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Preventable Harms: Considering Gender While Building Resilience Against Extremism

“Women use feminism to gain an unfair advantage over men.”

“Women like alpha males.”

“Modern society prioritizes women over men.”

In a joint report, the SPLC, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) found that 16% of respondents age 14 to 30 support these statements and others that reflect a widespread belief in women holding more social power than men and a simultaneous fear of feminization.

Published across two installments in July 2023 and February 2024, the U.S. Youth Attitudes on Guns Report used a mixed-methods approach to survey 4,156 young people and conduct 44 focus-group interviews. Together, the broad range of findings demonstrates dozens of important insights. Among them is the extent to which rigid gender roles and expectations affect young Americans’ perceptions of self, others and their relationship to guns and gun violence.

Analysis from the report’s qualitative focus group interviews elucidates a broader landscape of fear, uncertainty and gendered perceptions of control and protection. Across conversations with 44 young people, several themes emerged around whom gun ownership is appropriate for and to what ends. Men were often framed as protectors for whom guns, violence and aggression are acceptable and expected. In addition to guns being tools for protection, they were also often positioned as a preventative measure in the face of potential emasculation.

The need for hegemonic power and control, coupled with a fear of being feminized, as reflected in this report has always been endemic in American society. These mainstays of masculinity exist within the milieu of sexism, misogyny, transphobia, misogynoir, patriarchal violence and attacks on reproductive health care and justice that too often get dismissed as societal norms. In this slipstream of rigid, repressive gender roles, male supremacist ideologies continue to gain traction. With nine male supremacist hate groups active in 2023 and several internet personalities widely promulgating these narratives, building resilience against male supremacist ideologies and actions has never been more necessary.


While male supremacy, transmisogyny and anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs constitute standalone extremist ideologies, these narratives also undergird, reinforce and amplify many other forms of bigotry and hate-fueled violence. The quantitative survey findings detailed in the U.S. Youth Attitudes on Guns Report further contextualize the mutually reinforcing nature of male supremacist beliefs with racial resentment of Black people, extremist views of the Second Amendment and a proclivity for guns and gun culture. Specifically, survey results showed that the stronger a respondent’s belief “‘that adults in schools should be armed,’ the higher [they] scored on measures of both male supremacy and racial resentment.” Similarly, young people with a stronger belief in being “safer with guns than without” scored higher on measurements of male supremacy and racial resentment.

Extremist ideologies proven to prime young people for potentially dangerous views on gun use and ownership abound online. In 2023, the U.S. surgeon general found that “95% of youth ages 13-17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media ‘almost constantly.’” While the ubiquity of the internet has contributed to many young people’s growth through community development and identity affirmation, unbridled time online also creates opportunities for misuse. “Adolescent females and sexual minority youth are more likely to report experiencing instances of cyberbullying,” with one-third of girls of color reporting contact with racist content or language online and “25% of LGBTQ youth, 33% of LGBTQ youth of color and 34% of transgender youth [being] bullied online or electronically.”

Targeted harassment for one’s immutable characteristics cannot be disconnected from the onslaught of social, legislative and physical attacks that marred 2023. In this past year alone, 179 anti-trans bills targeting gender-affirming health care were introduced across the country. Of the other 410 bills proposed in 2023, many targeted legal recognition, education, bathrooms, athletics, or the right to openly exist in public schools.

In similarly motivated attacks on individuals’ rights to adequate health care and bodily autonomy and safety, 21 states now ban abortion or restrict it earlier in pregnancy than the precedent set in Roe v. Wade. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “It’s getting harder for hospitals in abortion-hostile states to attract and retain obstetricians and gynecologists.” In the South, where “more than half of all U.S. Black women and a high proportion of Latina women” live and where legislation banning abortion is omnipresent, the National Institutes of Health says people who can get pregnant will suffer “disproportionate and unequal impact.”

Legally undermining people’s access to health care, inclusive education and their right to make decisions for their own bodies and futures is both inherently harmful and a catalyst for interpersonal violence. From Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, 2022, to the same day in 2023, the Human Rights Campaign recorded at least 33 murders of transgender individuals, the majority of whom were people of color. Also, “according to the CDC, in 2021, 42% of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, including 57% of girls and 69% of LGBQ+ students, and nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported having seriously considered suicide.” Further, The Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in 2022.

But these are preventable harms. When helping young people build resilience against manipulation by hate and disinformation, it is important to consider the way gender can impact young people’s experiences online. Recently, the SPLC partnered with the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) to develop, implement, test and refine a digital and media literacy curriculum for middle school students. Between pre-curriculum implementation testing and post-testing, IREX found that female students improved an average of 22% in being able to discern fact from opinion, while male students improved only about 4%. In post-testing, male students reported a 14% greater awareness of hate speech than female students. On aggregate, however, female students still self-reported higher levels of awareness of hate speech because they had reported much higher rates of awareness in testing before the curriculum was administered.

Within the context of the U.S. surgeon general’s findings about adolescent girls’ and LGBTQ+ youths’ negative experiences online, a heightened awareness of hate speech is not surprising. However, such disparate experiences with hate speech and misinformation across genders demand explicit attention from parents, educators and all community-based caregivers. Responses for students of different genders must be tailored to help young people build the skills they need to identify and resist manipulation. Prevention measures addressing young people’s early exposure to targeted harassment online should also be implemented to ensure that all young people can navigate online spaces free from harm. This includes strengthening inclusive and comprehensive sex education courses to stymie the flow of disinformation aimed at undermining LGBTQ+ individuals.

To galvanize those prevention measures, the SPLC, in partnership with the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, has developed numerous resources to support all trusted adults as they help young people build resilience against manipulative extremist ideologies. Published in June 2020, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk: The Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization focuses on equipping those who care for young people within the home with the information they need to prepare young people to resist extremist manipulation, as well as the tools to identify and effectively respond if a young person has become susceptible to radicalization.

An impact study of the Parents & Caregivers Guide found, “the longer people spent reading the guide, the more likely they were to report having the confidence and skills to intervene, and the more understanding they had about topics related to extremism.” Mothers came into the study knowing more about extremism than fathers. Women also spent significantly more time reading the guide and therefore left the study more prepared and willing to intervene on behalf of young people susceptible to manipulation.

Expanding upon this resource, in November 2022 PERIL and the SPLC published Building Networks & Addressing Harm: A Community Guide to Online Youth Radicalization to equip all community members with preventative information and tools. Similarly, impact study testing showed that women gleaned more from the “Building Networks” guide than men: “Women (92%) had significantly better post-test knowledge accuracy than men (89%) and were more satisfied (87% at least ‘mostly satisfied’) with the guide than men (80% at least ‘mostly satisfied’).”

Both impact study findings speak to the key role that mothers, aunts, grandmothers and female figures play in young people’s lives. However, these studies also expose a need. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles and other male figures must learn how to support young people in building resilience against radicalization for these efforts to be successful. This requires male caregivers, educators and mentors modeling kindness and empathy and engaging in difficult conversations. Male figures should also be advocates for local policies that build safe, gender-inclusive learning and extracurricular environments and that counter the tide of anti-student inclusion groups and their regressive aims.

By emphasizing prevention measures, young people can gain the knowledge and tools to identify and resist manipulation by hateful ideologies and disinformation. Such awareness is a critical step in decoupling masculinity from violence, domination, power and control, and eroding the male supremacist, racist, anti-LGBTQ+ and other hateful ideologies that harm us all.

Illustration at top by Davide Bonazzi.