By day, London-based Julie Ebner researches extremist groups, and advises universities, governments and technology partners on strategies to deal with harmful online content. But, in her spare time, she spent the past two years undercover with a range of extremist groups, including radical misogynists, both male and female. Here is her story:
“Where do you think you fall on the SMV scale?” Kim asks me.
“Um.” I google SMV. Sexual market value is “a measure of desirability for sex in the eyes of a person of the opposite sex”, according to the online male supremacist community Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW).
“Don’t know,” I confess. “How would I?”
“Well, it’s hard to judge yourself, and often we don’t know exactly how we are perceived. But as a woman it is often said our SMV goes up if we control our weight.”
Kim tells me that she went from size 20 to size 14 in one year after joining Red Pill Women, a female anti-feminist community on the discussion platform Reddit. “I am sure it helped, since I am treated differently. But I am not stopping traffic or anything. My face is average or even below average, which probably keeps my SMV low even though I’m skinny now.”
I stare at her brutal self-evaluation. This is a typical discussion in the forum. Kim is one of roughly 30,000 self-described Red Pill Women or Trad Wives (short for Traditional Wives). These women perceive gender roles as the result of “sexual economics”.
The heterosexual community, they believe, should be seen as a marketplace, where women are sellers and men buyers of sex. A woman’s single most important resource is therefore, according to them, her SMV.
This is now my third week talking to the Trad Wives and I have started to get used to their endorsement of openly misogynist statements. “Women’s highest value to men is her sexual value, and she’s most valuable when she’s in her sexually pristine state,” I am repeatedly told.
Women’s highest value to men is her sexual value
“OK, but what about other factors such as being funny, educated or having exotic passions?” I ask, half knowing the answer.
“Oh, come on. Health, age and femininity are the single most important qualities that appeal to men,” Kim says. “Education, career or workplace don’t influence a woman’s SMV. Think about it, they don’t enhance the sexual satisfaction of her male partner.”
“Oh, and your SMV also goes down if your N-count goes up,” a woman named Marie adds.
“The what count?” I ask her, starting to feel a little stupid.
“The N-count. You know, her cock count,” Marie explains. “While being sexually experienced may increase the physical pleasure of her male partner, being sexually inexperienced actually increases satisfaction.”
Marie is in her early thirties and married. Apart from being a “good wife”, she sees her mission as giving tips on dating, relationships and marriage to fellow Red Pill Women. She is convinced that feminism has brainwashed men and women into believing that the N-count doesn’t matter. “But,” she says, “human male nature is to have less and less desire for a woman as her N-count rises. Eventually, this lack of desire will turn to outright disgust.”
She is convinced that feminism has brainwashed men and women
The Trad Wives movement is a small but growing internet phenomenon that developed as the female equivalent of The Red Pill (TRP), a Reddit community that Robert Fisher, then a Republican state house member, founded anonymously in 2012.
TRP promised “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men” and counted roughly 300,000 subscribers before being banned by Reddit in 2017 for its toxic, dehumanising and threatening content.
However, TRP is only one part of a much bigger misogynist online community, the so-called “Manosphere”, which played a key role in the creation of the alt-right and is made up of a range of subcultures: from the secret seduction community of the pick-up artists (PUAs), who seek to learn how to manipulate women’s minds to get them into bed, to the vengeful involuntary celibacy (incel) movement of men whose main goal is to punish the women they hold responsible for their sexual frustration.
While these groups pursue different strategies to “reconquer” male power, pride and privilege, they all share an outright hostility towards feminism, liberalism and modern gender roles. They ridicule movements like #MeToo and denounce women’s rights activists as “feminazis”.
I was convinced this was an almost exclusively male phenomenon, but the more time I spend with Red Pill Women, the more I understand that anti-feminist movements aren’t just made up of men. Female men’s rights activists who want a return to traditional power roles and exaggerated notions of masculinity and femininity have adopted the rhetoric of the Manosphere.
