“Dissecting Elliot Rodgers: Gendered Death, Racial Confusion, and Entitlement” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

“Men do not naturally, not love. They learn not to…” Matt Bomer as Felix Turner, The Normal Heart

Entitlement and Gender Discourse Inclusion
I wasn’t going to write about Santa Barbara because I can’t always keep up in this blog with world events, but when I saw that people were still discussing it I figured I’d respond. More than that, I really had some things to say that I’m not hearing discussed. But before I get started, I should say why I’m writing this article. It has to do with a couple of things my readers know I’m passionate about. First, I’m not a fan of the way we talk about gender. Counter to popular opinion, gender is not solely women’s space. Many of the activists that were vocal about this issue discuss it as if gender and gendered violence is exclusively a woman’s issue…and the entitlement and arrogance of that has been, at times, problematic (I discuss this later in ways that’ll make your head spin). Men also accept this assumption and are often castigated for not getting involved in gender discussions, or “mansplaining” when they do–but men need to get involved with gendered discourses and make our own space because we, too, are gendered beings. And we may come to different conclusions than others, but that need not immediately mean that we’re “wrong.” It may just mean we don’t share opinions. Nothing more. We need to move beyond our fear of invading women’s spaces and advocate for our lived experiences as gendered beings, joining women’s struggle for gender equity/justice while advocating for our own–especially as Black men. We must articulate that we’re not just vicious creatures incapable of accepting our privilege, incapable of addressing gendered violence, or incapable of love. Black Masculinism, as advocated by this blog, doesn’t presuppose or assume men’s innocence (or benevolent humanity) in any given situation, but does seek to outline and highlight men’s experiential narratives, ultimately highlighting men’s humanity–whether inspirational or problematic.

As we grapple with such things, we may point out our own truths from our own subject-positions–at times contradicting popular opinion (an endeavor I think is sometimes needed). Second, advocating for men need not be defined as encouraging the oppression of women. There’s enough room to discuss men’s needs without framing male advocates as misogynous. We can be (just as women can be misandrous), but there are also those of us who find merit in pushing for men’s and women’s rights, recognizing that we each have distinct areas of need. Third, on the June 9th radio show on KPFK, host Sonali Kolhatkar discussed gender with author of Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit. The subject, as you can tell, was “’Mansplaining,’ the sexist phenomenon [of men dominating conversations and denying women’s intelligence] that is one end of a spectrum, on the other end of which is physical violence against women.” So here, men’s only relationship to gender discourse is either as domineering jerks, abusers, or rapists. What!?

They also talked about the audacity of a male explaining feminism to a female. As a professor, I know gender experiences (and the history of gender activism) are not biologically inherited. Often in my classes, students (and yes, even female students) haven’t been introduced to gender activism. The assumption that females inherently just “know” about gender is irresponsible, and to suggest that men should not engage the matter is equally so, especially as many males are made to feel like they have no place in gender discussions as it is…but more so, the underlying assumption is that men don’t belong in gender discourses. Fourth, as activists took on the Nigerian incident (that incidentally few still talk about) and the Santa Barbara killings, it became common place to tell men how they should advocate for gender issues. In essence, the entitlement therein to define men’s roles in gender discourse and activism is alarming, considering the great lengths feminists have gone, to carve out independent space, just to turn around and deny others’ agency? Naaa. Some of us need to grow up (a suggestion brilliantly articulated by Rafia Zakaria when thinking about globalizing our gendered activism). Lastly, I do not believe in a men versus women dynamic. I advocate for a men and women dynamic, where advocating for one need not negate the other.

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Elliot Rodgers, Misandry, and Ideal White Masculinity
Recently, one Elliot Rodgers of Isla Vista, CA, decided to go on a killing spree because he was frustrated about not being able to lose his virginity. He was a misogynist bent on killing women in response to not having a beautiful White girlfriend. Or at least that’s what we say. Actually, he was frustrated that his apparent whiteness and family’s subsequent wealth hadn’t yielded him the social rewards he believed came with visible whiteness, maleness, and privilege. But this is one of the two biggest misconceptions about Rodgers’ rage that went underanalyzed, issues of whiteness-as-social-currency and his rage and jealousy of other men of color who seemingly attained greater social status because of their approximation to whiteness.

