On the early morning of Jan. 19, as hundreds of women in Provo, Utah, were getting ready for the annual Women’s March, local police were urgently tracking the cell phone of a man who wrote a disturbing post on Facebook.
“All I wanted was a girlfriend,” the message by Christopher Cleary began. “All I wanted was to be loved, yet no one cares about me I’m 27 years old and I’ve never had a girlfriend before and I’m still a virgin, this is why I’m planning on shooting up a public place soon and being the next mass shooter cause I’m ready to die and all the girls the turned me down is going to make it right by killing as many girls as I see.”
Police tracked Cleary to a McDonald’s and arrested him on a felony threat of terrorism charge, according to a probable cause statement obtained by HuffPost. He was discovered a few blocks from the site where women were set to gather for Provo’s Women’s Wave Rally, one of several events nationwide events protesting inequality.
While the alleged attack was averted, Cleary’s threat came at a particularly charged moment in the national discussion on toxic masculinity.
For a solid week, conservative pundits hyperventilated about a Gillette advertisement that asked men to question traditional notions about masculinity and challenged them to intervene if they saw behavior that was offensive or abusive. On YouTube, the video was downvoted 1.2 million times. Some threatened to boycott the brand.
The ad coincided with media coverage about the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for psychologists working with men. It noted that conforming to “traditional masculinity ideology,” such as trying not to appear weak and engaging in risky and violent behavior, can be psychologically harmful.
“It’s been a very bad week for men,” lamented media personality Piers Morgan.
Yet it’s hard to imagine a more fitting example of toxic masculinity than a man threatening to commit a mass shooting against women simply because they won’t have sex with him. As Cleary wrote, he wanted to get back at the women who rejected him, “to make it right.” He was owed sex, therefore his threat was justified.
Deborah Tolman, a psychology professor at the City University of New York, said Cleary appears to fall into the category of men who identify as “incels” or involuntarily celibate. The men who label themselves incels are members of a fatalistic subculture who don’t think they can attract a sexual partner, and hate women for rejecting them. Many boys grow up internalizing social norms about needing to have sex to become a “real man.” For some, failure in this area can trigger feelings of shame and anger. Sometimes, that rage explodes outwards at women in general or onto the public.
“Masculinity is not inherently toxic,” Tolman said. But rather it is stereotypes of masculinity, which emphasize being tough and gaining power over others, that lead to a lack of empathy, she added. Without empathy for others, it is much easier to commit violence.
A number of deadly attacks have been linked to people with ties to the incel movement. The suspect in the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was allegedly a fan of Elliot Rodger, the 2014 killer who named hatred of women as motivation for his rampage in Santa Barbara, California, and is celebrated by men in the incel community. In April 2018, a man posted a Facebook message celebrating the “Incel Rebellion” before ramming a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, Canada, killing 10. Seven months later, a man opened fire in a Florida yoga studio, killing two women. He had previously posted misogynistic videos online where he complained about women turning him down.
Of course, not all incels are dangerous misogynists. But the group is an extreme manifestation of what happens when men feel like they’re failing at being a stereotypical male.
Tolman said it’s no surprise that there was such a huge blowback to the Gillette ad.
“That backlash, that anger, it’s really about fear,” she said. “It’s the fear of loss. A fear of not being okay the way you are. A fear of losing power.”
That backlash, that anger, it’s really about fear. It’s the fear of loss. A fear of not being okay the way you are. A fear of losing power.
Deborah Tolman, a psychology professor at the City University of New York
Before Cleary allegedly threatened to commit a mass shooting against women he had already made another woman’s life a living hell. He is currently on probation in Colorado for stalking and threatening a woman, according to the court documents.
The woman told police that Cleary harassed her over the phone, showed up at her house without warning, and created fake Craigslist ads in her name ― using her real phone number ― to solicit sex.
As a result, strangers repeatedly messaged her for sex, and she became worried about being raped. She experienced anxiety attacks and recurrent nightmares, she told police; she lost weight because of the stress.
In Provo, where Cleary made his threats, the women’s march went on as planned.
Jorden Jackson, 24, a graduate student at Brigham Young University who organized the local rally, said around 350 women gathered to protest. She had recently had knee surgery and was on crutches. She described sitting outside on the stairs and surveying the crowd in wonder.
“There was so much energy,” Jackson told HuffPost in a phone call on Tuesday. “I felt like, Oh my gosh, we can make a change! It was very encouraging and hopeful.”
The next day, she said she was shocked when she learned about the threat Cleary made and how close he came to the rally.
“I was sick to my stomach,” she said. “It put into perspective how dangerous it is to be a woman and use your voice.”