Dear Women’s Empowerment Coaches: Is Your Teacher’s Teacher a Men’s Rights Activist?
Note: The following essay is an excerpt of a chapter of the book I’m writing about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand; I first published it as an email to subscribers of my Sunday Love Letter.
In this article, I’m tracing the surprising and disturbing influence of Warren Farrell, a well-known Men’s Rights Activist (MRA), on famous and influential male self-help and spiritual teachers like Tony Robbins, Ken Wilber (Integral), David Deida, and John Gray.
Through their books, coaching institutes, classes, and workshops, these men have in turn have trained many, many, MANY women life coaches and “empowerment” leaders.
As a result of this influence, I regularly hear phrases that could have (and did!) come from the pages of the Men’s Rights ‘bible’ in the videos and blog posts of women coaches whom I believe are sincerely trying to further the cause of women’s empowerment — while inadvertently drawing upon and promoting profoundly anti-feminist ideas.
Here’s a quick list of some of those ideas/phrases:
- second-wave feminism won important legal protections in the 60s and 70s but now the pendulum has swung too far
- Women have become ‘imitation men’ or ‘mini-men’
- women objectify men financially
- feminism doesn’t care about boys and men
- equating “the feminine” with receptivity, sensuality, surrender, irrationality and/or chaos
- equating “the masculine” with structure, logic, initiative and order
So: this essay is about why we might want to be cautious about how much influence we accept from Tony Robbins, Ken Wilber/Integral, David Deida, and John Gray. Their ideas track with the ideologies of MRA leader Warren Farrell; and in the case of Robbins, Wilber and Gray, that’s because they’ve apparently each engaged in a decades-long thought partnership with him.
And please also exercise extreme caution before condemning their students and yourself. This is not a call to bash ANYONE. It’s a call to carefully and critically review the educational histories of your influencers AND evaluate your own ideas about the masculine and the feminine, and feminism, and trace where those assumptions came from.
If your assumptions are lining up with “spiritualized patriarchy” and the gender binary/gender-essentialist ideas held by people who oppose the rights of women and gender non-conforming people then that’s obviously cause to question how well they truly serve us, and whether we might be participating in our own oppression — oppression that’s being spiritualized and essentialized so that it appears normal and inevitable.
It’s not inevitable. We deserve better and we can do better.
How A Man Who Gave Up Feminism To Write “the Bible” of the Men’s Rights Movement is now Re-establishing His Influence With Empowerment-Seeking Women
For a decade following the 1974 publication of his first book, The Liberated Man, Dr. Warren Farrell reaped the benefits of being the unofficial poster boy of feminism. He published op-eds in the New York Times, launched hundreds of men’s groups that included celebrities like John Lennon, dropped feminist wisdom on the male partners women brought to him for correction (“Right on — you tell him, Warren”), led thousands of role-reversal workshops all over the country and was even elected to three board terms with National Organization for Women (NOW). His feminist celebrity was so pronounced that a romantic interest confessed she “fantasized” about being “Mrs. Dr. Warren Farrell — and have people know I got the man who wrote The Liberated Man”. Instantly, he writes, his opinion of her dropped. His aspirations for women were higher than that. He counted Gloria Steinem among his friends and he counted the dollars rolling in. Feminist activism apparently paid well — or at least well enough to pay for his Maserati.
All that changed in 1986 with the publication of Farrell’s second book, Why Men Are They Way They Are. In this corrective treatise on the power of women and powerlessness of men, Farrell argues that heterosexual men are enslaved by their “primary fantasy” of sex with a lot of women as well as their social conditioning to be providers and protectors. As a result, they’re forced to sacrifice themselves for women. What looks like disproportionately male power — careers, wealth, executive offices, senate seats — is servitude. Even so, women should not correct or criticize men directly. Instead, according to Farrell, they should engage in “awe-training”, or the practice of gazing adoringly at men to reward them for good behavior. Farrell further advises that if a man gets enraged and shouts “God damn you, you’re not listening!”, a woman should say, “Sorry. I’ll listen.”
Not such a liberated man, after all. Steinem stopped taking his calls and the New York Times stopped publishing his editorials. After a few more years and several anti-feminist books later, he had to replace his Italian sportscare with vanity plates (“Y Men R”) with an elderly Nissan. His once-prestigious speaking invitations were no longer issued by the likes of Phil Donahue. When Farrell was a feminist, he was featured eight times on the popular talk show watched by millions — but the Donahue appearance in which he spoke about men’s rights would be his last. Apparently feminists were no longer fantasizing about being Mrs. Dr. Warren Farrell. Even worse: TV producers seemed to take note. His woman-powered star power faded.
