Elliot Rodger murdered six students at my university, UC Santa Barbara. Horror sometimes offers us a mirror. Looking at the pathological forces us to examine the normal. In our country, the normal means men's guns and women's bodies.
The event again reminds us that the United States is great at mass murder, that we live in a freakish land where carrying semi-automatic weapons is a citizen's right. At the memorial service, Richard Martinez, a victim's father, asked us to rise and repeatedly shout out: "Not one more!!" The very day of the memorial a 21-year-old UCSB student was arrested for accidentally shooting his 9 mm Glock pistol through the wall into the adjoining Isla Vista apartment. Police found seven firearms and a thousand rounds of ammunition.
Another response has centered on Rodger's misogyny, a natural and justified retort to the killer's sense of entitlement to women's bodies. His murders are understood as an extrapolation of every man's tendency to treat women's bodies as sexual objects to be possessed for his own pleasure. Killing women is just the extreme outworking of sexism as it ascends from harassment and rape.
These were murders by a 22-year-old boy who couldn't get laid. Rodger killed what he couldn't have. In the video produced before his rampage, he narrated his planned retribution in precisely this way:
College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. But in those years I've had to rot in loneliness. It's not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.
I don't think Rodger hated women as much as he hated himself. He was very intelligent, good-looking, if small and awkward, a wealthy drop-out from the local city college who could not compete for women with the muscled bros who surfed, spiked the volleyball and were thriving in a state university that over the years has become a major academic institution. He wasn't as big or strong as they were; he wasn't as academically qualified as they were; he wasn't as white as they were. And he couldn't get the blonde sorority women who were so alluring to him to pay him any mind. Indeed, he didn't have enough self-confidence to even approach them.
A bi-racial boy, he not only killed what he couldn't have, he killed the part of himself to which he ascribed his failure. Whiteness was his beauty standard; getting a white woman the ultimate criterion of manliness. In his eyes, being part Chinese made him a lesser man. Although Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have changed things somewhat, Asian men here live in the long shadow of the racist American stereotype of them as passive and lacking in manliness. Three of his murder victims were Asian men.
Rodger's violence was fueled out of his humiliation as a man. Hatred of the women who spurned him was its result, not its cause. In his last video, he declared: "Girls, all I ever wanted was to love you, be loved by you. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted sex, love, affection, adoration." Reading his manifesto, it was the women who loved their partners that most infuriated him. He made them into objects because he couldn't get them to love him as subjects. Objects get used, discarded, and in this case, destroyed.
In his last sado-fascistic vision before the attack, he imagined a world where women would be rounded up in concentration camps, most starved to death while he watched in his high tower. In a rant that reminded me of Muhammed Atta, the 9/11 mastermind who instructed that no woman be permitted to visit his grave, Rodger wrote that it was sex that made men impure and women, as the source of sex, would have to be abolished. "If a man grows up without knowing of the existence of women, there will be no desire for sex. Sexuality will completely cease to exist. Love will cease to exist." Rodger did not imagine a sexual communism in which women would be shared, but a sexless band of brothers who would no longer be divided by their desire for beautiful women.
With the economic pillars of masculine domination crumbling, sexual conquest and physical strength are all that is left to many men as ways to prove themselves to be "real" men. Their importance is intensified by the fact that we live in a world where the market increasingly rules all and an individual's ability to get his own personal pleasure is the ultimate measure of human worth and dignity. Without education, without work, without physical strength, attracting women appeared to this 22-year-old virgin as the only terrain in which he might prove his manhood. His odds of success were as low as the Megamillions lottery upon which he pinned all his hopes for large amounts of money which, he believed, was the only thing that would convert into access to women.
"Life is so much fairer when you are a kid," he declared in one of his videos. That was before puberty, when, as he put it, the difference between heaven and hell hinges on "how many girls like you." (Notice how passive the formulation is: It is about being desired, not desiring.) The son of the assistant director of The Hunger Games, a movie where a woman is a better killer than the men who hunt her, Rodger read his lovelessness as a reflection of female power, of the rise of women who can say no. And who choose badly.
Isla Vista's sororities were Elliot Rodger's last fatal proving ground, one of whose young women he desperately hoped to attract. "I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender: The hottest sorority of UCSB." Alpha Phi is known on campus as a place for good-looking girls. "Hottest girls in the Greek system," one posted on the Greek Rank website. "Best looks, best philanthropy, best house...Hands down rush Aphi. These girls are chill." Rodger knew it too; he stalked them, parking outside and watching them come and go. It is also known for its charity fund-raiser male beauty contest, to select the "Alpha male," based on how they dress, how their bodies look, their talents and their talk.
In the end, Rodger sought to claim his ghastly place in the world that would not have him. "On the day of retribution," Rodger had declared, "you will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true Alpha Male." Slightly built, beaten up by boys he confronted in Isla Vista, called a "faggot" as a kid and online, he was now armed with guns and ammo. If he would never have sex, he had concluded, never be a "creator," now he would at least be a "destroyer." Elliot Rodger intended to kill everybody inside Alpha Phi and burn the place down. "They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches," he wrote in his manifesto. Nobody would open the doors to his banging as they were all partying in Las Vegas before finals, so he mowed down young women outside.
Elliot Rodger had a vision of UC Santa Barbara's student community as a place where sensual pleasures are bountiful, where the women are eager and the sex is easy. Indeed, he had researched Isla Vista before coming here: "I knew that students had a lot of sex there." It is precisely this image that draws thousands of male outsiders to its streets and its house parties, particularly during Halloween, and more recently at the disastrous Del Topia party that ended in a riot, that sustains its reputation -- a bacchanalian counter to its extraordinary brain power with a half-dozen Nobel laureates -- as one of the nation's premier party schools. It is this image that also draws pairs and triplets of young men from the outside to stalk its streets late at night looking for a female target to gang rape, of which there have been multiple incidences. Elliot Rodger is not alone in his frustrated fantasies of Isla Vista as an erotic feeding station.
