Thoughts On #YesAllWomen And Agency

On Friday 23rd May in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, a young man murdered six people and injured seven others, in an attack which he claimed was retribution against the women who had ignored and rejected him all his life, against the men they chose instead. In the aftermath, two familiar arguments were suddenly in the public spotlight again. One, that of gun control, is a particularly American issue, and I’ll leave it aside, saying only; obviously have controls on guns. Obviously. The second issue brought up by the murders, that of violence directed at women, is a more global phenomenon. There is a certain narrative which couches Elliot Rodger’s actions as aberration, which is interested as seeing him as only the unknowable lunatic; unfortunately this is neither accurate nor helpful. Certainly, mental health issues have played a role in the tragedy. Rodger’s family was concerned about him and various professionals, including law enforcement officials, had been in contact with him prior to the attack. There were clearly failures. To consider this the sum total of the incident, however, does a disservice to Rodger’s victims, as well as the victims of others who share his ideology.

Make no mistake, Elliot Rodger adhered to an ideology. His world-view required sexual gratification in order to measure his personal worth. In his videos he made explicit reference to feeling “pathetic” because he was still a virgin, because of repeated rejections by women as a whole. Further, he could not understand the rejection, because, in his own mind, he met some set of criteria that entitled him to sex. He considered himself the consummate gentleman and thus that it was his absolute right to be sexually and personally gratified. Female bodies are explicitly codified as being a – or rather, the – source of pleasure which will fulfil him. In this context, the man cannot be fully realised because women refuse to provide what he is fully entitled to. Denied this affirmation, Rodger’s frustration manifested in violence. His final video, Retribution, might make reference to humanity, but it also more specifically targets women, “the hottest sorority”, those who rejected him, as those deserving of his anger. The men who prefigure in his revenge are the undeserving recipients of that which was rightfully his; namely, the bodies and pleasure provided by women.

This ideology is not something that Elliot Rodger plucked wholesale from the ether, nor is he one of a small coterie of adherents living on the fringes of decent society. Rather, he is the worst-case scenario of what happens when Western culture’s rigid gender roles reach crisis. Capitalist commodification and that pervading brand of lazy, uncritical media conflate to perpetuate, if not actively, consciously reinforce easy and controlled definitions of normative sexuality. This is the narrative that produces phrases such as “boys will be boys” and seeks to excuse predatory male behaviour as something “we all do”, when we know it is not. It is the same culture that seeks to silence female experience of the consequences of male social privileges. Rodger was – all of us have been – sold a vision of gender relations that gives primacy to male identity, where our role is to ‘win’ female affection as part of the image of heteronormative actualisation. The criteria for proving may have evolved from bride-stealing, but the result is the same; women are a commodity for men, an object to provide social and person affirmation, as well as sexual pleasure. Women are sold as inherently requiring a man; all the male actor must do is prove capable of fulfilling the prerequisite criteria. He is then entitled to affection; from a woman, any woman, all women.

Women, in Elliot Rodger’s world, betrayed the prevalent social framework and thus were the deserving victims of his revenge. Rather than unfathomable, his actions should be viewed as the logical extension of any misogynistic ideology that privileges the male role in society over and above the female. When a woman is no longer entitled to her own physical agency, because she chooses to drink, or wear particular clothes, or any other excuse, we are codifying the attitudes which create future Elliot Rodgers. His behaviour is that of an ideological extremist, someone for whom the ability to control and oppress women is a right, as much a zealot as suicide bombers in the Middle East or dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Laurie Penny writes more fully on the topic here. His philosophy might be considered social, rather than political, but there is no denying his inherent radicalisation, manifested in massacre. Elliot Rodger should not be simply considered a violent madman, but the poster-boy for male sexual entitlement and violence, the misogynist terrorist, now martyred for his cause.

Consider the scenario. A man approaches a woman; directly or indirectly, he attempts to begin a conversation, desiring sexual or personal gratification. The woman is uninterested. He responds to her rejection with anger. This is the Elliot Rodger story, but it is also one that virtually none of the women I know are unfamiliar with. Delving into my own personal experience I can think of infinite occasions where one of my female friends had me pretend to be a boyfriend in order to deflect the unwanted attention of aggressive, relentless men. I have done this for virtual strangers as well, because for many men, a women’s agency is irrelevant, her refusal negotiable. Only another man’s presence requires respect. When I was fifteen, taking a bus, a guy decided he wanted to sit beside my friend. He was in his mid-twenties, she was fifteen. Obviously, she wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of sharing the bus journey with a rather drunk and aggressive man, growling that that I’m in his way. He dragged me out of the seat, many punches were exchanged, he bit my face, my friend reefed a load of his hair out trying to get him off me and then it was over and that was that. Sometimes, when I tell this story, I tell a story about me, but it’s not, is it? It’s a story about how on a specific occasion, a specific fifteen-year old girl was lucky enough not to have to sit beside a creepy, violent man. It’s about how her personal agency was not enough of a barrier, and another (male) body had to be. How often do you think fifteen-year old girls are trapped in that situation?

