“Redpills” and Freedom In Relationships: A Project for Feminism

The “redpill” movement’s philosophy is presumptuous and sexist slop that dresses up a very old (and discredited) idea as if it were new and liberating wisdom, and it pisses me off. And it’s just one indication of how we need to craft narratives for people that both empower them to embrace their inner humanity and enable them to express that humanity in the diverse ways that they want to. It’s one more challenge to feminism’s ability to give people the kind of relationships that they desire.


Image courtesy of Kingpin Social

Okay, maybe I should give some context.

I’m the kind of guy who tends to look at something, a philosophy being expressed, and then try to interrogate it from all angles. Sometimes, I will admit that I can be doctrinaire in doing that, only considering one perspective. But I do try to consider, “What if I’m wrong? How might someone else with a perfectly valid theoretical perspective approach this issue?”

That tends to let me meander. I see connections others don’t. Sometimes they’re salient, sometimes… eh, not so much.

So, what are “redpills”?
The “redpill” movement is a group that, in essence, advocates that women want to be dominated. Let’s be clear: That doesn’t mean they’re advocating physical or emotional abuse, or anything of that kind. They’re advocating consensual submission by women and consensual domination by men, within a framework of mutual respect. One redpill analogy that is used is the idea of the “First Officer and Captain”. The woman should be the first officer, making her objections known in private and having her own opinions that can of course (like Spock’s opinions with Kirk or Riker’s opinions with Captain Picard in Star Trek) differ from the man’s, but in public they should be a unified team.

Of course, this analogy that they’re using sort of indicates the problem. Spock was always willing as a first officer to openly dissent with and even mock both the ship’s doctor and the captain. Kirk had to prove himself and prove the validity of his ideas, but because Kirk and Spock were such dear friends, Spock ended up not only seeing the wisdom of Kirk’s unique approach that balanced reason and emotion but also even would do anything possible to advance that idea.

There are plenty of marriages that work like Spock and Kirk’s interaction. In fact, my favorite relationships have been like theirs: Where my significant other would openly disagree with me, and I had to therefore prove the validity of my argument. It was good for me because it kept me humble, not to mention having the excitement of debate and hypothesis testing.

Why isn’t that a valid relationship too?

Now, let me be totally clear before I proceed: I know people in “redpill” relationships. They are good friends and incredibly decent people. Their relationships seem to work fine. There’s nothing against the idea of empowerment and consent for a person to want to seek out a partner stronger than them and then, in a context of mutual respect and ultimate autonomy, have one partner tend to be the one in charge in the relationship. Moreover, I’ve noticed that many of these relationships in actual fact have the woman firmly in charge in general, dictating the flow of things.

I’m also from the BDSM community in terms of my own interests.

There are millions of people, men and women, who practice submission and domination in their relationships and find it perfectly healthy and liberating. Sometimes, it is the man who is the dom; other times, it is the woman. Sometimes, they practice it within very confined areas, only within the bedroom; other times, couples like to have submission dynamics in the rest of their life.

The problem with the “redpill” movement is emphatically not that someone can’t practice such a relationship without being abusive. The problem with the movement is that its ideological foundation is mendacious and disgusting tripe.

The “redpill” movement in what passes for official literature for a cultural phenomenon asserts, with unmitigated gall usually restricted to cult leaders, that in fact we’ve all been getting it wrong all these many years. All people need to be happy in relationships is for the woman to submit! Women naturally have a submission urge! The man is the “Alpha” and the woman “Beta”, or, from Athol Kay: “Women respond with sexual interest to men that are in social positions above them, and typically have minimal interest in men in social positions below them…  The Captain and First Officer model seeks to harness the erotic potential of a male led relationship (Alpha), but to do so with clear concern for the welfare of  the female (Beta)”. Elsewhere, Kay offers this observation: “The advice [about marriage and relationships] is that bad. The Blue Pill is what women say they want from a man”. The Blue Pill, to be clear, is the idea of marriage equality. And never once does any of this literature suggest that the man can be the First Officer, even though they offer an example of just that from Star Trek: Voyager in their own literature.

