Mental health is always a factor to consider each time we dissect the latest mass shooting in this country. So is easy access to guns. But, in so many of these cases, including the latest horror in Santa Barbara, we should be talking about masculinity.
There are three traditional ways to prove one’s manhood in this country: economic power, physical power, and sexual prowess. Patriarchal rules teach boys and men that they must excel in these ways, or be considered inferior, i.e. like a woman. And, the pressure to prove your power in these arenas is constant.
Boys are also taught from early on that they are superior to girls. And this higher status that they are taught and see in the world around them (think: which sex has more feature roles in movies, and which sex is almost always the hero in children’s books and cartoons) teaches them privilege and entitlement.
As they age and face their sexuality, they are subjected to pervasive messages telling them to objectify girls and to be the sexual aggressor. And, I can tell you from experience, the pressure on boys to get laid, hell, to get to “first base” is immense and never-ending. And, as is ingrained in the language boys use to talk about sexual activity, girls are never equal sexual beings but merely a prize to be won, a run to be scored.
Also speaking from personal experience I can say that girls can be cruel and that rejection is painful. But, sadly, most boys are taught not to feel or express feelings and thus this type of pain and sadness is channeled into rage and violence, the only acceptable behaviors for “real men.” Relatedly, boys are not taught empathy for others because empathy is also “soft” and “girly.” Instead, they are taught no self-control or awareness of others, as people simply remark “boys will be boys.”
This background is the common thread in the epidemic of violence against women, whether we are talking about rape and sexual assault, street and workplace harassment, domestic violence, or murder based in misogyny.
So, what did Elliott Rodger, a privileged, well-off, young man, reportedly into working out and Pick-Up Artist culture, and the suspect in Friday’s Santa Barbara shootings, have to be so angry about? His failed love life. His virginity at the age of 22. His rejection by women and popular kids.
The transcript of his chilling video posted on YouTube could not make his motivations any clearer, and they are based in misogyny and a failed toxic version of masculinity. Rejection by inferiors (i.e. women) is a crime that embarrassed him, and one he could not leave unpunished.
As he explained in his own words: “ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires. It has been very torturous.” Rodger also addressed the women who had rejected him, saying “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime.” He added: “all I’ve ever wanted was to love you and to be loved by you. I’ve wanted a girlfriend, I’ve wanted sex, I’ve wanted love, affection, adoration. You think I’m unworthy of it. That’s a crime that can never be forgiven. If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you.”
After describing his plans of mass murder, “annihilation” as he called it, Rodger stressed “I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male.”
While not all men commit violent crimes resulting in murder, millions of men commit violent acts, whether rape or domestic violence, or demonstrate their superior status through catcalls on the street, or sexist jokes in the boardroom, all of which are part of maintaining the gender hierarchy of male over female and demonstrate an utter lack of empathy. All women live with this knowledge. As a society, we are raising our boys to potentially become these type of men; we are lucky not all boys turn out that way. We must stop teaching boys that they are superior or entitled to anything from girls and women. The results of those teachings have been disastrous.
As for Rodger, what choice did he have? Under his deeply flawed vision of what it means to be a man, a vision that is pervasive, and which the Pick-Up Artist community apparently promotes, he could not continue as a virgin. Nor could he show weakness and seek help for his emotional pain. Violence was all he had left. And, violence is how all too many men prove their worth.
Ariel Chesler is an attorney in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler. He tweets from @arielchesler