“She should get used to it”: how Reddit’s r/relationships forum sides with men

Surprise! A forum on the “esteemed home of incels and the alt right” has a significant gender bias. 

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In incredibly predictable news, Reddit’s popular relationships forum has a significant gender bias toward men in heterosexual disputes. 

Reddit’s r/relationships (the “r/” signalling a forum or “subreddit” on the site) began in 2013 as a place for users to voice concerns and get advice about the relationships in their life; be it familial, romantic, professional, or platonic. Posts range from average couple problems, like hurt feelings and marriage proposals, through work and family issues (how to speak to your aggressive boss or handle your father-in-law), to far more complex relationship queries, like spouses spending their partner’s entire life savings or a boyfriend suspecting his girlfriend is an actual witch. 

Just as interesting as every relationship challenge are the comments under each post, in which other Reddit users dole out guidance. People from across the world weigh in with often good, and just as often bad, advice.

We scraped hundreds of posts from r/relationships and what we found shows that Reddit’s amateur agony aunts overwhelmingly support men over women in posts about heterosexual romantic relationships. When a relationship challenge pits a man against a woman, we found that the comments favoured the man 63 per cent of the time, and with the woman in just 33 per cent of the posts (with four per cent split or no bias given.)

The results were calculated by pulling all posts from r/relationships over the last four months and narrowing it down to those marked “romantic” that concerned heterosexual scenarios. Since many of Reddit’s users conceal their identity, it was not possible to assess whether those commenting were more likely to be men or women, although one online survey from 2016 suggested US Reddit as a whole is dominated by men. Posts were taken as individual case studies, assessing whether the majority of comments in reply to a given story sided with the man in the scenario or the woman. To avoid an overly lopsided view, if the comment count was close (ie if, out of 25 comments, 12 supported the woman and 13 supported the man) they were counted as split. 

Many of the individual comments themselves illustrate the overall bias in favour of men. Even when replying to women who are trying to help men with life-threatening issues, or replying to a man who has admitted fault in a clear cut situation looking for advice, the women are still regularly demonised. 

In one post, a woman asked for advice on how to help her boyfriend of several years with his drug addiction. She also revealed that he serially dumped her when high, but she forgave him. Responses included, “Why are you so obsessed with this guy?” and “Have you thought you might be propping up his behaviour?” When a man in a similar situation (being dumped by his girlfriend who then wanted to get back together, blaming the problem on a medical issue) posted his stories, responses included, “She's just dragging you along” and “block her.”

In another post, a man looked for guidance on how to apologise after making a negative comment about his girlfriend’s aging body. Responses included: “Make her an honest woman!”, “She's being too sensitive”, and “She should get used to it.”

While these replies are not representative of the entirety r/relationships’ comments (many are incredibly measured and an enormous number of them do try to help), they are not uncommon.

R/relationships has gained mainstream popularity in recent years, partly due to the creation of a Twitter account, @redditships. Digging and curating the best and wildest the subreddit has to offer, the account, run anonymously by two curators, has accrued nearly 25,000 followers in just over a year of existence. Speaking about the gender bias of the replies on r/relationships, they gave some insight into not just the comments, but the gendered nature of the heterosexual romantic posts that make it on to the page.

“People of all genders do posts about ‘How can I change my partner,’” one of the co-creators of @redditships says (they refuse to reveal their identity), “but I've noticed a split in the kinds of things they want to change.”

“Men want their partners, especially female partners, to start doing or liking certain things, eg ‘How can I get her to start going to the gym/losing weight? How can I get her to start playing video games with me even though she hates them? How can I get her to let me stick it in her butt on a regular basis?’ Women want their partners, especially male partners, to stop doing certain things, eg ‘How can I get him to stop threatening to murder me every time we argue? How can I get him to cut down his gaming time?’”

However, they explain that there are some exceptions that they’ve noticed over time.

“Housework and hygiene...are almost exclusively posted by women about men,” they say. “There are several posts practically every week by women asking how they can get their husbands or boyfriends to wash a dish once in a while, or clean their dicks on a more-than-monthly basis.”

The @redditships duo also make a point about the disparity of “upvotes” on r/relationships. On every post and comment, Reddit users can vote “up” or “down” on the content; essentially a version of likes or dislikes. Posts, and comments, with the most upvotes are then pushed to the top of the r/relationships feed and the comment thread below the post, respectively. In essence, the posts with the most upvotes are the ones readers will see first. Posts that are most downvoted are nearest the bottom.

Picking up on the personal hygiene point, one of the creators clarified that, although they were posted predominantly by women about men, there is a striking contrast between the number of upvotes hygiene-related posts get depending on the gender of the person making the complaint.

“A man with a standard issue that a woman might have (my partner won't wash their genitalia) will get probably two to ten times the upvotes that a woman posting the same issue would,” they say. This is despite the fact women appear to be posting about it far more regularly than men.

This is not to say that all the highest upvoted comments (or posts, for that matter) are bad. Often good, ungendered advice, makes its way to the top of a comment thread. This can be so helpful that the original poster will frequently reply asking for more help or thanking the commenter for their honest point-of-view. However, this tends to happen in the comments under traditional problems (cheating, marriage, children) or clear-cut issues (“my husband disappeared during childbirth and reappeared one week later”), rather than the more complex issues that are ultimately inescapable on the subreddit.

“I do think the advice provided in the top-rated comments is usually decent (dump him), unless the post deals with with complex issues of race, non-western cultures, or gender,” @redditships says. “However, it's very easy to give good advice when the problem is that their partner is having an emotional affair while pretending that their child's life-threatening illness isn't a problem.”

It’s perhaps not a shock that Reddit’s r/relationships comments have a gender bias. As one of the co-creators of @redditships points out, “Reddit [is] the esteemed home of incels and the alt right.” However, r/relationships is no longer some niche corner of the internet. Receiving tens of thousands of page visitors every single day, the forum is reaching an increasingly mainstream audience. And that audience is being presented with a gendered discussion that consistently favours men over women.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.