[This piece began as a FaceBook post the day of the Santa Barbara rampage. I received so much encouragement by family, friends and colleagues to share it with a wider readership , I decided to do so. – VW]
Another day, another rape, kidnapping, murder, harassment, abuse of women. Today it’s a raging, rejected 22-year old privileged boy named Elliot Rodger who killed his roommates then drove around shooting sorority women before he killed himself with legally purchased guns registered to his name.
As I expected, women’s attempts to frame this as misogynist extremism have been resisted: comment threads on the internet show that Americans prefer to file this crime under mental illness with a side order of gun control. Whatever any one of us personally decides it is, Rodger’s attack has revealed the PUA and MRA subculture and generated an outpouring of women speaking their truth about the misogynist culture we live in now. I have long privately thought of it as “the new misogyny,” a violent, public, technologically sophisticated, internet- facilitated, desperate patriarchal reinforcement that women are nothing greater than the sum of our body parts. As a scholar of the medieval witch craze in Europe, I see many parallels between the late medieval period and ours in terms of training women, through public shaming, torture and violence, to comply with male expectations and desires.
The term “rape culture,” which has been in use for some time among younger feminists – particularly in the context of the sexual entitlement and sexual violence-soaked climate of American college campuses — makes many people uncomfortable. But it is a term that I want to use here in order to stand in solidarity with the younger and more outspoken generation that coined it, and in order to support the work of confronting the sick sexual culture in which Elliot Rodger’s mental illness progressed. Rodger left a manifesto that makes it absolutely clear that his actions were developed, pre-meditated and carried out because women he lusted after did not respond to him. For this “crime,” he murdered them.
This murder triggered me and millions of other women who live daily with same kind of violence-tinged sexual entitlement Elliot Rodger took to a horrific extreme by turning a gun on young women who represented all those who denied him their bodies. I have decided to speak some of my truth about how I experience rape culture in my own life as a single, middle-aged woman.
I have been on hundreds of dates over the decades, had profiles on multiple dating sites over the years, had short romances and long term relationships, been engaged once, lived with male partners twice. I have many loving and wonderful men of diverse sexual orientations in my life as best friends and beloved mentors. I am a minister and have preached, taught and lived out the integration of sexuality and spirituality. I work full-time in a church setting: an environment populated by good men who are self-aware, respectful, intelligent and dismayed by sexism and misogyny, in a denomination that has worked very hard to address sexual misconduct, sexism and homophobia within its own communities and in society.
I am a strong feminist who loves men and cares deeply about boys. But I notice that my respect and trust in men in what we might call “the dating scene” has plummeted over the past five to ten years as I have been constantly subject to the simmering rage of male frustration in an age of unprecedented female independence and choice.
It used to be only the men my friends and I referred to as “creeps and psychos” who revealed how much they hate independent, self-confident women who aren’t interested in them. Now it’s almost normative male behavior. In writing this, I am stepping out from my location as a religious leader and speaking as a woman. Before I am anything else in life, I am a woman. To paraphrase a popular Twitter meme, I am someone
‘s daughter, niece, sister, best friend, teacher, minister. The Twitter conversation under #YesAllWomen has been another factor in my decision to publish this post.
I attended college in the 1980’s in a sexist environment where I sensed I was being trained for social submission to men. Boys dominated every class and expected girls to stand back academically. Professors silently tolerated or enabled this dynamic (except for women’s studies classes which were new and homophobically derided as “angry lesbian class”). Out of the classroom, the Greek system prevailed and if you weren’t in one of the “hot” sororities, you were invisible. I had a boyfriend in college and for a long time afterward, but chose not to marry. I do not regret not marrying, but always imagined that dating, establishing relationships and concluding them in a mutually caring, mature and amicable way with grown men would be a reasonable expectation for my adult life.
For a time that seemed to be possible. But I noticed a disturbing cultural shift about a decade ago that made me wonder if it was just me who felt like the whole world had become a meat market for single heterosexuals. Now I know it wasn’t just me.
The meat market metaphor works like this: if a man thinks a woman (meat) is juicy and delectable, he thinks he should be able to have it. If a man thinks the meat isn’t “choice,” he thinks it should be tossed in the garbage, discarded as useless and even offensive. The meat that does not whet his appetite is named as disgusting and reduced to its anatomical parts.
This combination of entitlement and hostility is what I see, observe and experience on a regular basis, despite the fact that I’m 48 (“hey, wow, you don’t look that old!”), not seeking male approval, accomplished, socially adept and considerate. It’s the weirdest sensation, getting caught in the meat market display case so often even though I disengaged from the “will he like me?” dance years ago and hardly ever date anymore. I feel that in the absence of dance partners for the Waltz of Male Approval, heterosexual men are doing a bizarre frug around me and many other straight women who, although they might like to be in a happy relationship, are just as happy and complete without one.