Rodgers’ apparent misogyny was actually secondary to both his desire to attain symbols of white social status (and respect) and his own misandry. In other words, Rodgers wasn’t as angry about not having women as he was about not having what he imagined came with having female trophies…idealized White masculinity. How do I know these were more a priority? It’s not based on his video rants or his 141-page “manifesto,” but based on his actions. Rodgers’ actions, despite their interpretations, were telling. First, he killed more men than women. He said quite a bit about women, but this report cites that he also said quite a bit about his frustrations toward

men of color. Rodgers stabbed three men to death with a knife. Their names were: Cheng Yuan “James” Hong, 20; George Chen, 19 Weihan “David” Wang, 20. He then went on to shoot three others, one Latino man, and two Caucasian women. Yet people fail to realize that ultimately, Rodgers killed 5 men of color (including himself) and two females. And yes, even his suicide is relevant to gender discussions. Suicide amongst men of color is serious. For example, for African American men in 2007:

ф 1,958 African Americans completed suicide in the U.S. Of these, 1,606 (82%) were males.

ф From 1981-1994, the suicide rate increased 83% for 15-24 year old African American males and 10% for African American females.

ф Males accounted for 90.5% of African American elderly (65 and older) suicides. In essence, women attempt suicide far more often than men, but men complete it in far greater numbers. (*American Association of Suicidology, “African American Suicide Fact Sheet.”)

Along with his suicide, there is also the issue of Rodgers’ internalized oppression. Rodgers was half Asian and seemed to have a special disdain for Asian men negotiating acceptance in White society. Consistent with many pockets of oppressed communities, he not only failed to challenge this dynamic, he sought to assimilate by any means (seeing Asian men seemed to stir in him a hatred of any reminder of his own non-White maleness–this would be both self-misandry and internalized oppression).

Now what about his hatred towards women (misogyny)? His online rants were shockingly evident, but what happens when you have both misogyny and misandry? Simple. Misanthropy (a hatred of human beings). I know. I hate it when people seem to water things down to a point where they have no meaning, but bear with me. Rodgers seemed to hate women above all else, but his actions illustrated a greater hatred for men of color.

Am I trying to avoid his misogyny because I want to avoid women’s assertions that men, male culture, and masculinity are inherently anti-female and anti-feminist? Naaa. I have no problem admitting when such things occur, and when men are complicit–because we can be. But as a scholar I’ve often found that easy conclusions are antithetical to rational thought. Yes…it’s easier to say that: 1) Rodgers hated all women, 2) Rodgers is reflective of male culture (and the Men’s Rights Movement) in that they represent an institutionally-sanctioned hatred of everything female, and 3) Rodgers’ male pundits are mostly escapist and inherently patriarchal. As with anything else, things are a bit more complicated than this. For one thing, I argue that even amongst intellectuals, believing is seeing. In other words, we tend to only see the beliefs we invest in a priori.

If you believe 1-3 above, then you’ll only find confirmation of each on a daily basis, and this article will just seem to be defending patriarchy. As for me, I believe that male culture is comprised of more elements than misogyny and hatred of women. There are too many men who sacrifice themselves for women and girls, often invisibly so. I’ve seen too many who refuse to debase women, who challenge other men to respect women in a myriad of ways, and who peacefully request that men’s issues (be they health, culture, media, or policy-related) be taken seriously while not taking away from women’s needs. But how do you quantify protection, respect, and sacrifice statistically? How would you measure it against every act of violence against women?

And what about popular opinion? When I stood with a woman outside a hotel waiting for the shuttle to the airport 4 months ago (and know that I didn’t know her, we had just said hello a couple of times in the past couple of days), yet she trusted me more than the stranger standing with us. How do you measure that? Does that make the evening news? Had I left and the other guy assaulted her, would that be newsworthy? Had he attacked her and I defended her, would that be remembered as two men being the initiators of violence? What if I were mugged instead of her? Would my need for protection be regarded? From strangers who do such things to fathers who sacrifice for their daughters, how do we make grand and sweeping statements about men and not account for their sacrifices?

