I’ve been reading, trying to digest everything that’s being said in the wake of this Elliot Rodgers mess. I had to explain it to my dad, that a man killed some women for not having sex with him, and that other men on the internet thought he had the right idea. I had to see his face as he connected the dots about the world his daughter is living in. Then I had to explain the “not all men,” the ones who refuse to see what’s really happening because they’re too busy trying to exonerate themselves.
The “not all men” defense is a man’s plea for you to tell him that he’s “one of the good ones,” absolving him of his own questionable behavior, asserting that his nice guy-ness gets a pass, and reassuring him he still deserves the entitlement fantasy. It’s the “Some of my best friends are black” card in the misogyny debate–the guilty conscience sleight-of-hand meant to draw attention away from whatever very real and harmful actions one is committing.
I picked two movies at random to watch on Netflix last night. One was Paranoia with Liam Hemsworth, the other The Frozen Ground with John Cusack and Nick Cage. This pair of 2013 releases accurately portrays both ends of the male entitlement spectrum–Paranoia features an ambitious young man willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, including breaking the law and betraying family and friends. By engaging in bold (and illegal!) acts of corporate espionage and deceiving the woman he comes to love, he wins a successful career, a happy family life and gets the girl, in spite of the fact that he spends the majority of the movie lying to her face. In The Frozen Ground, John Cusack plays a middle-aged white male with a family and successful business. He is well-liked in his community, but feels emasculated and threatened by women, so he kidnaps, rapes, and kills approximately 17 women and girls in a twisted display of his own power. The kicker one of these is based on a true story.
So go ahead and tell me that “not all men” are misogynists, and “not all men” are serial killers; I’ve met men and lived to tell about it, so I already know that.
Why is it not helpful to say “not all men are like that”? For lots of reasons. For one, women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them. Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. —Phil Plait
I shouldn’t have to justify my credibility in this debate with anecdotes about the time a guy followed me to my car in an empty parking lot at 3am (even though I parked under the only light-post like I was taught), or about the guy who licked my tattoo because it looks like it has some visible vagina action, or about every time I get called a bitch or slut for ignoring catcalls in the street (they’re compliments, slut! How else can you interpret, “I’d like to shove my dick in that juicy ass”?), or about how I can’t simply say I’m not interested when a guy is too forward at a bar–he won’t back off until he hears I’m married, someone else’s property (“It’s a shame you have a husband.” It is?). Or how about the time a guy offered to let me taste his beer three different times, all while not drinking from it himself (probably not roofies!)? Or times I had to call my husband because I felt unsafe and wanted to be on the phone with him as I walked to wherever I was going? And these are just a sampling of my own encounters, and I’m just one of billions of women dealing with these issues.
Obviously not all men are serial rapists and murderers. Obviously not all men dehumanize women and treat them like objects or commodities. But the fact that some do irreparably tarnishes male interactions with me, and with the majority of other women. This is in your control, “not all men.” If you don’t want to be lumped in with misogynists and crazies, take a stand against them. Start by acknowledging that they exist and are very real threat to the women that you know and love, or want to know and love. Your voice matters. Using it to say that not all men are dangerous is a waste. Use it to make certain, otherwise your voice is just one more in a string of defenses that don’t make women feel any safer walking to our cars at night.
“Not all men” isn’t just hostility against women, either–it’s hostility against men too. By trying to flaunt “Alpha male” superiority and being unable to acknowledge the value of other men, these OKCupid-level nice guys are demonstrating explosive vulnerability. It’s not the kind that leads to intimacy, but rather the kind that leads to hostility, like a cornered animal lashing out.
In less tangible but still damaging instances, this can take the form of rants about the “Friendzone,” suggesting that once a man finds out a lady isn’t going to sleep with him, it retroactively makes all the time spent being friends a waste of his time. The implication is his time holds more value than hers, because she has time to make friends just for the sake of friendship. It also clearly defines that what’s of value in women isn’t their personality or companionship (things we’re supposed to salivate over in “nice guys”), but rather their ability to provide sex on demand. Because he’s been her shoulder to cry on every time “some asshole” hurt her, the self-anointed “nice guy” has proven his worth, and when it turns out basic human decency isn’t the coin of the vaginal realm, he grows angry at the dumb sluts who reject him, and the stupid assholes she’s fucking instead.
In rarer but more severe cases, we end up with Elliot Rodgers, taking it a step further by deciding these men and women deserve to die at his hand for failing to recognize and fulfill his entitlement.
The fact that it’s necessary to include the risk of hostility against other men in order to get men to care about the situation is a big part of the problem. I’ve been confused for years about whether your garden-variety men have wives or daughters or sisters or mothers–any woman in their life that they have ever cared about on a nonsexual level. How can so many not see this affects us all.
It’s oversimplifying to say that men lashing out must have a bad family life, or no good male or female role models in their homes; with school and larger social environments, the opportunity for culture to shape behavior is prevalent. We need to ask what that culture is telling young men and young women. The movies I referenced earlier reinforce the same problematic messages: men, it’s okay to lie to a woman and pretend to be someone you’re not in order to be successful, because she’ll forgive you in the end. Be persistent, and you’ll get the girl. When she says she’s not interested, she’s just playing hard to get. If she doesn’t honor your entitlement, move to a small town in Alaska, where the cops will defend you as a standup guy while you rape and kill to your heart’s content (because it’s not like you can rape prostitutes anyway!).
Overhauling media tropes is a long-term project, so in the interim change falls to us. Women need to keep having uncomfortable conversations with the men on our lives. Men need to hold each other accountable for their behavior, because sexism isn’t cute or funny or manly. #yesallwomen deserve to be safe; we are independent people deserving of respect and dignity and the right to live in safety.
Some further reading, by other people saying it better than I am:
- #notallmen: How Not to Derail Discussions of Women’s Issues (slate.com)
- Why It’s So Hard For Men to See Misogyny (slate.com)
- Your Princess Is In Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds (thedailybeast)
- Slut-shamed to Death For Saying Yes to Sex, Murdered For Saying No (sexologist.tumblr.com)
- In the Last 33 Years, 70 of the 71 Mass Murders in the US All Had One Thing in Common (upworthy/Laci Green)
- xkcd: Pickup Arttist (xkcd.com)
- Yes All Men: Every Man Needs to Understand Internalized Misogyny and Male Violence (flavor wire) (added 5/30)