What’s craziest about the story of the young man who killed six people and himself at UC Santa Barbara over the weekend is not that he was obsessed with sex, or even that he thought he was entitled to it. Reading his 141-page “manifesto” — and the series of YouTube videos he filmed and posted online — what was most surprising was how ordinary his complaint seemed.
Elliot Rodger had never kissed a girl. In a culture of casual sex, he was a virgin — at 22. He was lonely, angry, humiliated, depressed, and also likely struggling with mental illness. He couldn’t understand why others got to have what he didn’t; why girls always seemed to go after the “obnoxious jocks,” not the nice guys like him; why he had to see it all around him — from porn to campus party culture — as if taunting him. He was always missing out.
It was the kind of teen agony that is common enough: garden variety Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And yet when this same young man added to his stream of misery something less ordinary — that he wanted to annihilate what he couldn’t have — it almost seemed like a bluff. Perhaps that’s why, when Rodger vowed to enter the “hottest sorority” at UCSB and “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see” — a boast he laid out in the last of a series of threatening videos posted in the weeks before his death — nobody responded sooner.
In the days since the killings, his mad crusade has launched a vigorous conversation about misogyny and the kind of culture from which a man like Elliot Rodger, so-called “Virgin Killer,” could emerge. It’s sparked a viral protest by way of the #YesAllWomen hashtag, a collective outrage about sexism and violence. And it will likely draw attention to UCSB, a campus fondly known as “University of Casual Sex and Beer.”
But this is also a story about the narrow way we still define what it means to be a man. If Columbine taught us about school bullying in the 1990s, then the brutal killings at UCSB give us a glimpse into the toxic way that failed sex, misogyny and modern masculinity are intertwined.
“To me the central issue is masculinity,” says Jackson Katz, the author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. “Elliot Rodger didn’t come out of nowhere.”
It’s a complicated tale — about culture and privilege, guns and mental health. But it’s also about sex, pornography, and the increased pressure on young men to live up to some mythical “player” status — now amplified in a thousand social updates and dating apps. American college students today may not actually be having more sex than their parents, but it’s easy to see how an isolated young man might perceive the opposite. Like most boys, Rodger described seeing his first porn at age 11. It’s a safe bet that what he learned about sex on the Internet was not the stuff of three-dimensional women.
Part of the issue, say experts, is that while sex is all around us, we still don’t have the language to talk about it — or its impact on the generation who’s grown up in this toxic soup. And so instead of talking, we internalize the messages that are insidious: that sex is our most valuable social currency; that “boys will be boys”; that women are sluts if they put out, prudes if they don’t, and bitches if they object. Women may still be on the losing side of this sexual equation, but men too are not immune. “The message men get, that their number of sex partners is equal to their value as a male, is part of the same patriarchal structure that judges, values and punishes women for their sexual choices,” says Therese Shechter, a filmmaker whose recent documentary, How to Lose Your Virginity –– and its accompanying V-Card Diaries project — takes on the concept of sexual stigma. (The film will air on Fusion in the fall.)
It’s possible that Rodger did hate all women. “They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches,” he wrote. Or maybe his hatred of women was simply what he latched onto in his suffering. What is certain is that Rodger perceived his inability to lose his virginity as his greatest failure, and a failure on the aspect of life on which many men judge themselves most harshly. As he put it: “No one respects a man who is unable to get a woman.”
“This is one place where women have more flexibility than men,” says Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies family and gender dynamics. “Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you man? Maybe it’s violence.”
Most men do not resort to killing sprees, of course. And yet there is something in this terrible story that reveals how anger is frequently the only way that men know to express their depression or frustration. From film to music, we often see images of young men reclaiming lost manhood through spectacular violence. Combine that with a mentally unstable mind, access to guns and a campus culture that revolves around sex, and the result was tragic.
“In a horrible, totally twisted way, when young men act out like this, they are doing what the culture says that boys should do when they’re angry,” says Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World.
The reality is that we don’t spend enough time helping men learn how to navigate the new world order.
Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.