All was not lost, however. Although Farrell repeatedly writes that his new perspective cost him mainstream media opportunities and most of his speaking engagements, he was, however, enthusiastically received by a fringe community of Men’s Rights Activists. Good-bye and good riddance, cultural commentators might say, but to dismiss Farrell and his followers as marginalized or his influence as minimal is to underestimate the constituency that assembles around white male grievance. Donald Trump’s election, for example, is a testament to its power. School and church shootings are examples of its violent consequences.
Farrell’s philosophy underpins and normalizes the racist and sexist rally cries that have arguably fueled Trump’s rise. Just as ominous: although Farrell mentors fringe activist Paul Elam (the founder of A Voice for Men; he’s declared that women invite their own rapes and wrote a blog post telling men to “beat the living shit” out of women and then “make them clean up the mess”) and his core supporters are Men’s Rights Activists, he also appears to have famous and influential champions outside that sphere. Famed personal development leader Tony Robbins, Integral philosopher & movement-maker Ken Wilber, and best-selling author John Gray appear to have been significantly and directly influenced by Warren Farrell. Arguably, they each deliver their versions of his message to their receptive audiences — audiences that include a strong segment of empowerment-seeking women, women leaders, and coaches. The unfortunate social physics of his anti-feminist ideas in the hands of influential thought leaders means that although he may have personally fallen out of favour, Farrell’s cultural imprint isn’t bound by the limits of a fringe community. Thanks to his more mainstream and culturally significant champions, and their followers and trainees, his influence seems to extend far beyond his most obvious and extremist affiliations — right through to women coaches specializing in women’s empowerment.
After his anti-feminist conversion, Farrell spent a few more years honing his theory of male servitude and in 1993 launched The Myth of Male Power, a book that supporters, critics and even Farrell himself call “the Bible of men’s issues”. In one of the book’s more aggressively dehumanizing and racist arguments, Farrell writes that women have so much sexual power that men, or at least white men, are “the new niggers” of the industrial world. Black men, in turn, are “nigger’s niggers”. Farrell then went on to extend his horrifyingly racist parallel. He explained to an approving men’s rights interviewer that American men are in peril and are regarded in “very much the same way that Jews were thought of by early Nazis.” Farrell then advocated for affirmative action to help men get re-established in the teaching profession. This, he asserted, would counteract the feminization of boys and girls at the hands of their female teachers. Farrell also minimizes rape and domestic violence against women and, in a bizarre and convoluted abuse of logic, argues that men should have the right to veto abortions or, when women bear children without male consent — in other words, when women refuse to have abortions on demand — be legally permitted to disown the child and decline to pay child support. His flagrant misogny and racism turned him into the darling of the men’s movement.
Men’s rights activists, writers and bloggers seized on Farrell’s work so extensively and enthusiastically that even his asides and rhetorical flourishes were elevated into the movement’s conceptual pillars. In The Myth of Male Power, for example, Farrell uses a metaphor to describe what he calls a reactionary “New Sexism” against men. His throwaway line that “the pendulum swung to the 1960s feminist lapel button Adam Was a First Draft” proliferated into a community shorthand. Farrell’s pendulum-swung-too-far metaphor energized the anti-feminist community to such a degree and became so significant to Men’s Rights Activists that a google search of “pendulum”+“men’s rights” turns up 129,000 results and Equality Canada, an MRA organization, calls their podcast “The Pendulum Effect”.
Still, Farrell and his swinging pendulum weren’t entirely confined to the anti-feminist fringes. His masculinist and racist arguments apparently didn’t faze the more mainstream Tony Robbins, a famed motivational speaker and influential self-help guru for achievement-seeking men and women. Farrell spoke repeatedly at Robbins’ personal development seminars and could count on Robbins’ public support for his work — and a nod from Robbins to his network is no small thing. As early as 1991 it was estimated that Robbins’ Guthy-Renker infomercial reached an audience of 100 million people in 200 markets. In addition to his live, in-person workshops addressing crowds of thousands of self-help seeking men and women, Robbins has since made a TV series; is the subject of a Netflix documentary called I Am Not Your Guru; speaks to more than 200,000 people per year in his personal development seminars; sold more than a million copies of his most recent book; was tapped for advice by Bill Clinton during his presidency; and added what former President Obama called “creative tension” to a “very intense meeting” between Obama and 18 billionaire business leaders.
