On Friday night, a man went on a shooting spree at the UC Santa Barbara campus, killing seven people and wounding another seven. I have no interest in digging into the identity of this man; to grant him the glory of infamy is an injustice to the victims. There are plenty of places to look if you’re really set on knowing his name or his story. To me, that’s not the relevant part of what he did, or why he did it, or what we should take the time to think about and act upon in the wake of tragedy.
This man did what he did because he felt spurned by the women of the world. He felt that sex was withheld from him by women everywhere. He felt he was entitled to sex with these women. He felt, as many young men do, that it was a just reward for his efforts to be courteous, to be a “gentleman”. He felt this, in part, because of his involvement with so-called “Men’s Rights Activist” (MRA) communities, and the related “Pick-Up Artist” (PUA) culture that surrounds it. He felt this, in part, because society teaches young men that women are a prize to be won; films, comics, television, music, and even media stories about real people build up this image that being a powerful man, being the right kind of man, gives rewards of money, cars, and sex.
I’m aware of these cultural pressures because, when I was younger, I was subjected to them. I felt rejection, isolation, and – I’m somewhat ashamed to admit – occasional flashes of anger or rage as a result of my not receiving what society said was my due. While it wasn’t a primary motivator for me, courtesy of a very good upbringing and a more rational take on things, the potential for sex to develop as a result of “proper” friendship and pleasantries was certainly a whisper in the back of my mind, feeding me stories of my insufficiency when it failed to emerge.
I had friends that I wished would become romantic partners and never did. I did things for them in order to make displays of affection, to “win” their attentions, and was guilty of resenting the lack of reciprocation. Rather than turning violent or unstable, though, I internalized these feelings. I buried them with the rest of my emotions, shutting myself out from the world in many ways, silently reflecting on how I’d failed, what I’d done wrong, what was the missing piece for me to get someone to take that next step.
I’m sorry to admit that this, while a quiet thing for me, was a persistent and vocal inner monologue within myself for a good portion of my life. I did a very poor job of recognizing the actual shortcomings I was guilty of; namely, that I was subconsciously depriving women of personal agency and, despite my own believed convictions, buying in to discrete objectification and dehumanization of half of the human population – possibly including myself, just to pack on the adolescent and post-adolescent angst of it all.
Fortunately, there’s a key event that happened in my mind at some point. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, or even what, it was, but my attitudes – both external and internal – began to shift. As I learned more and more about the dangerous and threatening world that women traverse daily, I learned. I absorbed information and reflected on it and began to see what it was I was doing; I began to come to terms with the fact that this narrative of women as a prize to be won, sold to me by so many roads, was a lie, and to profess love or tend to another’s needs based on some imagined desire to see something blossom from that was so entirely removed from any form of love as to border more closely on hate.
The resentment I’d felt ate at me. The way I’d approached certain people, certain situations, became a hindsight view of extraordinary feelings of entitlement that I couldn’t even recognize while in its grip. The women I wanted, the relationships I desired, stopped being things to yearn for or wistfully daydream about; they became, to me, what they had always actually been: people. They were not someone’s girlfriend or sister or daughter. They did not belong to anyone but themselves, and they never had.
As I’ve become more active in the feminist community – and especially, for clear reasons, since my admitting to myself and the world that I do not identify with my assigned gender – I’ve become stunned and embarrassed by my own prior thoughts and actions. I’ve looked back at myself with revulsion and disdain. When I look at the world of MRAs and PUAs, I see some fragment of myself reflected uncomfortably back at me, some glimmer of a person I once was and wish I could eradicate. I see thousands adolescent boys, taught that they are supposed to have access to women for use as they see fit, huddling together and licking their wounds and building a dangerous, toxic, and tantalizing fantasy.
Many men I’ve talked to over the last few days have admitted to having had similar struggles in early life, though often expressed in unique ways. The one constant, though, is this: all of us, by whatever means presented, grew out of it. We developed beyond the socially-constructed narrative, and found ways to become better than it. Most, if not all, have regrets about the way they were, assuaged only by their recognition that they are no longer that. Many of them owe their growth not to simple personal maturity, but to friends or relatives or loved ones who helped them finally see a more accurate picture of women, of humanity.
Therein lies the real problem with the rampantly misogynist MRA and PUA communities; rather than having that opportunity for growth, they huddle together like so many weeds choking any chance of new life from a garden. They share their perceived injustices, and normalize the idea that they are the victims, the wounded, the ones truly deserving of dominion over women, sometimes over every person. The concept of the “Alpha Male” who simply takes what he wants – be it money, power, sex, or any other thing – is the glorified goal of these groups and the people within them.
They will say, of course, that the man who took the lives of seven people in a violent rampage was a ‘fringe case’. That he did not represent the ideals or goals of their “movement”. That he, as a diseased, isolated man, is solely responsible for what he did. That, like many of the venomous beliefs spewed by these vile, hate-filled groups, is a lie. Is he responsible for his actions? Of course. However, it is not his alone to bear that stigma; the blood of those left dead is on every forum-goer who reaffirmed his beliefs, on every list-maker who put together a step-by-step guide to “acquiring” sex that failed, on every propagator of the myth of women as objects.
It does not end there, though. While I won’t extrapolate blame for this act to anyone but those named, the blood of the next victims, and those after that, is on every one of us who sees these things, and who chooses to remain silent. It is on every person who, bearing witness to abuse and harassment, does not intercede. It is on every person who, knowing the danger and threat presented by these ideologies, does not speak out against them. I will not have those lives weigh on my conscience; I may be only one person, and of limited ability, but what I can do is attempt to have my voice heard. I can refuse to be silent. I can raise my sons to be better men than I was, to be above this pervasive and perverse lie. I can speak out when I see someone I know crossing a line.
I can make a difference. And I can hold accountable all those who refuse to do the same.