skills that we’ll never have because they understand that world better than us,” Bromage says. “What they don’t understand is the danger.”
Rather than monitor their internet use, he suggests getting them to show us the apps they use and how they work. Build on this trust by offering advice and encouraging your son to ask why people say certain things on social media or if their sources are credible.
“That critical thinking from Dad sinks in,” Bromage says. “It’s a mutual journey.”
Just be there for them
Young men turn to online groups looking for a role model, but often they just want someone to hang out with. “We encourage dads to play video games with their sons,” says Bromage. “Get beaten at everything from Mario to Call Of Duty. Take it slowly and make sure home is a loving, welcoming, non-judgmental space.”