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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
16 March 2023
Toxic masculinity: The rise of viral misogynistic content

Toxic masculinity | Alamy

Toxic masculinity: The rise of viral misogynistic content

It’s not every day in this post-pandemic working environment that there’s a full complement of staff in the office. But when it does happen there is a tangible air of excitement as colleagues catch up and share news.

On one of these days, what appeared to be a normal conversation between two work mates, set alarm bells ringing. Half tuning in, I heard a colleague speaking about their child mentioning a person called Andrew Tate. They assumed he was a fellow pupil at their son’s school.  
If you, like my colleagues, are unaware of who Andrew Tate is, it’s likely you don’t fall within his targeted demographic, male and between the ages of 13 and 35. The self-proclaimed most Googled man in 2022, has had a meteoric rise to prominence on social media in the last two years thanks to his highly controversial content, despite being banned from Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.  

But the former world champion kickboxer, who is currently being held in detention in Romania while police investigate allegations of human trafficking and organised crime, has found ways to keep his largely misogynistic and harmful content on people’s screens despite the social media bans. His ploy is to encourage other social media users who pay to access his ‘Hustler’s University’, a forum with tips to get rich, to post soundbites of him across various online platforms in a coordinated effort.  

In his content, Tate can often be heard making misogynistic and offensive comments about women and feminism more widely, while sharing his world view through the lens of a multimillionaire lifestyle, and with the occasional business advice for young people.   

Following on from some promising strides forward for women in the last decade, namely the #metoo movement, this kind of online content seems to have dawned a new form of infectious misogyny aimed at people as young as 13, harbouring attention and notoriety in a manner far more sophisticated than ever before. And now, it is making its way into youthful conversations in playgrounds and classrooms in our schools, without parents’ knowledge. My colleague was shocked to discover that far from talking about a playground pal, her son had been viewing Tate’s online content and absorbing it all without her knowledge.

The term toxic masculinity, which self-help-styled content like Tate’s has been accused of perpetrating, is one that director of Cultivating Minds UK, Graham Goulden, is not a fan of. He believes it is better described as “male sexual entitlement”. The former police officer and chief investigator, who worked with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit for the last eight years of his career, says that there is “a lot of pushback” on the phrase from people who think it suggests “all masculinity is toxic”. And Goulden is clear that it is not the case, “why start off with the negative”, he says.   

In the last few years, in his new role at Cultivating Minds UK, Goulden has been helping Police Scotland develop a campaign That Guy Scotland. It “was initially to look at male sexual entitlement” and he explains that it is that harmful outlook that is the “back story to what we are seeing with creators like Andrew Tate, who amplifies all of this stuff”. 

Sexual entitlement oozes out of creators like Tate. It is possibly best personified by how he began to gather his wealth. He described to another Youtuber how he set up his webcam girl empire: “The four girls flew in, I sat them all down at a table. They were all like ‘who’s this chick?’ I told them all the truth. I just straight sat there and said I have been with you all, I’m starting a webcam business and I’m going to get rich. Some of you are going to come with me to the top of the mountain or you can fly home.” 

In the same conversation Tate says that a man can only cheat “if he loves someone else” whereas if a woman even talks to another man, she is cheating “because females are emotionally invested”.

“It doesn’t matter if a woman wants to be a lawyer, a housemaker, or a webcam girl. Unless she has a man directing her, she is going to fuck it up,” he says.

As shocking and provoking as this quote is, the messages from the men’s rights activists are going down a treat with young male viewers; Tate’s TikTok account was viewed over 12.9 billion times before it was banned, and a recent study by Hope Not Hate found that 74 per cent of males aged 18-24 had consumed some media to do with him, while just under half viewed him in a positive light. What is even more concerning is that 16 and 17-year-old boys know Tate far better than any current UK politician. 

But why is this type of content attracting so many young males? Alongside the blatant misogyny, often the content creators sell a jet-setting lifestyle packaged up as some pseudo-self-help material, cut with flashy editing and cool music that promises viewers that they can be like them if they follow their advice. But that is not the only reason. Swathes of young men have been described as disaffected by their lives and society at large.  