Tony Robbins offered advance praise for Farrell’s 1993 book, The Myth of Male Power — the same book Farrell calls the “the Bible” of the Men’s Rights movement — saying it was “intellectual dynamite” and that “by asking new questions and proposing new paradigms…Dr. Farrell continues to open genuine communication between the sexes”. Also in 1993: Farrell was a speaker at Tony Robbins’ seminars. The professional relationship apparently also had a personal dimension; in a 1991 interview Robbins claimed Farrell as a friend. Before that, in 1986, Robbins endorsed Farrell’s book, Why Men Are The Way They Are.
In 2003, Robbins and Farrell collaborated to produce an audio interview called Power Talk! The Power of Questions, which is available on Amazon and Farrell sells on his own website. In 2005, Robbins offered another endorsement of Farrell’s book Why Men Earn More, saying “What makes this book so effective is Warren Farrell’s ability to outline specific challenges along with actionable solutions–it’s an indispensable reference guide to empower women in any career.” Let’s pause to really absorb this: Tony Robbins is suggesting that women should take career advice from Warren Farrell, an anti-feminist Men’s Rights Activist who mentors Paul Elam and advises women to respond with flattery and adoration when a man yells at them — and that taking career advice from a man with this perspective is empowering. (In this context, perhaps Robbins’ #metoo comments don’t seem out of character.)
The relationship and gender-role interventions in Date With Destiny, one of Robbins’ popular week-long workshops attended by crowds of thousands, are arguably founded on a mash-up of Farrell’s masculinism plus the sexual polarity teachings of sexual yogi David Deida. As with Farrell, Robbins has high praise for Deida’s work, writing that “The Way of the Superior Man…will guide you on your journey to a successful and spiritually complete way of life.” The Farrell-Deida pairing might seem an odd one, but Robbins isn’t the only teacher who appears to marry the work of the two men, both of whom start with the same basic premise: the women’s movement made important gains in the 60s and 70s, but has now run amok and defeminized women and emasculated men. For both Farrell and Deida, the devaluation of all things feminine isn’t the result of a culture that still venerates and rewards conventional masculinity; instead, it’s the fault of a feminism that apparently requires women to become imitation men. Robbins underlines the point, saying “A lot of women are too busy being a good man to attract one”. That’s arguably an echo of Farrell’s argument that women are losing their femininity and emasculating men; losing femininity or reclaiming femininity is often a central concern and teaching of women coaches emerging from Robbins and/or Deida teachings. (This quote from Robbins comes from an approving Mastin Kipp, who learned it in a course he took with Robbins; Kipp appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sundays as a “next-generation spiritual leader”.) Farrell, Deida, Robbins (and Kipp!) converge to assert that because of feminism’s emasculating and divisive influence on work and women heterosexual love now hangs in the balance. And, thanks to Farrell’s metaphor-turned-meme, it’s often phrased like this: women and feminism are swinging the pendulum in the wrong direction. (It’s such a ubiquitous anti-feminist dog-whistle that in 2016 I wrote an exasperated response called “Oh that naughty, swinging, feminist pendulum.”)
Echoes of Farrell’s pendulum argument can also be heard from female life coaches in the field of women’s empowerment. The pendulum has swung too far, says Farrell. The pendulum has swung too far, says an aspiring female entrepreneur who recently completed her Date With Destiny training with Tony Robbins and then quit her corporate job in order to coach burned-out women executives who feel they’ve had to suppress their feminine characteristics to succeed. Step one in her recovery journey and her empowerment coaching practice is to explain to women, just as Farrell, Robbins and Deida do, that it’s thirty years of a feminism that’s gone too far — and not a centuries-old culture and a disproportionately male-led workplace still hostile to women — causing their problems. And so the anti-feminist premises and conclusions of Warren Farrell (“No one really believes in equality anyway”) are arguably transmitted via Tony Robbins to his self-help seeking audience which includes a number of life coaches and emerging thought leaders specializing in women’s empowerment. They might not learn Farrell’s name, but they absorb facsimiles of his ideas.