To be clear, Rodgers was not one of these men. He felt that others failed to pay him his entitled bounty for supplying his part of America’s race/gender social contract. Simply put, he looked the part and he drove the right car, so he should’ve had a pretty girlfriend, right? In other words, Rodgers wasn’t entirely off about the social contract we have, we just aren’t supposed to murder people when we don’t get our way. In truth, men in America are given respect and status based on their whiteness (or at least their approximation of it), wealth, and expected, performed masculine norms. Men are rewarded for their objectification of conventionally pretty women. The reward is access to them as status symbols (trophies), and whether one feels like participating in this crap or not, we are all complicit in different ways at different times. And don’t get it twisted, there are plenty of women who participate in the contract, playing a range of roles; Rodgers wasn’t wrong about this happening, he just didn’t understand that you can’t approach a social contract like a liquor store transaction. Just because you think you paid for something (or are entitled to it), doesn’t mean you just get what you want off of some shelf. And if you have psychological issues that others can readily detect (apparently his roommates had been trying to move out because of his behavior), people will likely run from you no matter what kind of car you own.

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I write this while taking my son to see Maleficent. I am in the theatre right now. My son is enjoying a film with a slight look of confusion he won’t understand for quite a few years. [SPOILER] Here’s a story about an innocent, magical fairy (female) who is victimized and attacked by every human male in the film. The only acceptable man was a man that she “made” herself. All the other men represented death. There was no such thing as true love except between women, and only women could be virtuous. Even a father’s desire and sacrifice to protect his family is really just veiled ambition and a relentless desire to exploit women. By the way, there was one Black male in the film (to avoid a lawsuit most likely), but he fails at his task and is smacked and emasculated by his White master for doing so… {{exhale smh}}.

Alright, I’ve written my thoughts on Disney films on this blog before, and as of yet, my son has still not seen himself on screen, so I won’t rehash that. But why mention this here when discussing a crazed, spree killer? Put simply, the expectations and rules about gender performance in 2014 are confusing as hell. And there will be many who will rely on oversimplified narratives to make sense of it (like a man who will accept all of your idiosyncrasies, pay all of your bills, follow you everywhere, propose to you when you are perfectly ready, and offer you no frustration until you both die of old age). We’ve all been sold a fake bill of goods in regard to social contracts. Women are told (often in these Disney flicks) that their social contracts (knights on white horses who’ll come as long as they’re not too promiscuous, dress right, act right, look good enough, and cater to men) will be guaranteed as long as they fulfill their side of the bargain… Sound familiar? Many of us are unhappy with our relationship status these days. We’re unhappy because we expect something different, we expect the social contract. And I hate to say this, but most people’s expectations are not far from Rodgers.’

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Angels, Demons, and Perfectionism
The problem for me is our cultural predilection for binary perfections/imperfections. In other words, we Americans have a tendency to place things in an innocent/aggressor dynamic far too often (doing so makes future dissatisfaction somewhat inevitable). For the sake of protecting women, women (as a socially-constructed category) become faultless and benevolently madonnas…while their perceived opposition, men, become irredeemable, violent rapists who advocate for women’s exploitation (therefore men become the whores in this “Madonna/Whore”–or “Madonna/Ted Bundy”–dynamic). This has happened with every social movement that privileges those who’ve been historically oppressed. Western consumers are relentless in our desire for pure heroes and irredeemable villains. For example, Maya Angelou’s recent passing has led to the construction of her as an idyllic, iconic figure. Predictably, parts of her life that don’t paint her as a saint are being swept under the rug (Angelou once served as sex worker). But why should this take away from Angelou’s value as a brilliant author, filmmaker, poet, and professor? It shouldn’t. The woman was brilliant regardless of some parts of her past, and in truth, those parts may have been essential to developing the wise artist she was… And if not Dr. Angelou’s, whose past would hold up under global scrutiny? No one’s. So in this brewing battle between feminists and men’s rights activists, my life experience tells me the natural balance is likely nowhere in the extremes.