What's really going on behind closed doors in Isla Vista? Does Rodger's fantasy accord with reality? In 2012, I surveyed student's sex lives together with Paolo Gardinali of the university's survey research center. Some 1,500 students responded.
If you follow the grapevine or judge based on the free handouts of condoms, you'd think that everybody was doing it. There are, in fact, a large number of virgins. Half the freshmen are virgins. By the time kids get to be seniors, a quarter of the guys, for instance, are still in that state. Even at 22, Rodger was by no means alone. The fact is that a lot of the fraternity guys whom Rodger so envied are virgins too: 32 percent in our survey. Neither was Rodgers so unusual in not having kissed somebody. Almost 20 percent of UCSB students have never done that either.
A lot of the sex that takes place at UCSB is about pleasure, particularly male pleasure, not love. We asked students who had just engaged in a sexual act -- here simply if genitals were in any way involved -- if they loved their partners. Half of them said no. Women were more likely than men to have loved their last sexual partner (59 percent for women; 45 percent for men). Loveless sex is more common in sorority and fraternity houses. The proportion of those who loved their sexual partners was 49 percent for sorority sisters and 31 percent for fraternity brothers. It was precisely this masculine sexual access that so infuriated Rodger. If they could get it, he raged, why couldn't he?
For women, the way that sexual encounters are organized at UCSB, and at most campuses across the country, has some serious deficiencies. The first issue is that most women don't find sex without love to be easy. Only 27 percent of the women said that loveless sex was easy, whereas 51 percent said it was difficult. (And women who say it is easy are often drunk when having it, suggesting it is not easy at all.) Yet that's the kind of sex a lot of them are having. Sorority sisters are no different than other female students. They find it just as difficult, but are having more of it.
The second problem is that in this highly eroticized world, where women are expected to have sex with guys they do not love, is that they are subject to a lot of harassment outside the bedroom and coercion inside it. Thirty-one percent of the female students have been sexually touched or grabbed against their will in the last twelve-months. Eight percent have been subjected to physical coercion by partners trying to get them to do something they did not want to do. While sorority women are no more likely to be subject to sexual coercion, they are subject to much more sexual harassment than women outside the Greek system (43 percent versus 30 percent). It tells you something that all the sororities have installed secure door systems -- keypad and biometric identification -- to get inside. Men are dangerous.
Elliot Rodger's image of heaven is about a place that is not really so heavenly. The fraternity and sorority houses are a center for the hook-up culture. But the truth is that many of the sisters in that Greek world are engaging in acts that are not so easy for them. They do it because they hope it will be a pathway to a relationship. They do it because that is what one does and because certain strands of feminism have instructed them that it ought to be easy and is really to their advantage. Young women, it is argued, are still trapped by the presumption that "good girls" do not feel, let alone act on, their sexual desires. Casual sex, they are told -- see Hanna Rosin's The End of Men -- is an ambitious young woman's best friend. Yet not only are many of the sorority women not getting what they want; they have to pay a price in terms of harassment as participants. They are not alone. Sexual threat affects all women: In another survey of first and second year students at UCSB a few years before, I found that 76 percent of the female students were frightened to walk alone in town because of the possibility of sexual assault.
It is not just with women that lots of men are seeking to prove themselves through sexual conquest; they are also doing it by going up against other men. UCSB turns out to be a place filled with masculine threat. Forty-three percent of its male students have been subjected to verbal threats in the last year. And fifteen percent have been involved in an actual physical fight in that time period. Having a fight is something to do, a way to cap off a night. In this regard, there is no difference between the fraternity brothers and anybody else.
All the gun control, the escort services, physical defense courses, and instruction in women's rights and the social construction of gender are not going to be sufficient to stop these multiplying incidents of male violence against women. Of course, we have to push for punishment of sexual violence as the crime that it is, to take the onus off women whom this sexual culture has made afraid and compliant with its dictates. But the language of civil rights, of every woman's right to control her body, is not enough to deal with the problem at hand. We are in the midst of a sex war in which large numbers of our young -- both women and men -- cannot get what they want. They are taking it out on each other, and themselves. Slut-shaming of women -- often by other women, men's sexual harassment and coercion of women, verbal and physical violence between men, alcoholic excess -- all these are symptoms of a world where men and women are struggling to find their place where the old gender hierarchies and expectations are coming undone, where sex appears to be everywhere and the meaning of manhood and womanhood are up for grabs.
A new deal is required, one that will give each sex the dignity they deserve, that will recognize the pains and pleasures each seeks after. The solutions will not come from us, neither teachers nor parents, but from young people themselves. We cannot provide answers, but we in the university can afford the opportunities for women and men to glimpse each other's intimate existence, with the intellectual materials to think through what they mean, their causes and consequences. Sex and sexism education are not enough. We must deal with the reasons men feel fragile, unable to measure up, must better understand their bodily investment in sex and muscle. We must confront young women's discomfort with the current terms of engagement for access to intimate life. We have to engage both slut- and virgin-shaming. We must protect women, but we must also see if we can help create a world where men are less likely to attack them. It is the viability of the invisible heart, not the conditions of contact of exposed skin or sexual organs, to which we must pay closer attention.
The horror that was Elliot Rodger did not come out of nowhere. Civilization shows up in its ugliest symptoms. One way to honor the memory of those whom he slayed is to critically engage the erotic culture that fed his fantasies and that refused him entry. We must hold up the mirror. There are and will be other Elliot Rodgers out there.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more