Immediately following the Isla Vista murders—and Elliot Rodger’s bizarre rants justifying his revenge on the female gender because women wouldn’t have sex with him—my reaction was to feel slimed. I wrote on my blog, “I can’t imagine how women feel about it.”
Then women told the world how they feel about it. I have read only a tiny fraction of what has been tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, but it has been eye opening.
Every striking news event starts a debate about what the event means or if it even means anything. For a lot of men, Isla Vista didn’t mean much: crazy people do crazy things. To a lot of women, though, Isla Vista looked very different. Rather than a bizarre random event, it seemed like the extreme edge of a continuum of aggression, disrespect, and threat that affects them every day.
One of the prerogatives of privilege is that your concerns move to the top of the agenda, even if they are comparatively minor. Privileged classes of all sorts take this prerogative for granted and have a hard time seeing it as an injustice. Men who feel smeared by a term like rape culture tend to think the conversation should shift to their hurt feelings; it shouldn’t. When a man fully grasps the continuum of aggression, it’s hard to claim that he’s never played any role in perpetuating it. By changing the subject to their own victimization, men avoid that realization.
While the exact statistics on rape are hotly debated, I have a lot of confidence in this qualitative statement: Just about every woman knows somebody who has been raped. If you don’t believe me, ask some. (This means, of course, that most men also know a rape survivor, whether or not they are aware of it.) A woman’s fear of being raped is not a monsters-in-the-closet phobia; it’s the well-founded concern that what happened to her could happen to me.
So while men may look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that,” women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.” Men divide the world into murderers and non-murderers, observing that the murderer pool is very small. Women look at murder as the far edge of male aggression they experience constantly.
#YesAllWomen has encouraged women to express and men to feel the oppressive weight of that continuum. Read enough stories and the bigger reality starts to break through: the meaning of Isla Vista isn’t that shit happens, it’s that the same kinds of shit keep happening day after day all over the country. And when there’s a widespread pattern like that, sooner or later it’s going to break out into something really horrific.
The brilliance of #YesAllWomen is in its framing: It sidesteps the objection “Not all men are like that.” True or not, that objection misses the point. Whether feminist terms like misogyny or rape culture unfairly tar some good men is a minor issue compared to the environment of danger all women have to live in. Let’s not drop the larger issue to discuss the smaller one.
Men, by and large, have not handled their side of this discussion well, attempting to disown the problem or to “mansplain” what women should do to fix it. But a few men have had intelligent things to say. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast wrote:
[T]he overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.
The game metaphor explains a lot about what was wrong with Rodger’s point of view and how it relates to a problem in the larger culture. Rodger’s complaint wasn’t that he couldn’t find his soulmate or that his genes might fail in the Darwinian struggle for immortality. It wasn’t even about pleasure, really, because you don’t need a partner for that. The essence of his complaint was that he couldn’t level up no matter how long he played or how hard he tried—in the multi-player game of heterosexual sex.
To grasp the full dysfunction of that game, you need to understand who the players are: they are men. Rodger wasn’t playing with or even against women when he went out looking for sex. He was playing against other men to gain status. Women are just NPCs—non-player characters. For men, figuring out what to say or do to get women’s attention or their phone numbers or to get them into bed is like solving the gatekeeper’s riddle.
With that mindset, Rodger’s virginity wasn’t just a lack of experience, making him comparable to someone who has never seen the ocean or been to Paris. It was his state of being. He was a newbie, a beginner, a loser. And in his mind it wasn’t fair. He had put so much of his time and effort and passion into the game; he felt he deserved to get something out.
Chu explains the error: “[O]ther people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.”
Phrasing the metaphor in computer terms makes it sound like a new problem, but computer games are just a good way of describing an attitude that has been around since Achilles and Agamemnon argued over an enslaved girl: women are just tokens in a competition among men. In junior high in the ’70s, my friends and I talked about “getting to second base,” and today commercials sell products to older men by telling us we can “get back in the game.” We all know what game they’re talking about.
No one ever asks a boy whether he wants to play this game. At some point in your adolescence, you just find yourself in the middle of it, being told that you are losing and advised on how to win. There is a vision that competes with the game metaphor and that (for most men, I believe) eventually wins out as men mature: the search for companionship, or looking for an ally to help you face life’s challenges. In that vision, women can be “protagonists of their own stories” rather than NPCs. But no one ever tells you there is a choice of visions and lays out the consequences of each one.
If we did discuss these competing visions openly with boys, I don’t think the game metaphor would stand up to conscious scrutiny. Few men openly defend the idea that women exist to be tokens of our competition, and even most teens already have enough empathy and experience for it to ring false. But the game attitude survives because we don’t bring it out into the light and discuss it.
Changing that dynamic would be a fine response to #YesAllWomen.
This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of UU World (pages 51-52) and is adapted from a post on The Weekly Sift (June 2, 2014).