The “redpill”, then, is the idea taken from the Matrix (that’s the level of intellectual sophistication we’re dealing with here) that people need to be shown a whole new world… A whole new world that looks pretty much exactly like most marriage norms on the planet since before the 1950s!

This is all bullshit.

Nowhere does the “redpill” movement, or anyone else who regurgitates this sociobiological excrement, cite what gene they believe might cause such behavior. They just point to behavior and say it must be intrinsic.

Anyone who actually has spent time in the BDSM movement knows several things that alone makes clear how wrong the “redpill” assertion is:

  • People can be just as miserable in submissive-dominant relationships as in any other relationship.
  • People want all sorts of things that are bad for them.
  • People think they want all sorts of things they really don’t.

There’s plenty of divorces, intimate partner violence, and bad stuff in the BDSM community, and have been for decades. A woman submitting to her male partner is no guarantee to success. And the idea that these people have stumbled upon the one true secret to divorce rates and social changes that have a ton of sociological antecedents is so colossally arrogant as to call into question their motives and their intelligence. (Again, I am speaking firmly and exclusively about the people who promote this as the only way to live, not those people who just happen to find it works for them).

In fact, of all of the battered women and victims of assault I’ve worked with, that cultural idea (and it is inherently cultural) that a woman should seek out a tough and strong man has been a big part of the problem. Of course people are attracted to confidence and dynamism. But all too often they fundamentally mistake that for arrogance and cruelty. We unfortunately have a repeated tendency throughout history to confuse kindness with weakness and violence with courage. And, to their credit, the “redpills” do admit that a man has to have a mix of traits that include kindness (though they try to justify it by referring to oxytocin release and other pseudo-scientific garbage).

Worse, if you may notice, the above is actually the opposite of many BDSM-based relationships. In those, in public the couple has an image of equality and it’s only in private that they practice submission.

The “redpill” movement is less a rejection of feminism than it is simply ignoring its existence. “Redpill” advocates pretend that they’ve stumbled upon some new wisdom, when in fact what they’re suggesting is as old as recorded history.

Confucian ideology put the woman below the man in every social setting. Madam Ban Zhao suggested, “Let a woman modestly yield to others; let her respect others; let her put others first, herself last”. Though many scholars find that actual Confucian practice may have been much more equitable, its ideology was basically that of the wife as being subordinate to the husband.

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested that men could participate in civic life but that women just didn’t have it out for that: “Woman, on the other hand, has her substantive destiny in the family, and to be imbued with family piety is her ethical frame of mind”.

In fact, it’s a repeated theme of philosophy for millennia to try to justify misogynistic social relationships as being somehow orderly, or natural, or based on women’s inferiority.

So, “redpill” advocates, let me ask: If you’re so right that women have just been lied to with all these promises of jobs and careers and autonomy and they just really need a man to be a captain and steer their ship because they’re too iddle-widdle to do it themselves, where the hell did feminism come from?
If people intrinsically wanted to be dominated, we never would have seen feminism, civil rights, resistance against slavery, democracy, American revolution, civil libertarianism, or anarchism. If women just want a strong man to take charge in an environment of trust and strength, why didn’t marriage norms that emphasized exactly that for centuries stick and why did so many millions of women reject them so harshly? “Redpill” advocates want to pretend that five hundred years of history never happened.

The kind of people who offer this drivel are usually in tune with or at least sympathetic with the so-called “men’s rights” movement. But the “men’s rights” movement, much as they might want to pretend otherwise, isn’t about curing misandry. The reason why feminism came into being was as part of a trend in history towards greater liberty, greater equality, and more expressions for freedom. Trying to return people to a mold where there’s only one real expression of love isn’t just an insult to women. It constrains and limits us all.

But the “redpill” movement is in fact an expression of a deep challenge, one of the most important that feminists have faced.

