"I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me,” he said into the camera. “But I will punish you all for it.”
The next day, on May 24, news headlines said that a young man named Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, drove around stabbing and shooting until six people were dead. He crashed his car and shot himself dead, leaving families to mourn slain loved ones. And he left behind a 137-page autobiographical manifesto and a collection of YouTube videos; in one entitled Retribution, he said to women: “I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.”
Misogyny: the hatred of women. It is the emotional atmosphere of a patriarchal society that, like an acidic fog, burns everyone. We breathe it, walk in it, make our lives inside it, forgetting it’s there until loud gunfire comes from a man like Rodger, who is now the face of male supremacy. But after he fades from the news, we will still be left with ongoing violence against women. More than three American women a day are killed by a current or former intimate partner. In 2010, 85,593 women were raped in the United States: that’s 235 a day, and because rape is markedly underreported, even those numbers are low. Women still contend with a wage gap and a glass ceiling. In the Global South, at least 150 million girls have had their genitals sheared off as a “rite of passage.” Women will still be sex-trafficked. And of course, women are killed before birth; over 90 million were aborted in India and China because parents did not want the burden of a girl.
In the United States, women saw in Rodger’s misogynist killing spree an extreme form of the violence they live with every day. The Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen became a public forum for sharing stories of male violence, spanning from microaggressions to rape. Yet many of us men can’t see ourselves in Rodger. Or read the stories of women’s fear or anger or hurt without laughing (yes, I heard men laughing about it on the subway) or dismissing it as the hysterics of overly sensitive women. We choose not to listen because if we did, it would destroy our self-image, by showing how women too often see us: as tormentors, oblivious and arrogant, who cause pain they are too scared or tired or too hopeless to even talk about.
Boys Will Be Boys
Why are we killing women? I know, I know. An instant defensive wall rises in the brain. I’m not hurting women, I don’t gun them down or rape or harass them. Nor do my boys. It’s not all men!
You’re right, it’s not all men, it’s not you. Relax. You’re off the hook. It’s the Boko Haram or the Black guys on the street corner. No, it’s the Puerto Ricans during their annual parade. Maybe the Indian men who left two raped girls hanging dead from a tree? Better yet, it’s the medieval Saudis who won’t let women drive. Yes, it’s always someone else, somewhere else. It will never be you or me.
And yet, every woman I talk to has a story. Every, single one. At Bed-Stuy’s Civil Service Café, I asked two women about sexism. One told me of being paid less than her male boss while doing his work. The other said she pretended to be made of steel in order to not be hurt by sexist comments at her job.
Later, a friend told me that while drinking at a male friend’s house she blacked out and woke up to find him thrusting inside her. After his orgasm, he got up and asked if his cousin in the next room “could get some too.”
During the New York summer, men’s eyes transform into giant tongues licking women up and down. Participating in everyday guy talk is like passing a pair of scissors around, cutting women into pieces — nice tits, look at that ass, good dick sucking lips on that one!
Men say over and over that it’s not all men. And yet seemingly every woman has a story of sexism. What are the mechanics of this social blindness? One is simple displacement. Privileged men project their sexism downward and outward to the faraway “Other” who is always more brutal and more savage. In comparison to them, we look like extras from The Bachelor. How can we be sexist? We let you drive and vote!
And then of course there’s denial. We minimize the pain our male privilege causes women. Men are trained in, celebrate and have made industries out of violence. Often, pain is visible only if it’s physical. Yet bodily harm is one pole on the spectrum of violence and making it the only “real” form of sexism renders invisible the thousand small acts of disrespect and aggression that women endure each day. But again there’s that question. How can we be sexist? We didn’t leave any marks!
Finally, sexism as an ideological practice “naturalizes” itself with nature and religion. Our dominance is part of the evolutionary order, we hunt, we pursue, we spread our seed, we build and destroy; we lead. Women are weak and emotional. Biology is destiny. Or pick your holy book, the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, all written by men, describing a male god who demands that women obey men. Shocker! Of course it leaves women in the impossible position of “interpreting” religious texts that are hopelessly sexist to eke out a moderate form of devotion.
Sexist ideology and practice are reproduced in institutions. The military, the church, Hollywood, sports, Wall Street, wherever all-male spaces exist or where men dominate and women are tokens, sexism builds and spills over. It recreates us in its image. And it recreates itself in how we imagine ourselves.