Goulden thinks there is “no doubt that our young men are struggling”. He points to Scotland’s suicide, homelessness, addiction, and prisoner rates, “the vast majority of these are men”.  

“We need to ask the question of why that is. There is something going on in our society where our boys are really struggling, and I think it is in part down to this ‘manbox’ culture, which amplifies things like being rich, powerful, in charge, being in control of women, never be wrong and never admit defeat. Anything other than that you are called a wuss and your sexuality is questioned.” 

This ‘manbox’ culture has made its way into schools via harmful online content. A teacher, who wishes not to be named, said they were “taken aback” by an encounter with boys in their class.

“Recently during a lesson, one boy began talking openly about Andrew Tate and I asked him to stop. Then three others joined in proclaiming his views to the class. It was a very uncomfortable situation that I didn’t feel prepared to deal with. 

“Other members of staff that I am close to have mentioned similar instances, but it’s not an easy thing to deal with.” 

Former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie said at First Minister’s Questions in early March that teachers are “sick fed-up” having to deal with “violence” and “distressed behaviour” and asked Nicola Sturgeon if there will be “additional resources for schools to help them cope”. The first minister confirmed that there will be extra resources as part of the reviews that she has set out into bullying in schools. 

Addressing the problem early is of paramount importance, and understanding how meeting places have shifted from older generations of boys to the current generation is at the crux of the issue. “Children are living their lives online now”, Goulden says, and “media really drives that content to them”. 

According to Statista, in 2022, children in the UK between four and 18 years old spent on average 235 minutes per day on Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. 

“The internet is a place, not a thing. If your child is going uptown or to the park with their mates, you would be asking who they are going with, and what time they will be back. Whereas when they go upstairs to their bedroom there are very few boundaries,” Goulden explains. 

Addressing the issues in schools is essential, but it has to be approached the right way. Goulden suggests that “open conversations” with young men involved must take place to help them better understand and use “critical thinking” to assess the content they have been consuming. But this can only happen with buy-in from parents as well, helping them to better understand the risks of leaving them to their own devices, so to speak.  

“It is about helping parents understand the content that’s there and support them with it, not scaring them. Some schools are getting it really right, having open conversations about it, but other schools are knee-jerking to this guy [Andrew Tate]. They are just warning of his messages, whereas they should be spending a bit of time thinking about aligning young men’s values to the school values and letting them see how their personal values contrast to what that type of content is talking about and then giving them the tools to speak up and correcting their misperceptions.” 

The former police chief investigator argues that we have to “get better at how we speak to our young men” and improve on the “advice that we give the parents.” 

The new form of very effective viral content is not only normalising highly concerning attitudes towards women, but also towards men’s mental health. The ‘manbox’ which Goulden describes as “tight spaces that boys and young men frequent in their lives” is “amplified” by the social media content.  

“Inside that box are all the things that Tate is talking about: boys don’t cry, physical strength over emotional strength. And the outcomes are clear. The first outcome if a young man commits abuse or violence, is accountability. That takes precedence, this isn’t about apologising for behaviours. If a young man sexually assaults a young woman or sexually harasses them that is wrong, and that needs to be addressed. When that line is crossed, accountability is really important.  

“But if you have a man who is basically saying that depression is a weakness then he is just setting our men up to fail, amplifying that stereotype that we don’t talk to each other. If you create space for young men to talk, they will talk, they are desperate to talk about this stuff.

“We talk at young boys; we don’t talk with young boys. And I think Tate and other men like the guy Stephen Bear who was convicted [of voyeurism and two counts of disclosing private sexual photographs and films] recently prop up that male sexual entitlement.” 

As concerning as the content is, Goulden offers a positive. He says: “Thankfully when most young men reach 18, they look back and think what the hell happened there? From 13 to 17 they tend to just go along with the crowd, and then they get to 18 or 19 and most are glad that is over. They can make my own decisions. 

“There is a phrase they use, ‘masculinity contest cultures’. And in male-dominated cultures like policing, military, and fire service, we have this culture where we play up to each other, and that is what is going on with young men and their social circles. But most men get to 18 or 19 and realise that isn’t right. But there are a few that continue their behaviours and that is the challenge.”

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