We also don’t know how to respectfully disagree with one other, even when we share political values. On June 8th, Melissa Harris-Perry cited statistics about rape and gendered violence on her show where she said, among other things, “100% of rapes of adult women were committed by men.” Hmmm. Ok, so that means that there was a year when not one woman was raped by another woman? Uuuuhalright… Yet few men would question this because they fear being labeled patriarchal. Yet recent reports (the article this links to is the source for the bullet points below) suggest that our assumptions about gender and violence are askew. In fact:

ф More men are raped in the U.S. than women, according to figures that include sexual abuse in prisons.

ф In 2008, it was estimated that 216,000 inmates were sexually assaulted while serving time, according to Department of Justice figures (also see conversation below in comments section in my response to “Bernie”). That is compared to 90,479 rape cases outside of prison.

ф The report found incidents of women prison staff assaulting male prisoners, and other reports suggesting 92% of male youth prisoners reporting having been victimized with sexual misconduct by a female prison guard (see Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2008-9, p. 13).

ф According to official statistics on rape conviction rates, the U.S. Bureau of Justice said 91 percent of the victims were women and 99 percent of the perpetrators were men, [but this doesn’t account for victims and perpetrators, just who got arrested and convicted for it]. Just 9% of accusations made by men resulted in a conviction.

ф Also, in 2011-2012, more women than men and more Whites than Blacks committed higher [rates of] inmate-on-inmate sexual assault.

ф Lastly, sexual misconduct by prison staff was committed more so against men (and Blacks) than any other demographics.

Yet despite these startling statistics, the Madonna/”Ted Bundy” binary is still employed in our descriptions of gendered violence. And although Elliot Rodgers may be a “Ted Bundy,” his killing spree was also an opportunity to study the myriad ways that gendered violence and race work in our public imagination. Instead we isolated the issue to one gender’s experience. Then, we suggested that no woman is safe anywhere and all men were misogynists and potential rapists. The reality is all violence is gendered violence, as all people involved have a gender (publicly accepted or not). It is irresponsible to leave the experiences of males out, and more so, to demonize how we conceptualize males.

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I once worked with troubled young males, mostly Black and Puerto Rican, back in the mid-1990s. Of the few professional resources made available to them, no one thought to ask whether they had been sexually violated. Out of a group of roughly 20, 1/3 admitted to me they had been sexually violated, by men and women. Family members, authority figures, teachers, supervisors, administrators, etc. Of the few that attempted to report their experiences, they were laughed out of police stations and isolated from friends who merely thought they “got some.” It made me wonder how many more would never say it out loud (a good friend in his 70s admitted his rape experience to me, stating that he hadn’t told anyone but me in the 50-odd years since). Male sexual victimization is far more common than we think. It not only occurs in prisons and with youth, but also in war. Wartime rape of men occurs in countries in Africa and such places as Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. In fact, “Twenty-one per cent of Sri Lankan males who were seen at a London torture treatment centre reported sexual abuse while in detention. In El Salvador, 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in the 1980s described at least one incidence of sexual torture. A study of 6,000 concentration-camp inmates in Sarajevo found that 80% of men reported having been raped… The research by Lara Stemple at the University of California cites a review of 4,076 non-governmental organizations that have addressed wartime sexual violence, and only 3% of them even mentioned male rape.” Female rape is significantly underreported and male rape almost never.