They also learn Farrell’s work from prolific East-meets-West theorist and author Ken Wilber (Mark Manson calls him “the most important living philosopher you’ve never heard of”) in the trainings, institutes and think-tanks organized around his Integral philosophy. Wilber may not have mainstream name-recognition but his reach is wide and deep. He has written 25 books translated into 30 languages; his Integral Life biography includes a testimonial from former President Bill Clinton; Al Gore and Deepak Chopra praise him; and, like Farrell, his work is endorsed by Tony Robbins (Robbins’ e-mail newsletter on March 29, 2016 promoted Wilber’s webinar). As with Robbins’ relationship trainings, Integral thinking around gender roles appears to riff on the sexual polarity teachings of David Deida combined with the anti-feminism of Farrell; and Wilber, like Robbins, appears to have an enduring relationship with Farrell. Farrell and Wilber collaborated on an interview series that was transcribed into a chapter of a book called Integral Voices about sex, gender, sexuality and “integral feminism”; Farrell is a founding member of Wilber’s Integral Institute; and in 2015 Farrell served as Vice President of the Board of Trustees at the Center for Integral Wisdom, which Wilber co-founded with Marc Gafni. (Significantly, Gafni has been accused of sexual assault by two women including one who says she was 13 years old when the alleged assaults began – and even so, as Mark Manson wrote, “Wilber and his movement refused to distance themselves or repudiate him.”) It’s in this Center for Integral Wisdom that the spheres and service of all three men visibly overlap. Wilber founded it; Farrell was a board member, and Robbins was welcomed to the Wisdom Council as an advisor and partner in 2012.
The overall message emerging from Wilber’s and Farrell’s 2014 dialogue-turned-book-chapter is that feminism fails to address the suffering of men. It lacks compassion for men. It was, perhaps, the theme-of-the-year for Farrell in 2014. In April of that year he announced a workshop to help people “deepen their compassion for men” to be held at a conference for A Voice For Men in June. Also in 2014: women life coaches listing Robbins and Integral in their bios and LinkedIn profiles were writing and speaking about how the missing piece of feminism was that it lacks compassion for men. Farrell also writes, repeatedly, that women are objectified as sex objects but men are objectified as success objects – and once again I witnessed women life coaches with Robbins and/or Integral trainings in their resumes speaking up in video blog posts about the financial objectification of men by women. “We objectify men, too,” says that Integral-trained coach in a podcast with another coach who specializes in women’s empowerment and is a former student of Tony Robbins’, “as wallets.”
The pendulum has swung too far. Feminism was useful in the 70s but now it’s finished and excessive. Feminism is turning women into imitation men. Feminism lacks compassion for men. Women financially objectify men. Farrell’s anti-feminist arguments can be found in the mouths and practices of women who’d likely reject them from Farrell but accept them from self-help and new age leaders like Robbins and Wilber.
The anti-feminist worldview first articulated by Farrell and then arguably consolidated in the teachings of Robbins and Wilber sometimes seems like a live-action remake of a world torn straight from the pages of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus — and it is. According to earlier announcements, Gray’s most recent book in the series, Beyond Mars and Venus (Jan 2017) was going to be co-authored with Warren Farrell and Marc Gafni (you know, the one who cofounded an Integral institute with Ken Wilber and was later publicly accused of sexual assault). It’s now published with only John Grey listed as the author, but the 2017 book is blurbed by Farrell; and in the acknowledgements, Gray thanks Warren Farrell, saying he is “a close friend and a brilliant authority for understanding how men and women communicate with each other to create lasting love” and that “many of his ideas from our weekly walks are sprinkled throughout this book.” Farrell and Gray took their enduring collaboration to another book, published in 2018, called The Boy Crisis. As with a commercial nod from Robbins, co-authoring a book with Gray is no small thing. According to Gray, Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus is “the best-selling nonfiction book of all time” and, to date, has sold 50 million copies in 50 languages. It’s a powerful author and a mighty fine franchise for an MRA like Farrell to be associated with.
If Warren Farrell was standing in front of an audience of empowerment-seeking women, it’s possible he’d be booed off the stage or, as he was in Toronto in 2012, picketed and protested before he even got to the stage. Yet, paradoxically, Farrell’s brand of anti-feminism is being inadvertently consumed by empowerment-seeking women who purchase self-help books, workshops and courses from personal development leaders and new age thinkers like Tony Robbins, Ken Wilber and even best-selling relationship author John Gray. With the help of a few well-placed and apparently anti-feminist friends and collaborators, it appears that the former feminist-turned-men’s-rights-activist who lost his mainstream influence with women audiences in the late 1980s is now surreptitiously regaining it. We’re imbibing his ideas from our famous self help teachers who enlist him as their thought partners and then many of us go on to teach it ourselves.
And when our most cherished self-help leaders, spiritual teachers, coaches and empowers-of-women are waving the same flag as an MRA, let us agree it is a red one.
The essay is an excerpt of a chapter of the book I’m writing about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand; I first published it as an email to subscribers of my Sunday Love Letter.