The appalling events in Isla Vista (California), in which a gunman killed seven people, have already caused shock and outrage across the media. The killer appears to have left a Youtube video behind in which he blames women for rejecting him sexually, and declares his intention to kill women in a sorority house. There are also suggestions that he was active in the online forums of Men’s Rights groups such as PUAHate, bolstering the link which is often made by feminist analysts between the rhetoric of Men’s Rights Activists and violence against women. (The civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Centre have already classified the Men’s Rights movement as containing hate groups.)
This is only the most recent and most dramatic instance of men’s violence against women, an epidemic documented by Karen Ingala Smith and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, alongside many others. It provides the most explicit and most concrete link we have set seen between the language of male entitlement and specific acts of murder. The video being examined by police is perfectly clear about the motivation for these actions, which in many ways merely carry out the logical results of the hate to be seen in Spearhead, A Voice For Men and other MRA sites. This young man felt entitled to women’s bodies, and when some women refused to give him what he perceived as his due, he committed violence upon the bodies of other women. It is an almost mathematical outworking of the idea that women owe men attention, time, sex and affection. That their bodies belong to men, dead or alive. And that those bodies are an interchangeable group: he didn’t regard it as necessary to kill the women he felt had spurned him, just as he didn’t consider that individual women might have had their own reasons for not wanting to date him.
It is not only in extremist sites like Spearhead that these views can be found, however. As Helen Lewis remarked on Twitter, watching the video is like “reading the subtext of a thousand comment sections”. The rage at women’s autonomy which found its horrific expression in this murder spree can be found throughout our culture, in rape jokes and snide remarks about women. It has its parallels in the sexualised abuse and rape threats emailed to women who have the gall to appear in public and give their opinions on politics, or even to wield political power. Or indeed the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, in which female engineering students were murdered for taking their place in higher education.
Much more insightful commentators than me have traced the continuum between misogyny and violence, and these awful events will prompt more analysis. These killings must and will be related to the waves of violence against women and girls which wash through our culture, and hopefully the overt form they took will highlight the many less discussed murders which are shrugged off as “a domestic gone wrong” or “a family tragedy”. Men’s perceived right to control women, even to the extent of taking their life away, is too often obscured by the newspaper language of “love obsession” or “family breakdown”, “murder-suicide” and perhaps this case may shed some light on what really causes so many deaths. Maybe the form which this took, involving a drive-by shooting and a pre-planned video, will awaken parallels with terrorism, and encourage people to see men’s violence against women in the context of a loosely organized and ideologically-driven system of terror.
I want to pick up on one particular aspect, however: the way the events in Isla Vista must be understood as a men’s issue. This might appear entirely paradoxical, since the murder of women for being women is the very definition of a women’s issue. But the rage and hatred which we find expressed in that video is channelled by a sense that this is what being a man means. The speaker in the clip refers to how he is “the perfect gentleman” and how women chose “obnoxious brutes” over him. He will become, he declares “the alpha male” by killing women. His own explanation of these actions involves the way it will position him as a man. His grievance is tied up with his resentment at what other men apparently receive, and how that affects his sense of himself.
As a man it is easy, and tempting, to express revulsion and scorn for the killer. What he did was utterly abhorrent, and his justification for it reveals him as a repulsive, inadequate failure of a human being. But men should not hurry to reassure themselves that because they have no trouble talking to women, because they lead more balanced lives and because they are not hateful towards women, that they are totally cut off from this man. All men benefit from the assumption that women owe them time, admiration and love. All men have their lives made easier and simpler by the pervasive misogyny and sexism in our society. We cannot claim an exemption that because we are pleasant men who wish women well, that our success as men is not partially based upon the oppression of women.
More particularly we cannot dismiss this killer as a failure of masculinity whilst using our own “success” in that area to make ourselves feel better and different. Because that is exactly what he thought. These killings were addressed to other men as well as to women. They were intended, in whatever twisted way, to mark him out as a successful man. If we rush to point him out as a loser, as a loner, who “just needed to get out and get laid” we validate his own claims. We imply that he was indeed trying to be more like us. Instead we need to think seriously about how masculinity is defined and validated in the world around us. We need to look at how often in films or media being a successful man is equated with controlling women, or committing violence upon them. We need to reflect soberly on how our own status as men is underwritten by that ideology, and how our lives are informed by it. We cannot dismiss this man as a “failure as a man”. That is exactly what he thought.