“Women ... don’t deserve to have any rights ... [they] are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such,” wrote Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of America’s latest mass shooting, in a twisted manifesto outlining his motives. Rodger went on a killing spree Friday night that left six dead and 13 injured.
Rodger is the most recent in a long string of male mass murderers driven to kill in part by feelings of rejection from women. James Holmes, who killed 12 people in Colorado in 2012, was reportedly rebuffed by three women on a dating website several days prior to that shooting. George Sodini, who was consumed with rage against women and hadn’t had sex in 19 years, killed three women and himself with two legally obtained guns at a Pennsylvania gym in 2009. That same year a Wesleyan University student, Johanna Justin-Jinich, was murdered by a man who had harassed her for years. His original plan was to rape and kill Justin-Jinich, then go on a shooting spree at Wesleyan.
Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 32 people and shot himself in 2007, was accused of harassing two female students in 2005. Neither woman pressed charges, and Cho was not arrested.
In 2001, David Attias drove his Saab into a large crowd in Isla Vista, California (the same town where Rodger’s attack took place), killing four people. He attributed his violence to lack of sexual contact with women.
Two years earlier, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and themselves at Columbine High School. Klebold has been described as “lovelorn.” Harris “did not handle rejection well” and “sometimes became threatening in response to refusals to go out with him.”
In 1989, Marc Lépine murdered 14 women at an engineering school in Montreal with a legally purchased gun, then killed himself, in under 20 minutes. He was carrying a suicide note that claimed women had ruined his life.
Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza’s first victim was his mother.
Even murders not explicitly linked to misogyny — Harris and Klebold had negative experiences with girls but didn’t cite those experiences as motives for the slaughter at Columbine — are often committed by boys or men who feel angry with or abandoned or rejected by women, whether those women are their own mothers, their former or current lovers or simply women who won’t sleep with them.
Too many recent mass killings have been perpetrated by men with grievances against women and legally obtained guns. Easy access to guns enabled Rodger and Holmes and Lanza and Cho and Sodini and Harris and Klebold and Lépine to hurt far more people in a far shorter time than they otherwise could have.
But whether they used guns or other weapons, the trails they left behind suggest that the men who committed these murders blamed women for their problems. Yet these tragedies were greeted with the same crushing defeatism: We’ve seen this before, we’ll see it again and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Why do we feel so disempowered? For two reasons: the outsize influence of the American gun lobby and our deep cultural tolerance of misogyny.
The National Rifle Association blames the American epidemic of gun violence on the lack of a national registry of the mentally ill. The United States has certainly turned its back on people with mental illness. But only the NRA and the senators who back it still have the gall to insist that passing gun control legislation is not a critical step toward stanching the carnage.
The public support is certainly there: 9 out of 10 Americans support expanding background checks on gun purchases, and a 2013 University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant poll found that a majority of Americans favor reinstating the expired ban on assault weapons, requiring background checks for all gun sales, banning certain types of ammunition clips and creating a federal database to track gun sales.
The political will, however, is not. Until our elected officials face political consequences for caving to powerful interests on gun control, our gun laws won’t change. This will require not just consistent pressure from voters but serious campaign finance reform. Big checks speak more loudly than individual voices. As Richard Martinez, the distraught father of one of Rodger’s victims, said, “We don’t have to live like this.” And we should do whatever it takes not to.
Martinez’s child was a young man. Of murders committed in all states but Florida in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, 78 percent of victims were male — and 76 percent of known killers were men. Male rage, so often ignited and fueled by culturally sanctioned misogyny, hurts men, too.
What do I mean by culturally sanctioned misogyny? I mean society’s insistence that women bear responsibility for avoiding male violence. Rather than teaching young men not to rape, we teach young women to avoid being raped (by, among other things, urinating or vomiting on command, not drinking in college and spending money that men don’t have to spend on cabs). Imagine counseling a young man to avoid being sodomized by not walking around his own neighborhood after dark.
It’s the world around us that needs adjusting, not women’s behavior. A 2011 American Association of University Women study found that sexual harassment is part of everyday life at most American middle and high schools (PDF). An April 2014 White House report (PDF) estimates that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted while in college. And according to 2013 data compiled by the World Health Organization, 35 percent of women worldwide have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence.
Any woman who has ever walked down a street — in broad daylight or at night; with friends or alone; in a miniskirt or a burqa — knows what it’s like to feel physically vulnerable. To be a woman is to be at best uncomfortable and at worst terrified — not every day, for the very fortunate, but too often nonetheless.
Men who kill women — and those whose hostility toward women inspires them to kill men and women alike — aren’t all disturbed loner-losers or frustrated virgins (though many spree killers are). Most run-of-the-mill women-killers are husbands, fathers or boyfriends. They have stable, respectable, even high-profile jobs: lawyer, doctor, police officer, professional athlete, soldier. What do they have in common? A bitter sense of having been thwarted as men and a desire to vent their rage and pain on those weaker than they are.
Every time we tell a woman she is overreacting, sympathize with the man (regardless of his guilt) when a woman seeks to hold him accountable for violence, or make excuses for male brutality — she provoked him; she wasn’t a virgin anyway; he didn’t mean it; he’s a good father/brother/son; he won’t do it again — we’re allowing misogyny to flourish.
Most mass murderers do not go from zero to 60. Rodger made escalating assaults on women (splashing coffee on them, attempting to shove them off a ledge) before his killing spree. Both Cho and Justin-Jinich’s murderer harassed women before they killed anyone. When such acts go unnoticed and unpunished — because we expect men to harass women, and it’s not outrageous or even noteworthy when they do — they can become stepping-stones to more conspicuous and less socially acceptable acts of violence.
Not all men are violent. But as a woman, I’m through being blamed by and for those who are. I will not be made a convenient and disposable target for men’s rage.
Earlier this year, a former officer of the New York Police Department fatally shot his wife 10 times in front of their two young children. A neighbor told the New York Post she wasn’t surprised. “They fight all the time,” she said. “I guess it was inevitable.”
Shame on us if we agree.