As a survivor of childhood rape, sexual assault, and school/workplace sexual-harassment myself (by a male, a female, two female professors–undergrad and grad, and later a female supervisor who unsuccessfully attempted to coerce me to provide sex or lose my job), how dare someone take ownership of my pain, untold male’s tragic experiences, and a global phenomenon? As for my students, they were emotionally traumatized and thus took to violence at a young age (I wonder, where does this fit in the hashtag #YesAllWomen?). Their biggest problem? There was no narrative for men of color victims of sexual assault–(especially by women of color). So in essence, they continue to be ignored. There is a critical investment in the idea of men as the monolithic sexual perpetrator class. For most men, admitting to sexual victimization highlights their emasculation, and thus is a stigma. For some feminists, male rape detracts from resources that might be earmarked for victimized women.*

It is because of these types of experiences that we need to broaden our conceptualizations of gendered violence beyond the scope of just a woman’s problem. Men need to be involved in gender discourses in a more robust fashion than they are, they need to work with women to achieve gender equity and social justice, while advocating for their own subject positions. Men and women need to challenge rhetoric on gender that is problematic, dehumanizing, and demonizing from any source, and ultimately, include their own experiences with gendered violence, finding space for males of all ages in the discussion.

#NewBlackMasculinities

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Notes
*An example would be “the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 that treats wartime sexual violence as something that only impacts on women and girls… Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced $44 million to implement this resolution. Because of its entirely exclusive focus on female victims, it seems unlikely that any of these new funds will reach the thousands of men and boys who suffer from this kind of abuse.”

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4 thoughts on ““Dissecting Elliot Rodgers: Gendered Death, Racial Confusion, and Entitlement” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. I am very sorry to hear of your childhood traumatic experiences. No one should ever experience this kind of pain, and I do agree that male survivors have been treated as invisible for too long, which does increase the stigma for boys and men to talk about their experiences.

    I am curious as to how you feel when white people explain black issues, or when a white person tells a black person what the black experience is really about?

  2. Hello Dr Johnson,
    In reading this blog post, I noticed a couple errors in reporting the facts from the article regarding prison rape. I’m having a hard time finding where it says there were 216k ‘males’ sexually assaulted in prison. That 216k seems to include both men and women, based on the source data through the links.
    Also, can you explain why you think it’s relevant to compare prison rape to non-prison rape, as they happen in very different environments, and not really comparable straight across the board. I guess one could state one is more likely to be raped in an environment with near 100% convicted criminals than an environment with a much smaller percent criminal population.

    Thanks,
    Bernie Smith

    1. Thanks for the question Bernie. First, the 216,000 inmates sexually assaulted is an estimate based in the Prevalence of Prison Rape and Sexual Abuse chart, 2008 from the Department of Justice (DOJ). It doesn’t clearly state that it only applies to men, however there a couple of things that give us perspective: first, the study it references interviewed 34,000 inmates, and found that approximately 20,500 experienced rape (about 60% of the sample). From there, they extrapolate their estimates to the total population of inmates. In 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million inmates in the US, and approximately 7% of those were females (93% were male according to the DOJ’s “Prisoners in 2008”). Also, it wasn’t until 2013 that the FBI accounted for their definition of rape’s overwhelming slant toward the heterosexual rape of women by men (“Rape is the carnal knowledge of a woman’s body…”). When accounting for men’s experiences, more recent studies indicate that men experience rape, sexual abuse, bi-directional intimate partner violence, etc., at nearly similar to the rates as women. When accounting for new data on the prevalence of sexual violence and rape in prison (a number often ignored when numbering incidents of rape in the US), this number goes up considerably when added to the total number of rapes in the US, particularly due to the disparity in incarceration rates of men vs. women.

      As far as why I relate prison rape to non-prison rape, I do so because it’s rape. Period. But also, too often are men’s experiences dismissed to highlight women’s experiences. This is not necessary, and it should not take away from the urgency of addressing women’s rape, but it also shouldn’t have to be at the expense of those of us who have experienced sexual assault/rape. Our stories should matter too.

      But I must admit I find the subtext of your question offensive because it implies that 1) men don’t matter, and 2) that male prisoners (“convicted criminals”) are inherently more sexually violent just because they’re men (yet many are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, and many more for non-sexually related crimes; also ignoring data that suggests that female prisoners actually experience rape in “all-female prisons” at higher rates than imprisoned men–6.9% vs. 1.7%!–according to the DOJ’s Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12).

      In essence, if sexual violence is not tolerable for some of us, it shouldn’t be tolerable for any of us.

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