I don’t follow the news. At least, I try not to. Things seep through though, like the Abbott government’s budget and what it means for people, like the stolen Nigerian girls finally being located, like Kim and Kanye’s secret wedding. This week, I’ve been a little fixated on the shootings in California by Elliot Rodger and the world’s response to it.
You all have surely heard about it — the 22 year old who killed six people last Friday. He released YouTube videos and a chilling manifesto detailing his plans for the killings and the reasons why he did it: because women wouldn’t sleep with him. “I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex,” he wrote. “If I can’t have you girls, I will destroy you.”
There are so many conversations about this that society needs to have, not the least including America’s gun laws, but politics aside, but what needs attention here is the discussion about men and women and the way they exist alongside each other.
This incident has become a conversation about women’s rights and feminism across the world. You need only to look up the #YesAllWomen hashtag in response to the #NotAllMen (are like this) hashtag to discover how deep this runs – how ingrained sexism, misogyny and the objectification of women is in our culture.
For the record, a woman knows not all men are like this. A woman knows. What she doesn’t know though, when she walks out of a building alone at night, is which group the man passing her falls into. The one which participates in violence against women, or the one which doesn’t. Because there is certainly no sign above a man’s head telling her that he’s one of the good ones. To point out that not all men harm women does nothing to help this conversation. It adds nothing but a defense, because a woman knows. That is not the conclusion to be drawn here.
As someone who has endured two separate counts of pedophilia from two different men, I’ve experienced first hand the reality that men can hold power over the vulnerable simply because they are men. I could count more personal encounters of sexism, objectification and abuse than I have fingers, but it’s not just violence against women that cuts. It’s the wolf-whistling, the staring, the groping, the pushy advances. It’s that when a woman walks down the street alone, she can’t tell if the man next to her will rape her or walk straight by. It’s that when she gets into a cab alone, when she goes on a bush walk alone, when she politely declines a man’s advances, there is the ever-present reality that she could, at any one of those given times be overpowered by him. Men fear women will reject them. Women fear men will kill them. Rape them. The difference is startling. And it is this bold distinction between a man’s existence in life and a woman’s that makes this an issue worth talking about.
Rodger explicitly stated that he was murdering the victims to punish “stuck up sluts” who wouldn’t give him the sex and love he “deserves”.
Of course, more than anything, that’s the issue here. It’s the attitude that a woman owes him sex, that he has a right to access her body, and that by denying him that access she’s done something wrong and deserves punishment. That is what feminists out there are up in arms about. That is what people out there are up in arms about. And frankly, they have a right to be upset about it. Not only about the pervasive culture of disrespect towards women and the objectification with which they’re viewed, but a man’s feeling of entitlement towards them.
Not all men, no, but that was never the point.
Yes, this is a feminist issue.
But the conversation we also need to have is that it’s an issue of masculinity as well, and that we are in desperate need of redefining what it means to be a man.
One of the best tweets I saw of this YesAllWomen hashtag was from someone who wrote “Started reading the #YesAllWomen tweets b/c I’ve got a daughter, but now I see I should be reading them b/c I’ve got two sons.”
Sexual inequality and blatant double standards is at the heart of feminism.
We teach how not to get raped instead of don’t rape.
We question a woman’s choice of clothing if she gets raped for signs of provoking the advance.
We accept that alcohol condemns a woman’s behaviour but excuses a man’s.
There are so many double standards at play here which are the precise reasons we need feminism.
However, sexual inequality and double standards affect both parties. Because the thing is this. A 22 year old male virgin is viewed as a failure — his masculinity is questioned — whereas a 22 year-old female virgin is honourable. We respect female virgins. Male virgins, not so much. We feel sorry for them, if anything. Like there must be something wrong with them. This is the difference. It’s the act of tying a man’s sense of self-worth to his sexuality, that he begins to view women not as people but as measuring sticks to his masculinity, to his confidence, to his ability to fit inside this world and say: I am okay.
Men are taught through culture and society that “manliness” is the highest goal to which they should aspire. Certain aspects of life like providing for a family, being a leader of men, acquiring many sexual partners — they are all seen as being in service to the monolithic definition of what it is to ‘be a man’. What’s more, a research study at UC Berkeley has found that when men feel that their masculinity has been threatened, they overcompensate in response by doubling down on stereotypical masculine traits – especially male dominance. Men whose masculine identity was threatened were found to feel more guilty, ashamed and – most importantly – hostile.
Although the idea that a man fears a woman will reject him but a woman fears a man will kill her are shockingly different outcomes, what, ironically, are at the core of these fears is the same.
A loss of power.
A threat to both party’s sexual identity: a woman’s femininity and a man’s masculinity.
Elliot Rodger stated, “For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.” He wrote in his manifesto, “You girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it”.
Misogyny, sexism and alleged mental health issues aside, I believe the trigger for Rodger’s attack was because his masculinity was threatened. I think he took rejection as a personal attack against his manliness, because it’s the need to display one’s masculine credentials that tells you what you need to know. Feeling the need to dominate others – to shout at them, to bully them, to rape or kill them – is the surest sign that one is not dominant. Having to constantly prove your manhood is a sign that you’re not, in fact, a man. Masculinity as a theatrical performance only serves to highlight just how fragile the person is underneath.
And underneath, I believe Rodgers was looking for acceptance, love and validation and he, wrongly, had them pinned on whether or not girls had sex with him. He handed over his power – the power he had to accept, love and value himself – the power he had to feel successful about his own masculinity and self-worth, and instead put that decision in the hands of others.
Just as a woman should never judge her lovability or self-worth by whether or not she is in a relationship, a man should never judge his masculinity by the women he’s been in the company of. As long as we hand over the power to the opposite sex to decide if we are loveable, desirable, or worthy of attention and care — if we are okay — we will forever fall short. We will start or continue relationships we shouldn’t. We will react in extreme ways to the vulnerability we feel, with violence against others or against ourselves. We will hang our hats on all the wrong hooks and we will tread the dangerous path of allowing somebody else to dictate how we fit inside this world.
It’s high time a new masculinity finds its way into our culture and it begins in our homes, our classrooms, our friendships and our workplaces.
I will teach my son how to treat women respectfully. I will teach him to wait for not only consent but enthusiasm. I will teach him that a woman’s choice of clothing is not an invitation and that her body, however it may be presented, is not his right. But just as importantly, I will teach him to redefine society’s take on masculinity – to take it from being something external and to give it true strength. The kind of strength that only comes from within.
True strength isn’t loud or aggressive. It’s quiet. True masculinity doesn’t need to prove its existence because it doesn’t require the validation of others to exist. It isn’t defined by the size or shape of your genitals or what you do with them. It isn’t something that’s defined by being in charge or threatened by the strength of others – men or women. It sees others as potential partners, not competitors or antagonists, until proven otherwise. At the same time, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, being intimidated by others. The phrase, “never begin a fight, but always finish it” remains true; it’s a strength that comes from maintaining boundaries. About not being afraid to be vulnerable or to present your authentic self. It means being willing to face down challenges to the end, even if it means risking failure.
These are values I want my son to have. To take these attitudes of masculinity and self-worth and embed them in nobody and nothing but himself. Not a woman. Not sexual encounters. Not in his ability to take down another guy in a fight. Or his ability to dominate.
His masculinity has to come from within.
Only then, can I hope things will truly change.
Join the conversation. What are your thoughts?