feature image credit to the Los Angeles Times
Much of the staff of this website spent this past week on a mountain in a tiny and lovingly created queer community — not a perfect community, but still the sort of place where more often than not, consent is confirmed before giving a hug. In the middle of all this, we heard through our patches of access to the outer world that somebody named Elliot Rodger had killed six people and injured 13 more before killing himself, and that his actions were motivated by the “rejection” of women whom he deemed not sexually available enough for him. Oh.
By now, many other excellent writers have explored the important angles of this story. The ways in which, because of his apparent whiteness (Rodger was multiracial and described himself as Eurasian) combined with his maleness, Rodger’s violence is being written off as a tragic isolated event, rather than part of a vast and dangerous narrative. The degree to which many are willing to credit Rodger’s murders to untreated mental illness, when in fact Rodger had enough money to access plenty of treatment, and that line of thinking seems to ignore the mental unhealth caused by living under constant threat of violence as a woman (particularly a trans woman and/or woman of color). The degree to which our mental health system can even recognize or treat violent misogyny, given how common it is. The way that racism and misogyny are linking arms and skipping down the street together when Rodger justified his rampage by saying that “inferior” black and brown men got access to women that he “deserved” more. The looming specter of American gun culture. The fact that the most remarkable thing about Rodger’s spree is how totally unremarkable it was, really, at all, as Soraya Chemaly explains so well.
The #YesAllWomen conversation that rose out of Rodger’s attacks has been an enormously important and validating one to have in a public space — it’s a testament to how rarely discussions about violence against women are actually able to be centered on women that this feels so revolutionary. And while it’s disheartening, as many have noted, that it’s taken a tragedy of this magnitude for the #YesAllWomen conversation to occur, it’s not that surprising, either. It mimics the patterns that many women see in their own offline lives; our fear of being dismissed or not believed is so strong that sometimes we need to wait for an unequivocally misogynistic event to talk about it all, just so we can be sure that those around us are at least starting off from a place of understanding that yes, this happens. There’s a hope that when the danger to women’s lives was so recently demonstrated, there will be more receptivity in listening to our experiences of how that danger functions and is allowed to prosper. There’s almost a part that feels relief; maybe, now that something truly and objectively awful has happened, something that can only be interpreted as a violent hatred of women, maybe someone will finally take seriously all the other instances, the ones I survived to get to this point.
That won’t necessarily happen; plenty of people, plenty of men, will take this shooting as an opportunity for clucking and head-shaking, but not asking themselves hard questions or examining the actions of their male friend groups. It is unlikely that the patriarchy will suffer a serious blow because of Elliot Rodger’s violence, or even the fact that Rodger explicitly wrote over and over and over that his hatred of women and his sense of entitlement to them was what drove him to kill other people. American culture hasn’t shown much aptitude for learning from horrific acts of public violence. The murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman hasn’t cured white Americans of the collective delusion of a post-racial society. The Sandy Hook massacre has yet to inspire a reassessment of our gun laws and gun culture. On the other hand, while it’s unlikely that the end is nigh for MRAs or that the guy who followed you from the bar to the subway last week is having a moment of realization, this week still feels like an opportunity for something important. Even though the violence of this week is placed squarely on the shoulders of Rodger and, behind him, a poisonous patriarchal culture, we can make the choice to center women, to center ourselves, and to take care of and support each other in this moment and after it.
I was thinking about Elliot Rodger as I was leaving the mountain, as I was re-orienting myself to a male-centric and heteronormative space. As men were calling me “sweetie” and forcibly taking my luggage away from me so they could make a point of lifting it themselves, as I was draping my jacket over myself before I fell asleep on the plane in the hopes that it would make me less grope-able to my male seatmate. I was thinking about learned helplessness, and the experiments by Martin Seligman. In Seligman’s experiments, he administered painful electric shocks to animals in a lab. The animals in one group were able to stop the shocks by pushing a lever; the animals in the second group were not. The shocks stopped and started, it seemed to the Group 2 animals, at totally arbitrary intervals, no matter what they did. After the experiment, the animals in Group 1 bounced back fairly quickly, and were able to go about their lives. The animals in Group 2 weren’t. In fact, after realizing that they had no control over their environments, they exhibited symptoms that look a lot like what we call clinical depression in humans.