Every feminist who has done any kind of work on gender equality will eventually get asked: “Look, my husband [or boyfriend or significant other] tends to run things. I’m happy that way. I like being at home. I like cooking and taking care of the kids. Why should I be forced to do something I don’t like? Why should I be forced to get a job I don’t need and don’t want?”
In his fantastic, if often maddeningly centrist and mainstream, review of ideas throughout history, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues, “At least [feminists] succeeded in persuading women to try to make the most of social changes and opportunities that would have occurred anyway… [by] joining the workforce they added another level of exploitation to their roles as homemakers and mothers… Some women, who wanted to remain at home… found themelves doubly disadvantaged: exploited by men and pilloried by ‘sisters’. Society still needs to strike the right balance: liberating all women to lead the lives they want, without having to conform to rules devised for them by intellectuals of either sex”.

Felipe insults feminism markedly here. Those social changes probably would not have happened had it not been for courageous activists. Moreover, equating those women trying to broaden the horizons of other women with men trying to keep them pinioned is pretty grotesque. But there is still something true being said here.

Why have feminists so often insisted on the idea that women should aspire to enter the workforce, or not be at home, or be in charge in relationships?

Because for more than a hundred years, from at least the Civil War to the 1960s, women were controlled at least as much by social norms as laws.

Unfortunately, society restricts our horizons at least as often as it gives us new heights to achieve. When society tells you, “Your best job is to be a mother and a housewife”, people will aim for it. That’s just the thing to do.

It took millions of women being unsatisfied and not knowing why to begin a wave of feminist thought that emphasized women being able to do more. They had to have support groups and discuss quietly before they all began to realize that “The personal is political”: Their personal problems weren’t their fault, it was just that they were being forced by society to do something they shouldn’t have to.

And so, when a woman says, “I like being at home and cooking meals”, our fear is naturally that she’s saying that not because she truly knows all the options but she’s been unable to resist the psychic assault that that’s all she should amount to.

As activists, we often have to try to tell people that their perceptions of the world may be based not on reason or a true consciousness of their inner state but not having adequately interrogated their social assumptions. Sometimes, this means insisting to people who say otherwise that they can and maybe even should do more.

My own experience has been with working with victims of sexual assault and torture, people who are seriously depressed, people with psychological issues. What I’ve found is that the domestication of aspirations is universal. We as a species are so attuned to just accept the bad that we say, “That must be what I want, it’s all that’s possible anyways”. With those people and in fact with people in general, being skillful means actually arguing with them. It means “pillor[ying]” them, as Fernandez-Armesto would put it, because consciousness raising can be difficult and require patience and outside criticism.

Those who love people and want to see a better tomorrow have to tell people that they’re capable of more. We have to say, “Don’t let anyone, even yourself, limit your potential. Do anything you can dream of”. We even have to help them find what those dreams are. That’s one of the goals of anarchism: To create people who know what they want and are empowered to get it.

But what we’re discovering now, in the decades of wildly expanded freedom that feminism and civil rights have given us, is that some people really do enter the workforce and strive to be empowered and they just don’t want it. At some point, the “why” becomes moot. It doesn’t matter if someone wants to be submissive or return to work at home because work is too stressful, or they have low self-esteem, or whatever else. They had the options, they tried it, and now they feel that they are being told that they have to do something they hurt.

Worse, it is seemingly utterly true that feminism’s successes at allowing women to expand their horizons coincided exactly with the changes to the economy that would force women into the workforce.

Let’s be clear: The fact that the economy is so grossly crappy at this point that most couples need to have both partners working full-time is a feminist issue as well as a socialist and progressive issue. Women are restricted by the “second shift” both because of sexism that makes it so women are the expected domestic partners and capitalism which requires those women to also pick up the slack in the workforce.

The “super-mom” phenomenon is not something anyone chose. It was forced on us by capitalism, by the needs of the rich to have an economy that resembles a slot machine more than a factory. No one should need to work eighty hours at home and on the job to be able to be a mother or a father.

Today, we are seeing more men stay at home. We are seeing some men want to cook, clean, and take care of the children. They want that as their family duty.

I think that we’ve struggled for decades now to deal with a very simple fact: People are just different.

