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Monday, March 27, 2023

How #HimToo Became the Tagline of the Men’s Rights Movement

Since its inception, the #MeToo movement has received copious backlash: Survivors brave enough to speak up face harassment and doxing, while the media speculates about how being outed as an abuser will impact men’s careers. But until a few days ago, #MeToo hadn’t inspired a full-on hashtag-slinging countermovement.

Now there’s #HimToo. The hashtag and its associated memes are #MeToo’s first major inversion, popularized during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. It’s become the #AllLivesMatter of sexual assault: The hashtag identifies accused men as victims, using the same power-in-numbers technique that made #MeToo a force to recast the movement as a widespread feminist witch hunt, forcing men to walk on eggshells.

The memes read like fear-mongering PSAs targeted at moms: “Mothers of sons should be scared. It is terrifying that at any time, any girl can make up any story about any boy that can neither be proved or disproved, and ruin any boy’s life.” Now the hashtag and its line of argument have spread, popping up on accounts that appear to be concerned mothers and Trump-supporting provocateurs, like Diamond and Silk. (They of the Facebook content moderation scandal.)


Reality check: False sexual assault claims are exceedingly rare, and sexual assault is chronically underreported. Turning victim-blaming into a meme is a very 2018 sort of problem—it’s easy for extreme arguments to find a foothold within extreme partisanship, where it’s more important to win than to be kind, or even right.

But, as a hashtag, #HimToo says a great deal about how people communicate and organize online. #HimToo has meant many things over the past three years, means several things now, and will probably mean other things in the future. Flexibility is crucial to a hashtag’s success: A tiny string of words must both mark individual thoughts and experiences and integrate them to a larger whole. That elasticity is especially important for online activism like #MeToo, where a hashtag ties together a disparate group of stories into a horrifying display of the scale of America’s sexual assault problem.

Hashtags are destined to be repurposed and expanded and, sometimes, co-opted by the ideological opposition. And maybe that’s to be expected: In periods of animosity, any two words attempting to sum up a painful and contentious human experience are going to be fraught with contradiction, and perhaps be an active battleground.

HimToo emerged innocent and unpolitical. In 2015 and earlier, #HimToo might have referred to any male who was also doing something. (For example: If you went to go get froyo with your boyfriend, you might tweet “I love Pinkberry. #HimToo.” Wholesome.) But soon, it was being used to signal your political allegiances. In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, tweeters used the hashtag to show support for Tim Kaine—#I’mWithHer #HimToo.

During the first few months of the Trump administration, Trump supporters flipped its meaning once again to attack Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and others in conjunction with Hillary Clinton—#LockHerUp #HimToo.


That was before October 15, 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano began encouraging her followers to spread the #MeToo hashtag, a movement founded by activist Tarana Burke as a tool for survivors to share stories of sexual violence. #HimToo became part of that tweet frenzy immediately, as a reminder that there are male victims of sexual assault who face similar stigmas and also suffer privately.

This #HimToo movement inspired New York Times op-eds and dedicated accounts for male victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Critics would argue that #MeToo has always been gender neutral, and high-profile men like Terry Crews are a crucial part of the movement. But reports of Italian actress Asia Argento (and erstwhile #MeToo leader) paying off a young male accuser reinforced the need for a separate, male-focused movement.

“When Asia Argento was accused, it made the rounds for a day, then disappeared. Then the founder of #MeToo claimed her movement was for men also,” says Keith P, the man behind the HeToo Twitter account. “I went to her website to look at her old tweets, and not once did she mention male victims. People don’t realize sexual assault is a two-way street.”

Out in the mainstream, by October 16, #HimToo made its first jump over the victim-victimizer divide, becoming a counterpoint to #MeToo rather than a complement. #HimToo became a way for participants in #MeToo to name and shame men, to draw up lists of abusers, and to reckon with the endless deluge of accusations and apologies.

The call-out version of #HimToo is still the hashtag’s dominant use, regardless of the tweeter’s politics. For every #HimToo tweet seeking to remind people that President Trump has been accused of assault, there are others using the hashtag to criticize left-leaning figures like Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (who has been accused of groping) or US senator Kirsten Gillibrand (who has worked with Bill Clinton despite his sexual history).

There’s a yawning ideological gap between bipartisan naming-and-shaming and victim blaming, so it took a while for the latest iteration of #HimToo to gain traction. It popped up in a Politico headline in February, referring to President Trump’s tendency to lament the treatment of men accused of assault. Two months ago, the hashtag started appearing on r/MGTOW (short for Men Going Their Own Way), a subreddit devoted to cautioning men against having relationships with women. Earlier this month, some MGTOW members started tweeting it.

Enter Christine Blasey Ford, who along with Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick came forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

Experts call what happened next “hashtag hijacking”—turning a hashtag’s message upside down to throw it back in the face of its creators. “Hijacking is fairly easy,” says Rosemary Clark-Parsons, who studies activism and communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen activists across the political spectrum use this tactic, including Black Lives Matter activists’ hijacking of the #MyNYPD hashtag and now men’s rights activists’ hijacking of #HimToo to spread rape myths about false accusations.” It works for all the reasons the original hashtags succeeded: #HimToo is flexible enough to accommodate many different, even contradictory, stories and ideologies, as long as the pronouns in it are male.


In a community as large as the internet, maybe that’s inevitable. For the moment, it’s left an uncomfortable, confusing number of conflicting ideas trying to squeeze beneath the #HimToo roof. Worse, the latest, victim-blaming version has thrown the other two uses, which were at least coexisting, into chaos to score political points. “The more opponents there are, and the less civil they are, the less useful the hashtag is for its original purpose,” says Deen Freelon, who studies political expression online at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. “So many of the original users abandon it.”

It’s too early to say if that will happen to #HimToo, but it’s clear that it’s original users are keen to avoid it. “This isn’t a war. I want to work together to spread as much awareness as possible for sexual assault in general,” says Keith P, who is still committed to using #HimToo to support male victims. But because hashtag activism lives and dies by its ability to change, there is no telling what #HimToo might mean next.

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