Sexism, Entitlement and Santa Barbara

I live in Australia, almost as far from Santa Barbara as it’s possible to get, and tonight I felt my heart race as I walked from the house to my car in the dark. I felt as if someone was about to leap at me from the shadows, and I checked the back seat of my car for attackers before I got in.

If it seems weird or over the top to you that I felt triggered by the mass shooting in Santa Barbara yesterday, in which gunman Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured seven more before killing himself, you might be right. I certainly felt silly about it once I was in the locked car with the radio on. But on the other hand, when you think about the fact that Rodger appears to have committed this horrifying crime because he was angry that women wouldn’t pay attention to him, it’s not so weird. Men with a sense of entitlement to female attention aren’t that uncommon, after all.

If you think Rodger is an outlier, a fringe wacko or a “madman,” then you are over simplifying the matter. More to the point, if you think this sort of violence has nothing in common with everyday sexism, with rape jokes, with theendemic online harassment of women that we’ve seen getting media attention lately, you are not paying enough attention. Elliot Rodger’s views about women, expressed in videos and writings that are disturbing to read, are extreme in the sense of being awful but not in the sense of being unusual. Men say things like that to and about women on the internet all the time. Most of them don’t act on their threats – or at least not on a scale that gets them on the news, though I have no doubt plenty of them are real life rapists and abusers – but whether or notevery creepy guy ranting about how much he hates women really is a bonafide mass murderer, there are many more men expressing similar views out there. Since the shooting, comments have appeared on Rodger’s videos (Trigger Warning: violent misogyny) that call him a “hero,” express sympathy for his pain at being rejected, and gloat that women could have prevented his crimes by sleeping with him, as if it is women and not this entitled and deeply misogynist man who are to blame for his actions.

This is the extreme end of the Nice Guy phenomenon and the so called “friend zone”, the sense of entitlement to women’s attention and affection held by men like Rodger and a whole lot of other men who don’t think of themselves as scary or extreme, but justified in their anger. And as I saw someone else say on Facebook, every man who has blamed women for not being attracted to him has contributed to the culture that made this happen. If you’ve ever complained about women dating “brutes” instead of dating a “gentleman” like you, take a long hard look at yourself, because the proliferation of objectifying, entitled beliefs about women and who they “should” show affection to is where mindsets like Elliot Rodger‘s come from. Women do not owe you sex or romance, even if you’re nice to them, even if they’re attractive, even if you really really want them. Believing that they do or should is wrong and dangerous even if you don’t go out and murder anyone.

When men make threats like these and women express their fear and alarm, we’re usually told not to take it so seriously, that they’re just empty threats from internet trolls and if you ignore them they’ll go away.Obviously that’s not always true. Rodger had been seriously planning this killing spree for months, and he posted disturbing videos weeks ago in which he talked about suicide and killing people, and which concerned his family so much they called the police. But when police interviewed him and found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human” (in the words of his father’s lawyer) they pursued it no further. Rodger’s own writings tell that at the time of this interview he had already collected weapons and ammunition and had written extensively of his plans to murder large numbers of people. If the police had taken his family’s concerns and the threats he had already made on YouTube more seriously, he could have been stopped.

But the police saw a young, middle class man who was well-spoken and polite and assumed he couldn’t possibly be dangerous, that the threats he had made about killing other people and himself were just letting off steam or a harmless joke or a misunderstanding. It’s not a huge surprise that they came to this conclusion, because people often don’t take misogynist threats seriously and treat them as harmless posturing, but it is awful to think that if they hadn’t been so quick to accept that he was a nice young man this tragedy might never have ocurred. It’s outrageous and tragic that people had to die in order to make this clear, but misogynist beliefs breed hatred and violence, and threats of this kind need to be taken seriously.

Of course, because the “women cruelly overlook nice guys” myth is so ingrained, I expect most people will prefer to stick with the explanation I’ve already seen in several places; that Elliot Rodger was a “madman,” and that his actions were the result not of sexism but of personal defects. Lots of people have been quick to point out that he was being treated for mental illness and that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. To that I will say that I happen to know several men on the autism spectrum, as well as several more who have experienced mental illness, and amazingly enough not a single one of them has ever murdered anyone. It is insulting to autistic people to imply that someone who isn’t neurotypical is capable of going on a killing spree at any moment because of the way their brain works. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit violence, and as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network urged in a statement today, we must “fight against any attempt to exploit such incidents to advance an agenda of bigotry and prejudice.”

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