Living in rape culture today means that when I meet a heterosexual man, sexual come-ons and innuendo happen immediately: not neutral witty banter or intellectual exchange, as used to happen. Earlier in my dating life, my casual flirting was not assumed to be a serious sexual overture. Men with decent social skills were able to engage in friendly exchanges without veering immediately into crass objectification and sexual presumption. Today, sex leads. If it isn’t mentioned almost right away, it is present in the conversation like a fog. This isn’t the same fog that I maneuvered as an attractive teenager in an era where boys begged and girls set the boundaries and it all seemed in good, (mostly) mutually respectful fun. This fog is angry and wears an impatient smile.
I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable to read this. I hate having to constantly experience it. Rape culture means that before I can make a friend, before I can enjoy companionship for itself, before I can be known or know someone, I am expected to enter into negotiations about sex. If I register my disapproval or irritation, I am dismissed, rejected or insulted. I must be frigid or a prude. I am accused of “wearing my vestments.” I am told that I have body issues and need to be liberated (I may have mentioned that I’m fat, which comes with its own special subset of misogyny and assumptions that I’m desperate and self-hating).
That’s nonsense. I know who I am. And I’m too mature and experienced to buy into that kind of manipulation. I worry a lot about younger, less confident women’s ability to do the same. The level of entitlement and rage and emotional violence out there is intense. Something has shifted, and it’s awful.
Rape culture says that the assumption that the primary function of heterosexual women is to crave sexual attention and approval from men, and to be shamed, insulted or assaulted when they reject that function. I have been called a “fat b—-” so many times for politely refusing sexual advances, I couldn’t begin to estimate the actual number.
Sexual entitlement, the foundation of rape culture, takes many non-physical forms: for instance, a man dominating conversation on a first date, bombarding me with unwelcome information about himself — including detailed sexual fantasies — and then quickly becoming hostile and intimidating when I excuse myself from the date or try to end the phone call or e-mail exchanges. After years of being willing to tolerate narcissistic monologues that substitute for conversation, I now wait for a reasonable opportunity to excuse myself and say goodbye. I worry these days that a guy is going to follow me to the parking lot and gun me down.
How is this still happening in a country like America, where women comprise the majority of college students and make up half the work force? To what might we credit or blame this degradation of basic manners and social skills among a fairly wide demographic of heterosexual men? Blame the internet? I don’t know, but even educated, cultured men seem to have lost the art of conversation. This goes far beyond mere social ineptitude, as I have noticed that the monologues and recitations I have been subjected to on dates began, around ten years ago, to function among single men as a kind of warm-up to sexual aggression. In rape culture, heterosexual men interpret polite listening as a sign of interest and sexual attraction. I used to extend invitations to men to spend time together, but I rarely do so any longer, as such invitations are inevitably assumed to be sexual in nature. My single male friends these days are gay, or are ministerial colleagues (or both). I am trying to think of the last time I made a new single, heterosexual male friend. Not one comes to mind.
Rape culture plays out for me the bitter accusations that I’m puritanical, a closeted lesbian, or a “judgmental b—-” (often expressed in more crass language) for objecting to married or partnered men pursuing me. The invitation to join a man in lying and adultery does not just happen on-line. It happens at conferences, parties, waiting outside for tables at a restaurant, at Fenway Park, or anywhere else I have interacted in a friendly way with heterosexual men who identify me as someone they think it would be fun to have recreational sex with. The squealing 180 degree male spin-out from smiling and flirtatious to vicious and threatening has trained me and many other women not to stand up for ourselves, lest we risk violent attacks or stalking on-line or in person.
Rape culture plays out in the form of dozens of text messages single men have sent me after one pleasant and polite conversation that concluded with them asking for my number. The text messages are not considerate or even coherent — they often arrive in the wee hours of the morning, and only include generic phrases like “How r u?” or “You around?” even though I have never given any indication that I would welcome such inane intrusions. Some might chalk this text-pestering up to social awkwardness, but it isn’t just that. Because the texts inevitably degenerate into crass objectification or come-ons, they are ultimately expressions of misogyny. Techno-lechery is a form of micro-aggression millions of women have to contend with daily: it’s not just the cute young gals who suffer it.