The Red Pill Women community is “open to all women wanting to improve themselves and their relationships”, but it does have a few official rules, most notably:
Rule Five: No feminism. This is an anti-feminist community, and as such, we are not interested in being “saved” by feminism … Instead, conversations should be based on traditional evolutionary psychology or an anti-feminist premise.
To my surprise there is no typical profile for Red Pill Women. The majority I’ve come across appear to be between 17 and 30. Some are married, others aren’t even dating. Whatever their life journey so far, the search for love is what radicalises most Trad Wives.
Their search for love is what radicalises most Trad Wives
“What you are really asking for is RMV = Relationship Market Value,” Kim explains to a woman who calls herself Liz and seems obsessed with optimising her SMV in an effort to regain the love of a guy that ditched her after several weeks of dating. It’s painful to watch in real time how Kim skilfully takes all her fears and insecurities, inserts them into the Red Pill formula and gets a Trad Wife out of it.
I am not in the most mentally stable state myself. Having just come out of a painful break-up, I begin to question myself, my approach to relationships, my role as a woman.
“You know what distinguishes the average girlfriend from wife material?” Marie asks.
“I have no idea,” Liz replies.
“Well, you know what the womanly duties are?” Marie continues. “One of the things I love about my Captain is that he tells me exactly what he expects of and exactly what he wants. I take care of the house, watch our kids and tend to his sexual needs.”
Liz seems doubtful. “But I thought that being an independent woman is attractive to men.”
“What kind of life would a man get when he chooses you?” Marie asks. “Can you deliver the care and nurturing a man wants and needs? If not, then why should any man pick you.”
“Don’t blame yourself, blame it on feminism, blame it on modernity,” Marie insists. “We have been brainwashed, it’s normal that it takes you some time to go back to the natural state.”
Don’t blame yourself, blame it on feminism, blame it on modernity
Is it? I mean, have we? What if she’s right? What if I was trying to fulfil too many roles at once? What if I have to choose between being respected and admired on the one hand and being loved and desired on the other?
Stop the what ifs, I tell myself. I can see how easy it would be to get drawn into this community.
Over the past few years, anti-feminist thinking has penetrated large proportions of the millennial generation. Mainstream figures such as the psychologist and author Jordan Peterson and the British YouTuber and Ukip member Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad) have been fuelling a sense of male victimhood.
Meanwhile, confusion about changing notions of masculinity and femininity has pushed men and women into fundamental identity crises. “Everything you had been taught and told was based on a lie,” one TradWife tells me. “The lie that you can have everything, self-fulfilment, and a happy family life. It just doesn’t work that way,”
No wonder the idea of going back to old-fashioned gender roles can be appealing to men as well as to women. Was it all easier back then? With well-defined roles and behaviours on both sides?
Women who are trying to find out why their relationship isn’t working out the way they’d imagined it, the way Hollywood made them imagine it, flock to the Trad Wives community. The Red Pill offers an easy explanation and a way out of an increasingly complex socio-psychological labyrinth.
In the Trad Wives community, confusion meets insecurity before turning into guilt and self-doubt. The Redpilled start to believe that relationships break down not as a result of mutual failures and mistakes, but when the woman isn’t woman enough.
Unlike other online advice and counselling forums, most users who enter the platform to seek help with a specific problem end up sticking around — and are gradually indoctrinated by their coaches and peers.
My own exposure to the Trad Wives taught me that even ideological opposition is no reliable shield against extremist manipulation tactics. I could not have been further away from the ideological leanings of Trad Wives. And yet I was close to getting drawn in by their powerful group dynamics.
My experience provided to me that everyone can be exploitable in moments of weaknesses, and vulnerability can be a highly temporary concept. The only effective guard is information. What ultimately helped me to walk away from the Trad Wives would knowing the steps and signs of radicalisation before joining The Redpill women forum.
Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives Of Extremists by Julie Ebner (Bloomsbury) is available now