Two years ago a teenage boy threw a bottle of water at me, because I, an adult, would not give him my phone number. It struck me square in the back. This happened in broad daylight on a busy Washington, D.C. street, with plenty of onlookers. No one said a word. My back ached for days.
The leap from spurned advance to physical violence might not always be as dramatic as last Friday’s killing spree by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people and wounded 13 in the University of California at Santa Barbara community before taking his own life — but it isn’t as far as many would like to believe.
Rodger’s actions, which he detailed in a 137-page manifesto and a YouTube video, were part of his plan for “retribution” to punish women, “hot girls” in particular, for denying him the sex life he said he “deserved.” He also lashed out at other men for being able to experience what he felt he was denied.
The Internet responded with grief, dismay and anger, some of which morphed into #YesAllWomen, a discussion about misogyny, the fear that women have learned in order to survive, and some men’s belief that by simply being born male — or in Rodger’s case, born male and wealthy — they are entitled to women’s attention and affections.
A play off the “not all men argument” that some men use to derail conversations about misogyny and violence against women, Twitter users argued that Rodger’s actions were an extreme example of the abuse and anti-woman violence they face every day. They also noted how closely his comments echo Men’s Rights Movement rhetoric.
Days after the hashtag began, the tweets are still pouring in, with women talking about the fear they feel when rejecting strange men’s advances, domestic violence they have experienced, sexual assault, and the ways that women’s bodies are treated as if they exist solely for male pleasure.
Heather Wilhelm over at The Federalist seems to feel that feminists were “hijacking the conversation” about Rodger’s attack in order to “boost their self-esteem.” She argued that tweets about everyday sexual harassment in response to a killing spree were proof that many participants just wanted to make the conversation about themselves.
“Let’s make no mistake—sexual assault is a serious problem. The sad reality is that women have to take more safety precautions than men. But #YesAllWomen, when it comes down to it, isn’t even remotely about sexual assault. It’s not about feminism or empowerment, or practical solutions to crime (like, say, concealed carry laws), and it certainly has nothing to do with a deranged college student killing six people. It’s about taking a tragedy and turning it into “I Want To Talk About Me.” In fact, #YesAllWomen might end up being the most narcissistic event of 2014, which is saying something, given that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West just got married,” Wilhelm wrote.
No, “not all men” respond to rejection with mass violence, but actions like Rodger’s are the ultimate fear. When followed down the street by a stranger in a car, how many women have thought about how to weaponize everyday items, like car keys, just in case this person decides to attack? How many women change their routes home in order to avoid being harassed by the leering men telling them to “Smile, baby!” How many women have been groped on public transit, without a single witness stepping in the help them? How many women have given a stranger a fake phone number or pretended to be married in order to appease an overly persistent man? How many women have been physically assaulted or verbally threatened after spurning such advances?
More than 80 percent of women worldwide experience some form of street harassment in their lifetime. One out of every six women in the U.S. have been the victim of completed or attempted rape. Almost three out of every 10 women have been the victim of physical violence, rape or stalking at the hands of an intimate partner.
Rodger’s actions weren’t common, but neither is running over a teenage girl with a car for refusing a person who tried to solicit her for sex, or stabbing a woman who didn’t respond favorably to catcalling. If those incidents aren’t sufficient proof that Rodger’s attitudes toward women were not an anomaly, more evidence lies in the now-suspended Elliot Rodger Facebook fan pages and responses to his final YouTube video, the one in which he says “If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you. You denied me a happy life, and in turn I will deny you a life.” One comment reads, “I honestly think that every average looking really nice guy who’s watched the hottest girls hook up with cocky creatine loaded frat boys feels a little bit of what he’s talking about. He probably was a nice gentleman guy who just got rejected by women into insanity. Especially if he kept at trying to be a nice guy and it never worked.”
Years of expecting women to respond favorably to male attention because that’s supposedly what women are supposed to do, can cause some men to chafe at the idea that a woman can say “no.” Years of viewing women as things, the way Rodger referred to his father’s “acquisition” of a new girlfriend, make it difficult for some men to believe that the “nice guy” isn’t automatically entitled to love or sex.
Women are expected to adjust to silently living in fear. We consult Google to find out whether or not we’re allowed to own pepper spray in our state. We carefully and gently turn down advances, like we’re defusing bombs. We put our hands behind our backs to shift rings to our left ring finger in order to prove that “Yes, I am married.” All of this because, in the back of our minds, we’re worried that our safety would be put at risk if we reject an unwanted advance and inadvertently bruise some man’s ego.
It might be troubling to think that everyday occurrences have anything in common with a mass shooting, but that doesn’t make it untrue.