After reading about Rodger’s “manifesto” — I couldn’t read it myself — I was struck by how impossible his demands on women were. How impossible the general demands on women are — doubly so for black women, other women of color, trans women. The list of everything expected of women as a group and a woman as an individual goes on for days, and even when those requirements are satisfied, there still remains some patriarchal reasoning for why she deserves pain. Thinking of Rodger, thinking of saying yes and saying no: the rule of the sexual contract means that once you’ve said yes to anything, anyone, then you have relinquished all rights to safety or choice, and you can be blamed for anything that’s done to you. The rule of compulsory sexual availability means that if you say no to any man, any time, his anger will be deserved, and you can be blamed for anything that’s done to you. Maybe nowhere is this violent and impossible double bind more clear than in the case of the overwhelming violence against trans women, often killed by men who are sexually attracted to them — saying no to sex is unforgivable, but saying yes and having a trans female body can be too. Within patriarchy’s guidelines, any failure to meet a man’s sexual expectations is enough of a transgression to be punishable by death. So many of us spent so much time — still do — trying to figure out which choices we can make to avoid being hurt, avoid being in danger. I know I did, and do. How to turn down the drunk, surly guy who my male friends keep inviting to parties in such a way that he won’t follow me out to my car. How to respond to catcalls from a car when I’m on the sidewalk on an empty street in such a way that they won’t chase me or run me down. How to react to a sexist joke from a sexist boss in such a way that I won’t get my hours cut for unspoken reasons. The idea that our actions have consequences, that we can to some small degree control outcomes in our lives is so seductive that we keep trying to work out the right combination. When we start to feel like that’s not possible, like we aren’t able to take any actions that will affect our lives — when we do everything right but we still get shoved into an alley or wall or back of a car — it can start to get difficult to keep going.
The aspect of Seligman’s experiments that the animals didn’t know about was that there was a Group 3. The animals in Group 2 weren’t actually getting random shocks; they were still controlled by levers, they were just levers being worked by a third group of animals. Rodger and those like him are a reminder of how unfortunately fantastical that idea is, the idea that our actions can control our reality. Whether we wear a short skirt or don’t, buzz our hair or not, we aren’t in control of when the shocks are starting or stopping; patriarchy and its violent men are. The women that Rodger killed (and the men who also died for his misogyny) hadn’t done anything wrong, because they hadn’t done anything at all; they had never even met him before, and there was nothing they could have done, even within Rodger’s twisted sense of desirable actions for women, to save themselves from him. That’s terrifying and gut-wrenching, but is also a way of remembering that the culpability isn’t ours; it’s theirs. Conversations like #YesAllWomen can’t fix that, can’t end violent misogyny in one fell swoop. But they can help us hold onto our sense of which way is up through the power of community. When I read about the violence experienced by women that I respect and admire, it helps me remember that the things that have happened to me aren’t because I made the wrong choices; it’s because a violent and oppressive social institution is pulling the levers. It helps shine a spotlight on that wizard behind the curtain, and even if men won’t necessarily choose to acknowledge it, it could still help many women.
In the final stages of Seligman’s experiments, animals that had been shocked seemingly arbitrarily were left with little to zero desire to even try to stop themselves from being hurt. When presented with the opportunity to jump over a low partition and escape, animals from Group 1 did so immediately; animals from Group 2 didn’t even try. It’s how we get the term “learned helplessness.” The only way researchers were able to motivate the animals to take actions for their own self-interest was to physically pick them up and move their legs for them, pantomiming the motion of walking and jumping until they were finally willing and able to do it on their own. To physically, literally hold them up until they were able to do it themselves. It’s our entire community’s, our entire culture’s job to figure out what to do with men like Rodger, and the disturbing invisible population of men who are very similar to him but haven’t picked up a gun. We’ll continue to push for that, to push for accountability, to name misogynistic violence when we see it, and to make abusers as visible as possible. At the same time, while our whole culture needs to be focused on men and the danger they pose to us, we have to focus on each other, on women. On how to help hold each other up so we can get out of this together.