Vulnerable young men, masculinity and extremism
5 Sep 2023|

Elements of society continue to apply subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on boys to be ‘real men’, which can have negative impacts on their development and on social cohesion. Australian researchers who interviewed 1,374 young men recently for a mental health charity focused on boys and young men, Man Cave, found that 92% were familiar with internet celebrity Andrew Tate, a self-described misogynist and alleged rapist.

Of those surveyed, 25% said they looked up to Tate as a role model, 44% said they didn’t look up to him and 31% were ‘neutral’.

Tate’s extreme views draw on traditional masculine norms that Australian boys learn to identify with at a young age. Initially presented as ‘self-help’ life advice, his divisive views could resonate with some teenagers or those in their early twenties transitioning into adulthood. Tate offers a version of masculinity closely aligned with the accrual of personal wealth, business success and physical strength. He presents images of himself with expensive sports cars, cigars, physical fitness and martial arts, almost in a parody of hypermasculine action-movie stars.

In December 2022, Tate was arrested in Romania on charges of rape and human trafficking after allegedly imprisoning women and forcing them into sex work. He has denied the charges and is under house arrest in Romania awaiting trial. Before his arrest, Tate used social media platforms to espouse violent, misogynistic rhetoric, including the idea that victims of rape are in part responsible for the crimes perpetrated against them. His views also include racist anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration sentiments. Tate has been complimentary about Adolf Hitler and promotes conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of these platforms have since banned him.

Tate is sadly not a fringe figure. A detailed investigation of Tate, published in The Australian Women’s Weekly, said the Andrew Tate hashtag had been viewed more than 12.7 billion times on TikTok alone before the site removed him. Many of these views would have been by boys and young men.  Writer Genevieve Gannon’s report was introduced with the warning that ‘he’s polluting our boys’ minds with a world view that’s sexist, racist and violent’. And despite his account being banned, users continually uploaded and disseminated his content.

Extremism—political, religious or ideological—refers to the advocacy, support or endorsement of extreme or radical views, ideologies or actions. Tate’s views are undeniably extremist, and he’s not alone. Arguably, Tate is tangentially associated with what’s referred to as the ‘manosphere’, which comprises overlapping misogynist online communities and high-profile individuals like Jordan Peterson. These groups are pervasive and expansionist, utilising online platforms to reach vulnerable men.

We are witnessing a combination of social factors that risk making boys and young men vulnerable to the rhetoric of toxic masculinity, extremism and hate speech. We know they are being targeted in the digital space by male extremist groups that play on their insecurities. Covid-19 provided an opportunity for online radicalisation because it intensified the time young men spent online and further isolated them from important face-to-face socialisation. More than ever, there’s a need to educate and safeguard boys and young men in the face of extremism.

Boyhood represents a vulnerable phase in which young males explore and experiment with different versions of manhood to shape their identities. Interactions with peers and broader communities influence how boys and young men construct their understanding of gender, sexuality, intimacy and relationships. Techno-social environments play a significant role in this process, introducing new challenges in terms of their socialisation.

Techno cultures can perpetuate an ideology of toxic masculinity. While many online networks and platforms have blocked such material, some have arguably become breeding grounds for toxic iterations of antifeminism, fostering violent and misogynistic subcultures. Such narratives are often packaged as self-improvement discourses, promising a sense of belonging and a pathway to manhood.

We have been seeing a worrying rise in far-right and extreme far-right movements since the 6 January 2021 insurrection in Washington DC. In Australia, we are more aware of groups like the Lad’s Society, the Antipodean Resistance and the National Socialist Networks. In March, a neo-Nazi protest at the Victorian Parliament attracted many young males. A recent inquiry in Victoria focused on the potential radicalisation of children by far-right and Nazi extremist groups. The inquiry explored the tactics employed by these organisations to indoctrinate young individuals. Experts and witnesses presented evidence highlighting the alarming increase in the state’s far-right activity and recruitment efforts.

The pundits driving this form of extremism tie their message closely to how boys and young men understand masculinity and their own masculine identity. There’s a need to identify this as a problem for society and to call attention to the importance of boys expressing emotional vulnerability. Expressing vulnerability comes with the risk of humiliation and shame, which can be uncomfortable for boys and young men. Efforts to counter violent extremism must therefore take gender seriously and devise gender-sensitive approaches. This is no easy task.

There’s no simple profile of extremism and no single route to extremist views taking hold. Given the complex nature of extremism, more research is needed into how best to educate and safeguard young men. Those working to counter violent extremism—as well as teachers and parents—need to work collaboratively with young men to empower them to identify and recognise forms of toxic masculinity that underpin many extremist recruitment efforts. Working side by side with targeted groups is preferable to top-down approaches, which can often be seen as forms of surveillance that may lead to boys and young men becoming further radicalised.