Boys, ever feel scared you weren’t a man? Ever stand, lonely, on the outside of a circle of men, who laughed with arms slung on each other’s shoulders? When did you know that a joke about women was the surest way in?
Remember the crack you made about pussy? How they laughed and brought you into the circle. Once inside, everyone took turns climbing this imagined “woman.” You fucked her brains out, hosed her inner organs with your mighty jizz until they were glazed like porcelain, you came on her face in a total bukkake apocalypse until spent from laughter, you left the circle, knowing you were one of the guys.
If in Marxism the commodity is the basic element of capitalism, we can say that in Feminism, objectification is the core process of patriarchy. The turning of a human being into an object that is a tool for your purpose, who has no agency or feelings of her own, a woman interchangeable with other women or a thing you can destroy is the very discursive engine of patriarchy. And it happens because men are not really “men” but human beings performing a gender role, acting “masculine” by exchanging objectified images of women.
When men brag about fucking women, they’re not exactly extolling an authentic connection with another human being. More likely, they’re showing off the grade of conquest, her hair, her skin, her body shape. She becomes a trophy we pass around to others. She’s an object, and possessing her proves our manhood to ourselves and to other men.
It creates the ugly dynamic of sexual entitlement, in which men believe they are owed women’s bodies. And it cuts both ways. Privileged men feel entitled to sex simply because of their wealth, class or racial status. In his manifesto, “My Twisted Life,” Elliot Rodgers — who was half-white and half-Asian — wrote, “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.”
Underprivileged men, who feel too poor, too inexperienced, too ugly, too not enough are often dangerous. They overcompensate by strong-arming women, dominating or abusing them, attempting to control women they fear they can’t keep otherwise. And then there is the subset of men who are insecure about their masculinity not because they’re broke or ugly or awkward but because they’re not really straight. They sublimate their bisexuality into sexist rituals of objectifying women and attacking gays and transgender people, who represent the very desires they repressed in themselves.
These insecurities may be why on an Atlanta train in May, a group of men assaulted two transgender women. They taunted and violently attacked the pair, stripping one of the women naked while bystanders filmed the scene but did not intervene.
A Game of Status
The daily control of women is how patriarchy is maintained. On their bruises we map our property. On their silence, we forge our voice. At the core is our need to be a “man” for other men, and a woman is a checker piece we use to play a game of status with other men. And we are desperate to know we’re men because at our core, we’re never that sure.
There is also a great desire to be free of it. We feel it individually when we are with women we love — romantic partners, yes, but also our family, our friends, our colleagues. Even the most sexist men will defend women they love, because in their compartmentalized minds a special room exists for real relationships that tether them to reality. And we feel it in social movements when, united for a common cause, we want each other’s greatness to shine. In the Slut March of 2011, in the gay weddings of our friends and family, we experience glimpses of that post-sexist world. When authentic human connection lets the man-mask come off, our whole inner being becomes real again.
Now if we can take what we know from our personal and public lives and make feminism a goal among men, our vision of the world will change. When the photo of the Indian girls, raped, strangled and hung from a tree is in the news, we will see their male killers in the same way we now think of whites, gathered around the body of a lynched Black man, as people sick with a terrible ideology that transforms their fear into cruelty.
The first step is incredibly simple — LISTEN! Ask the women in your life what their experience of sexism is and as they talk, just shut up. Do you clench up? Do you feel a wall between your mind and her words? Instead of shutting down, use your defense mechanisms as a map to what scares you about their pain and confront it.
Sadly, some men won’t listen, and they must be challenged and healed when possible, defeated when not. But the desire to be free of sexism does exist. Leaving the Nostrand subway station the other night, I passed through the turnstile as a man was yelling at a young woman, “Come here sweet thing. Get your ass over here. Got this for you.”
I saw her ducking her head as if dodging rocks, and then a guy in overalls yelled, “Nigga what’s wrong with you! Can’t see she want to be left alone.” A circle of us eyed the asshole sexist. “I hate motherfuckers like you,” the man in overalls shouted. “You ain’t a man, motherfucker, do that shit to me, come on bitch, say that to me.” The asshole sexist mumbled some Caribbean gibberish and left as we followed him out with our eyes. And then we looked at each other and I swear we all liked what we saw.
I looked at the young woman, quickly jogging up the steps. Did she?