“Women” and “men” don’t exist. There are just people.

Some women want to enter the workforce. Some men want to stay at home. I know couples who just want to take it easy, raise their children quietly, watch TV, and have a nice and clean space. They want domestic tranquility. They don’t want to work to the bone to climb the corporate ladder.

So some women want to be in a “redpill” relationship. Fine. But feminists still need to stand up for them, because they might change their mind, and if society accepts the “redpill” ideology as the only valid way, they won’t be able to. They will be trapped, just as women were in most of history before the 1960s.

It’s our mission if we love our neighbors and ourselves to free to fight for people to have options. We have to fight the rhetoric that pretends that there’s any one secret to happiness and any one good life.

It’s just too important for real people and their happiness.


2 thoughts on ““Redpills” and Freedom In Relationships: A Project for Feminism

  1. Wow. Thanks for this. Explains the men’s movement without the hostility usually involved by explainers (on both sides) and makes total sense to me because — Star Trek. I wrote my dissertation on Star Trek culture, and have remained a student of fandoms even after leaving academia. (Also a fan. Yay participant observation!)

    What I like most about this is the rational perspective that if people’s relationships work for them, fine; and if they want different kinds of relationships, also fine. While obviously other people have said that, you’ve said it succinctly and in a non-threatening way which many men might actually hear. I also love your question that if women want to be dominated, where did feminism come from? (I suspect there are answers like “propaganda,” or in the conservative Christian movement, “That men weren’t doing their job of dominating,” but those wouldn’t hold water as arguments because of lack of evidence. Not that evidence is much respected these days, alas.)

    A friend of mine referred me to a Ted talk a couple of months ago. I wish I could find it again. Her point (friend’s and speakers) is that people’s handling of information tends to fall into two categories — that many people, if not most, see information running counter to what they have as a threat, so their response to new data is defensiveness. She calls these — I forget. Soldiers? Something war-like.

    The second group, much smaller, she terms “scouts.” These are people who are excited to find out new information which requires them to correct their current knowledge, and are happy at sharing counter-information with others.

    While there are obvious flaws in her reasoning (for one thing, although I am pretty clearly a scout, there are certain places I get extremely defensive, and that’s probably true of most scouts, and vice versa to soldiers) I really like it as a metaphor. It does explain why I get surprised over and over when I provide what seems like interesting information and someone calls me names. We’re operating out of two different approaches to information. I suspect, from this piece and our conversation on Quora, that you’re a fellow scout. Greetings!

    • Fred B-C says:

      I’m a lifelong feminist, but my goal is to actually accomplish something. I think feminists in the modern era have been very bad at articulating a clear vision as to what they want society to actually look like. You can say “We’re in favor of equity” all day long, but that doesn’t really mean anything since damn near everyone is in favor of that conceptually.

      I like that soldier/scout distinction, but there’s a really crucial point, and it’s one I think I’m generally one of the few people making. Scouts are learning for a reason. A paladin quests into the dragon’s cave and finds out everything he needs to know about the dragon to slay it. The people who really care about you

      When I talk to creationists, I tell them, “Imagine your child was depressed. Two people come along to help. Person A tells you, ‘Depression is a challenging, multi-causal phenomenon. There’s no silver bullet and we’re still learning. It’ll take a lot of hard work. Your child may struggle with the medication for some time. It may take years for you to see your child the way you remember them again, but trust me: on the other side, they’ll be tougher and more resilient than you can imagine’. Person B tells you, ‘They just need to pray harder to Jesus! Come to our camp!’ Person A presents data tables, double-blind studies, and harrowing stories from their personal experience from which they draw non-trivial conclusions. Person B provides Biblical platitudes. Now, if you ask me who to pick, I’ll respond, ‘Are you crazy? There’s one person who cares about your child enough to put aside their dogma and learn, and one person who would rather protect their own faith than care about yours. Why are you asking me? Go with the guy that bothered to learn something!'”

      Other scouts love to learn for the sake of learning. I learn to find weapons to use and armor to wear.

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