Last week, Daryush Valizadeh, the Return of Kings founder — known to his followers as Roosh V — announced 165 group meet-ups, including Ann Arbor. Valizadeh advocates on his website, Return of Kings, for the legalization of rape in private spaces, and promotes the view that women are solely valuable for their looks and ability to reproduce. Valizadeh has also published several how-to books on picking up women. The titles include: “Bang Lithuania,” “Day Bang,” “Bang Iceland,” “Poosy Paradise” and “30 Bangs: The Shaping of One Man’s Game From Patient Mouse to Rabid Wolf.”

According to Valizadeh, he planned the meet-ups to provide his purportedly large numbers of followers the opportunity to “come out of the shadows and not have to hide behind a computer screen for fear of retaliation,” and “signal to all that we’re not going anywhere.” The meetings were ultimately cancelled, purportedly due to Valizadeh’s concerns that he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend.”

Once I got past the irony that a bunch of rapey, self-proclaimed pickup artists cancelled their Saturday night plans out of fear, the whole story began to suspiciously resemble a really awesomely organized, strategic publicity stunt.

Through announcing the meet-ups, Valizadeh got hundreds of news outlets in multiple countries to publicize his website, simply by doing their jobs and covering the story. The publicity was free, wide-reaching and effective. The website experienced such high web traffic that it briefly crashed.

Manipulating the media to attract attention — and consequently paying customers — is not a new marketing strategy. American entertainment entrepreneurs have been engineering “bad” publicity to ignite controversies and drive sales since at least the mid-1800s. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign does it today; his skill in attracting free publicity by spewing the outlandish explains how he has pervaded public consciousness despite spending over 99 percent less on advertising than other leading candidates.

Return of Kings has certainly benefitted from controversy-driven publicity before.

The first time I heard of the site was when it published “5 Reasons to Date a Girl With An Eating Disorder” back in November 2013. Several friends had posted it on social media, deriding its foul message about a disorder that impacts an estimated 8 million Americans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never heard someone defend the article.

Even still, the article drove new readers to the site.

Many probably didn’t like what they found there; if they actually did, the website may have even attracted new, regular readers. But the benefit of the newfound public attention was certainly for Valizadeh and his website — not the ideology or “movement” he represented. Web traffic largely determines online advertising revenue. Additionally, his expanding public presence may have helped him sell copies of his books.

The announced “meet-ups” had a similar effect — though on a much larger scale. According to a Google Trends analysis of search terms trends (chart below), between January 2016 and February 2016, the number of people searching for “return of kings” and “roosh v” relative to the total number of Google searches has increased 4,900 percent and 962.5 percent, respectively. By the same metrics and during the same period, the popularity of the search terms “mens rights” and “pro-rape” have doubled and tripled, respectively.

In hindsight, the announced meet-ups seem destined to fail. Just as Valizadeh’s devotees have the right to meet up and promulgate their vile views about women, anyone else has the right to show up and protest. That’s exactly what many people planned to do.

And while Return of Kings has every right to propagate sexist, vulgar nonsense tailored to meet the demands of angry white guys who can’t get laid, anyone can respond by sharing countervailing views.

Both actions merely play into Valizadeh’s publicity ploy, helping him and his site reach more people than they otherwise would’ve.

The media firestorm surrounding the planned meet-ups may be an intended outcome of Valizadeh’s attention-grab. It’s possible that he’s little more than a shrewd businessman who’s found a way to profit off of a bunch of insecure women-haters.

But his followers are real, even if the meet-ups never were. The misogynistic views he promotes really do pervade some segments of society.

At the extreme, the idea that women are somehow morally culpable for any dude’s unfulfilled sexual desires result in events like the 2014 Santa Barbara shooting, where a college student killed six people to prove his superiority over the women who’d rejected him.

Ideas that rape is ever permissible or that a woman’s value comes primarily from her beauty and fertility — ideas capitalized on, but certainly not pioneered by, Valizadeh — permeate everyday life. Given that one in five college women report having been sexually assaulted and that women still face unequal opportunities for advancement at work, misogynistic ideologies certainly don’t need more advocates.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

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