I hope that is an extreme example, although within the context of the Elliot Rodger’s story, it becomes considerably more benign. Examples of a lesser order teem however. Only a few months ago I was leaving a fairly well-known Dublin pub with three female friends. Two guys had been hitting on them, and were sort of nonplussed that we had decided to leave. The girls had gone just ahead while I put on my jacket and one of the guys grabbed me, demanding that I “share”. In his mind, I was hoarding these women to myself, denying him and his friend something they were socially entitled to. Their opinion of the matter was secondary to mine, and indeed, his. These may be familiar examples, but they are also cherry-picked from a litany of examples in my rather male life. There is no doubting that the female experience of these kinds of events is both different and infinitely more prolific.

Within days of the Isla Vista massacre, the #YesAllWomen tag exploded on Twitter. It is a continuing litany of the failure of our social structures to deal with male privilege, and to hear female voices. It is remarkable the degree to which men (including myself) are unaware of the daily, grinding degree of sexism women toil through. The #YesAllWomen tag is a platform through which women can express, and are expressing, a universal experience; that they have been, at some point, treated like an object by a man, like their only value was in their sexual significance, and most worryingly, as if their own agency was of secondary importance to that of a man. Many men continue to view consent as a negotiation, refusal as an obstacle to be circumvented, others still that the strictures of consent do not apply equally to all levels of physical contact. Some men are “just handsy”, runs the excuse; it is a hazard women expect to encounter. If the thread is a useful mechanism for women to let each other know they are not alone in their experiences, it can also be a harrowing object-lesson in reality for men.

Predictably, the response from men has not been all positive. Firstly, most obviously, a deep swell of misogyny arose to greet it. There are any number of posts suggesting women must simply “suck it up”, “learn to live with it”, or worse, literally blaming women for the Isla Vista murders, suggesting that if one of them had just slept with Rodger, none of this would have happened. Remembering the reaction to Caroline Criado-Perez’s attempts to have a woman represented on British banknotes, we should note that the issue of women’s representation, and the violence and anger with which it will be opposed, has not significantly changed. Lewis’s Law, suggesting “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”, applies to the response directed at the #YesAllWomen campaign; that fact that there are those who reject the right of women to express their lived experience, who would reduce it to “whinging” or “attention-seeking”, inherently remind us why it needs to exist.

Perhaps equally as predictable is the common refrain of #NotAllMen. This tag makes the suggestion that women, for highlighting their experience, seek to tear down men as a totality, that the chosen form of expression borders on misandry, of all things, because it does not actively, at all moments reassure that not all men are encompassed in their complaints. At its most extreme it operates in total opposition to a chosen form of female expression, mocks, undercuts and denigrates it; at best it is a wilful misunderstanding of female experience, and an immature response to the merest hint of personal criticism. It is men crying, “But not me, right!?” instead of actively hearing and engaging with the lived female reality. In a sense, at a moment of social significance for women, men are demanding, not merely to be heard, but to be affirmed by women. Sounds familiar, right? Women are firmly aware that not all men are misogynistic, abusive monsters. Many women consider us to be loyal friends, worthy peers and equal partners. How frustrating then, to have their attempt at honest communication of real experience met with demands for personal exemptions and affirmations, denials and protests, rather than with understanding, empathy, engagement or the desire to improve either the self or society. Make no mistake, men have a profound responsibility in the project to improve the social space women inhabit. We have been, for the longest time, the gatekeepers, and there are those of us who are vehemently opposed to giving up that privilege.

Following on from the debacle surrounding Janelle Asselin’s completely correct comments on a Teen Titan comic cover, Andy Khouri wrote a call-to-arms for men, not just in the comic book industry, but in wider society, to end the gatekeeping which seeks to silence and denigrate women’s voices, particularly in previously male-dominated spaces. Chief among his suggestions is the idea that men must take active responsibility for the kinds behaviour that is tolerated in their social sphere, not just their own individual actions. Rather than telling women “Not all men”, we men need to say to other men “That’s not acceptable.” We need to hear women when they are telling us it is unacceptable to direct certain behaviour at them. We need to be listening, not asking to be assured that we are “not one of those guys”, and perhaps most importantly, we – I – must be ready to push over on the stage, so that women also have their opportunity to be heard.