By the way, as any woman will tell you, the advice about cyber-stalking is this: “Ignore him. Don’t mention his name or respond to him, as it will only provoke him.” This is the same advice we are given about being harassed on the street. Don’t provoke men. Don’t make eye contact. Pretend you don’t hear the vile remarks about your body, your personhood. Parishioners and friends with teenaged and adult daughters have asked my advice on how to do better by our next generation. I have a few thoughts: we all need to stop telling enraged women that their anger is inappropriate and unattractive. We must make room for it, and for truth. We must stop telling girls to behave themselves and to protect and excuse men. We have to stop romanticizing abusive relationships in music and film (“Twilight,” anyone?) and encourage and equip our daughters to question the message of the books, films and TV shows they consume.
What is to blame for the rise in hostility against women, the “new misogyny” that we call rape culture? I don’t know. But Anthony Wiener, Bill Clinton, hip hop and rap artists, reality TV, slut-shaming, blaming the victim, “boys will be boys,” bitches and hos, wilding, the United States military’s treatment of women in the armed forces, sexting, Snapchat, all the “CSI: Murdered Prostitute/Rape Du Jour” episodes that pass for entertainment… women doing fine on their own and not needing to partner with men for economic security, child-rearing or social acceptance? It all factors in to rage and disrespect and male self-hatred that gets projected onto women.
And of course there’s pornography.
No one wants to talk about the fact that many educated, accomplished, socially adept American men now consume a huge amount of pornography casually and constantly as an accepted daily leisure activity. I do not protest pornography in and of itself, but am waiting patiently for the day when a woman can acknowledge that a steady diet of pornography desensitizes and negatively influences many of its consumers without being accused of being Andrea Dworkin.
Aside from porn, men in our culture are constantly being fed images and messages that women’s bodies exist to please and accommodate or entertain them, and that the human beings who live inside these bodies are a boring afterthought to the consideration of whether or not she will fulfill his fantasy for a relationship, or sex, or both. I was shocked to hear the celebrated movie “Her” (directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johannsson) described as a poignant parable of love and loneliness. I thought it was a wickedly funny and sad satire on male fantasy: if man can design a sexy operating system that wants to have sex him, what use will he have for messy, frizzy-haired, ordinary human women?
Likewise, the manic pixie dreamgirl fantasy, “Ruby Sparks” fancied itself a kind of Pygmalian tale with the Eliza character earning her independence from her creator at the end, except for the horrifying conclusion, which showed Ruby “meeting cute” with her author/creator and starting the romance again, ostensibly on her terms. No one who critiqued the film thought to consider that for Ruby, there could be no free will, as she was literally created by the man she “happened” to fall in love with at the movie’s end. I thought the message was chilling; not at all a feminist retrieval of the Pygmalion story. The fact that every detail of Ruby Spark’s mind and imagination were created and therefore colonized by the protagonist of the story (played by Paul Dano) seems to me an expression of the young, female screenwriter, Zoe Kazan’s, internalized misogyny.
A few days ago in Southern California, another group of young women were killed for the crime of being out of the sexual reach and social control of a frustrated man. I believe that this murderer’s obsession and mental illness flourished in our culture for legitimate and obvious reasons, and it is time for a confrontation of those reasons by all of us. I am tired of the open season on women. It’s not some other culture’s problem. It is not just a problem for young women. It’s a moral sickness in our culture and we need to fix it.
When I have tried to talk about the development of rape culture in our society as I have observed it get worse over the past decades, men and women try to turn the conversation personal. I’m just not doing the right things to meet “nice guys.” I should get off Match.com or OKCupid, because that’s where the creeps are (as if on-line dating wasn’t thoroughly mainstream by now). If I have a profile on a dating site, maybe I said something that gave men the “wrong idea” and need to re-word my profile (let me tell you, no one actually reads the profile!). I should specify at all times that I am interested in “friends first,” which no one seems to understand is equivalent to telling attractive young women to wear longer skirts or women to cover their heads in church: female modesty to mollify male aggression.
This isn’t a personal issue. This isn’t about your awesome, fun, smart, funny, gainfully employed, talented female friends dropping out of the dating game because they just aren’t having any luck or any fun meeting guys. This is a societal problem, a social ill that is getting worse and needs to be addressed politically and publicly. This isn’t about what those in denial like to call “a random psycho” who creeps out your friend on a date or stalks your co-worker. Rape culture permeates our society and is a powerful ideology that continues to attract new generations of men who feel fundamentally entitled to women’s attention, admiration, support and bodies. To continue to react to posts like mine with the (now widely mocked) cliche, “Not All Men Are Like That” is no longer acceptable. It never has been. Please help me move our communities beyond the silencing of women implied by “Not All Men Are Like That,” beyond the discomfort of hearing women’s truth, beyond the fantasy that this is a news story that doesn’t apply to ordinary lives, and out into our community conversations.