Only two years ago, I said the question of feminism’s success was over. Sure, there was still plenty of mopping up to do – ingrained practices and subconscious beliefs that needed to be rooted out – but the war was won. Feminism was now the socially and institutionally accepted norm in the developed world. Everything else was just details.

As you can imagine, I’m no longer so sure of that stance.

The Trump era demonstrates that for many, the war is far from over. Whether we’re talking about the Men’s Rights Movement, hypermasculine pick-up artists, or the extremist fringe Incel movement, a resurgence of anti-feminist sentiment in recent years raises some serious concerns for the future of the debate.

Sociological analysis of platforms such as YouTube, Reddit, and 4chan have noted that – quite contrary to the overall changes to social norms – anti-feminist sentiments appear to be resurgent in online forums. Feminist campaigners and scholars have approached this issue by attempting to demonstrate the feminist goals of dismantling gender roles and toxic masculinity are beneficial to men too, not just women. In spite of their efforts, anti-feminist sentiments are re-emerging in ‘real world’ political and social discourses.

But I believe that such approaches to this debate miss a key factor that underlines this revival of patriarchal masculinity.

“In the battle of the sexes, there can only be one winner. And it wasn’t men.”

Competing for power

For women, the development of feminism was an experience of expanding freedom, autonomy, and the right to both. Restrictive ideals of ‘feminine’ careers and pursuits were slowly dismantled, economic mobility and independence was gradually wrested from the patriarchy, and both political freedom, and the recognised right to that political freedom, became enshrined in law and the policy of private companies.

While nobody can reasonably deny this hard-earned progress towards equal rights was the ethical imperative, we should recognise that this newly-won power for women came from somewhere. It came from men.

If we understand power as the ability for an individual or group to control their circumstances, and if that power within a given context cannot be shared, it must instead be competed for by the parties involved. And while women have had every justification in seeking their fair share of power in order to control their circumstances, seeing their public role in the world burgeon as a result, this same process has seen men’s shrink.

In the space of one generation they have gone from the undisputed leaders of society and the family unit, to adrift in a sea of uncertainty as the new world order of equal rights asserts itself.

The Incel movement – “involuntarily celibate”

All of this is nicely illustrated by the emergence of the Incel subculture. ‘Incel’ is an abbreviation for ‘involuntarily celibate’. It is a community comprised of young men who feel that sex – or even the opportunity for sex – has been denied to them by women, both individually and collectively. The layers of psychology surrounding this are many and complex, as captured in excellent detail in this piece by philosopher Amia Srinivasan. But while it is both easy and accurate to describe a perceived entitlement to sex as severely problematic, doing so ignores one very important reality: in many regards, men used to have that power.

Even as recently as the 1990s, a masculine trope where men were responsible for providing for and protecting their families was still quite well established. They were told they should be upright, decent, considerate, and strong. And in return for all of this, they would attract female partners who would recognise these qualities, and those female partners would reward them with sex.

Needless to say, this is an incredibly simplistic and largely inaccurate perception of traditional gender roles, ignoring as it does the vast number of people that did not experience this simple equation or who were victimised by it. But the fact remains it was also somewhat true. Where strict gender roles are enforced by society, a man is offered a very simple formula to follow to get female companionship and/or sex. Fulfil the traditional role of a ‘man’ and women would inevitably seek out your company – usually because their traditional role as ‘women’ meant they had few other options.

The rise of feminism has seen increased freedom and opportunity for both genders, but while it saw the role of women grow, it also saw this traditionally dominant role for men shrink. Many men have seen this as an opportunity to grow beyond the old restraints of masculinity, but others have found themselves adrift, lacking even the old traditional guidelines to tell them what their purpose is and how they should conduct themselves.

“Masculinity today is in crisis. Old ways for men to understand themselves, their role and their purpose, have fallen apart.”

Faced with the potentially colossal existential crisis this presents them with, many men are turning to reactionary anti-feminist movements in psychological self-defence, preferring to externalise their crisis into a fightable enemy rather than undertake the daunting task of creating a new and better self – a project which by its very nature must be undertaken alone and is often very painful. The question before us is what we can offer those seeking an identity in this new, dynamic age that can provide that precious sense of self, which doesn’t also depend on unrighteous dominance over others.

This question is neither the fault, nor the responsibility of women. But faced with the reality of a resurgence in patriarchal political sentiment, it is a problem that feminists and their allies are forced to deal with – whether we like it or not.